Audiobook Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

If you love fire-breathing dragons, spirited queens, and worlds that will tear open your beating heart, rearrange its molecules and spit it back out, then The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon is for you.

This rollicking fantasy ride combines the best of George R.R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey, and Lian Hearn, with touches of the magic that rival Harry Potter for grownups. And while you may not believe it, the audio version is even better than the written.

Mostly due to the awe-inspiring talent of British voice actress Liyah Summers. Not only are her own tones and accent soothing as a narrative choice, Summers is incredibly good at creating a wide range of other accents. For a book set in a sweeping global stage (as we shall soon see), this is important indeed. Summers brings a richness and diversity to the characters of this mythical world, with dialectical riffs on Jamaican, Chinese, North African and American accents – among others. The result is a storyline that becomes much easier to track, which is no small feat given its breadth. The audio is clean, with no distracting background noise, static or obvious splices. As far as listening experiences go, this one is tops, and certainly equal to the brilliant universe Shannon has created.

The setting: A divided world in which the Western courts worship virtue and revile all dragons, while the Eastern courts detest fire-breathers but love their own water dragons, whom they view as gods on Earth. This state of affairs has reigned for centuries … but now a new power is rising. Or rather, an old one. The Nameless One, father of fire-breathing dragons and all-around baddie, is returning after a thousand years. And this time, he’ll destroy everything and everyone.

In the court of Inys, Sabran Berethnet stands for all that is opposed to the Nameless One. Legend has it that her bloodline – one daughter per generation, queen after queen – are what keep the dragons chained. But Ead Duryan, a foreign lady-in-waiting, knows this isn’t true.

It is magic that keeps the dragons bound, and that magic is waning. It is not gone, though, as her membership in The Priory of the Orange Tree attests. The magical order is sworn to defend the Earth against dragons, and Ead will do everything in her power to see that Sabran is protected and the defenses never fall. Which, what with assassins and wyverns haunting the land, is getting harder and harder to do.

At the opposite side of the world, young Tané is training to realize her lifelong dream of becoming a dragonrider. But she too is dogged by unwanted presences in her life, specifically Westerners that come bearing ill tidings and a dangerous plague. When she is forced to make a brutal choice, everything she loves and values is swept from under her feet. Only the threat of harm to her beautiful dragon keeps her going.

As the East and West deal with their separate struggles and resolutely refuse to speak to one another, the Nameless One grows stronger. Will they make an alliance in time, or will he sweep the world under his fiery lash?

It hardly needs saying that this story is epic in scope, but it is also imagined in every detail and peopled with a range of good, bad and ugly characters that are so true to life you almost recognize them. Shannon is a master storyteller, weaving together plot threads that at first feel so disconnected, you’d never imagine they could relate. Just when you’ve lost the path, she weaves storylines back together in a way that can only be considered obvious. Except … not, because you never saw it coming.

Overall, this was a read for the ages. The tale loses points only due to its sometimes-myopic insistence on detail at the expense of action, and for a few characters who were so resolutely unsavory as to be almost unbelievable. But hey, it’s fantasy. Indeed, it’s one fantastic ride, so pick it up today!

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