The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree has lesbians, dragons, and magic in an epic mix which crosses nations and seas to stop an evil 1000 years in the making. The political intrigue and religious clashes drive the actions of individuals and the fate of nations.

Reading this in the spring of 2020, it requires a content warning for plague and a country-wide quarantine, but while mentions of the plague are frequent, depictions of it occur sparsely and can easily be skipped without distorting the story. Please take care of yourselves.

I love doorstoppers, especially fantasy doorstoppers with dragons, thousand-year cycles, curses, betrayal, intrigue, murder, and magic. What I didn't expect, because I haven't been taught to expect it, was queer romance and complex intimacy in a fantasy novel. There's a breadth of queerness too; lost loves, forbidden loves, and as close to a canon asexual character as you can get without anachronistically using the term outright. I began the book very worried that it would become a "bury your gays" situation, but I was very glad to see that it was not.

Every narrator is unreliable, in a way, as they all are working from incomplete and contradictory information regarding some major historical events (and some personal ones). The way this is resolved was ingenious, and far more complex than one side or the other simply being incorrect about their own religious history.

The beginning felt a little slow, partly because there were so many characters and settings to establish, but once I had a sense of the main players the story flew by. The political intrigue was detailed and multi-faceted, the various sets of power dynamics were well-constructed. Even for characters I didn't know well, their actions made sense within the politics that I did know, without needing dramatic monologues explaining their motives. This allowed the few Big Damn Villain speeches to carry weight, as the impact hadn't been blunted on minor reveals of petty (and not so petty) antagonists.

Overall I liked this book a lot, and while I don't know if it's one I would re-read soon, it's definitely one I'd recommend to anyone looking for dragon-filled fantasy with excellent depictions of queerness.

CW for plague, death.


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