Book: The Priory of The Orange Tree
Author: Samantha Shannon
Narrator: Liyah Summers
Bechdel Test: PASS-There are numerous conversations between named female characters in this book about things other than men.
Today’s review is going to be a little different, as it’s the first audiobook review I’ve ever done on my blog. My relationship with audiobooks has been a bit strange, as I loved them when I was a kid and used to listen to them on cassette tapes (YES I KNOW IT MAKES ME SEEM OLD. It was actually truly horrifying reading this book and realising I’m pretty much exactly between the ages of Ead and Tane) but as I got older, for some reason I fell out of love with them and it’s not until now I’ve tried them again. I really enjoyed the experience though, I’m already reading my second one (The Diviners by Libba Bray for anyone wondering) and I definitely see this becoming a regular thing.
I actually bought the hardcover of this book, and had it signed by Samantha, which I’m glad I did because this book is all kinds of gorgeous but from a purely practical standpoint, I realised reading it in that format was never going to work, I read on the bus, that book is massive whereas my phone…..easily transportable and always on me. So I got Audible and chose this as my first read.
I was so excited for this one, and it was, well it was good but perhaps not quite worth the hype. I did love the world, and enjoyed the characters, but the plot moved too slowly for my taste and I found the sprawling cast quite confusing, especially in the first part of the book. I did warm up to it as time went on, and ended up enjoying it quite a lot, but the ending kind of ruined things for me as it was incredibly anti-climactic. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
A world divided.
A queendom without an heir.
An ancient enemy awakens.
The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction—but assassins are getting closer to her door.
Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.
Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.
Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.
I suppose since this is an audiobook, I should probably start with the narrator, as that’s a pretty large component! I really enjoyed Liyah Summers’ performance, I thought she did a great job and I found her voice very relaxing to listen to, but I had an issue with how she did characters’ accents. I found that whilst the four main characters had very distinct voices, there were a lot of secondary characters who had similar accents and that kind of confused me. When Tane was speaking to her friend Susa, I couldn’t follow the conversation because they both sounded the same! I know it’s hard when people are from the same place and should have similar accents, but more differentiation would have been nice.
Samantha Shannon’s writing was gorgeous, it really immersed you in the world, and though I can’t picture everything in my head like some people do (I’m planning on talking more about this in a future discussion post) her words really made me feel like I could be there. She has such a way with words, and though she does have a tendency to be a bit verbose sometimes, I do love her writing. I also really loved the humour in her dialogue, I noticed that a lot more with this book than I did in The Bone Season.
The pacing was probably my biggest problem with this book. The first two parts, and much of the third part are incredibly slow, they are all really just set up for the rest of the book. I understand why this was needed because obviously this is a sprawling fantasy world and it takes a while to introduce but then we were left with the problem that the last three parts felt incredibly rushed, because Shannon had to fit the rest of the story in. Honestly I felt like this book was much longer than it really needed to be, if the beginning parts had been trimmed a little, and the end parts expanded, I reckon the story might have been slightly better paced.
The characters I generally liked, but I did have some issues with them. I found it quite difficult to connect to any of them to start off with, just because there were SO MANY (there are four narrators and numerous other supporting characters) and I felt like the narration somewhat kept you at arms length? This did change through the book and I found myself connecting to the characters more, but I initially found it difficult because I honestly couldn’t remember who was who! I also found that the deaths where they occurred didn’t have much impact because the cast was so big, it was hard to care about everyone!
My personal favourites were Ead and Niclays, I felt like the two of them went through the biggest journey over the course of the book and I was most invested in what happened to them. I also really loved Sabran and wished she’d had a POV, I found I could relate quite strongly to her feelings about motherhood (having never had the desire for children myself) and her desire not to be reduced to simply her ability to reproduce. Tane I found it hard to connect to start off with, she felt kind of aloof and distant but as her story started to intertwine more with the others, I enjoyed her parts more. Loth was a sweetie, but I wasn’t sure that in the end he added as much to the book as all the others? The biggest issue with all the characters was that the stories felt very separate for much of the book, and it took far too long for all of them to merge, so for a while it was hard to see how everything was going to connect.
Ead and Sabran’s story was definitely my favourite part of the book, Ead gets the lion’s share of the POV space anyway, and I found their story the most interesting, there’s so much intrigue and drama in their parts.
I LOVED that the female characters all had so much agency. Ead, Sabran and Tane are all leaders in their own lives, they’re not treated as any lesser for being women and that was one of my favourite things about this book, fantasy worlds don’t HAVE to be misogynistic guys. Ead, Sabran and Tane are all respected for their skills and power and they drive the story forward just as much, if not more than the men do. I also loved that all the characters lived in some range of morally grey, except perhaps Loth (actual cinnamon roll), especially Niclays. I also loved that the Queendom of Inys was a matriarchy, because I feel like that is way, way too rare in books!
It was fabulous how much platonic relationships were centred in this book! Loth has two female friends who are completely platonic (Ead and Sabran) and there are rumours about him being in love with both of them, but they are just friends. Friendships are so important to all the characters in this book which I loved because so often that is ignored in favour of romance.
The world-building is obviously incredible, it’s clear how much research Samantha Shannon has put into this book, and the cultural touchstones she has used (Elizabethan England, Japan etc) are clear whilst still feeling fresh, and I loved seeing an Elizabethan inspired fantasy world as I feel like it’s not a very common one. The world she has created is so lush and detailed, and you really feel like you could just fall into it. I was a little confused though because obviously the audiobook didn’t have the map, so I had no frame of reference for where all the places were! The magic system with the fire and starlight was pretty cool, though I actually would have liked a little more magic, for a fantasy, I felt this one was very magic-lite. Same with the dragons, I loved them when they were in there, but I would have loved to have seen more of them.
There were plenty of twists and turns through the story, a few of which I saw coming, but there are definitely enough surprises to keep it interesting. There were a few parts towards the end though where it felt like there were a lot of conveniences, there were SO MANY near death experiences and everyone magically ends up fine, and they didn’t really seem to struggle to achieve what they needed to, which somewhat lowered the “end of the world” stakes.
I loved that this book was LGBTQ+ and racially diverse, it’s such a great thing to see in a book and racism and homophobia aren’t things that exist in Shannon’s world which is wonderful. There is a main f/f romance which is beautiful and slow burn and I really loved. There’s also a gay romance between two older characters which I loved as I think that’s not something you get to see often.
The religious politics were very interesting, I find that fantasy books tend to stray away from religion so it was cool how big of a part of this world that was, and how much religious differences impacted the relations between the world. I did find that the sudden religious tolerance of some of the characters at the end of the book was a bit unbelievable, given how much of the book was spent with the characters at odds over them. Honestly the speed at which many things happened at the end of the book was a bit ridiculous and that all comes back to the pacing issues I mentioned earlier.
The ending I found incredibly anticlimactic. The whole book builds up to this big battle which is ultimately disappointing and though most of the characters stories are wrapped up well, Tane’s is left on kind of a weird note, which I’ll be honest kind of ruined the end of the story for me because everything else was wrapped up so well.
Overall, I did enjoy this book, the writing and the worldbuilding were great, but the characters and pacing did leave something to be desired. However I still enjoyed the story enough to want more in this world, so I hope we do get more, because I have questions!
My Rating: 3.5/5
My next review will be of my July #RockMyTBR book, Strange The Dreamer, by Laini Taylor.