Fantasy has always been a genre which has baited me. Science-fiction has its problems, but it’s been easier for me to find diversity in those stories, even if it isn’t good diversity, than it has in (strictly) fantasy stories. I’ll take a queer alien. It’s not always great but it is better than nothing at all. Yet, fantasy never offered me that even that. I was fed on the classics of fantasy, which were very white and very straight and very full of abled people. Even when it came to games, fantasy still feels exceptionally bland – games like The Witcher and God of War may have been technically good but they did not inspire me.
A lot of this problem was the way that fantasy was marketed to me: there were diverse fantasy stories and have always been, but through my education and through capitalism I was only exposed to a certain type of fantasy which was presented as ‘the best’ of its kind. Usually historic and usually with a guy saving the day. Look, Aragorn is hot but I wanted more than his story – and something is finally shifting.
In recent years, diverse fantasy stories have been promoted, recognised more and loudly beloved. The Broken Earth series was (rightfully) a huge hit. Nikita Gil created a simple and yet visionary anthology which retold classic fairytales from a feminist perspective. In The Priory of the Orange Tree (The Priory), Samantha Shannon manages to capture the best of these recent tales.
The Priory is rooted in re-imagining the classic story of George and the Dragon, but manages to give the audience such fascinating depth that it’s easy to soon get swept up in this new story rather than look back at where it came from. I went into this book expecting disappointment, as I do with a lot of books and particularly fantasy stories, but I was wrong. I couldn’t stop reading. Once I did finish the book, I went back and read it again. I’m already planning when I can next pick it up.
The world is rich and detailed. At first it can seem heavy in typical fantasy style, but the writing allows the reader to relax and just trust that you’ll pick it all up eventually – and that’s exactly what happens. It is the characters though, who make this story, and made me care about the world. The story has people of colour, disabled people and queer stories. There are narratives of men loving men and women loving women. What is also beautiful is that love is allowed to be complex. There’s no such thing in this book as a true love. Women are allowed to desire men and allowed to desire women at the same time. They’re allowed to enjoy sex, but also talk about their fears and how it can be uncomfortable and something they don’t desire with certain people but do with others. Love also is allowed to be unhappy, without slipping into a toxic narrative. It’s all a bit complicated, for a retelling of a classic tale, and that’s what makes it great.
The characters are challenged at every turn. The reader is made to feel comforted by the characters and trust in them, but every single one of them has their faith challenged in some way. They come together with different beliefs and cultures, and they learn to recognise the humanity in each other despite centuries-old alliances and factions. They struggle and suffer, but they are not disempowered. Together, they rise and face a threat that will challenge their souls as much as threaten their lives.
I was a kid who grew up on Harry Potter. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that series but it’s more than 20. But I have not picked it up in recent years because of the increasingly problematic aspects of its creator. How can I continue to find solace in a text that is supposed to support equality when Rowling doesn’t even believe in it? The illusion of the story was shattered long ago. I wanted it to be deeper than it was. Rowling showed the flaws of the series. I have been bereft at that, wondering if I could quite find a story that was political, that was queer and that had dragons and war and heart. I wanted a story in adulthood which I could count on like I had with Harry Potter when I was growing up. I wanted to fall head over heels in love with a story again (ironic, from a demiro, I know). The Priory is marketed as a book that should be as popular as Game of Thrones. Yeah, it has dragons but in truth, this book should be as popular as the biggest book title in the world. I found a new home in this text and in an author who seems committed to learning and to trying to make her work better each time. It is a heartening discovery. After the death of Ursula K Le Guin, it is heart-warming to find an author who also has as much fire as if she had eaten fruit from the tree. I found inspiration, challenge and comfort in The Priory in a way I just did not expect.
I hope there is a second book. I suspect there will be, given the popularity of this title and that there are hints within the story of more to come. But The Priory does well on its own, and regardless of whether it gets a follow-up, it will remain a title that I can say will stay with me for many years to come. I cannot wait to start this story again. I suspect I will keep noticing new details even on the third time around and for many re-reads to come.