Back in the 1950s, J.R.R. Tolkien’s publisher made a notable change to the book that would become his magnum opus. Instead of the lengthy single volume that he intended, The Lord of the Rings was broken into three volumes, each of which contained two “books.” Since then, the trilogy has become something of an expectation in high fantasy—three books are almost always considered better than one, it seems. And it isn’t always trilogies: British author Samantha Shannon is currently midway through her own stab at that other beloved fantasy format, the seven-book epic.
Yet with her latest book, The Priory of the Orange Tree, Shannon upends the precedent, delivering readers a complex, intricate, and complete high fantasy story in one gravid volume, itself containing six internal books. It is a tale wide in scope and deep with history, the kind that keeps you reading well into the night, the action building and growing into a great flight of dragons.
This is what everyone knows: a thousand years ago, the world was threatened and nearly destroyed by a fire-breathing dragon known only as the Nameless One. The Nameless One and his draconic horde were defeated and forced into the Abyss, where they slumber. The Nameless One is prophesied to rise again.
Beyond that, there is very little consensus. The countries of Virtudom claim to be descended from Saint Galian Berethnet, who rescued the princess Cleolind and defeated the dragon. Virtudom counts its ruler, Queen Sabran IX, back to Cleolind and Galian, and the founding myth holds that the Nameless One will be held at bay as long as the royal line holds. The titular Priory has an altogether different take on the relationship between Cleolind and Galian: Cleolind was self-rescuing, and not the consort of Galian; it was she who founded the Priory.
While the people of the Priory take a dim view of Virtudom’s founding myth, they are nonetheless committed to help maintain the Queendom and the line of succession. Probably the Nameless One is not kept at bay by Sabran’s continued rule, but certainly, if Virtudom were to fall into chaos after the failure of the royal line, humanity would lose an important bulwark against the awakening dragon threat.
In the East, on the other side of the world, people revere dragons, though these are beasts of a different sort: water-based, instead of fire-breathing. The Seiikinese train a special few to bond with their dragons and become Riders. It is their belief that a comet forced the Nameless One into dormancy in a cycle that balances water and fire, earth and sky.
The recent past and the complex interpersonal webs that bind the many characters (there is a lengthy index to help you keep them all straight) feel textured and real. The book follows a web of people bound to one another by both duty and duress, enmity and amity. In the East, and on the eve of the trials that may advance her to dragonrider, Tané Miduchi breaks a prohibition against outsiders by helping a young traveler from Virtudom to avoid the authorities. This act of largely self-serving kindness (the trials would certainly be postponed if the stranger were discovered) sets her on a path to collide with Niclays Roos, an exile from Virtudom who has lived the last decade on the doorstep of the East, a small trading post where foreigners must wait for unlikely passage into Seiiki.
In Virtudom, Sabran IX is protected by Ead Duryan, an agent of the Priory who has been inserted into the royal chambers as a handmaiden and helpmeet. The threats she is facing are both human and draconic, and Ead must use both her wits and training and a sort of magic forbidden in Virtudom to keep the queen safe. Another exile from Sabran’s court, Lord Arteloth, investigates why the country of Yscalin, once a part of Virtudom, has thrown in with the fire-breathing dragons against the rest of humanity, declaring itself a “Draconic Realm.”
The opening half lays out the world and its people in with a careful hand, and at a measured pace. While there is an inkling that the awakening of the Nameless One is nigh—wyvern attacks, rumors of outbreaks of a draconic plague—the threat feels remote and unreal; a spectre like climate change, always circling on leathery wings. It’s understandable: a thousand years is a very long time, and while no one doubts the existence of the Nameless One, the lack of consensus on even the nature of dragons keeps the different peoples of the world focuses more closely on their local concerns, and not on the terrible awakening of a historical enemy. There are a few thrilling glimpses of dragons—both the water and fire varieties—in these early sections to tide you over until the real fireworks begin.
After an almost languorous opening, The Priory of the Orange Tree picks up steam as agents of the Nameless One begin to assert themselves in unequivocal terms. After so detailed a beginning, the second half can feel a little rushed, as all these so carefully placed pieces inexorably begin to coalesce and collide. Yet though the magic and dragons the novel concerns itself with are traditional to high fantasy in many ways—from their influence on prophesy to the drama of the court—Shannon often defies expectations, from influences to consequences, in ways that make tradition feel fresh and new.