This was one of those awesome accidents, a book that I had never heard of until I picked it up off a shelf at Barnes and Noble, mostly because it was a giant, intimidating (800+ pages) doorstop of a book with a cool cover and an intriguing title and, finding myself still thinking about it, ordered it a few days later. I wasn’t familiar with Samantha Shannon’s previous work, and the notion of a one-volume epic fantasy sounded like a nice change of pace even if that one-volume was, on its own, enormous.
The basic plot is, I’ll admit, a touch on the pedestrian side: an Ancient Evil is about to awaken, and once it does, well … it’s gonna be bad, in the way Ancient Evils typically are. I mean, you don’t get to be an Ancient Evil unless you’re planning on upsetting a few apple-carts once in a while, if you know what I mean. It’s in everyone’s best interest if the Ancient Evil is prevented from waking up. That’s just kind of a given.
Where The Priory of the Orange Tree shines is how it’s about that admittedly seen-it-before premise. First of all, the action is literally worldwide. Each of the four main characters is from a different culture and a different country, and many of them do not begin interacting with one another directly until the last third or so of the book. Second, the role of religion in the book is really interesting. The Nameless One (its actual name, which … whatever) was locked away a thousand years ago, and as it turns out the different cultures do not exactly agree on the precise order of events leading up to said locking away, and some of them have based their entire governing systems on a line of succession from someone who the other cultures don’t even see as legitimate. There is an Important Magic Sword; no one agrees on who made it or who wielded it, although there is general agreement that it was used to stab the Bad Guy, somewhat less effectively than one might have hoped. Various aspects of the actual truth are uncovered at various points throughout the story; most of the time, those truths end up pissing people off.
Oh, and most of the main characters are women and lots of them are gay.
And there are dragons. And spies, and a rather interesting magic system, and court intrigue on a couple of different continents, and a plague, and I spent about half the book wondering how in the hell everything was going to get wrapped up in a single volume and the other half wishing it didn’t, which I have to figure is a recommendation. I’d happily return to this world for more, to be honest, but if there isn’t ever a second volume it absolutely wraps itself up satisfyingly.
Thumbs up. I’ll be on the lookout for more Samantha Shannon in the future.