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Out of the abyss March 3, 2019

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, meta, reviews.
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When Samantha Shannon announced several years ago that she was pausing her Bone Season dystopian fantasy series to write a new standalone novel that had taken hold of her imagination, I was intrigued. I’d been a fan of her work since The Bone Season was first published, rejoicing in its wonderful protagonist, alternate London setting, and richly inventive system of magic and the supernatural, and was keen to see what she would do in a slightly different subgenre. Watching the novel which eventually became The Priory of the Orange Tree take shape over the past three years has been wonderful: a story that blends elements of real-world history (in particular Tudor England, the Reformation and subsequent tensions between Protestant and Catholic powers in Europe, and Tokugawa Japan) with lore about dragons from both East Asian and European cultures, and whose characters stand poised on the brink of apocalyptic annihilation. The result is an ambitious, sweeping fantasy that is epic in every sense of the word, from its stakes and scope to its immense weight and page length. In Priory, Shannon has moved from the tight, first-person narration and personal focus of her Bone Season series to a story told from four points of view, a cast of characters that fills several pages, and the intricate political manouevring of more than four kingdoms, and a secret religious order as well! She handles this complexity deftly — despite its length, Priory never feels bloated, and the shifting between several continents and points of view serves to underscore her broader point about the fluidity of history, and how interpreting the past is, ultimately, a matter of priorities and perspective.

Cover - The Priory of the Orange Tree

Shannon has been very clear in interviews and promotional writing that much of her motivation for writing Priory stems from a desire to speak back to history — and its misuses. One of the story’s main inspirations is the legend of St George and the dragon, which has a long history of being coopted for English nationalistic purposes; I’ve certainly witnessed it being used by the far right to advance an Islamophobic agenda, argue in favour of Brexit, and in other similar contexts. However, when digging into the roots of the legend, Shannon uncovered a whole other story that had been lost in the noise and bluster of nationalism: that it had uncomfortable undertones of religious intolerance, and hints of several interesting women, pushed to the margins but with intriguing stories of their own waiting to be told. These are brought to the fore in Priory. One of the powers in her imagined world, Inys, draws its authority from its legendary inheritance as a queendom ruled by the descendants of a dragon-slaying George-like figure, and the damsel he supposedly rescued from a fiery end. Its current ruler, Sabran — whose personal circumstances seem like a blend of those of the two Tudor queens, Mary and Elizabeth — is embattled, facing a hostile, dragon-ruled kingdom on the one hand, intrigue among her courtiers on the other, along with pressure to marry and give birth to an heir, and increasing political isolation. Her lady-in-waiting, Ead (one of the point of view characters) has secrets of her own, among them knowledge of the bed of lies on which Inys’s political legacy has been built. On the other side of the world, in the Japan-inspired island of Seiiki, the orphaned Tané aspires to become an elite dragon-rider. Seiiki itself stands in sharp rebuke to Inys, showing up its hatred of dragons for the disproportionate, convenient lie that it is. Both Tané and Ead live on opposite sides of an unquiet rift, the site upon which an ancient foe was cast down, but whose simmering menace has never quite been defeated.

Tané and Ead are the two female point of view characters of the four, and their centrality to the story (the two male point of view characters both have important roles to play, but, I would argue, not quite to the extent that Tané and Ead’s stories drive the narrative) reflects Shannon’s broader focus on the experiences of, and relationships between, women. In spite of the real-world periods of history she draws on (each with its fair share of sexism), she has, for the most part, created a world free of sexism, where female characters in positions of political and military authority are as unremarkable as their male counterparts, and where locations and occupations (such as a queen’s suite of private rooms and the women who work there) generally dismissed as unimportant women’s spaces are recentred as the sites that drive the plot forward. Most of the important relationships in the book are between women — mothers and daughters, religious communities of women, women working together to serve their queen, and so on. Although there are some secondary and tertiary relationships that involve men (some romantic, some familial), the primary romantic relationship is between two women, and it’s absolutely marvellous to see this queer romance brought front and centre.

Shannon’s two main female characters, Tané and Ead, are just some of the many people who must put aside their differences to contront the terrifying, supernatural threat to their entire world. I couldn’t help but feel there was an element of the real-world threat of climate change underlying Priory‘s tale of demonic adversaries and fiery chaos. In Shannon’s epic fantasy, things have got to such a dire, catestrophic state, and the only solution requires people who hate, mistrust and fear each other, who have extremely different perspectives, aims and motivation to make common cause, because what they’re up against is so huge, so destructive, so relentless, and so awful that this is what it will take to defeat it. As you can imagine, it takes a lot to get her characters to this point, and, like anyone who fears for the future of my own planet, I can only hope that we recognise the gravity of the existential threat facing humanity sooner — because we don’t have the luxury of sentient dragons, magic, or enchanted swords! For us, as for the characters of Priory, there is no elsewhere.

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