A prime example of why the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ frustrates me. The stunning cover of this novel is the reason I picked it up, and I am so glad I did. This was the first Samantha Shannon novel I read and what an introduction! A re-imagined feminist high-fantasy novel that I cannot recommend enough. The size (800 pages) may look intimidating, but I promise by the end you’ll wish it was longer.
As with most fantasy novels, setting must be discussed. Shannon crafted a perfectly unique, immersive world in Priory. Each new location has a distinct feel and was so intricately described I could smell them. The characters, though travelling, also reflect the place and the status of each character allows for different perspectives. The four protagonists, Ead, Loth, Tane and Niclays are totally realised characters with different motives that allow their paths to cross. Tane and Niclays perhaps the most obvious example of this, lives intertwining without knowing. This gives the reader a nice inside track and prompts us to turn the page to see their realisation/meeting, which was as satisfying as I hoped. I have seen criticism about the ‘weak’ male characters in this novel. I do not understand this criticism. Both Loth and Niclays hold significant roles in the story. Furthermore, they are complicated and multi-layered, something rather unique for high fantasy. They both represent the highly apparent theme within these novels of questioning beliefs, be they religious of not. Niclays is also the most interesting character in terms of morality. He provides a very grey area there, ultimately, I think his heart is in the right place. I assume this criticism comes as a result that it is Ead and Tane that have the most traditionally heroic roles. I loved this. It was refreshing and very satisfying to sink into a world of gender equality. Besides, Sir Kitson Glade did not risk his life, purely out of loyalty, for you to say the men in this story were ‘weak’. (I am still not quite over his death.) Furthermore, Chassar is another a great male character! Tane’s story was so interesting it could occupy a novel of its own but having this alongside the other stories allow for this to somewhat serve as an origin story. This works perfectly as a stand-alone, but also feels as though it could build to something more. Ead, in Sabran’s court, was my favourite section of the novel. The weaving of the political aspects of the West into the story were very interesting. Shannon’s dragonkind was also a very refreshing take on the fantastical creature. Having the divide between dragons and wyrms/fire-breathers. This was a clever tool as had the dragons simply been the antagonists, the human’s beating them would have been unrealistic. On the other hand, having dragons be on the side of the protagonist and having only human antagonists would lessen the stakes. I loved seeing the bond between Tane and her dragon. Another great addition to this world was the Priory. A significant place that doesn’t appear until Loth is there, serving as an outsider, just as the reader. It is great to see it from Loth’s viewpoint before Ead’s as it allows the reader to view the corruption within it. One very interesting character in this book is Queen Sabran. While we only see her through the eyes of Ead and Loth, she is well developed. It was an interesting move on Shannon’s part not to have chapters from Sabran’s viewpoint, but in concealing parts of her it allowed the reader to unfold her character along with Ead. Their relationship development seems natural and you really do feel for Sabran.
I could go on and on about story in this novel. There are so many characters, backstories, histories and plot points I’ve not even touched upon which is a testament to how much is packed into this novel. However, what I think deserves recognition now is Shannon’s use of language. Part of the reason this world is so brilliantly fashioned is through the exquisite language. While there are far too many beautiful lines to list them all, I noted down a few that made me swoon. (Apologies, I did not note down the page number. Dreadful, I know.)
“Her name had been lost to time, but the fear of her enchantments, and her malice, had knitted itself into the bones of the Inysh and seeped through generations.”
“Dawn cracked like a heron’s egg over Seiiki.”
“Her room looked over a courtyard, where a fishpond was churned to bubbles by the downpour.”
“The sky was bruised with cloud, but the sun left a finger-smear of honey.”
These are all perfect examples of how word-choice is crucial in great writing. Shannon does not need to over-describe because the words she uses create such a strong image. One notable element Shannon wrote of often throughout this story was light. Her use of light to display mood and atmosphere, or to highlight certain things was very well done. It sets her world in a hazy orange hue. (For the most part.) The images she created in doing so made me imagine the scenes coming to life in a beautiful animation reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s films. (I mean, imagine how stunning that could be!)
While there are smaller conflicts running throughout the novel, the main conflict remains the Nameless One and his return. This fear is developed well through the story, the smaller battles are difficult enough to heighten the tension for the final one. It is the immense build up to this final scene that makes it somewhat anti-climactic. I thought the execution of the battle was good, it was simply just quite short. This did allow for a quickened pace however, reflecting the action. Despite the fact these characters struggled to obtain weapons in order to vanquish the Nameless One, the defeat just felt a little too easy. That is perhaps the only quandary I have with this novel. It is also what makes me feel as though it is more an origin story. In terms of high fantasy, this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read and will continue to push it on my friends and family. But that’s just my humble opinion.
p.s. If anyone has any recommendations to novels similar to this one, please let me know!