How lovely it’s been over the past year to encounter books that proved to be precisely what I needed when I needed them, as if they’d been designed for me. Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver and Juliet Marillier’s Den of Wolves suited my ever-greedy taste for resourceful female protagonists in vividly detailed fairytale settings. Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand satisfied my longing for unique magic systems, magical female leads, and slow-burn romance. Just after I turned fifty, Robert Jackson’s City of Blades introduced me to Turyin Mulaghesh, a tough-as-nails, take-no-crap fiftysomething protagonist. And Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and Margaret Rogerson’s Sorcery of Thorns have reminded me why I still enjoy reading YA — because a well-told story is always worth reading, regardless of the age of its target audience.
Yet I do believe Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree tops them all, since within its 800+ pages it manages to include nearly everything I love to see in fantasy. If it isn’t a part of next year’s Hugo Awards conversation, I’ll be most displeased.
Shannon’s epic tale takes us into a world divided by dragons. In the West, dragons are chaotic evil, fire-breathing destroyers, the worst of which is prophesied to emerge soon from his thousand-year imprisonment to put an end to all humankind. In the East, dragons are benevolent water-creatures who interact with humans and are worshiped as gods. West and East do not trade or negotiate with each other or even interact at all, as Westerners see the Easterners’ dragon-worship as anathema. (“Wyrm-lover” is a favorite slur.) Yet the Easterners and their dragons may be all that stands between the Westerners and their destruction at the claws of the terrible “Nameless One” once he rises again. At the heart of this story is the growth of understanding and acceptance among different peoples with different beliefs.
The narrative centers on four point-of-view characters, all complex and notably flawed. There is Niclays Roos, a disgraced alchemist exiled to the East; a bitter man whose great love is long dead, he thinks first and foremost of himself. There is Tane’ Miduchi, a lower-class Eastern woman determined to rise to the rank of dragonrider, whose ambition leads her to make a mistake that costs her dear. There is Arteloth Beck, a sunny-natured Western nobleman who discovers over the course of the story that everything he’s been taught to believe is wrong. And there is my favorite, Ead Duryan, a magically gifted priestess of the South, sent to guard and spy on the monarch of the Western nation of Inys, Queen Sabran. Ead’s religious faith is at odds with the dominant religion of Inys, and she’s forced to pretend to be a “convert” to win and maintain her position at court. But while she holds true to her beliefs, she finds herself falling in love with the beautiful Queen and challenging the isolationist outlook of her order, the titular Priory.
Slow-burn romance? Check. Ead and Sabran move toward each other gradually, and their growing attraction is effectively detailed. Yet the romance plot doesn’t swallow either character whole, and their goals do not begin and end with winning each other’s love. Another check.
Female friendships? Check. Here you’ll find nary a trace of girl-on-girl hate. Ead may be an outsider, but she forges lasting friendships with other women at Sabran’s court, particularly Arteloth’s sister Margret.
Male-female friendships? Check. Ead and Arteloth are close — he’s also a good friend to Sabran — and one of the few people Niclays Roos comes to care about is Laya, his fellow captive on a pirate ship. (A note on Laya: she’s the only sympathetic portrayal of an older woman in the novel. I hate to nitpick about my favorite book of the year, but the one thing that bothered me was that there are four irredeemable major human villains in the cast, and every one is an older woman.)
Female power presented sympathetically? Check. Female leaders are both good (not only Sabran but other female monarchs in the West) and evil (a pirate queen, a vengeful witch, a bigoted Duchess, and the current Prioress of the Orange Tree, who’s willing to let the world burn if her corner of it can remain safe). But whether they prove good or evil, their right to lead is never questioned on the basis of gender.
Female heroes? Check, in a big way. Ead and Tane’ consistently get back on their feet when they’re knocked down, and both are vital at the climax.
Detailed world-building? Check, with landscapes, customs, and religion coming to vivid life.
Diversity? Check, with a variety of races (don’t assume everyone, or anyone, is white), and sexual orientations represented. Best of all, the usual racial and gender divisions don’t feature in the story’s conflicts. Shannon finds new and different ways to put her characters and their countries at odds.
In your reading this year, please don’t miss this one.