Culture Writer Phoebe Cross praises the fantasy novel The Priory of the Orange Tree for its incredible worldbuilding and creative use of religion.
Content Warning: This article contains themes of racism, homophobia, and (fictional) conflict due to religion which some readers may find distressing.
At first glance, Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree is an imposing book, with 800 pages and a cover reflecting the high fantasy contents within. As a reader who reads little fantasy, I put off starting this book for months. But finally opening to the first page and resigning my mind to be filled with dragons and wars, love and loss, politics and religion was one of the best decisions I have made as a reader in a long time.
The Priory of the Orange Tree plunges its reader into a rich and colourful world, with a complex and unique culture, history, and religious systems. Despite the depth of the world and how deep Shannon went to create a coherent history, the way the world slowly reveals itself to you throughout the book is so cleverly done that it is easy to keep up with, understand, and remain excited without too much effort on the reader’s part.
I did not have to try to understand the world despite it being deeply built and full of its own unique historical and religious references. At no point did it feel like the author was making an effort to teach us about the world; I just found myself sucked into it in all its glory. As a result, it is in the world-building that this book truly shines.
The book may be long and complex, but is by no means a chore to comprehend, and is rather a delight to delve into. The characters are delicately written and perfectly flawed. All are multi-faceted and interesting – even those more on the side-lines. I fell in love with the world and the characters as I got to know the characters and understand them and their motivations. As a reader, I was left wanting to explore more of the world and learn more about all the characters.
The main driving point of the narrative was the religion of the world, which differed vastly among the regions. What was so interesting about the way that Shannon used religion is that all the religions stemmed from the same historical event, and all reflected a side of the truth, but none encapsulated the whole truth, which was slowly revealed throughout the book.
It was an interesting way of using religion, as there was no one person who knew the ultimate truth. The pieces were put together by people whose opinions differed; they were able to work together against evil despite their deep cultural and religious differences. In a world in which religion causes so much real-life conflict, it is refreshing to see people push past these differences, even in a fictional capacity.
The religion being the main point of conflict actually led to a refreshing lack of race and sexuality-based struggle within the book. Too often, fantasy writers translate our society’s issues with homophobia and racism into their own created worlds, which can at times ruin the escapism element, especially when done badly. In this book, there were characters of colour, but their colour and race did not cause them issues.
Furthermore, there are multiple examples of queer love in the book, as well as forbidden love due to difference in status rather than on the basis of gender. More often than not, queer love stories come across all their problems as a result of homophobia. However, in a fantasy world, the homophobic biases of our own world aren’t needed. For Shannon, the problem of fire-breathing dragons was enough, and our racial and sexual biases were not needed to add to the story or conflict. Fantasy is a genre of escapism and too much truth reflected in the fiction can ruin this aspect.
Overall, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a triumph in fantasy writing: deeply complex and interesting, yet engaging and easy to follow. As I read, I got fully swallowed up and enveloped into the world. When I finished all 800+ pages, all I wanted was more: more of the world, more of the characters, and more of her perfectly tuned escapism. I recommend this book to everyone, fantasy fanatic or not, and urge you to not let the length put you off. This book is worth the time and commitment; it is rare for a book to capture your imagination and heart in such an all-encompassing way.
Trigger Warnings for The Priory of the Orange Tree: violence, death, murder, grief, suicidal ideation, miscarriage, plague, torture, alcoholism.
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