the priory of the orange tree by samantha shannon

Fantasy is an inherently conservative genre. While the best of it might offer a critique of monarchy and feudalism, most of the core texts are set in worlds with Kings, Queens, knights, court intrigue, hapless soldiers and peasants, operating in a rigidly hierarchical society with stultifying formality. Of course, the joy of the genre is in taking us behind that curtain of formality and showing us the cold clockwork underneath. Those who challenge the hierarchy are often portrayed as evil, and the peasants, on the whole, are mere background characters, dragon victims, refugees, burned out of their houses and generally disregarded by the heroes—whoever they are.

Sure, sometimes the protagonist is an outsider (or several outsiders), making their way into the upper reaches of the hierarchy with imposter syndrome and trepidation, but we are rarely questioning the need for a King, Monty Python style.

That single bit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the “watery bint” bit, is the best genre critique of monarchy and the whole basis of the world building that exists: played for laughs.

I just finished all 848 pages of The Priory of the Orange Tree and I kind of enjoyed it. And really, that’s how I’ve been talking about it. I just finished a really long book. It was extensive. It took me ages. Really, really long. At least partly, I had read it on the promise (from a podcast) that it was complete in itself and not part of a series. Now I discover that like one of the characters in the story, I have been deceived. It is part of a series (The Roots of Chaos), notwithstanding its Lord of the Rings style extreme length, and now I don’t know what to think.

The best-selling The Citrus Convent is enjoyable enough, entertaining and well-plotted, and I did persevere to the end, but it did feel a bit of a slog, and the word is persevere. I don’t think we can claim greatness for any novel where your overwhelming impression is that it was really lengthy.

One of the things I did enjoy about The Lemon Abbey was the way in which the author didn’t shilly shally. After moving her pieces around, she did not then create scenes that overstay their welcome or unnecessarily delay outcomes. Things go wrong, in the way of this type of novel, but the Final Battle with the Big Bad is not overly extended. In fact [spoiler alert], when it comes, the Final Battle is over and done with in short order, no nonsense. And though there are Long Journeys for many of the characters, these are generally handled briskly, with elision, and there’s only one of them that seems to be extended: the first one, just to let the reader know that there are distances involved.

[More spoilers ahead] There are five viewpoint characters (not untypical of the genre). There are dragons, two kinds. There are the products of dragons fucking other creatures. There’s a bit of magic, rival religions. There are clearly also people of colour and ethnicities other than white, and no great fuss is made about this. There is of course at least one character from a lowly background who turns out to be descended from Royalty; another who is low on a particular hierarchy and ends up at its top; a Queen who learns to loosen up and love who she wants… and so forth. Funny, really, that a book like this is perfectly able to question representations of race, gender, sexuality, but only slightly hint at the idea that perhaps we don’t need Kings and Queens and, well, the whole management class. Perhaps in the sequel?

But it was all right. I’m not saying don’t read this. It was readable, engaging, and – a ringing endorsement they might want to quote on the cover – “not too much of a slog.”

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