samantha shannon's the priory of the orange tree: gender is a f*ck
posted on /en/books
Today I finished reading The Priory of the Orange Tree. I think I found it via people’s retweets of Rick Riordan pointing to own voices LGBTQ fantasy. For all the feminist!fantasy I’d ever read, I hadn’t gotten to read about queer women in a fantasy context, and this had good reviews, so I figured, sure, let’s try it. I read a lot of fantasy when I was a child. A lot of it was self-consciously Girl Powery. I therefore felt like I had a pretty good grasp on what to expect here.
I was wrong.
You see, on one level, it’s a pretty standard fantasy narrative. No spoilers, but they save the world. Scratch a bit deeper and you see how much fun Shannon had with worldbuilding–playing with the idea of the dragon-heavy fantasy book contrasting European and Asian dragon myths. Strengths of the work include its platonic and romantic dramas among characters1, court intrigue, and gentle conflicts between its different constructed cultures. Weaknesses are probably the action sequences, which are mostly decent until the problem of structuring the end – the real meat of the book is in the social stuff, and that’s all tied up pretty neatly before the Big Battle, so the Big Battle feels sort of tacked on to finish the plot.
None of that would have left too thunderous an impression on me, though, except for what the book didn’t include.
Consider: Every fantasy novel ever has dispensed with the historical prevalence and significance of cholera and dysentery because it just isn’t fun to read about people shitting themselves to death. Especially not as much as they did in the real times and places fantasy takes off of.
And in that same way, Shannon just wrote sexism and homophobia out of her fantasy world. I don’t mean that she modeled a utopia how sci-fi sometimes pretends “Oh, old prejudices? Yes, in the antiquated 21st century, but we’re far past that now”2, she just.. didn’t put them in. Same and different-sex partnerships are alluded to equally, men and women both occupy roles of power without anyone making a point of it, no male preference in the systems of primogeniture…
It sounds like a small thing, right?
A small weird “inaccuracy”?
Recently I found out that headaches I’d been having – awful debilitating things – were actually toothaches. A root canal isn’t the quickest of fixes, but then it’s like a high pitched noise suddenly goes silent. You realize that the sleep you’ve been getting has been shit because you’ve been in pain all night, and suddenly you can get rest again. You find that you have more patience for irritating people, more resilience for completing frustrating tasks, and all because you don’t have that tension radiating back from your crappy molars3.
That’s a bit what it felt like to read this book, as if every escapist book you’ve ever been offered had come with a toothache, and then you found out what it’s like to immerse yourself in a world with no tooth pain.
You aren’t aware how tiring it is to defend your own psyche from the background noise of gender roles until you’re not doing it.
I don’t know where to go from here. If I want to spend more time exploring that headspace, how do I even look for recommendations? “Yes, um, I would like to read more books that refuse to allude to sex inequality.” “Do you have any fantasy that lets its characters be gay without making them go against their cultures and families and shit?” “I’m looking for an absolute absence of societal critique, just, uh, no acknowledgement of the shittiness of reality, extra dragons to balance it out or whatever.”
The main romance is between the queen and the warrior lady sent to secretly protect her. It was slightly bland and lovely, in the way that you enjoy a sugar cookie without being surprised by it. ↩
and then has garbage sexism in it anyway… Or is it fair to say “sci-fi” when I may just be thinking of Asimov? ↩
Of course, outside of the metaphor, because I’m exceptionally fortunate, I have many teeth left that need fixing. Root canals, implants, and crowns, oh my! ↩