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.
Epic Fantasy is always dicey when it comes to being 'epic'. It has to be on a time-stretching, world-encompassing scale comprised of the culmination of a series of events that will crack the pillars of the society and decide the fates of all civilizations as it sweeps up folks from all known realms in its wake, a wake not all parties will survive and those that do are forever changed.
Is this an Epic Fantasy?
The story's told via shifting perspectives among four protagonists: Ead, a lady-in-waiting to the queen who's much more that she seems & whose tale drives the story. Ead is a mage, a practitioner of forbidden magics & devotee of mysteries learned at the titular location- the Priory. Though their misson is the same as that of most other nations- preparing for the inevitable return of the Nameless One- they see themselves as the true keepers of the faith that the western realms have warped & misunderstood.
Arteloth Beck (Loth), a noble at Queen Sabran's court who's a lifelong friend to both her & Ead. His sister, Margaret, and he have also been close friends with Ead since she arrived at court. Those friendships place him in great political jepoardy.
Tane, an initiate in House of Learning in the realm of Seiiki who becomes a dragonrider in the High Sea Guard. We're introduced to her first and the decision she makes sets in motion events that will shake & shape the world to come.
Niclays Roos, an alchemist & anatomist exiled from Inys to the east by Queen Sabran for betraying her trust and dreams of a way to return to court. A not-so random encounter sets him on the path to do so, but at what cost?
Samantha Shannon's world-building is staggering. Like all great fantasy novels, a rich, sometimes too-detailed history breathes life into the various cultures of this world, based upon medieval European, Middle Eastern & Asian/Pacific cultures… with a cursory nod towards African ones. Just so ya know. I suggest reading through the appendixes a couple of times before diving in.
Even at over 800 pages (!), the pacing is good. As an experienced author, Shannon moves things along pretty well; despite the level of detail and info-dumps involved there's not too many places you'll get bogged down in. And you can always skim & catch up later.
A universal theme in the story is equality; men & women serve in all capacities across all cultures, and same-sex relationships bear no stigma whatsoever. I was struck by the implicit analogy between the dominant religion of the west- Virtudom- and Christianity. Virtudom, as the name implies, is literally the principles of Knighthood that have been morphed from doctrines into dogma, with each Virtue embodied by a Duke sworn to uphold its tenets. The comparisons are readily apparent and unfold as the story progresses, as well as the ultimate mystery of how it all began and splintered from its origins, origins which the Priory and its allies still hold to. There's also Virtudom's absolute security in their righteousness & their willingness to 'spread the gospel' to the infidels of the East, the Nameless One's similarities to Satan (including being bound for a thousand years), his minions doing his work in spreading fear & chaos across the world, corrupting world leaders from the true faith... and what happens when that faith becomes shaken and revealed for what it is- all interwoven into the fabric of the story.
As there are only thirty-six plots, the details are what matters to any story. It's not the destination, but the journey. This journey isn't a family vacation; it's that road trip with your buddies where you get tattoos only your spouses are allowed to see and do legally questionable things in five different languages. The intro with Tane starts small, almost incidentally, but Ead's sparks your interest and lays the foundation for things to come.
But it's not all wine & roses (or beer & pizza, depending upon your tastes). One key failing is in the side characters & romantic relationships. After a while you can tell when the GoT-style moments are gonna happen where key figures need to be cut off from their support & safety nets to help drive their story arcs. Kind of a cheap device when you can see who’s gonna get whacked, but in fairness there's a few I was expecting to go that didn't.
The characters in the story really shine. Ead, Tane, Nicklays & Loth are all complex individuals, shaped and motivated by their ambitions, faith, fears, darkness & dreams to see them through. The secondary characters are no less developed, just secondary. Queen Sabran is someone you'll cheer for as you get to know her; I even had some empathy for Seyton Combe, the Duke of Courtesy aka the Night Hawk, spymaster of Inys. Igrain Crest, the Duchess of Justice, is also an intriguing figure as her story progressed. They're all not so much heroes and villains as they're people, which is what it's all about. And you'll enjoy getting to know them, even as you dislike some of them.
Relationships between the characters is also a real strong point. Some are familiar with each other, some casual acquaintances and others lifelong friends. All four protagonists are organically connected in ways they both are and aren't aware of, helping to tie things together. As far as romances go, there's sunshine over the rainbow for some and closure for others. The only issue I have is with the lack of focus on any straight relationships. I’ve got nothing against LGBT relationships in my reading- the ones presented here are driving forces in the story- but a couple of straight ones to dive into would’ve been nice is all I’m saying.
Word is that it’s a standalone novel, but it’s open-ended enough for a sequel and it completely deserves one. I’d call that a PR move, because there’s no way this isn’t getting a second novel. Too much is left unsaid, undone, unexplored & unresolved not to.
The Priory of the Orange Tree is a fantastic novel that'll keep you up a few nights for 'just one more chapter'. In this GoT era this one can sit on the shelf right beside GRRM's work.