This book is not for everyone. At 800+ pages it’s definitely a marathon, Iditarod, Great Race, good-lord-this-is-taking-a-long-time read. Not to mention that as high fantasy it’s an intricately woven, intimidatingly comprehensive tapestry of a universe — different cultures, traditions, and a number of unique characters. HOWEVER, if you can make it through, you’ll not only have the pride of finishing, but you’ll be breathless, teary-eyed, thrilled, and yearning to read it all again (but maybe not right away).
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon is the story of three very different women who are vital to the survival of all their peoples. Queen Sabran the Ninth is one of a thousand-year-line of Berenthnets who have ruled her queendom, and as such bears a lot of weight on her shoulders — especially considering it’s her bloodline that’s supposed to keep the fearsome fire-based dragon known as The Nameless One from rising again and laying waste to the world. Too bad she’s not interested in getting married and continuing that line… Ead comes from a secret society deep in the South that trains up women to be powerful warrior mages, wielding magic to keep the world safe, mostly from The Nameless One. As part of her mission, Ead has been sent to guard Queen Sabran, without ever letting her know about the existence of magic. So why does she long to get closer to her? Meanwhile, far in the East, Tane is a former peasant girl about to be made a dragon rider in the sacred tradition of the water-based dragons native to the region – if an invader from the West doesn’t mess things up for her. Along for the ride are Doctor Niclays Roos, an alchemist in exile seeking the elixir of eternal life, and Lord Arteloth Beck, friend to Sabran and Ead, sent on a deeply perilous diplomatic mission into dragon-ruled lands — not to mention various plots and intrigues against Sabran, Ead, The Nameless One, or all of the above… All these disparate threads will gradually come together in a battle of good and evil that transcends all borders of region, religion, and reason — because if our hapless heroes don’t stand together, they’ll all burn.
Lush, detailed, beautifully written and sweetly hopeful, this is a fascinating and readable fantasy journey that captures your heart with its very human protagonists. Especially delightful is the way inclusivity is built into the universe, both in terms of LGBTQ relationships and various ethnicities. While the cultural parallels being drawn are fairly obvious, it works as an alternate universe / alternate history, especially because the cultural parallels are also very well done; the religions and traditions are familiar to readers, but with their own intriguing twists.
If you like chosen family, dragons, cosmic balance, a balance of humor and heartache, and books that double as dumbbells for your arm workout, this is the book for you. Seriously, don’t be afraid to put in the time on this one; it’s a masterful epic that leaves no one behind.