Book review: "The Priory of the Orange Tree" by Samantha Shannon
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Here's the takeaway for this review:
I love this book and can't wait to read it again.
OK, now for some details.
Initially, this book popped out at me in the bookstore because of its unusual title and its bright, beautiful jacket. I spent some time admiring the artwork and colors before moving on to what I normally do when a book catches my attention: I ignored the jacket summary and blurbs, opened to the first page, and started reading. Happy lights immediately flashed in my reading brain at stark and pleasant realization.
The first paragraph of Priory is really good
Here it is:
'The stranger came out of the sea like a water ghost, barefoot and wearing the scars of his journey. He walked as if drunk through the haze of mist that clung like spidersilk to Seiiki.'
Few books I've read manage to start well. (Maybe I haven't read enough books?) This one unequivocally does. What about this paragraph, exactly, makes me like it so much? Well, I'm not sure I know the full answer to that, but here are a few guesses.
Reason #1: Fun, clear syntax
That opening paragraph is stylish. It uses interesting words in an interesting order. I have fun just reading it, and that would be true even if I didn't comprehend the narrative. Yet it's also narratively clear, so narrative comprehension is easy. That is a hard balance to find, and Priory's opening paragraph nails it. The wording could double as a poetic metaphor, yet works perfectly, as well, as a clear description of an event. There is no dancer fresh upon the field here to distract your reading brain, with a superficial sense of smoothness, from the fact that nothing is happening.
Ultimately, overworked style and unclear narrative moments are much easier to forgive further on in a book, once you have already decided that you are enjoying the book enough to forgive the occasional imperfection. Too much of either problem on the first page, and you're probably better off moving on to the next book in your bedside book stack.
Luckily. as it turns out, that beautiful cover jacket I mentioned earlier is representative, in both form and content, of the quality of writing in the book itself. So let's not go back to the stack quite yet.
Reason #2: Exposition that does its job
It's hard to keep anyone interested in basically anything. Too much context and humans get bored. Too little and they get confused, and then bored. This is another balance that is hard for many writers to find. My own progression as a writer has involved dumping probably thousands of hours into managing just this single aspect of storytelling.
Shannon must be a mathemagician or something, because with a mere 35 words she has told me a lot of important things: There's a stranger. He's been travelling. His travels gave him scars (so he's probably flying American Airlines). There's something called a water ghost, which sounds to me like something that could reasonably be expected to emerge from an ocean. There is a place called Seiiki that is covered in mist.
And Shannon told me all of this without boring or confusing me.
We don't know yet how much of this exposition will be meaningful later on, but I'm willing to chance it for now. That's all you can hope for from most openings, and it's another reason to feel good about ignoring the rest of your book stack for a few more days as you progress through Priory.
Reason #3: We're not being told how to feel
Even though Priory's opening paragraph is talking about ghosts and scars and other potentially scary things, it's not telling us that any of this is scary. In fact, there are no affective adjectives anywhere in the passage. We get to choose how we feel...or at least, we get to feel like we are choosing how to feel. This makes it easier to decide with confidence whether we want to remain in the author's narrative hands or move onto something else. It is this sense of confidence that lets us continue reading without keeping one wondering eye on the rest of our book stack, as we turn hundreds of pages, one after the other, in this book.
Reason #4: Whatever is happening seems pretty interesting
A scar-covered stranger emerging from an ocean and stumbling onto a misty shore doesn't sound like a skillfully tense rendition of an event that is actually humdrum. No, it just sounds like an interesting event. And if I have already decided to trust the author (as I did at the end of reason #3), then this interesting event closes the decision-making loop for me, and makes continued reading not only an obvious choice, but a priority.
These, to me, are the golden combo that will usually sell me on a book after reading only its opening: Good style; professional narration; a total lack of emotionally patronizing adjectives and adverbs; and some event or concept that is, on its own, interesting enough to make me curious what happens next. Each of these elements builds a sense of confidence in the narrator, and with all four present, I trust that narrator to tell me a good long story, instead of just a long one.
So at this point I say: Forget the rest of that bedside book stack! This is the book I'm reading this week!
The rest of the book is good, too
Strong beginnings occasionally crumble into weak books. Not so here. The quality of the first two sentences is a good representative baseline for the rest of the book. What you saw on the first page is pretty much what you'll continue to get, right on through the last page. So what else is good about this book?
The world maps are beautiful
Their loving execution matches that of the writing and cover jacket alike. It was a delight to refer to them as I read. In fact, I enjoyed poring over the maps when I initially saw them upon opening the book for the first time. I read every word on the maps before I even looked at the first page of text. A good map will often presage a story that was crafted with much care, and that was happily the case with this book.
Women are normalized
What I mean by this is that almost every protagonist, antagonist, and important supporting character is female, to the point that I'm 95% sure this book fails the reverse Bechdel test. (At the very least, this is the case with the human characters.) But this fact is not treated like an oddity. No one mentions it: not the narrator, and not any character in the narrative. Rather, the presence of female agents and the world-changing impact of female wills simply is. Both are an assumed and unnoteworthy truth of the universe, much like male agents and male wills have been in 99.9999% of all fiction that has ever been written. Considering how powerfully fiction can shape lives, this casual normalization of females as default people in our stories is incredibly important. Shannon does it perfectly, and I truly hope more people follow her lead.
Men are emotionally complex
Male friends hold real, caring regard for one another, and verbally express it, without irony, on a regular basis. Male rulers and warriors are thoughtful, learn from their mistakes, and have mature conversations about those mistakes and their process of learning from those mistakes. The internal dialogues of male characters are usually complicated and unsure. These same mental glimpses often contain thoughts of kindness and love toward their friends and family, instead of just their sexual partners as is far too frequently the norm.
People get to like whom they like
Homophobia just isn't a thing in Priory's world. Some characters are homosexual, some are bisexual, and some are heterosexual. This is equally true for primary and supporting characters. Each case gets more or less equal screen time, and no one bats an eye about any of it. It's an incredibly supportive approach to letting readers see sexual attraction between people, and I love it.
Not every person feels obligated to like someone
Some main characters just don't have love arcs. Not because they are bastard souls filled with hate, and not because their love interests died tragically, and not because they are stuck pining for a living but unrequited love. Rather, these characters don't have love arcs because romantic love and sex just aren't motivators for them. They've got other priorities, and other preferences, and that's OK. As with the previous several categories, Shannon does a superb job of normalizing ideas that should never have been stigmatized or thought abnormal in the first place.
Characters are believable and interesting
This holds true for almost every character in this book. If they have a name, they are probably a memorable character. I finished this book months ago and have yet to re-read it, yet I still have clear, emotionally full memories of most of the supporting cast. Moreover, I remember what each of them was trying to accomplish, and why.
Part of the credit for this goes, I believe, to the skill with which most characters' personalities were crafted, but an even bigger part of the credit probably goes to the fact that they are all always doing something. Here, there are no silent NPCs staring blankly at a street until the protagonist interacts with them and unlocks a new quest. No, everyone here is ready to go, constantly, so ready in fact that they already went, and all you can do as the reader is try to keep up with them. This did a lot to make every character seem like a real entity, with a real soul and real will, whose actions actually mattered to the fate of their world, in however great or small a fashion.
Character deaths are believable and heavy
Of course I won't say a word about which characters die, or how many. But every time a character died, I felt their loss in a visceral way. It never felt like a fakeout, or the death of an extra. It always felt like a real character with a soul had just been violently wrenched out of existence. By the end, I believed anyone could plausibly die in this story. And because these characters were all doing things all the time, it always seemed to matter when they died. That is not an effect I expect going into this book or any other, so it was very surprising and powerful for me to experience here. The only other modern fantasy that has done such a good job of simultaneously 1) making me believe anyone could die, and 2) making me care whether they did, is A Song of Ice and Fire.
The finale is truly beautiful
It's long, and I was crying basically the whole time. That's all I will say.
The book is appropriately divided into distinct sections
This helped provide me with a sense of narrative closure and shifting narrative frames over the course of the book, which in turn helped me to process and appreciate what I was reading. That would be great on its own, but each section also has an intriguing title, coupled to an appropriately thoughtful quote, that dusts everything in that section with a sense of deep importance, great scale, and conceptual focus. I am a sucker for these things done well, which rarely happens. (Good thing this is a rare book!) In these as in so many other respects, I wish more modern novels did what this one does.
Style slipups are almost nonexistent
The first I noticed was toward the end, when an important character flashes two "arch smiles" in the span of a single page of narrative. This was the most jarring stylistic slipup I noticed, but it was probably so jarring precisely because it was the first slipup in a book that until that point had not had any! There were a few more style issues of similarly minor extent after that point, almost as though the copy editor had been getting close to the weekend by the time they hit those last few chapters, and they just wanted to go home. Regardless, no stylistic error in this book stuck with me for more than a few sentences before I stopped caring about it or forgot entirely.
This story is weird, refined, and completely earnest
Based on this book's weird title and weird opening paragraph, I expected and hoped for a weird story. I got it. This story is WEIRD. It subverts many old tropes, unironically uses a few others wholesale, and even invents some new ones, and it doesn't seem to care if you recognize or distinguish between the three cases. Simultaneously, it employs some of the most elegant characterization and narrative choices I've encountered. And somehow, both the weirdness and the refinement complement each other really well, as do the rare and shockingly effective surges of violence or loss within the tale. All of this, it does without cynicism. No one dies just to have a character die. Protagonist goals aren't thwarted just to feed an obsession with thwarting protagonist goals. Everything just feels earnest, and the story as a whole is not obviously self-aware in the way that so often hurts my enjoyment even of otherwise great tales. Instead, Priory comes across as, simply, a tale told well, which is definitely my favorite thing in the world, and is very hard to achieve.
But of course, no book is perfect.
There are some very strange narrative lurches
These are Priory's biggest problem.
Usually, these lurches involve the introduction of some non-human entity during a crucial moment, with absolutely no foreshadowing beforehand to hint that this particular deus ex machina might be a possibility in this world. The overall effect is that these creatures all end up seeming as though they were invented in Shannon's head in the same moment that she wrote the paragraphs that introduce them.
This happens multiple times, with multiple distinct creatures. Each time, the protagonist who encounters the creature follows a quick checklist:
1) Act nonplussed...in both senses of the word...at the same time...somehow?
2) Mentally recite what sounds like a wiki entry about whether the creature is supposed to be a legend, or just extinct.
3) Use the creature as a mount to access previously inaccessible areas of the map, or fast travel between previously discovered map markers.
There are a few other deus ex machina moments that involve the inexplicably well-timed appearance of some known entity, rather than the introduction of a new one. This category is not quite as narratively jarring, but both types are prevalent enough to seem a pattern, and both are extremely distracting every single time they occur.
This book should have been more books
I love big books. I really do. As long as it's good, a bigger book directly correlates with a happier me. Nor am I an advocate for making stories into series by default. Aside from the fact that it's clearly way too easy to turn an potentially promising idea into a never-ending torrent of badly written schlock, it is also demonstrably possible to fit a large amount of good story into a single book.
That said, Priory should have been a series. At least two books. The book that we got is too small for its story.
To be clear, I'm not trying to say that Priory doesn't wrap up its plotlines, or that it ends on a cliffhanger, or anything like that. Indeed, it has one of the most satisfactory and complete conclusions I can think of offhand. The problem is that all the plotlines leading up to that satisfying conclusion did not have enough space to breathe. Well, they do at the start. But that state of affairs is over by the book's later sections, as the increasingly many plotlines begin to struggle viciously for space.
Here are some broad examples of how bad things get in this regard:
1) Interesting creatures (that have, in fact, been properly foreshadowed) show up once, do nothing that impacts the story, and then disappear for the rest of the book...which means they were never anything more than eye candy, however interesting they seemed.
2) Fairly prominent characters die, and the people closest to them struggle to cobble together even a single cumulative page of mourning, let alone convincing mourning. Very few deaths in this book seem to generate a believable grieving response.
3) Key plot elements that deserved foreshadowing get none, and instead appear in the reader's imagination at the same moment that the protagonist first encounters them. (I discussed this problem at length in the section above about narrative lurches.)
4) World-changing concepts that are ruminated upon and debated by multiple characters in convincing and intense fashion over the course of the book are implemented and enacted, with no apparent resistance, in a matter of just a few pages at the very end. While other books have used exactly this dynamic as a means of intentionally examining the real power of individual wills compared to that of larger systems and even luck itself, in Priory it seems like these rapid resolutions happened not for any meaningful narrative purpose but rather simply because the book ran out of space. Clearly, I don't know if that was actually the case here (perhaps the author ran out of time or patience, instead), but it seems like it was and, more than authorial intent, that affective impact on the reader is unfortunately what the reader must use to judge the book.
All of these issues could have been solved by adding as little as 50 or so additional pages to the length of the book. Perhaps that could have fit into the existing book, or perhaps not. I don't really know. But those 50 or so pages would have been needed just to counteract explicit problems. Quite a few more pages could have gone toward further development of Priory's many strengths, by spending just a little more space on things like exposition and dialogue and characters' internal reflections.
Extra pages would have been particularly effective at the transitions between book sections, which sometimes seemed unpleasantly disjointed. I don't know how many pages would have been needed to iron out these transitions, or to provide the other kinds of breathing room I mentioned earlier, but I'd guess that by the time we got there, we'd need a second book. And once we had that, we could have spent some time having characters explore the underutilized map space. Then, while they're doing that extra exploring, they could have spent some time discussing in further depth the many interesting concepts that were only briefly mentioned in the book as it actually stands.
In case you can't tell, I'm saying that I wanted more of almost every single thing this book had to offer.
This is a really good book in almost every respect that matters to me
In the event that you need some additional closing statement beyond that (and beyond the takeaway sentence with which I opened this review), I'll close with this last thought: Based solely on the strength and beauty of Priory of the Orange Tree, I will immediately buy and read the next fantasy or sci-fi novel that Samantha Shannon writes...especially if its cover jacket is anything like as sublime as this one.
As a re-read of this book is fairly high in my priority stack, I will revisit this review at that time to update with new thoughts, or elaborate on old ones, or take back anything I said that I no longer agree with.