I loved this huge novel, which I read after seeing our daughters reading it. I don’t read much fantasy (maybe one a year), but I was intrigued by this one’s description as a “feminist fantasy.” The author, Samantha Shannon, describes the story as a “feminist retelling of Saint George and the Dragon.”
Indeed, with a couple scheming exceptions, the book focuses on females supporting each other, no matter how different they are. It has none of the sexism that is often seen in the fantasy genre. This author also does not resort to character stereotypes, which is very refreshing. The characters are wholesome powerhouses, who are bold and engaging. There are many people of color here too, from a wide range of backgrounds, and this underpins a fantastic job of creating a believable world.
There are four countries in this world, which are divided by their attitudes towards dragons. One half despises all dragons whatever the type, and the other differentiates between the revered dragons and heinously destructive wyrms. What ends up uniting this world is a common enemy, as well as getting over their antipathy for others, whose beliefs are different than their own.
This is a masterwork by an author who knows what she is doing. I am not a slouch when it comes to vocabulary, but I started keeping a list of new-to-me words that I looked up while reading this. Their meanings were all clear in context, but I loved the expertise that shone behind the use of them. Here are some examples: cuirass, vambrace, tabard, orison, carcanet, orpiment, pomander, venery, caudle, loach, garth, capon, skep, captious, pleach, baldachin, rutilant, caliginous, susurration, eldritch, homunculus.
Regardless of all that, and some unusual names– which you have no idea how to pronounce– this is easy reading. Here are some sample passages I flagged to give you a taste:
“The sky was bruised with cloud, but the sun had left a finger-smear of honey.”
“Each word was drawn out like a shadow at sunrise.”
“Her face was so lovely that every butterfly wept with envy.”
My only complaint with the book is that there is a 15 page reference at the back of the book for keeping all the characters straight, as well as a glossary and a timeline, which I didn’t know was there until I got to the end. It would have been more helpful at the beginning, or to at least let us know at the beginning that it was available in the back!
The Priory of the Orange Tree is a slow burning, tour de force epic that is a complete pleasure to read, and you’ll want to read it slowly, because you won’t want it to end. At 804 pages this novel is quite an undertaking, but I loved both Ead and Tané, and was glad to follow them into the Abyss, only to emerge triumphant and satisfied.
I give this book five stars.