The Priory of the Orange Tree: Strong Women and Power

I’m having a hard time formulating a book review. That’s decidedly odd. I am rarely at a loss for an opinion. This time around is a bit different. I am at no loss for opinions, but I am lacking that single thread that ties a review together. You know, that ‘one thought’ that can run through a review and turn it into an essay with some merit of its own.


I find myself threadless because I am unable to corral my thoughts around Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree. I should stress, I don’t think my lack of continuity is any fault of the book, but rather my own. So, I shall have to dive into this review and see if it can knit itself together, or if I unravel along the way.

Starting with the absolute basics, I can say the novel was well written and filled with characters that were multi-dimensional and relatable. The plot moved along well, and held some switchbacks that were genuinely enjoyable.

So why am I sitting here grasping at ephemera in an effort to draw my thoughts together and perhaps give you a nugget of an idea to chew on? It is a puzzlement.

Don’t call it ‘Girl Power’

Plenty of phrases are popping in and out like the teasing little notions they are. For example, I keep tripping over things like “Bechdel Test” and “Mako Mori Test”, which is puzzling because S. Shannon’s novel blows through both of those cultural barometers without breaking stride. If anything, I’m a bit curious to see what would happen if those tests were applied to the male characters.

Another phrase that keeps repeating like a bad taco is ‘girl power’. Every time that phrase gallops across the terrain of my brain, I cringe because it is so inadequate, and frankly somewhat patronizing, to the absolute celebration of female empowerment that flows through these pages. Shannon infuses The Priory of the Orange Tree from start to finish with images and the actions of women in power, women of character, and women of strength.

One small point I will note, or perhaps not so small, is that the power the women in this novel wield is their own. A male authority does not bequeath power to them. Each one of the leading women of the story possesses an innate and unique strength of their own. In addition to that, they earn their own stripes, through study and trial, effort and failure.

In addition, theirs is not a one-dimensional form of strength either. Each woman has the potential to grow well beyond their initial footprint. That growth in their own abilities allows the women throughout the story to prove that not only do they contribute to the vanquishing of the ‘rising evil’, but that they are essential to defeating it.

Stealing Power

There is another idea that pops up repeatedly as I mull over The Priory and the Orange Tree–usurpation.

As much as this is a story about women with power, it is also a story about the forces that seek to limit or to usurp a woman’s power. Examples are rife throughout the story but I’ll stick with two.

The story starts with the first usurpation of power. More accurately, the mythology of one of the kingdoms starts in the theft of one woman’s accomplishment. The knight who claims this deed goes on to become a revered saint, and the near god of a newly founded religion, which happens to be all about him and the knightly virtues.

The second, perhaps more insidious, attempt to undermine a woman’s power which I will mention is found later in the novel as Queen Sabran finally steps into her power. She finally shakes off the long running corrosive influence of one courtier only to have a deeper level of dysfunction and a greater threat to her reign emerge.

The theme of the grab for power even plays out in the supporting stories as the Queen of Yscalin manages to pry power away from one source only to withstand a similar encroaching threat from another direction. (ok, three examples)

In an attempt to tie this all up in a neat package, I would say the novel is well worth a read. Despite that assurance of quality, I’m still left with one nagging question. Have you ever met someone who was working way too hard to be liked by everyone?

As, I said before, it is a puzzlement.

To read more about and from this author, Samantha Shannon is on the web.

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