The Priory of the Orange Tree: 4 reasons to pick up this epic fantasy (even if you’ve been burned before)


Epic fantasy isn’t for everyone, but even though Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree might come with a big page count, it’s still a great book.

Normally, epic fantasy seems to be reserved for the likes of a series, as if the writers in the genre argue that their world-spanning stories just can’t be contained to one measly novel. Not only has Samantha Shannon shattered that misconception with The Priory of the Orange Tree, but she’s also done it in a relatively short amount of time, going by the page count. (Yes, fewer than 850 pages is relatively low in epic fantasy, when the two big names right now are George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson, who both break the 1000-page mark. Just remember: A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons were supposed to be one novel.)

Although you can draw plenty of analogues to real-world history, but with dragons, Shannon has not constrained herself to just the typical European analogues, with characters hailing from all over the world, with distinct voices and characterizations. At the heart of it all is the war against the Nameless One, a dragon that’s about to rise from his slumber and is, well, not happy about it.

Now, granted, this is still epic fantasy. It takes a significant amount of reading for even a hint of the titular place to come up, and the pacing can best be described as almost painfully slow, but it’s thankfully punctuated with action. This book also notably opens with a disclaimer that the analogues to real-world events are “not intended as a faithful representation,” which is a step forward.

At least there are functioning guns; this might actually be a good entrée into the genre for those who like Dungeons & Dragons and Critical Role. Here are four more reasons to give this one a second look.


Of the four point-of-view characters, Tané is perhaps the most immediately accessible, because she’s the young heroine from humble beginnings who is destined for more. In her case, it’s becoming a dragon rider. However, she doesn’t follow the arc you may expect quite as closely as she could have. There’s no romance for her, only a desire to regain what she’s lost, however she can. Of the four, Tané is likely my favorite.

Interrogation of mythology

It’s here that Shannon particularly shines. The lands of her world have founding mythologies, with that of the Queendom (which is a nice touch) of Inys being the most important, as its mythology is also the basis for the entirety of Virtudom. (If you recognize the term Christendom, then you’re well on your way to getting a really good idea of what Virtudom might have some relationships with, although it’s not a total analogue.)

But no one has the exact understanding of these legends, and Shannon has the chance to unravel them with a deft hand. Mysteries pay off without having to wait for a second or third book in the series, and characters actually change how they view things — and other religions — as a result of revelations. Nor is the transition inherently easy.

The relationships

Although some of the relationships between main characters seem to develop on spur of the moment things into something that seems permanent and lasting, in general, the ties between characters are fascinating. Not everything is romantic, either. Men and women can be friends; characters are interconnected in often surprising ways; it even seems as though queer relationships are a bit more accepted — words like wife and husband aren’t used, with companion the most frequently used analogue. Granted, Shannon has a lot more space to let these breathe then shorter fantasy titles, but all the same, she made the choices to put them in, and we have to acknowledge that.


And, of course, there are dragons. However, these dragons are characters in their own rights, with there being multiple kinds of dragons to contend with. It all ties back into the overarching mythologies of the world, but for those who are getting tired of fire-breathers everywhere, the water dragons will come as a nice change of pace. Shannon even has an explanation for why some dragons can fly without wings!

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All in all, The Priory of the Orange Tree still has some of the classic foibles of its subgenre in terms of pacing and loading of detail, along with a few issues more unique to it. But for someone tired of the bigger series, this is a nice palate cleanser.