It is no secret that I love my fantasy. I cut my reading teeth on fantasy – thank you Tolkien and Eddings and so many others! I love the way that the freedom of a fantasy world can throw a light into the contemporary. I love the sheer fun and spectacle that can come with the genre.
But a new fantasy novel is always a daunting prospect: entire continents, histories and mythologies, religions – and the names, oh the names – thank goodness we’ve abandoned the trope of the random apostrophe in names! The Song of Fire and Ice series had many benefits: the opening salvo in A Game of Thrones felt relatively comfortable and familiar, settled in a western European monarchy; as most viewers of the show will recognise, the Lannister-Lancaster / Stark-York parallels with The Wars of the Roses was fairly obvious; the number of (planned) novels and (completed) television seasons allowed for a slow drip feed of more exotic locations and mythologies.
In contrast, Shannon’s The Priory appears to be a standalone novel and, even at 800+ pages, seemed to lack the space in which to deepen some of its world building – and it does seek to cover not a single country, or even continent, but an entire and conflicted world with contradictory interpretations of myth and history. At the end of a long long school year, there were times when I lacked some of the energy the novel required, perhaps.
The premise of the novel is relatively straightforward. A thousand years ago, there was a conflict between humanity and the Draconic Army, very literally draconic, lead by the dragon the Nameless One, at the conclusion of which the Nameless One was bound. As the Nameless One’s forces start to re-awaken in the opening part of the novel, various forces of good seek out mystical artifacts and mythical swords which can be used to defeat him. Fairly typical quest adventure.
It was, however, refreshing to break away from the patriarchy inherent in many fantasy realms and spend time in a very matriarchal society – but was it really? – and a narrative very much led by three very strong female characters. Tané of the dragonriding Clan Miduchi from the East, warrior, dragonrider and a loner; Ead Duryan – whose real name is Eadaz uq-Nāra – from the South, sorcerer, mage and general badass; and Sabran Berethnet the Ninth, Queen of Virtudom in Inys in the West.
Shannon opens the novel in the East with Tané, but we come to know Inys in the West most clearly. The politics of the Inys Court are interesting: ruled by a queen with a matrilineal inheritance, but a queen whose only real role is to produce a child to maintain that lineage – a lineage which apparently only ever produces daughters, and only ever one. Is it really empowering to limit your queen to her reproductive abilities? Especially when she appears to be being manipulated and maneuvered by her Court? For the first part of the novel, Sabran really did lack agency, lacked interest and was eclipsed by Ead, but she did claw some of that back. Or perhaps was lent some of Ead’s power as their friendship and relationship developed. It was also certainly pleasant to spend time in a world where sexuality was more fluid and accepted: the romance and passion between Ead and Sabran at times felt a little forced into the narrative and at times much more delicately handled; the romance between Dr Roos and Jannart utt Zeedeur, of which we had flashbacks, was perhaps more compelling and tender. The sexuality was neither titillating nor taboo, neither coarse nor uncomplicated.
Relations between the three realms is antagonistic as the story opens: the East seem to have retained dragons for a thousand years, venerating them as Gods and cherishing their presence and power in battle, training their elite warriors as dragon riders of the Clan Miduchi. In contrast, the West and the South despise all things draconic, both the fiery dragons led by the Nameless One and the watery ones of the East. The West teaches that their Saints, Sir Galian, and founder of the Berethnet lineage, had defeated the Nameless One and bound him to rescue Cleolind Onjenyu whom he married; the South believe that Sir Galian was wounded and it was Cleolind who defeated the Nameless One with his sword and founded the eponymous Priory. Maybe it says a lot about me but these mythologies interested me – three interpretations of the same event – the mythical and magical Orange Tree and its counterpart, the Hawthorn Tree. And Kalyba, the Lady of the Woods whose role is brought in with less than half the book remaining.
For me, there is a richness in this mythology which wasn’t fully realised or tapped. Similarly the characters felt just a shade two dimensional, even some of the more central ones. I wonder whether the novel might have benefited from being split over two or three books and being a little more fleshed out…
I did find the language to be frequently lovely and almost lyrical at times. As a teacher, I will often throw up onto the board the opening lines of a random novel and just see what students make of them, and The Priory came up before I had read it. Its opening paragraphs are
The stranger came out of the sea like a water ghost, barefoot and wearing the scars of his journey. He walked as if drunk through the haze of mist that clung like spidersilk to Seiiki.
The stories of old said water ghosts were doomed to live in silence. That their tongues had shriveled, along with their skin, and that all that dressed their bones was seaweed. That they would lurk in the shallows, waiting to drag the unwary to the heart of the Abyss.
In summary, this is an interesting and well written novel in an intriguing setting. It is in many ways a breath of fresh air in the genre. But, having finished it, I can’t help feeling that I wanted just a little more. More depth to the characters; more of the world. More Kalyba.
If Samantha Shannon were to read this (ha ha!) I think what I’d like would be a prequel.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Date: 26th February 2019