The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction— but assassins are getting closer to her door.
Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.
Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.
Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.
Well, I did it. I finished this monstrous tome of a book. It took me over two weeks, but I did it. And, let me tell you, it was an experience.
This should’ve been multiple books. There’s so much packed into this absolute behemoth of a novel, it can be hard to keep track of the characters and plot. Shannon does a lot of work to develop her characters and build the world, but there’s so much happening that it all gets bogged down. The Priory of the Orange Tree would’ve worked much better as a duology or trilogy.
This plot and pacing of this book is somehow both slow and fast. It took me about 200 pages to finally find a groove and really start enjoying the experience. Fortunately, that’s not even a fourth of the book so it’s not as extreme as it sounds.
Sometimes the story goes day by day, others it uses a time jump. And it’s understandable why. Shannon has to pack a lot of plot into this story. Might as well cut out everything that’s not absolutely essential.
And that’s what the main crux of the problem with this novel is. It only shares what’s essential. While it’s usually recommended to kill your darlings and cut out anything non-essential, this isn’t meant to be so extreme. Stories need character interactions that aren’t simply there to push the plot forward. They need to banter and share their deepest desires. The closest any characters come to this is Ead and Sabran, but only within their relationship. And, of course, it’s all life-and-death.
This extends to the character development, in that it is earned but too quickly achieved. Characters are given life-changing information that shakes their faith to its core, but seem to accept this new information far too easily. Where is the resistance? Where is the tension? It leaves as quickly as it comes. Interpersonal conflicts are solved with little issue at all.
Also, for all the work Shannon puts into the world-building, the main villain is far too underdeveloped as a threat. He is referred to only as the Nameless One, but it is unclear whether that’s his actual title or it’s a “He Who Must Not Be Named” situation. We know he and his ilk caused the Grief of Ages, but not how or why. Fire-breathing dragons are simply destructive and evil with no rhyme or reason. It makes him an underwhelming enemy to be conquered. I felt no fear over him because he was not built up whatsoever.
In fact, all the external conflicts are solved way too easily. They’re built up and built up and then defeated with almost no struggle at all. Probably because there’s so much happening in this book, there’s no time for struggle.
That’s not to say this book is bad. It just could’ve been better. However, it also has a lot of good things going for it. As incomplete as the character development is, the characters themselves are wonderful. Ead is determined and faithful, yet able to deceive an entire royal court for nearly a decade. Sabran is headstrong and ruthless, but also vulnerable and caring.
Tané highly ambitious, but also insecure. Loth is kind and good-hearted, yet naïve and a bit closed-minded. Niclays is petty and bitter, but wishes he could be a better person. Side characters like Margret, Roslain, Chassar, and Kalyba really flesh out the cast and make it more colorful.
The story is incredibly diverse. Tané is Asian, her country likely inspired by China. Ead and others from Lasia have brown skin. Ead, Sabran, and Niclays are all queer, though no sexuality is ever specified for any. However, it’s canon that thev’re all been in same-sex relationships.
Which brings me to the best part of this novel: Ead and Sabran’s romance. It’s been so long since I’ve had such visceral feelings over a ship. It’s slow burn to the point where even Jane Austen would have blue balls. And the things that say to and about each other… I’m clutching my chest. I’m a puddle on the floor.
The thing that makes Ead and Sabran work so well is how deeply they understand each other. They know what it means to put duty before personal needs and how hard it is to do so. They need each other, but not in any co-dependent way. They can stand on their own, but are stronger together.
The world-building is impeccable, each kingdom and queendom vividly unique. The magic system is thoroughly explained, as are the dragons. I never felt confused about where the story was taking place at any given time.
Most importantly, this is a novel that places women at the center of the story. And not just women, but queer women and women of color. They have agency and influence the story more than any of the men. Each character is complex, but it’s the women that leave the most lasting impact. Priory is a high fantasy feminist manifesto.
Despite a few minor issues, I still found this book to be incredible. I’m not even certain my issues aren’t largely reader error, so to speak. I just wish there had been more conflict than there was. Do I still recommend it? Absolutely. There’s a lot more this book gets right than wrong. In fact, it stands as proof that fantasies can be diverse without it being “forced.” On the contrary, this story is natural as can be. When Shannon eventually expands this world, I’ll be first in line to read it.
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