In an increasingly turbulent world, we look increasingly towards the extended metaphors of speculative fiction to voice inconvenient truths and audacious hopes about our own lives and times. In fiction, cloaked in the archetypes of Shadow, Mentor, Goddess, and Hero, we can utter the “J’accuse!”s to those who have abused their power, and answer the cravings of those who hunger and thirst for justice. In the mid-90s and early 2000s the Harry Potter books and films struck a chord with Millenials who grew in real time with the characters as the franchise released new installments, and took to heart its messages about speaking truth to power and protesting for worthy causes. In the 2010s, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its television adaptation, “Game of Thrones” touched a chord with audiences who saw the contemporary political climate reflected in the machinations of conniving royal houses like the Lannisters.
Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree has an optimistic, reconciliatory vision, and tells a story of a divided world coming together to face and defeat a common enemy. The world that the novel depicts, like that of A Song of Ice and Fire, is one divided between East and West. The cultures and religions of the two regions are at odds, and a trade ban meant to keep a deadly plague at bay closes them to each other diplomatically. Queen Sabran Berethnet rules the Western nation Inys, and is the current dynastic head of a matriarchal lineage of queens. Legend holds that if the Berethnet dynasty ends, the dreaded dragon whom Sabran’s ancestor Galian Berethnet allegedly defeated will rise again.
Although this legend has never been tested, Ead has been sent from the eponymous Priory of the Orange Tree, a holy order of dragonslaying assassins, to the royal court of Inys to masquerade as a lady in waiting and guard the queen from harm just in case. In the midst of foiling an assassination plot against Sabran, the headstrong, magic wielding, dragon-slaying warrior from the desert regions falls in love with the queen. Sabran is icy and prickly at first, but over time both Ead and the reader see that beneath her hard shell is a young woman who never recovered from the murder of her mother, Queen Rosarian.
Although the love story between Sabran and Ead is the heart of The Priory of the Orange Tree, the book has a sprawling narrative, a big cast of characters, and the action unfolds across the West, South, and East as each character and their story converges. The dragon, called The Nameless One, and his army of dragons is rising again, and the rumbles of war are being felt in the West, South, and East. While the war against the Nameless One builds throughout the book to an epic climax in the final chapters, it is religious conflicts that keep these characters and their worlds apart and at odds for most of the novel.
Religious Conflicts in The Priory of the Orange Tree
The Inysh, and their Western neighbors and allies, believe that the knight Galian Berethnet traveled from Inys to the South to Ead’s mother country Lasia and slew the Nameless One. In the process he rescued a Lasian princess, Cleolind, who became his wife and queen. Galian, Cleolind, and Galian’s retinue of knights are worshiped as patron saints in the religion of the West, Virtudom.
However, in the South this is seen as a heresy. They believe that Cleolind was the founder of the Priory, and it was she who slew the dragon. While both South and West revile dragons, seeing them all as malicious after the Nameless One and his hordes ravaged the world with fire, the East reveres water dragons and worships them as deities.
These differences in belief are hurdles that cause distrust and conflict between friends, lovers, travel companions, and potential allies. As the secrets of Galian Berethnet’s true history unravel, tying back into the search for magical artifacts that will defeat the enemy, the characters have to discuss their differences in belief and forge new, unprecedented inroads of tolerance as their world opens. The survival of the world depends on rulers, nations, and cultures that have been at odds coming together to grapple with their history and cooperate to face the threats of the present, and these larger alliances begin with and mirror the compromises, confessions, and changes of heart that happen one on one.
This hopeful vision sets the novel apart from the very cynicism that struck a chord with “Game of Thrones” audiences and readers of A Song of Ice and Fire. In Shannon’s world, her characters call for a reform of their world and put their ‘money where their mouth is’ by reforming their own beliefs. They invest in saving their world, making their world better, and also conducting their personal relationships with communication and acceptance. Rather than a mirror of a world gone wrong, Shannon’s epic fantasy depicts her characters drawing and building from a blueprint for a new, better world.
Morally Complex Characters
Her characters are also morally complex, their contradictions, errors, and flaws given narrative acknowledgement and touched with grace and redemption. There can be no redemption without a fall, and each character in Priory struggles with their moral compass.
While the Harry Potter books advocated radical action and grassroots organizing to route out malevolent forces and their power in society, it left some of its heroes’ contradictions unexplained and unexplored. While, decades after the last sentence of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, fans remain passionately divided over the true loyalties of Severus Snape, the contradictions of beloved antihero Sirius Black did not receive the same in-text exploration. Although he advised Harry and his friends to discern a man’s character from how he treats those considered socially inferior to him, by his own template Sirius’s behavior towards his house-elf Kreacher paints a damning, hypocritical picture of Sirius’s own character. Remus Lupin, one of Harry’s most beloved teachers, sensitive to the needs of even his most timid students like Neville Longbottom, initially ran from fatherhood. These contradictions are given little narrative attention.
Shannon, however, does not shy away from the great contradictions in her characters’ actions, and the tragic consequences of them. Niclays Roos, an alchemist banished from the West by Sabran, struggles with moral indifference, apathy, self interest and cowardice throughout the novel, and finds honor only through confronting the shadows of his past and sacrificing himself for a friend. Tane, an aspiring dragon rider, kicks off the action of the book with a reckless action that leads to the death of someone she loves.
Sabran’s own personality and action veer wildly from rigid and vindictive to forward-thinking and earnest. Love and loss change her, making her whole where she was once held back by childhood fears, grief, and the manipulation of others, and shaping her into a better queen fit for a golden age. By not shying away from the pain that influences her characters, and the pain they cause, Shannon grounds her novel of dragons, magic, pirates, kings, queens, and warriors in the relatable dual nature of the human heart.
The Priory of the Orange Tree is an intricately plotted, boldly written work which draws from myth and history to depict a world where good defeats evil through putting aside ancient grudges and sociocultural rifts. The characters all take daunting journeys both inside and out, transforming themselves and their world.
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