Desert Isle Keeper
The Priory of the Orange Tree
At 848 pages, Samatha Shannon’s fantasy epic The Priory of the Orange Tree is a beast of a book, and a beast of an achievement. The first half borders on perfection, and while the second half isn’t as strong, on the whole it’s a gripping read.
Ead, a member of the religious order called the Priory of the Orange Tree, has been sent to protect Sabran the Ninth, Queen of Inysh. Sabran’s people revere her as the descendent of a knight called the Saint, who sealed away a monstrous dragon called the Nameless One and began the religion of Virtudom. As long as Sabran’s house holds Inysh, the faith says, the Nameless One cannot rise again. Ead is undercover as a convert but she rejects Sabran’s religion just as thoroughly as Sabran reject’s Ead’s. According to Ead’s people, it was the woman who married the Saint, not the Saint, who vanquished the dragon. Additionally, Ead practices magic, forbidden in Virtudom. If Sabran knew any of these facts, Ead would be burned in the public square. Yet Ead continues to secretly thwart assassination attempts on Sabran, first for political reasons, but increasingly, for personal ones. Meanwhile, wicked fire-breathing dragons are appearing in numbers unseen since the previous rise of the Nameless One. Could the prophecy of Sabran’s house be wrong?
On the other side of the world, a young woman named Tané is desperate to rise above her low birth by becoming a dragonrider. While dragons in the west are fire-breathing monsters, dragons in the east are wise creatures affiliated with water and air, protectors and partners to humankind. Tané sneaks out for a morning prayer, only to discover a foreigner (all of whom are banned, as potential plague carriers) on the beach. She has to report him, but doing so would expose her sneaking out, and disqualify her from the dragon selection. Her choice sets in motion events which will eventually connect her story to Ead’s and either save or damn the world.
This intricate, exciting first half sucked me in with its complex characters and unclear or conflicting motivations. I didn’t know who was trustworthy, who was playing politics, who was truly bad, and who might be redeemable. The moral dilemmas the characters are trapped in often have no wins. The cast is large but the characters are clearly distinct from each other. The fact that I’m giving so few specifics is actually evidence of how many specifics there are, and how much I enjoyed them: nearly every event is a twist, and I would hate to spoil any of it. I devoured this part of the story and eagerly imagined recommending the book to all the fantasy readers I know.
Unfortunately, around halfway, the focus shifts to action sequences, and much of the earlier richness is lost. Incompatibilities like heresy, xenophobia, and grudges fall aside too easily, new characters are flat, a villain monologues, and the characters spend too much time on the road (including seeking a lost object which, fortuitously, is found in the first place they check). I was still very excited to read the resolution of the story, and I did enjoy a lot of the deepening of the mythology and the well-written action sequences. Still, while the first half could even have been an A+, this second half was a B+.
The setting transparently maps onto real-world history, legend, and myth. Tané’s country is clearly isolationist Japan, Sabran’s island is England, another country is the Netherlands, and the Priory reads as a Garden of Eden. Characters are clearly inspired by figures like the real-life Zheng Yi Sao and the legendary Morgan le Fay. It’s enjoyable because fantasy can always use more diverse casts, and because the legends of each country are treated as equally legitimate. (I’m happy to see a f/f lead story here, too – fantasy romance skews heavily m/m and straight.)
Although the second half doesn’t live up to the first, I was still deeply satisfied with The Priory of the Orange Tree . I wish the publishers had split it into two, which would have perhaps allowed a year to polish the second half and release it as a separate book. But the book that it is is still an achievement I’m very happy to recommend.