Blog: The Priory of the Orange Tree
Written by: Gemma Askham
Samantha Shannon is the New York Times bestselling author of The Bone Season series and
fantasy standalone, The Priory of the Orange Tree. Shannon is also one of my favourite
authors, so I was delighted when I heard she was coming to Sheffield to talk about her latest
book, Priory, for Off the Shelf. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t had the chance to read Priory
yet, but I started it as soon as I got home from Shannon’s talk, and will continue reading it as
soon as I’ve submitted this blog, because I’m enjoying it so much.
Shannon mentioned that she often sees female readers saying they haven’t read Priory yet
because they are intimidated by the size of it. I see their point. At almost 900 pages long it is
a physically impressive beast of a book which, despite the gorgeous cover, unique plot, and
complex characters, is enough to put some readers off. However, Shannon, prompted by a
question from wonderful interviewer Ashleigh, completely changed my perspective on this
by asking why women were intimidated by it when male readers were not.
Immediately, I agreed with her. And by the approving nods around me, so did the rest of the
audience. Why are women so excluded from high fantasy? Not just as readers, but as
characters too. As Shannon points out, in a fantastical world where anything can happen, is it
so outlandish to believe that all genders and minority groups can be equal? That women
could even be main characters in epic tales? Shannon shatters the weak “having anyone other
than straight white men as main characters isn’t historically accurate” argument often touted
around by (you guessed it) straight, white, male fantasy readers by playing her trump card.
This book has DRAGONS. It is set in a world heavily inspired by the 15 th – 17 th century, yes,
but it is still ultimately a work of fantasy.
“Historical accuracy” does not mean using every single element from history. Fantasy
doesn’t have to be accurate at all, but Priory is, thanks to Shannon’s meticulous and extensive
research. Again, not that historical accuracy is vital in a fantasy novel, but it is exciting to
learn that some elements from the book, such as the trading outpost that serves as the East’s
only access to the West (and vice versa), are inspired by real history (the trading post in
question is called Dejima and I was reading about it online at 2am last night because it’s so
interesting. Look it up.).
Hearing Shannon talk about Priory and the history and stories that inspired it is its own kind
of magic. Magic which I would have happily sat and listened to for hours. Sadly, this wasn’t
possible, so I’ll have to console myself with the fact that I now get to read this enormous,
queer, feminist, dragon book for myself and continue listening to and learning from Shannon
through the magic of reading, instead.