In 2012, I read a news story about a twenty-year-old student at University who was signed by Bloomsbury Publishing in a six-figure book deal. I was intrigued (and jealous). The deal was for three books in a seven books series. The first of which, THE BONE SEASON, was published in 2013. I’ve had what I call a “literary crush” on Samantha Shannon since; she is one of few authors on my automatically pre-order list.
When she announced that she was taking a little break from the Pale Dreamer to pursue a bit of a passion project, I was again intrigued but a bit wary. High fantasy is not something I frequently read, despite loving mages and dragons. Perhaps it is because the stories of men with swords slaying beasts and winning the hearts of the fragile maidens bore me. But I knew from the first three books of THE BONE SEASON series that Samantha Shannon’s females are far from fragile and rarely need rescuing. I hit “pre-order” and waited for what seemed like ages for it to be released in 2019. When it came, I was afraid of not liking it and sat it on a shelf. But it’s the year of the book dragon and every book dragon needs a book about dragons.
Dubbed a “epic feminist fantasy,” THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE is nearly as massive in size as it is in heart. (At just over 800 pages in hardback, it’s one of the biggest books I’ve read in a long while. Its sheer size makes it a bit cumbersome of a read – certainly not bubble bath material – but this standalone epic will have you craving more pages after the last sentence – “But not today.”) What is most striking is how expertly the story is woven and how powerful yet realistically flawed the women are. It is most fitting that I finished this novel on International Women’s Day.
At its heart, this is the story of dualities. East and West. Fire and water. Dragon rider and dragon slayer – Tane and Ead.
Tane is of the East, and she opens the novel. She has spent her entire life preparing to be a rider and on the eve of Choosing Day, where her destiny would finally be realized, a stranger from the West washes up on her shore and threatens everything she has worked so hard for. She makes a choice that night that will change the course of destiny – a choice that will destroy what she loves, turn her into a ghost, and breathe new life and purpose into her battered bones. A choice that just maybe saves the world.
Ead Duryan is a lie. Eadaz du Zala uq-Nara is the truth. An initiate of the Priory of the Orange Tree, she poses as a chamberer in the Upper Household of Queen Sabran Berethnet. She is a mage, her magic coming from the sweet fruit of the Orange Tree. The Priory is a group of women, led by a Prioress, who slay dragons or “wyrms” and protect the rest of the world with few others knowing of their existence. Ead is a skilled assassin, trained since birth, who has been sent to protect the western queen at all costs. Legend claims the Nameless One, a fire-breathing dragon hellbent on death and destruction, will awaken and destroy the world if the House of Berethnet does not deliver a female heir. The Priory, even while questioning the legend, cannot risk it.
Over time and space, the reality of this duality emerges. The stars align. The scholars finally understand the ancient riddles involving a hawthorne tree, a mulberry tree, and an orange tree. But is it too late? Can the rider of dragons, powered by water and stars, and the slayer of dragons, powered by the fire of an ancient tree, join forces as their ancestors did 1,000 years before?
There is love. There is betrayal. There is murder. There is the Flesh King. There are animals that help and animals that hinder. There is a shape-shifting witch. There are poison darts and pearls sewn into skin. There are lies and truths. There is darkness. There is light. There is a rose in winter. And through it all are some of the most remarkable characters you will meet – the idealistic Truyde utt Zeedur, the soul-less Golden Empress, the haunted Donmata Marosa, the devoted Margaret Beck, the tortured Sabran – these women are fully developed, perfectly imperfect and beautifully portrayed. And they are strong even at times they appear the weakest.
“And yet I am reminded – as I so often am – that you never needed my protection. You are your own shield.” – Chassar to Ead (He raised her after her mother was murdered.)
I will always love THE BONE SEASON, but if this is what Shannon can do with high fantasy – please give me more.