Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon
A lot of slog for very middling payoff.
I think this is a book that suffered immensely from the hype it was given. Let me explain what I mean - I've spent the past year basically hearing from everyone that this is the best standalone fantasy book of the decade, so I went into it expecting it to be wonderful and so I rated it even more harshly than I would have done if I had not had any hype to compare it to. As it is, a book that ended up being thoroughly mediocre tips into being bad for not living up to the expectations the raving about it has set.
So let us go through all of the things I didn't like about this book - that I somehow did end up reading all 804 pages of it. So Samantha Shannon must have done something right, even if I don't know what it was.
The main issue I had with this book was that it took 275 pages for the plot to finally pick up, and when that happened, the pacing went from being glacial to being incredibly patchy and uneven. The best way I can think of describing it is stuttering - some things move too quickly and some move too slowly; nothing is really given the right amount of time to develop. All the Big Important Plot Revelations happen entirely in the back half of the book, and there's like 6 per chapter and none of the characters are given time or space to grapple with that or for those revelations to become impactful or meaningful in any way, shape or form. By the time I was finally interested enough to want to know what happened, I was halfway through the book and then nothing happened on a timeline that made sense for the narrative and was only marginally compelling. You have to really stick with this novel to get any kind of anything out of it, and I'm just not sure the novel itself warrants such a dedicated amount of reading. As I said right at the top - a lot of slog for very middling payoff. The editor of this manuscript could have stood to ask Shannon to cut 200 pages of it and be a bit more judicious with her climactic moments. Also, I really hated all of those convenient mythical animals swooping down from the heavens out of fucking nowhere to spare our POV characters long treks across deserts ad mountains.
Speaking of our POV characters - my God they were so annoying. Everyone is so stubborn and committed to their own ideas, and is completely unwilling to acknowledge any kind of complexity or nuance in any of the themes of this novel (religion, politics, etc). Nobody was willing to do even the barest minimum of intellectually honest work or call anything into question, and while maybe this was a deliberate authorial choice because she was making a point about Christianity, it became intensely grated after 750 pages. It actually made me want to throw things out of windows. And, oh my God, were these characters so unbelievably stupid. They fell for the most obvious traps, never had to do any kind of actual work to unlock the 'riddles' (which were the most obvious, easiest things to interpret, how did nobody in this world figure this out for one thousand years, oh my God you are all too stupid to breathe), and all of the mythical elements they needed to find to vanquish the Nameless Evil (who was Evil For the Sake Of Being Evil, which is a trope I am getting very fed up of in fantasy - where is the complexity? Where are the human failings forcing the characters into making difficult choices here? What a cheap cop-out you have used, Samantha, you should be ashamed) fell into their laps so conveniently. There was no work here, no emotional growth, no difficult choices made and consequences to be dealt with, everything was just handed to characters who did not deserve it or earn it. All of this does feed into the previously mentioned pacing issues.
And the world-building here was incredibly light-touch and taken as read. The fantasy elements were barely disguised elements from world history - the East was a mythical mashup of Japan and China, the West was a mythical retelling of the political concept of Christendom. There were dragons and witches, but the rules of the magic involved was never really developed, the mythology of this world was taken as read without anybody quite explaining it or making it clear, and Shannon relied far too heavily on dialogue and internal monologues for exposition. I very much subscribe to the notion that if you need such things to explain the parameters of your magical universe, you are not strong enough of a writer to be writing fantasy. Controversial, but I stand by it.
And, oh my days, the writing was so overwrought it actually became unbearable in parts.
So maybe there was nothing about this book that I liked. Did not deserve its hype, does not live up to its billing, and I also don't understand why it needed to be called The Priory of the Orange Tree. That location ended up having very little to do with the story, and so it was another reason for me to be annoyed.
Don't read this book, is what I'm saying. There are many better fantasy novels out there.