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.
I feels like a thread of my heart had snagged in The Priory of The Orange Tree and is still trying to tug me back in. I barely felt time passing, and when I finished reading, I had the strange experience of looking up from the pages, feeling dreamy and obscure and so keenly aware of my aloneness, stranded in the merciless intransigence of reality. The same experience of waking up just as the last vestiges of some delightful nocturnal adventure are dissolving like salt into the waves. This, I’ve come to understand, is the hallmark of a great book.
Without spoiling, the story goes like this:
After a millennium of peace, rumors of the Nameless One’s return—gliding vulture-like in the skies above—had finally descended and sunk in their claws for good.
Legend goes that Galian Berethnet, wielding the mythical sword Ascalon, succeeded in drawing borders around the Nameless One’s power and consigning him to the Abyss, but whatever he did is melting away and the fire-breathing dragon will surge back with a vengeance, doling death in his wake. In this world, there are three empires at the brink of war—with one another, and within themselves.
In the countries of the West, House Berethnet are lost in the details of their own legend, rolling words like boulders about their queen, Sabran the Ninth, being the sacred source of the monster’s bindings. Here, dragons had only to be mentioned and hatred sang bright in the people, like a defensive reaction to their name. Sabran is their last hope, but it’s difficult to see where that hope could possibly bear fruit when the lies about her ancestry are wearing thin, unveiling the truth beneath: that the legend of Galian Berethnet is merely a phantasm—a scrap of useless myth dancing on a string.
In the South, a secret order of female mages called the Priory venerates the Mother. Pledged to this society is Ead Duryan who is sent undercover as a lady-in-waiting in Sabran’s court to protect the queen’s life, in case she is revealed to be the key to thwarting the monster after all. But when the breadth of the Priory’s instruction expands, the line of Ead’s responsibility is trying to draw her back, and the current of her growing, unsuitable affection is pulling her towards Sabran.
In the East, where the more benevolent water-dragons are revered as gods, young Tané, a dragon-rider in training, dithers between pitiless ambition and necessary caution when she happens upon a Western seafarer on the borders, and in the end, unable to measure the perils one way and the other, it’s her nature that wins out: Tané decides not to report him to the authorities and risk being suspected of carrying the plague, and in doing so, unknowingly sets into motion a plot of abysmal proportions.
Although the knowing of the Nameless One’s return and how to defeat him is a blurry, shadowed thing, the three empires feel the horror of it like the weight of an uninvited body. Like trains on a single-track rushing inexorably toward each other, Tané, Ead and Sabran are hurled along their respective storylines until they inevitably crash in a tangle of strife and fatality.
Overwhelmed by a sense of their own destinies, their differences become lightweight. This is a danger, a disaster, a calamity—and they alone can stop it.
“In darkness, we are naked. Our truest selves. Night is when fear comes to us at its fullest, when we have no way to fight it,” Ead continued. “It will do everything it can to seep inside you. Sometimes it may succeed—but never think that you are the night.”
The scope of The Priory of The Orange Tree is majestic, brimming with detail and ideas and teeming with characters, languages, and perspectives. Though this is a single novel, it feels rather like several books meticulously stitched together. In lesser hands, it would be a bewildering welter. Fortunately for us, Shannon possesses the inerrant skills to make it all harmonize splendidly.
The book’s greatest triumph is this: despite so many moving parts, what beams through is the author’s concern with language, the supple twisting of the narrative spine, the minute turnings of characters and their choices, the web of moving relationships and how all those ripples affect players continents away. Shannon gathers myriad old tales and turns them into something all kinds of vibrant and new. She makes sure the readers are always thinking about and learning about the various nations, cultures, and histories that make up this vast, sweeping world. And she does so in writing so suffused with love and enthusiasm for storytelling, with sentences coiling around like the serpentine tail of a dragon itself, enshrouding the reader in a conspiracy which had begun a millennium before and ends exactly where it must.
Shannon also employs multiple narrative voices in The Priory of the Orange Tree. The cast is sprawling, but the novel is deft at braiding their lives together, which is an incredible feat as the characters are separated by continents and disparate systems of beliefs. It would be a mistake to believe that dragons are this book’s beating heart; their formidable shadows never once overwhelm the vividly drawn and gloriously complicated characters. Rather, the bulk of the book is about the characters as they grow, learn, and face the insidious and inexorable threat of the Nameless One.
I am in love with every single woman in this book, where they are queens, warriors, scientists, and pirates—strong and powerful and brilliant and hungry. And I want to talk about each of them:
Queen Sabran the Ninth carries herself like a woman used to having her words listened to and acted upon instantly. She built around herself a camouflage, and learned how to hold a world of incertitude within her without a single crack in her exterior calm. And that was only half the price. Sabran’s duty was whittled down to begetting heirs, and though her exhaustion and looming mortality were wearing her down, and her humanity slowly chipped away and sanded down to a hard callous with rumors of divinity, she refused to exist like a bird bred inside a gilded cage. Sabran’s character is so heartbreakingly flesh and blood, human in all the ways she was flawed. As she learns more about the world beyond her queendom, narrative grows threaded with a series of uncomfortable truths and brutal observations. The stories Sabran had been taught are at so many removes they bear only the most tangential relation to the truth, and it’s not until she accepts it that a crack opens in the wall of ice in her mind. Sabran wants to save her people, but to do, she must smooth feathers ruffled by the winds of change, and try to lead them out of fear of the South and East.
We don’t get Sabran’s POV in this book and so her mind remains half in shadow until the right confidante appears—Ead Duryan. Sabran and Ead were each other’s person, each other’s place. Their moments together put so much heart in me. But Ead and Sabran are two separate planets, each with its own gravitational pull and orbit, and the weight of their duties piled like mountains atop their shoulders. Shannon’s insistence on their agency never quells, but I love how she also doesn’t disallow them the ineffable and aching experience of love and affection.
“You remember the first day we walked together. You told me about the lovejay, and how it always knows its partner’s song, even if they have been long apart,” Ead whispered to her. “My heart knows your song, as yours knows mine. And I will always come back to you.”
“I will hold you to that, Eadaz uq-Nāra.”
Next, Tané! Tané’s childish dreams dwindled to one: being a dragon rider. She fed that ambition with any scrap she could lay her hands on, and when there was nothing to feed it, she nourished it with some stubborn faith of her own making. I really liked Tané’s character and I hoarded her interactions with the great Nayimathun like a touch-starved dragon. In many ways, Tané is as aloof and competent as Sabran, just as tough-minded and solitary in her habits, and in many ways, just as fragile too. Tané is often tormented with a keen sense of inadequacy and failure which grows keener when one irreversible mistake suddenly creates for her an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup—and it’s the hideous despair of having finally found the place that fits, the place where you belong, before being yanked back into loneliness.
Tané’s character development is as masterful and as deeply affecting as Ead’s and Sabran’s. But Shannon’s depth of character doesn’t end with Ead, Sabran and Tané. One other major viewpoint explored in this book is that of Niclays Roos, an alchemist who persuaded a young—and naïve—Queen Sabran of his ability to brew an elixir of immortality for her, and whose failure in doing so earns him a long exile to the Island of Orisima where Niclays has only to glance over his shoulder for all the years to drop away and for him to see it behind him again, a picture that will never desert him: of the man he loved and lost, and the people he let down since it’s been one long slide into the bottom of a wine bottle.
Niclays, strangely, is the character that I connected to the most. Maybe because every fault of his is laid bare—every flaw, every weakness, every selfishness, the multitudes of shames he carried. He’s a self-confessed coward, too wane-hearted to show true courage, and everything he did, he did it selfishly, in bitter heart. But grief does a lot of strange things, and while I wouldn’t consider Niclays a very good person, neither can I bring myself to believe that he is an irredeemably bad one either. Pity and sorrow for him welled up through me, hot enough to burn away both blame and resentment. While reading, I often wondered if it were his own wiles that had planted this seed of madness inside him, or if he were too soaked in solitude and grief to be his old self, yet all the same, I felt something deep between my lungs crack clean in two reading his chapters. His character development is a heart-breaker (I could barely glimpse the pages through my tears), yet it’s one of the things I relished most about this book.
Lord “Loth” Arteloth, Sabran’s closest friend, is also a very intriguing character. He is a man who is nobly built, notably arraigned, and nobly positioned, cloaked in diplomacy and compromise, and born with his heart on the outside of his body. Yet, it isn’t until he is backed up to the world’s edge that he starts pushing his mind past its limits of understanding to encompass worlds beyond his own, and realizing that he had long been locked out of them by his own innocence and naivety. This made his arc such a rewarding experience.
“Would the world be any better if we were all the same?”
In many senses, all the characters undergo this same aspect of masterly written character development: their lives were studded with facts they’ve known beyond the shadow of the doubt, yet never with any proof to back them up. It was just the way things were. And it takes them being faced with calamity to stop seeing the world through such a narrowed lens and learn to come together on the other side of their differences. It isn’t lost on me that this, in many ways, borrows deeply into our everyday truths. Nor is it, I suspect, lost on Shannon either, who pours so much tenderness, care and attention into her story and characters.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough! It’s quite a chunky read, but believe me, despite its length, you will be sad to walk away from it.