The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Maturity Level: 4+
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The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction—but assassins are getting closer to her door.
Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.
Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.
Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.
Okay. So. It has been a loooooong time since an epic fantasy has lived up to my expectations. But The Priory of the Orange Tree managed to deliver on a stand-alone story that was intriguing, surprising, romantic, and exciting all at once. By the end of the novel I was turning pages so quickly that my brain could barely keep up with my eyeballs.
First of all, don’t let the lackluster blurb scare you off. It’s really hard to provide a summary of this novel because there is so. much. going. on. And there is only so much you can explain without giving away too much. But, basically, there is this fantasy world divided between East and West. The East is more or less like East-Asian cultures in our world, and the West is similar to our Europe and Middle-East. These two halves of the world are estranged by a Millennium-long trade ban for reasons that become clear as the book goes on. BOTH cultures tell the story of the Nameless-One, a terrifying dragon who seeks to bring doom on the world, and both live in fear of his eventual return. The Easterners seek to protect themselves through a partnership with good dragons, and the Westerners through religion. There’s action, romance, and a LOT of court intrigue. If you like court intrigue, this is the book for you! SO GOOD!
So this book is told through three main point-of-views, though there are others peppered in there throughout, especially in the first hundred pages or so. Through the course of the book the story focuses in on two women, Ead and Tané. Both are strong women, though completely different in character. Myself, I preferred Ead, who has quite a bit of sass to go with her kick-ass-ery. She has secrets, which I love, and it was so tantalizing the way she only revealed tiny pieces at a time. Her romance was also sexy as hell, without being particularly graphic on-page.
The pace is slow at first. Shannon really takes her time world building and introducing all of the characters (so. many. characters!) before she starts moving the story along. But once it got going it was like rolling down the hill. It just kept picking up steam until, by the end, I was desperate to find out what was going to happen next.
And while some elements ended up being predictable, Shannon did manage to surprise me with a few plot twists and character developments right at the end. I’m always looking for a book to take me by surprise.
It will come as no surprise in a book this long that it is an epic in every sense of the word. The fate of the world is at stake. I love reading a book where the stakes are this high, especially when it is done well. And y’all, it was done sooooooo well.
One of my favorite things about Priory was the way it featured platonic friendships. The LGBTQ relationships were definitely at the front and center of this book, and they were done very well, and I especially loved how Shannon built a religious culture that just … didn’t care. But I was even more taken with the strong friendships throughout the book. The characters, especially the Western characters, define themselves by their friendships. And it’s so rare to read anything where men and women are friends without expecting more. I loved how Shannon played on that, creating rumors that they must be sleeping together, because LITERALLY NOTHING ELSE could explain why they would want to spend so much time together! But no, in fact, they are actually JUST. FRIENDS. Loved it.
Also, did I mention dragons? Good dragons AND evil dragons!!!
I do have two critiques. The first is that I didn’t connect very well with this book emotionally. Probably this is because there were just so many POVs at the beginning, it was hard to tell who was going to be important, and therefore who to get attached to. The characters also take quite a while to start showing their true personalities, so I was several hundred pages in before I realized how much I liked Ead.
The second is with the religion. Inys’s religion is so clearly modeled after Christianity, that it would have been nice to have not had it been a straight up lie. Like, she could have left it ambiguous, “I guess we’ll never know who was right!” and that would have maybe been a kinder way to deal with that issue. Or made the religion as clearly different from Christianity as the southern religion was completely different from Islam, inspired by aesthetic rather than by practice or theology. But whatever, non-Christians probably wouldn’t care.
All in all, one of my favorite stand-alone high-fantasy novels I’ve read in many years. I highly recommend The Priory of the Orange Tree!