The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon follows four characters: In the east, Tané hopes to become a dragon rider, but worries that a choice on the eve of a critical day in her career could ruin her chances; meanwhile, Niclays grapples with his past when asked to harbor a foreign fugitive. In the west, Ead must protect a queen while hiding her secret identity as a mage; Loth finds himself sent far from home to an enemy city. As these four journeys are underway—and on a collision course—a centuries-old power, a wyrm called the Nameless One, is rising once more.
There is a lot going on in this book—politics, romance, religion, myth. The different civilizations are interesting enough, especially in terms of their beliefs about dragons. One region views them as divine, another as monsters. Their divergent feelings stem from their respective religions and founding tales, which brings up a commentary on how history is written by the victors, and this is rather intriguing.
However, although there’s fairly strong worldbuilding, this plot feels meandering. The inciting incidents are lacking, and much of the story consists of traveling from place to place and explaining old stories. This creates a slow, directionless-feeling building to a climax that doesn’t feel earned. There are a few enjoyable action sequences throughout, but the final battle falls flat to me.
Furthermore, I didn’t bond with many characters besides Ead and Sabran. Many side characters felt interchangeable, and I wasn’t invested in their stories. Even the other two protagonists, Tané and Niclays, weren’t given as much time in the spotlight as Loth and especially Ead. I hesitate to say I was indifferent, but I certainly could have cared much more about them.
Beyond lackluster characterization, this plot involved too many deus ex machinas (or however that’s pluralized. My Latin knowledge is failing me). More than once (four times?), a character is in peril and saved by an animal that then transports them to where they need to go. Quite convenient. For me, this is cheating, and it aggravated me.
Animal bail-outs aside, there are several plot points borrowed from other (dare I say, better) fantasy stories. This works sometimes (such as the Arthurian legend elements) but frustrated me other times (such as the jewels and the Nameless One, which I couldn’t help but seeing as cheap knockoffs of Silmarils and dragon-Voldemort respectively). I see where Shannon has taken inspiration, but I also wish these had been executed in a more innovative way.
In the end, Priory could have been better, but also could have been worse. The worldbuilding is decent, though slightly derivative. Some of the characters were interesting, though others unimpressive and forgettable. The plot is rich in detail and complexity, though often feels aimless. The love story is great, though the rest of the story feels clumsy. The climax could have been more impressive, and the journey to get there was slightly confusing. Overall, I didn’t love this, but I didn’t hate it. It was just… fine, which is a shame since it involves so many things I enjoy (a complex fantasy world, diverse characters, feminism, LGBT relationships, and most of all dragons). Oh well.
Overall rating: 6.5/10