The Priory of the Orange Tree is among the most beautiful works of literature I’ve ever read. In an age of fantasy where grimdark is by and large the king of the genre, Priory breaks the mold by showcasing breathtaking beauty in its prose.
”We mean to reforge with love what greed has broken.”
If grimdark views the world through a filter of ashy sepia, Priory instead views the world through a filter that oversaturated each and every color, giving every inch of itself an otherworldly brightness that I’ve found in very few fantasy tales. The best comparisons I can think of in tone would be The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle and Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. In both of these books, as well as in Priory, there are terrible, nigh-apocalyptic happenings, as are found in nearly every fantasy novel that has captured the imaginations of their readers. The difference is that if you took a deep breath inside the worlds of these three books, you would fill your lungs with the heady scent of orange blossoms and lavender and life, as opposed to the heavy ashen air that would clog your throat in the worlds of their grimdark counterparts. I feel that the beauty of these worlds only increases the tension and the stakes if our heroes cannot find a way to save the day. It’s far sadder to me to watch something heartbreakingly lovely go up in smoke than it is something weathered and grimy. That’s my opinion, at least.
“You have not seen death, my lord. You have only seen the mask we put on it.”
Onto the actual book itself. I feel that high, epic fantasy has become less and less common in the modern incarnation of the genre. Getting to visit a world of magic and dragons was both refreshing and nostalgic. The main reason I rated this book 4.5 stars instead of a full 5 is because I yearned for the aforementioned magic and dragons to have more page time. Instead, there was an overabundance of political intrigue. Thankfully these political subplots were handled very well and maintained my interest, but I would have loved more time with the lovely water dragons and even their evil, fiery counterparts.
“We may be small, and we may be young, but we will shake the world for our beliefs.”
An element of Priory that I found absolutely fascinating was the different religions populating this world. First, religion was founded upon a simple division: those who worship dragons, and those who believe that dragons are the epitome of evil. From there, those who viewed dragons as evil were divided into two camps: those who worship the Saint and believe he is responsible for banishing the king of the fire dragons, the Nameless One; and those who believe that the Saint lied about his involvement and that the Mother banished said dragon. All of these beliefs are founded on fact, but the truth behind them has been hidden for a thousand years. I loved finding out what was actually true, but what I appreciated most was how fervently the followers of each faith believed they were right. There was one perspective character that wasn’t religious but, for the rest, religious beliefs were the foundation upon which their entire lives were built, and they adhered to their beliefs with their whole heart. Without the complex religions with which Shannon fleshed out her world, I think that the story would have been sorely lacking in resonance.
”To die in service of a better world would be the highest honor.”
Priory is also one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read. I don’t mean in actual romance between two people, though there was plenty of that and it abounded in both diversity (featuring two same sex romances) and depth of feeling. As I mentioned earlier, the tone and setting of this book are incredibly bright, and there’s just something inherently romantic about the setting and world building that had me sighing over a plethora of descriptions. This romance was largely accomplished by Shannon’s descriptive abilities but especially by her ability to craft stunningly lovely prose. Priory is a book I read slowly, rereading passages because they were just so pretty, both in how they were written and in what they were conveying. I did feel that there were some elements of the ending where the beauty of the prose muddled the action just the tiniest bit, but it was still a joy to read and I could visualize every element of the big final battle.
“Ghosts were the voices the dead left behind. Echoes of a soul taken too soon.”
If you’re looking for a fantasy that feels fresh and bright and beautiful, I implore you to pick this book up. If you’re looking for romance that is deftly handled but doesn’t dominate the plot, you’ll definitely find that here. It’s also physically a gorgeous book and will look amazing on any bookshelf. I know you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the lovely artwork was one of the major contributing factors to my preordering this book and reading it as soon as I received it. The Priory of the Orange Tree is bright and beautiful and romantic, and will have you sighing over its lush prose and world building.
You can purchase a copy of the book here, with free shipping worldwide!