Will this book be worth the time it takes to read it? In the case of Samantha Shannon's latest novel, the answer to that last question is a vibrant, resounding hell yes. A captivating story about queens, priestesses, warriors, and dragons, The Priory of the Orange Tree is an epic feminist fantasy that is perfect for fans of Game of Thrones ... set in an intricately built world ruled by women ... Through its layered narrative and its inclusion, and often subversion, of fantasy tropes, The Priory of the Orange Tree explores the slippery nature of storytelling itself. The author's presentation of many different versions of the same legend invites the reader to consider the conflict between truth and the histories and cultural narratives you believe to be true.
Part of Shannon's great strength here is her worldbuilding, which draws recognizably on real-world countries (specifically England and Japan), but goes well beyond simply changing a few names, working in new elements that distinguish Shannon's world from actual history ... Shannon also avoids the usual trap of this type of story, in which a prophecy predicts what is going to happen, and turns out to be accurate in every respect ... It's also noteworthy—though at this point it shouldn't be—that much of the key action is driven by women and characters of color (categories that often overlap in these pages) ... The novel's main weakness comes in its second half, where the story begins to feel rushed. The first half develops its conflicts with rich detail, but after the midpoint things that could have formed entire complex subplots often get disposed of with a single straightforward effort ... The disappointment this creates is, more than anything, a measure of how well-developed the first half is ... The Priory of the Orange Tree is a fascinating epic fantasy set in a rich, well-developed world. Shannon has created fertile narrative ground, and the state of affairs at the end of this novel certainly leaves room for new stories that will make further use of the excellent setting.
The Priory of the Orange Tree does eventually get its legs underneath it for a satisfying endgame, it remains something of an unbalanced, unwieldy beast ... Its eight-hundred-odd pages spend a long time establishing character and setting, with occasional diversions to recount the odd fable or two. I nearly gave up in frustration ... It’s only halfway through that matters become reasonably tense and compelling ... I must confess to being out of charity with novels (especially fantasy novels) that divide the world into East and West, North and South (always capitalised), and base the cultural markers very clearly on much-simplified elements from our own history ... These simplified divisions tend to leave out the rich narrative and thematic possibilities that more complicated visions of inter- and intra-national politics offer ... I’m also out of charity with evil for evil’s sake ... it lets human evils off the hook too easily. There are more human evils in The Priory of the Orange Tree, and when the novel allows them to move to the forefront—when it dwells on politics and personal ambition—it immediately becomes more compelling, more tense, and more interesting ... I can’t recommend it unless you have a lot of patience to reach a payoff that’s only middlingly well done.