I read two adult fantasy novels in March! (Well, three, but that third was a reread.) Given how my reading has looked like lately – very few novels and relatively little fantasy – this is almost surprising. Here’s the reviews.
When I started The Priory of the Orange Tree, I thought that the most remarkable thing about it was its length. Now that I’ve finished it, that hasn’t changed.
I think that’s where the problem sits. When I write reviews, the first thing I think about is what sets this book or reading experience apart, in a good or bad way? And here, apart from how long this was, I really can’t tell! This book felt like an amalgamation of tropes and ideas I’ve already read elsewhere, where they were done in far more interesting ways. And it has a lot of tropes I love, from dragon rider school (by the way, the “powerful” dragon Naymathun spent most of the book being a damsel in distress, it was kind of ridiculous) to plant-based magic and a forbidden f/f romance.
The book managed to do nothing interesting with them, which is an achievement.
The Priory of the Orange Tree was marketed as a new, diverse spin on traditional fantasy tropes, and while I appreciate the intent, I don’t think that was done particularly well. When I say that I love reading fantasy stories in which queer characters don’t experience homophobia, I don’t mean that you can build a society with rigid gender roles, a serious religious fundamentalism problem, and puritanical attitudes towards sex, and expect me to believe that somehow there’s no homophobia. Fantasy authors, please explore the consequences of the worldbuilding you lay down. Please.
(Also, again, unless I missed something, this is one of the most rigidly cis and gender-conforming fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long while, which wouldn’t have been so glaring if not for a) how much symbolism based on wombs there was here and b) how much of the marketing focused on this being feminist and all about women. Considering all that… it really stood out in a bad way.)
And really, if you mostly read queer SFF to begin with, the only thing that will stand out to you is how long this book is and how some of the plotlines (like Tané’s, which was my favorite character) still manage to feel underdeveloped despite that.
This is one of those books in which it’s clear that, despite the multiple PoVs, there’s a main character (Ead, who was as bland as one can possibly get with superpowers) and the others are less relevant. The book didn’t even seem to try to make me care about Loth, who was a walking plot device, even blander than Ead. And I appreciated the idea of having a main character who for once didn’t have the supreme good as a motivation – Niclays – but he too had the personality of a dishrag.
Add the painfully predictable political intrigue to that and you get a very long story in which all interpersonal dynamics are deeply uninteresting, and as a result, I never felt strongly about anything.
I think my disconnect between this and the story also had a lot to do with the fact that this book tried to be a modern version of fantasy classics, which made me realize just how much I don’t miss that kind of fantasy.
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, this very much relies on coincidences to push the story along, which today feels lazy, and it just doesn’t live up in any way to the standards I have for plotting in adult fantasy, when it had all the space it needed to do so and more;
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, it portrays a conflict between good people and a clearly irredeemable evil that exists just to be evil, which has never made for an interesting story and today feels flat and uninspired;
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, it has such a stiff writing style that I gave up on the English version and decided to read it physically in Italian, despite how uncomfortable it is to read a physical copy of this, because tone doesn’t translate well and for once that was a good thing;
🍊 Unlike most of the older fantasy I read (though I don’t doubt there were many, many exceptions to this), it has sex scenes, still written in that stiff, incredibly uncomfortable writing style, which means this has what’s probably the worst f/f sex scene I’ve ever had to read in my life. Rosebuds at the tips of her breasts?? really?
I did enjoy my time with this for the most part: I had many problems (…I’ve spent most of this review complaining), but the majority of them were background annoyances. For something in which I only cared about one character out of four, it wasn’t a bad reading experience, and I did really like the settings (the Inysh castle, the Priory, Tané’s school…). I will also forget most of it over the next few weeks.
My rating: ★★¾
Stormsong is a sequel that does something very few sequels do: it deals with the afterwards. What happens after you’ve defeated the Big Bad and uncovered his nefarious plots? Chances are the structures that allowed the Big Bad to rise and thrive are still standing, and that’s a serious problem.
As Witchmark was one of the most nuanced takes on the outlawed magic trope and very plausibly portrayed the rich profiting from it, Stormsong is one of the most nuanced versions of the “rebellion against the establishment” plotline, and with a very interesting perspective – Dame Grace Hensley was completely part of it until a few days before, and in some ways still is. This book knows how to talk about privilege and oppression, about how this kind of discussion has to be full of grey areas and still requires steps, solutions, because injustice can’t be allowed to continue. Sometimes, those solutions will have high costs.
(Forgive me the aside, but this is the very reason no trope is tired until marginalized people have had as many chances to write it.)
In this book, what truly happened with Laneer comes into focus, and there’s also discussion of justice in the context of colonial wars. Everything in here is complicated, and this book handles all of it with… grace. (Sorry.) There are also advocates for witches’ rights, and the Amaranthines sometimes have goals of their own, and everything is twisted enough that I couldn’t even predict the solution to the murder mystery (yes, of course there’s murder too!) this time.
I still didn’t like this book as much as Witchmark. It might be due to my mental state, but my frustration at the ending had a lot to do with it. I hate cliffhangers, they make me want to not continue with the story, and while I get why a certain character didn’t get what they deserved, I’m still really annoyed and that’s never the emotion I want a book to leave me with.
The romance in this book also took more of a backseat than it did in the first. Again, I understand why this was necessary, but I still wish I would have gotten more than that, especially when I had to sit through so many scenes with Severin (why do f/f books specifically have to spend so much time on men who want to end up with the main character but obviously won’t?).
It’s also one of those romances in which you’re told that the characters were already drawn to each other since before the beginning of the story, but you aren’t shown that, not even in a flashback, so you’re already starting halfway through. There is a lot to love about Avia and Grace’s relationship, about how they came from somewhat similar situations and are going through similar pathways in different times, and there was even an occurrence of the “there’s only one bed!” trope. I liked them, of course I did, but I still wanted more from this book.
My rating: ★★★★
Have you read or want to read these?