Friday, 31 January 2020

Book review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

Hello everyone! So, I don't usually post book reviews on here (mostly because I don't read that much these days) but I made an exception with this book because wow, have I got a lot to say! It has been a long time since I've felt the need to rant (and not in a good way) about a book so here goes...

So I came across this book as a recommendation because of its diversity, and I am sad to say this was its only positive feature. I am trying to venture into adult fantasy, having been a fan of YA for many years, but all my attempts thus far have ended in heavy disappointment. This book is painfully mediocre at best, and downright awful at worse. I have so so many issues with almost all of it- the characters, the content and themes, the plot, and the utterly wasted potential and failure to capitalise on built up situations, and I will go through these below.

On the positive side, the writing was competent (if a few of the metaphors were odd), and the actual representation of LGBT was very seamless and the intimate scenes were tasteful and well done. However this does not give the book a pass on its other multiple failings (in my opinion).

First off, the story is extremely unfocused. There are four main ‘point of view’ characters (only two, Ead and Tane, I can call actual protagonists but you don’t realise this until at least 200-300 pages in, which is not a good thing), and thus the other two, Loth and Niclays, are complete wastes. It feels like the author put them in to show off her worldbuilding, to expose us to geographic regions outside where the actual main characters reside, and it’s excruciating.

Loth in particular, his ‘story’ is over within several chapters and added nothing to the overall plot. He is set up to have this arc of learning to become a spy, to infiltrate courts and perhaps do things that he would never have considered before, but nothing of consequence happens to him. He doesn’t fall into trouble or traps because of his supposed naive and honest nature, he easily gets what he was meant to get (i.e. he was a driver for plot, not a character with an arc) and later on his plot also crosses over with Niclays which makes the latter even more pointless as Loth covers the same ground he does. Loth also undergoes no development- he doesn’t change as a person as a result of his adventure. His story is also so short, and his relationship with Ead is told in pockets of backstory. Not flashback, just narrative. Their relationship is never shown, making it very weak, and hard to care for when you’ve never seen the two interact. The same goes for his friendship with Kitson- Kitson is literally there as a sympathy device, in exactly the same way ‘fridge’ characters are only there to make you feel sorry for the character they are attached to. He has maybe 5 chapters before he’s killed off- this was far too early, but clearly the author couldn’t have two characters travel together so she just erases him, making him just as pointless as Loth’s narrative in general.

Niclays is also a pointless character with no real development. He is portrayed as a drunken exile who wants revenge, and this set up could have been quite interesting...but nothing comes of it. Things happen outside of his control which he is then blamed for (rather than him making poor choices out of resentment), I didn’t care for any of his scenes because it was detracting from the overall plot, and his final turn to the good side happens in a SINGLE SENTENCE. That entire chapter is him loathing, about to get the revenge he wanted from the start, and without any prompt, without any thought process or insight or anything, he gives up and spills his plot to kill Ead. Not to mention that in the SAME SCENE, he is then told about the death of a character he was close to and this is given half a paragraph to sink in before he renews his allegiance to the good side. Again, his plot crosses over with Loth’s, so why did we get a doubling over of plot for nothing? Like I said, it seems this was done by the author to show off other regions in her fantasy world, not because the characters meant anything, and this was extremely frustrating. The alchemy plot line was also completely pointless because outside of Niclays telling us that Sabran was once interested in this, no other character cares about it. It’s not brought up in lore backstory, the rulers of other nations don’t care about why is it given so much weight? Another case of telling us alchemy and eternal life are a thing without showing us.

Because of the focus on these two needless points of view, this took away from Tane, who is an actual main character but gets far, far less development than Ead does. Tane should have had a lot more prominence, and it would not have been hard to let her take over the roles of Loth and Niclays. Her arc about doing something wrong and then having to give up her rider status was also over far too quickly (the pacing in this book is atrocious)- it would have been so much more fulfilling to have this guilt gnaw at her over the story, having her accomplish the things Loth and Niclays did, and THEN being banished when the truth was spilled. And because she has absolutely zero interaction with Ead until a chapter or two before the end, she gets TWO SCENES to develop a relationship with her (which supposedly all happens off camera) and there is no conflict, no opposing ideals, they just smile and agree to whatever the other says. This was wasted potential! These two should have the most developed arc and relationship to really convey the struggling to compromise- the east vs west that the story tries to push so hard. These two should have come into contact far, far earlier, via the gems, or via other means, so we could see how they react to each other and overcome their differences to work together. But no, we get two scenes, and a final battle where they don’t even fight side by side, which was hugely disappointing.

Ead has the most focus (but not enough)- as she is the main protagonist she should have had the first chapter, and more emphasis that she had this role (it took me 200 pages before I realised she was supposed to be the lead). Ead however also suffers from a weak arc, and (yes I know this term is banded about a lot without good reason) comes across as Mary Sue. I mean she is:

a) a magic user in a land where this is outlawed/ not believed in, making her ‘special’
b) is very proficient at it, despite being away 7 years from the tree
c) is also fully combat trained and skilled with several weapons at once
d) is never wrong in her decisions- while other characters may disagree with her, she is always eventually proven right and never makes a mistake
e) has no actual flaw- getting injured in fights is not a character flaw, and she is not truly reckless because her actions have no consequence to her as a character (as opposed to her physically)

As a result, she doesn’t undergo much development either, as she never makes a mistake or error that causes her to look at her decision making and change. There is such potential here; as I said above she could have had a real conflict with Tane about dragons and magic, but because they never meet until the end, nothing comes of it. The foundation is there, but it is never built upon, and that is equally as frustrating as the pointless other two characters. I don’t know if Loth and Niclays were added because the publisher didn’t think having two female protagonists alone would sell, or because Game of Thrones has made the cast of thousands popular, but they were definitely not needed.

As a result of these extraneous characters, the book is extremely bloated. It’s far far too long- it could easily have been condensed if the focus was on Ead and Tane. Having three mystical artifacts was also too many, as one gem barely plays a role, and the other is just a means for Tane to fast-travel when her dragon is lost. Thus her having lost the dragon is inconsequential! This seems to be a running theme in the book- a roadblock is put in various places, but then a magic alternative appears (Aralaq, the bird character, etc), so the roadblock might as well have not been there. This is a symptom of the book being too long- it’s already an unfocused bloated mess so the author has to cut corners otherwise it would be even longer. But this saps tension out of everything- like the Niclays example above, that scene is built up so well, and then in 500 words it’s all thrown out the window for nothing. Ead gets lethally poisoned- but is magically healed anyway with no lasting disability or problem, and there is no time consequence either. Same with Sabran- she gets ill a few times, nothing comes of it. She miscarries, nothing comes of it. Laya and Niclays escape the pirates- nothing comes of it. Tane is stripped of her rank- she gets demoted, sure, but everyone treats her so well when it’s supposed to be this awful disgrace, so essentially nothing came of it.

The villains of the story were also weak. If you break it down, the story is basically Lord of the Ring with some altered set dressing- find the magic relic to kill the dark lord. This for me was another hugely frustrating thing, because with the set up of east vs west, star vs fire, you could have had a much deeper and more original and interesting story looking at the conflict of these ideals- that the magics can work in harmony not opposition, but no, we get the bare bones good vs evil story. The fire dragons are always portrayed as evil- why? The book goes out of its way to tell us (again not show us) that there needs to be balance, but what balance was there? Eastern dragons good, western bad is not balance. Again so much potential lost- we know the orange tree is based off fire magic, so why not have this the cause of imbalance? Humans taking the fruit to use its power has made fire magic over-powerful, it is thus humans who have caused this problem, not some abject cosmic horror that just randomly appeared a thousand years ago. This would have been a much more fulfilling approach and an actual new take on the genre (honestly the reviews this thing has one wonders if they have actually ready other fantasy books).

Like I said with the magic system having no consequence, this was another area that could have made the story much more interesting. Why not have the mages constantly fighting addiction, and temptation of power? Why not have Ead like an addict, craving the magic and abandoning her post for it, leading to destruction of Ascalon? Why not make her a parallel to the Witch, the person she could become should she choose the path of temptation? You know, actual character driven conflict, not just ‘oh the author needs me in this city at this time so let’s put as many contrivances as we can to make sure she’s on schedule’. The story is plotted like a bus timetable- character x needs to be at y at time z, and it’s boring and forced.

The secondary characters aren’t much better. Sabran is well written enough, as was Margaret, but there was so so much focus on endless lists of names and titles, it was very hard to follow. Usually for books I read the first 3 chapters, and if it doesn’t grip me I put it aside. The first three chapters of this book are very unwelcoming- they shove lore down your throat and expect you to keep up, adding more and more names and titles, then we have nicknames mixed with real names, too much emphasis on two minor characters (the guy from the opening chapter and his girlfriend, I forget their names, because that’s how memorable they were). I only persisted with the book because I had actually physically bought it and was on an 8 hour plane journey.

As a result of everyone seemingly having equal narrative weight, this is why it took me 200 pages to realise Ead was the main character, because there was no way to tell who was significant and who was not. Tane also doesn’t come back as a POV character after the first chapter for a while so this was even more jarring. Again, over-reliance on the author wanting to go ‘Look at my world! Look at the islands and people and nations! Aren’t I so clever and original!’ means the characters and plot suffer. I mean there’s a side character death that happens and I had absolutely no idea who she was because she blended into the 100 names I’d been drowning in since the start, so it held no weight.

The lore wasn’t well built into the narrative either. This can be challenging as you don’t want characters who should know basic lore spouting it for the reader’s sake, but easily fixed- have Tane in the west and Ead in the east. Remove the death on sight penalty, and change it to imprisonment or deportation, and have the two evade authorities. Done. Each learns of the others customs and cultures and this bridges the gap between them. Alas, no.

The Eastern lore, in my opinion, was poorly done. It comes across as a purely aesthetic choice with no actual research, and amounts to eastern dragons look different to western ones and eastern philosophy reveres them, and that’s as deep as the author goes. Nothing into the base conflict of philosophy- that western philosophy favours heaven and the afterlife while eastern favours reincarnation and cycles of life and death (yes this is a big generalization I know but it’s something to work off at least). This could have been brought into the conflict so easily- the West believe they need to slay the Nameless One to end the darkness, but the East know that because the orange tree is being used by humans, this is what caused him to be created, so they need to destroy the tree to balance the cycle, so the Nameless One goes back to being in harmony. Again this would have been so more interesting, and would have actually shown balance being the way forward, not the extremely one sided view that gets pushed in the real story.

Next is the magic system, which I have touched on above. It was much too vague and felt tacked on. While there is nothing wrong with a soft magic system (one that plays off the mystical rather than having structured laws), in this book it doesn’t work. Since the author has two magic pools (fire and stars), and people can access them, it should have gone with a hard magic system. Alas, there seemed no real consequences to using magic and no real rules, it’s just ‘magic’ and works as the plot wants it to. It reeks of deus ex machina, like when Loth is healed of the plague, or when Ead awakes from her coma- it works because we can’t kill off these characters or show any lasting disability, and since there’s no ITU (intensive care unit) and this plot needs to go go go we have magic miracle cure instead. The animal characters reek of this as well- they appear because the author needs a fast travel option like in a video game, ‘cause we can’t have 800 pages stretch on even longer.

Like I said above, the author hints that eating the fruit of the orange tree bears a consequence...but it doesn’t! The addict angle would have been perfect for this but no, yet another waste. And when the Nameless One can communicate to those who eat the fruit, why wasn’t this utilised? Why didn’t he taunt Ead in dreams and visions, tempting her, being a manifestation of the addictive nature of the fruit? Why didn’t he turn over other mages to his side? So much more could have been done!

Also, Tane who is supposed to be on the opposing side of star magic, eats the orange fruit! I was stunned to read this, because as I predicted, it was utterly pointless. All it did was ‘heighten her abilities’ and didn’t impart anything new, have any consequence or impact the plot in any meaningful way. Tane never uses this new magic either. I mean if she had the proper development with Ead which the book decided to completely ignore, this could have been a symbol of the two sides coming together, uniting to be stronger, but this was just stupid. The star magic is also grossly underrepresented in a story where it’s supposed to have as much prominence as the fire magic (fire magic being stronger does not mean it should have more prominence), and it really makes the author, who is desperately trying to push a narrative about balance, look like she forgot that it was the theme in the first place.

Overall, this book is a grating disappointment, with poorly executed themes, weak underdeveloped and boring characters, unfocused and unwieldly plot, and is simply another LOTR clone with some altered set dressing. While it does do a good job with the LGBT portrayals, that tiny sliver of silver is not worth the mounds of dirt you have to sift through to get.

I can think of two much better books that did these themes justice- the first is Alison Croggon’s Books of Pellinor, which did this feminist LORT retelling far better many years before (it’s not as explict with its LGBT as this book is but it is a much, much more competent story with better characters and writing), and the second is Eon by Alison Goodman (this is based in fantasy China and actually WAS research very well, also has feminist themes and a much more engaging Eastern lore). Don’t let the fact that these are YA put you off, because they are much more competently written.

1 star out of 5, would not recommend.