This was my second 12 Challenge read, recommended to me by Twitter friend Ania.
*happy sigh* Another awesome read.
A blissful hot bath of a book, The Priory of the Orange Tree had me at hello. It’s a slab of a thing and took me a month and two days to read, representing a hefty commitment of both my time and bag space that I didn’t begrudge once. I just sank into the story and steeped in it until the last page. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. It was a happy obsession (and yes, my fingers got prune-y).
This will be a NO SPOILERS post, nonetheless.
The story unfolds through the journeys of four main characters – Tané, Ead, Loth and Niclays – who between them (but not too neatly) give us insight into the different countries and cultures that make up Shannon’s world. It is a place firmly divided into East and West, with how dragons are perceived being the most notable point of difference between the two. In the East dragons have an affinity with water and are revered for their wisdom, longevity and nobility. In the West, dragons are fiery earth-born creatures to be feared and hated and the dominant religion is based around the historical binding of a Big Bad dragon, called The Nameless One.
Tané and Niclays both live in the East: she is training to become a dragon-riding sea-guardian, part of the elite group who defend Seiiki from all comers; he is originally from the West, but lives in exile in Seiiki, confined to the last Western trading post of Orisima. Ead and Loth, on the other hand, live in the West: she’s a Southerner working as a lady-in-waiting in the Inysh court, but harbouring secret loyalties; he’s a nobleman and the queen’s best friend, shipped out of court when his friendship threatens the queen’s marriage prospects. None of them stay in their box, however. Each travels extensively over the course of the novel, internally and physically, and their storylines cross paths in numerous (occasionally convenient) ways.
The motivating force behind a lot of the hustle and bustle of the story is the looming return of The Nameless One. History and religion have mangled the truth of his original binding within the Abyss (a dangerous stretch of sea between the Eastern and Western continents) leaving everyone vulnerable. Opinions differ about the events of a thousand years before, and those beliefs have codified the religions that have grown up since. In the Queendom of Inys Virtudom has become the official religion. Revolving around the Six Virtues of Courage, Courtesy, Fellowship, Generosity, Justice and Temperance, it’s a religion sturdily linked to state as the Queen and her courtiers are the descendants of the original Saint and his six companion knights, and it is believed that as long as the Saint’s bloodline holds the throne The Nameless One will remain restrained. In the South, on the other hand, a different version of history is told in which the Saint goes by another name and an additional character is of far greater importance.
But nothing is as clear-cut as just having to straighten out which bit of history is wrong and everything will be fine. Layers of obfuscation exist, secrets have been kept, relics have been hidden away, people have been deleted from the historical record, and no two countries quite agree on how the Big Bad was defeated the first-time round, let alone how that might be replicated. This intricate, slowly revealed puzzle is one of The Priory of the Orange Tree’s most attractive qualities (in a brimming bucket full of attractive qualities) and the revelations are numerous and fascinating.
The massive cast of characters is just as fabulous. Of the four mains Ead was (predictably) my favourite, the outsider at court with secrets that can’t be shared in a no spoiler post, although I’m sure I can say she’s badass without ruining anything for anyone. I also loved Queen Sabran in all her complexity, and would have welcomed far more Margret Beck than I got. Tané was a little too earnest and focused for me to love outright, but her world was still engaging and she definitely grew on me. Loth was just a cinnamon roll who absolutely needs at least a novella of his own to sort out that hint of romance that was never given room to bloom. Niclays … Niclays was the most difficult to like in a way, bitter and isolated as he is, and yet also the easiest to empathise with, having really suffered more than his crimes warranted. Pirate Captain Gian Harlowe was fab (any and all backstories welcome), as was the ruthless-borderline-terrifying Golden Empress. Aralaq was all kinds of awesome. And the Donmata Marosa was intriguing; in another book her journey, which we only really glimpse in passing, would’ve gotten way more page space.
If I have any caveats they are only small, and they are two in number: occasionally, things move fast. This is an epic series’ worth of story in one volume and journeys that would take a quarter of a book in a multi-volume work take a couple of pages here. It’s surprising when you’re not expecting it, but of no consequence as soon as you cotton on to how Shannon’s playing it. Secondly, a few things weren’t fully wrapped up, or were dealt with more fleetingly than I’d have liked. This is possibly only an issue for as long as it takes Shannon to write more stories in this world. Or it’s fuel for the fire of the fanfiction engine. Either way, it’s a small thing (mostly focused on poor Loth’s non-romance) and possibly just me (someone else read it and tell me what you think!).
TL:DR? A tightly packed, beautifully written epic in one satisfyingly chunky volume. Two enthusiastic thumbs up. (After reading and returning the library copy that had been on my stack for far too long, I immediately bought my own copy. I’m already excited to reread it, perhaps over an upcoming bank holiday weekend).
I may have mentioned previously that I have a huge soft spot for cover art that depicts a scene from the story, (something that I think was far more popular in the 80s and 90s?) and suggests that the artist went that bit deeper or was given a very specific brief. The Priory of the Orange Tree’s cover by Ivan Belikov (awesome site, find it here) is already breathtakingly beautiful, but when I reached the scene that Belikov has captured (in essence if not in all attendant spoilery detail) I had a moment of pure, unadulterated joy. Squeeee!