Set against a backdrop reminiscent of Earth’s 16th and 17th centuries, this epic tale unfolds across continents, delving into a rich world of folklore inspired by European, Japanese, and Chinese mythology. At its core, the novel champions themes of love, feminist empowerment, and queer retellings of traditional narratives.
In the Eastern lands, we meet Tané, a young woman determined to become a dragonrider, revered in her society where dragons are sacred.
Her life takes a dramatic turn the night before her trials when she encounters a forbidden Western stranger, setting off a chain of events that leads to her exile and the capture of her dragon, Nayimathun, by pirates.
Tané’s journey uncovers a celestial jewel embedded in her, granting her control over water, which she aims to use to rescue Nayimathun.
Meanwhile, in the West, where dragons are feared and reviled, Ead Duryan hides her true identity as a mage of the secretive Priory of the Orange Tree in the South.
She serves in the court of Queen Sabran of Inys, under the guise of a lady-in-waiting. The Western belief is that the royal Berethnet bloodline keeps destructive dragons at bay, but Ead discovers this is a misconception. The real power against these dragons stemmed from a thousand-year-old binding spell by the Priory’s founder, Cleolind.
Sabran, pressured to continue her lineage, faces turmoil after her husband’s assassination and a miscarriage. Her kingdom is on the brink as the feared wyrm, the Nameless One, stirs again.
Ead learns that to rebind this ancient evil, they need the very artifacts used a millennium ago, including a celestial jewel like the one she finds in the Priory.
The narrative converges as Loth, Ead and Sabran’s friend, finds himself on Feather Island with Tané. He informs her about Ead’s discovery, suggesting their jewels could be key in defeating the Nameless One.
In their quest, they learn of the lost sword Ascalon, necessary for the final battle. Ead’s search leads her to the enigmatic Kalyba, a figure shrouded in legend, who reveals startling truths about the past and her own intentions to join forces with the Nameless One.
In the climax, an unprecedented alliance forms between the South, West, and East to confront the looming threat.
They journey to the Abyss, the deep-sea lair of the Nameless One. In an epic confrontation involving water dragons, the power of the celestial jewels, and the legendary sword Ascalon, they defeat both Kalyba and the ancient wyrm.
The novel concludes with a hopeful vision for the future. Ead becomes the Prioress, Sabran prepares to transition her realm towards democracy, and Tané reunites with Nayimathun, becoming a dragonrider once more. Though Ead and Sabran must part ways temporarily to fulfill their duties, they plan a future together, symbolizing a new era of peace and understanding.
Ead Duryan / Eadaz uq-Nāra
A mage of the secretive Priory of the Orange Tree, Ead masquerades as a lady-in-waiting at Queen Sabran’s court.
Gifted in combat and magic, Ead’s journey is one of self-discovery and transformation. Initially critical of the court’s excesses, she grows to understand the burdens of leadership.
Ead’s love for Sabran and her unwavering sense of duty define her as the narrative’s moral compass, showcasing her evolution from a secretive mage to a pivotal leader.
The Queen of Inys, Sabran grapples with the heavy expectations of her lineage, believed to protect the world from wyrms.
Initially viewed as haughty, her character unfolds to reveal a leader trapped by tradition and weighed down by responsibility.
Sabran’s journey is marked by personal loss, a deepening love for Ead, and a transformative decision to seek alliance and peace, reflecting her courage and growth as a ruler.
A dedicated and ambitious young woman from Seiiki, Tané’s dream of becoming a dragonrider is fraught with trials and self-doubt.
Her character arc, marked by a discovery of her extraordinary lineage and a celestial jewel, mirrors her internal journey towards self-acceptance and understanding.
Tané evolves from a rigid, self-critical warrior to a pivotal figure embracing her destiny and bridging cultural divides.
Arteloth (Loth) Beck
A nobleman and a close friend of Sabran, Loth’s character initially appears peripheral but gains significance as the story unfolds.
His experiences, from exile to diplomatic missions, shape him into a mature, compassionate figure. Loth embodies the themes of loyalty, open-mindedness, and the importance of challenging one’s beliefs.
Beginning as a bitter alchemist exiled for failing to create an immortality elixir, Niclays’ journey is one of redemption.
His character evolution, from resentment to a realization of the true nature of alchemy and self-purification, highlights the novel’s theme of redemption and the capacity for personal change.
Tané’s dragon, Nayimathun, is a noble Lacustrine dragon whose wisdom and maternal instincts guide Tané.
Representing the revered status of dragons in the East, Nayimathun is a symbol of goodness, truth, and the power of staying true to one’s nature.
The enigmatic antagonist, Kalyba, also known as the Lady of the Woods, represents the corrupting influence of absolute power.
Her complex backstory and acts of deception underscore the novel’s exploration of power dynamics and the often-overlooked roles of women in history and legend.
1. The Redefinition of Heroism and Leadership through a Feminist Lens
At the heart of Shannon’s novel is a powerful feminist statement that challenges traditional fantasy tropes.
Heroism and leadership are predominantly portrayed through the experiences and actions of strong female characters. The book subverts the typical male-dominated fantasy narrative by placing women in roles of power, wisdom, and bravery.
Queen Sabran, Ead Duryan, and Tané are not just token figures; they are intricately developed characters whose decisions and actions drive the plot.
Their leadership styles, ranging from the compassionate and strategic to the bold and rebellious, showcase a diverse spectrum of female strength.
This theme is a celebration of female empowerment, highlighting how women in leadership can shape and redefine the course of history.
2. The Power of Unity and Collaboration Across Diverse Cultures
Shannon’s narrative is set in a world divided by geographical and ideological differences, yet it underscores the necessity of unity in the face of a common threat.
The novel meticulously portrays the complexities of international politics and the misunderstandings that can arise from cultural differences. However, it ultimately champions the idea that collaboration and understanding across these divides are vital for overcoming great challenges.
This theme is exemplified by the alliance formed between the East, West, and South to combat the Nameless One.
The characters’ journey towards mutual respect and cooperation mirrors real-world issues of globalism and cross-cultural alliances, making it a relevant and thought-provoking theme.
3. The Importance of Challenging Established Beliefs and Traditions
Throughout the book, characters are often confronted with situations that force them to question long-held beliefs and traditions.
This theme is crucial in a world where myths, legends, and historical narratives shape societal norms and political decisions.
Characters like Ead and Tané must navigate a path between reverence for their cultures and the need to challenge outdated or harmful practices.
The revelation about the true nature of the Berethnet lineage and the history of the Nameless One exemplifies this, as it forces characters and entire nations to reevaluate their histories and beliefs.
This theme highlights the importance of critical thinking and the willingness to embrace change, even when it means overturning deeply ingrained norms and expectations.
“The Priory of the Orange Tree” is a masterful blend of intricate world-building, deep characterization, and thematic richness.
Samantha Shannon has created a compelling universe that subverts traditional fantasy tropes, offering a fresh perspective on dragons, magic, and heroism. The novel’s focus on female empowerment, queer representation, and the unification of divided realms resonates powerfully in today’s world.
Its blend of action, intrigue, and emotional depth makes it a standout in the fantasy genre, offering readers a thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable journey.