Book Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

This review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Book Review: The Priory of the Orange TreeThe Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on February 26th 2019
Genres: Epic, Fantasy, Fantasy & Magic, LGBTQ, Romance
Pages: 848
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A world divided.A queendom without an heir.An ancient enemy awakens.
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.

The Priory of the Orange Tree is an absolutely phenomenal read. It has everything a reader could want—powerful and diverse female characters, the best LGBTQ romance I have read, EVER, great friendships, interesting religion, pirates, alchemists, world-building, secret organizations, and DRAGONS (both good and evil). Many books nowadays claim to be “the new A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones),” but I have never had the pleasure of reading a single novel that came even close to George R.R. Martin’s beloved fantasy—until now. 


“There was always a period of fragility before a Berethnet sovereign got with child. Theirs was a house of daughters, one daughter for each queen. Their subjects called it proof of their sainthood.”


Like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Priory of the Orange Tree is told from the perspective of many different characters in various parts of the world, with different loyalties, religions, ranks, and abilities. However, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a more feminist version of A Song of Ice and Fire—being told from mostly female perspectives, with only two male perspectives. Much of the novel takes place in a western kingdom, called Inys, ruled by a long line of Queens. If it weren’t cool enough that the crown is passed from mother to daughter, their bloodline and the religion surrounding it, is the key to keeping an ancient evil at bay—or so they and the rest of the countries that worship their queen—Virtudom—believe.


“It was impossible, yet there it was. A wyrm. A monstrous, four-legged wyrm, over two hundred feet long from its snout to the tip of its tail. This was no wyverling prowling for livestock. This was a breed that had not been seen in centuries, since the last hours of the Grief of Ages. Mightiest of the Draconic creatures. The High Westerns, largest and most brutal of all the dragons, the dread lords of wyrmkind. One of them had woken.”


This evil, known as the Nameless One, is a scarier version of Skyrim’s Alduin, a fire breathing-dragon, accompanied by his terrifying army of other fire-breathing dragons and a Draconic plague, who almost destroyed the world 1000 years ago in something known as The Grief of the Ages. Despite the fact that he and his armies were sealed into the Abyss, inexplicably, his armies start to reawaken and to threaten the safety of the Queen of Inys, her future heir, and the rest of the world. One kingdom, Yscalin, a former ally of Inys, has already fallen to the wyverns and their Draconic Army—not just wyverns, but their offspring of cockatrices, basilisks, and more. 


“Sometimes she felt as if they could smell her secrets. As if they sensed she had not come to this court to be a lady-in-waiting. As if they knew about the Priory.”


Luckily for the current Queen of Inys, Sabran Berethnet, her lady-in-waiting, Ead, is more bodyguard than lady. Sent from a secret wyrm-slaying organization, she protects the queen at all costs, despite the fact that she believes Sabran has butchered the true religion. Not only does Ead need to protect her Queen from the wyrms and wyverns, but also from the assassins and politics of a court who is desperate to see a female heir who will protect them from the awakening of the Nameless One. Little does Ead know that despite protecting Sabran with all her might, her very own heart is in danger. The love story of Sabran and Ead is touching–and not just because it’s so rare to find any LGBTQ romances in fantasy novels, let alone one that is the center love story–but because it is a story of two strong women supporting and believing in one another, despite their many, many differences, and finding solace in each other when the rest of the world only offered stifling expectations. I enjoyed not just the build up of their relationship, which was barely even a friendship in the beginning, to the development of a full-fledged relationship built on mutual respect and open communication. It was beautiful to see this relationship transform each woman into a better, stronger version of herself.


But honestly, author Shannon does a great job developing every single one of her relationships in The Priory of the Orange Tree. Ead’s best friends at court, Loth and Margaret, have a friendship that transcends religious differences, borders, and noble titles. Even the despicable alchemist Niclays Roos, an antagonist of the novel, had a great love in his past (also LGBTQ) and manages to make friendships that change his character and perspective along his journey. This will surprise no one, but my favorite relationship out of the novel, other than that of Sabran and Ead’s, was that of the dragon rider, Tané and her Eastern dragon, Nayimathun—but I won’t give too much away on that.


‘”Cloud steamed from its scales – scales of moonstone, so bright they seemed to glow from within. A crust of gem-like droplets glistened on each one. Each eye was a burning star, and each horn was quicksilver, agleam under the pallid moon. The creature flowed with the grace of a ribbon past the bridge and took to the skies, light and quiet as a paper kite.”


Though the Eastern nations closed their borders for fear of the deadly Draconic Plague, and the rest of the world views them with disgust—falsely viewing their veneration of dragons as the same as worship of the Nameless One and his wyrms—readers are given a glimpse to their world through the eyes of orphan Tané, who has trained her entire life to become a dragon rider. We learn as Tané does, that the Eastern dragons derided by the West are much different than the feared Nameless One and his army. They are wise, water-loving creatures who fought to save the world the first time the Nameless One came around and will do so again. 


‘I am not her enemy – and neither are the people of the East. They despise the Nameless One, as we do. The noble creatures they worship are nothing like wyrms.’ She drew herself up. ‘Draconic things are waking, Ead. Soon they will rise – the Nameless One and his servants – and their wrath will be terrible. And when they rally against us, we will need help to fight them.’


I really loved all of the depictions of dragons in this book—whether the wise and elegant Eastern dragons, or the evil Draconic army. Shannon’s descriptions of all the beasts were just magical and captured the imagination. I found myself standing outside and wondering just how big 200 feet was and imagining the sight of one of her High Western wyrms. I loved the details–how she wrote of the size of the dragons, their smell, the way their eyes burned with fire, and how seeing them in person was so, so different and more terrifying than in the illustrations of books:


“The beast glided above the ship. As it passed, Loth could smell the heat inside it, the reek of smoke and brimstone. The bear-trap of its mouth. The hot coals of its eyes. They wrote themselves into his memory. He had heard stories since he was a child, seen the hideous illustrations that lurked in bestiaries – but even his most harrowing nightmares had never conjured such a soul-fearing thing.”


The author made it effortlessly easy to imagine the people’s absolute fear of these creatures and their offspring of cockatrices, ophiturs, and basilisks—and how an entire religion could have been built on keeping such horrors locked away.  And how original to have these dread creatures carry pestilence, like the rats of the black plague. Not only did people have to fear the death, destruction, and enslavement at the hands of the Nameless One and his followers, but the painful, highly contagious, and fatal disease they carried as well. Yikes. 


The only thing I wished for in this massive book was that, well, it had been longer. Though I initially had a bit of trouble getting into the book, I quickly became obsessed, and throughout reading The Priory in the Orange Tree, I desperately wished for it to never end, even while racing to the last page to know what happened. After all of the build-up and the discoveries and revelations, the ending battle with the Nameless One felt so unequivocally and inequitably short. Thankfully, author Shannon took the time to tell us what happened to her characters after this battle, and what their plans for the future were, but I was insatiable and wanted so much more. 


“And yet I am reminded – as I so often am – that you never needed my protection. You are your own shield.”


I find that after finishing this book, complete with its easy acceptance of LGBTQ relationships (not once did any LGBTQ characters meet with disgust at heterosexual characters—just concern about heirs produced), dragons, breaking of religious barriers towards acceptance and peace, powerful female characters, pirates, alchemy, magical jewels—that I’m quite at a loss. I did not expect to be so utterly swept away by this novel, in spite of its much deserved critical acclaim. I had no idea how much I had needed to read a book that strayed so far from the typical white male hero (usually a  bumbling farm boy from nowhere who somehow becomes a master swordsman or dragon rider after a day of training), who somehow saves the world. Especially in this climate in 2020, it was a balm to my heart to see all these diverse female characters achieve everything they set out to and so much more. I simply have no idea how to move on from The Priory of the Orange Tree. I don’t think I’ve had a book hangover so bad since I first read Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind.


 Not only is this my favorite book I’ve read all year, but now one of my all time favorites. I bought this book on sale on the Kindle, but I know now that I will need a physical copy of this gem. Though The Priory of the Orange Tree is an exquisite stand-alone novel, I loved it so much that I can only hope the author, Samantha Shannon revisits this world in the future in some way, shape or form.

Book Review : The Priory of the Orange Tree - Blogging with Dragons

Posted June 12, 2020 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Favorite Books

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