Book Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

priory of the orange treeThe Priory of the Orange Tree
by Samantha Shannon
Epic Fantasy
830 pages
Published February 2019

Holy COW, you guys. I keep saying “I haven’t read much epic fantasy lately” and “I don’t have time to read such long books/series” but I made an exception for Priory, and I’m SO glad I did. Just WOW.

So the basic premise of this world is that The Nameless One (some gigantic evil dragon) was locked away a thousand years ago, and all his minions with him. The exact details of how and who did it have been mostly lost to history. It’s said that as long as the House of Berethnet rules Inys, he’ll never rise again, and Berethnet queens always have one child, a daughter. The current queen, however, is unwed, and minions of The Nameless One have begun rising, and in fact have conquered a few neighboring nations. We have three main factions of countries; The East, who have dragon riders, but make a distinction between their dragons, who are aquatic and identify with the stars, and the evil minions of The Nameless One, who are full of fire. Then we have Virtudom, which is headed by Inys, and is a coalition of countries who have made a religion of the Knightly Virtues. This is the West, and they make no distinction between the draconic servants of The Nameless One and the water dragons of the East. This has forced a split between the West and the East, because Virtudom won’t have anything to do with countries that have anything to do with dragons, because most of what they see is the third faction – the Draconic countries. These are countries conquered by minions of the Nameless One, and they are full of chaos, fire, evil, and plague.

This is the world the book opens on. Most of our main characters – Queen Sabran, her handmaiden Ead, the dragonrider Tané – are women, but we also have Doctor Niclays Roos, an alchemist, and Lord Arteloth Beck, a friend of the Queen. In this world, women are just as capable as men, and are treated as such. There are female knights, and same-sex relationships are just as ordinary as opposite-sex ones. There is a bit too much moral emphasis placed on monogamy/sex within the bounds of marriage, but I guess that’s “Knightly Virtue” for you. Skin color is only mentioned a couple of times, but I seem to remember Lord Arteloth being described as very dark-skinned, and Ead as golden-brown. Rather nice to see a fantasy NOT all caught up in racial and gender differences. Not to say there isn’t a fair amount of bigotry, but in this book it’s based pretty much solely on nationality and religion. And when the biggest sticking point is “do you like evil dragons or not” that kind of makes sense!

I think the only thing I didn’t like about this book was its size. It’s unwieldy to read, at over 800 pages! I’m not sure why they didn’t break it into a duology. Regardless, if you have the choice, I’d read it on Kindle. It would be far easier to handle. I’m not complaining about the amount of text, mind you. Just the sheer physical size. I can’t imagine the story being told in less time. There’s So. Much. Here.

This book goes from Queen Sabran’s court to the dragonrider academy in the East, to the draconic kingdom of Yscalin, to the Abyss where the Nameless One sleeps. We see glittering courts, hidden islands, sweltering tunnels through volcanic mountains, and deep valleys with secret magic trees. We battle wyrms and cockatrices, swim through endless seas with dragonriders, sail through storms with pirate crews, and navigate the trickiest of diplomatic matters with courtiers. The Priory of the Orange Tree paints an elaborate, incredibly complex world and I am absolutely here for it.

Okay, so one tiny quibble – while I liked the romance, I feel like it started kind of oddly. I didn’t see any reason for the initial spark. From there, it progressed perfectly, but I just didn’t get the beginning.

This book has multiple queer couples! There’s at least one same-sex couple mentioned as attending a party; Doctor Roos spends a lot of time mourning his dead lover, and there’s the lesbian romance between a couple of main characters. And one character has at least strong affection for a man before falling in love with a woman; I think she was in love with both. No trans or ace rep, but plenty of gay, lesbian, and bi!

This is hands-down the best book I’ve read so far this year. It took me three days – it’s a big book – but it is absolutely fantastic.

From the cover of The Priory of the Orange Tree:

A WORLD DIVIDED.
A QUEENDOM WITHOUT AN HEIR.
AN ANCIENT ENEMY AWAKENS.

The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction – but assassins are getting closer to her door.

Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.

Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.

Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.

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Book Review: Fire & Heist

fire and heistFire & Heist
by Sarah Beth Durst
Contemporary Fantasy/Young Adult/Urban Fantasy
290 pages
Published December 2018

I picked this up off the library shelf for the title; I took it home for the description. Were-dragon thieves? Awesome. It turns out it’s not that simple. For one, the were-dragons have lost the ability to transform over the years – the last dragon to transform was Sir Francis Drake, and the book is set in modern times, so, at least a couple hundred years have passed. And humans know the were-dragons exist! I suppose without the ability to transform, they’re little more than rich celebrities with parlor tricks. (Immune to fire to certain temperatures, ability to breathe fire.) What humans don’t know is how much the wyverns tend to steal to enrich their hoards. And that some of them can do limited magic.

We open on Sky, sixteen, rattling around her mansion, dealing with her now dysfunctional family of three brothers and their father. Her mother went missing not very long ago, during a heist. The kids have been told she’s gone, she’s alive, she’s not coming back, and to drop the matter. Were-dragon society almost exiled all of them for whatever their mother got into, so they’re all on thin ice. Sky, of course, is having none of this. When she stumbles on a lead for where her mother went, she pursues it, and learns all kinds of secrets.

The book was okay, I suppose. I was a little appalled at were-dragon society, and that the dragons just – bow to the authority of the Council. Dragons should have more spine. The heist part was pretty cool, with Sky and her friends figuring out how to take apart every layer of security piece by piece.

I don’t know. It was a fluffy book, but not a feel-good book, and I just wasn’t that enthused.

From the cover of Fire & Heist:

Leading your first heist is a major milestone in Sky Hawkins’s family – even more so than learning to talk, walk, or do long division. It’s a chance to gain power and acceptance within society. But stealing your first treasure can be complicated – especially when you’re a wyvern, a human capable of transforming into a dragon.

Embarking on a life of crime is never easy, and Sky’s mission uncovers deep secrets about the mother who recently went missing, the real reason her boyfriend broke up with her, and a valuable jewel that could restore her family’s wealth and rank in their community.

With a handpicked crew by her side, Sky knows she has everything she needs to complete her first heist – and get back the people she loves in the process. But instead, she ends up discovering a dark truth about were-dragon society – a truth that is more valuable and dangerous than gold or jewels could ever be.

Book Review: Damsel

damselDamsel
by Elana K. Arnold
Fantasy/Young Adult?!
309 pages
Published October 2018

Before I even get into this review.

CONTENT WARNING. DOMESTIC ABUSE. SEXUAL ASSAULT. ANIMAL ABUSE. GASLIGHTING. 

For all that, though, I loved this book. The protagonist suffers through all of that and perseveres. But it’s important to expect those things going into this book, because the central plot of the book is our protagonist being severely gaslit, with the rest of the abuse being in support of that. I agree with other Goodreads reviewers that it’s surprising it’s being marketed as a Young Adult book because these themes are VERY adult.

So. With those caveats, this book was outstanding. The book opens on Prince Emory riding his horse towards the castle of the dragon, intending to slay it and rescue his future wife, as his tradition in his kingdom. Emory seems to be your typical prince, accomplished, at ease with his sword, his horse, and himself, yet there is the occasional part of his inner narration that comes off…oddly. He enters the dragon’s castle, defeats the dragon, and leaves with his prize, a damsel who can remember nothing about herself or her past. A blank slate. Perfect for a queen-to-be.

But as Ama, so named by Emory, learns more about her new kingdom and future husband, and what her place will be, she realizes this is not what she wants. The more Emory tries to convince her that it IS what she wants, the more we get into the abuse factor of the book.

It’s very well done. It’s a dark fairy tale, it’s a consistent metaphor for – well, humanity’s treatment of women, really. Sit down, shut up, look pretty, and birth the next generation. You are important because only you can do that, but don’t let it give you uppity ideas. All that kind of patronizing misogyny.

I really loved this book, but it’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and the triggers might be too much for some of the people who WOULD otherwise like it. So know that going in.

From the cover of Damsel:

THE RITE HAS EXISTED FOR AS LONG AS ANYONE CAN REMEMBER

When the king dies, his son the prince must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon or what horrors she faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome young man, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny of sitting on a throne beside him. It’s all like a dream, like something from a fairy tale.

As Ama follows Emory to the kingdom of Harding, however, she discovers that not all is as it seems. There is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows, and the greatest threats may not be behind her but around her, now, and closing in.

Elana K. Arnold, author of the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, has written a twisted and unforgettable fairy tale, one that is set at the incendiary point where power, oppression, and choice meet.

Book Review: Inkmistress

inkmistressInkmistress
by Audrey Coulthurst
Young Adult/Fantasy
392 pages
Published March 2018

As I mentioned on Friday, this book is the prequel to Of Fire and Stars, so I read it first, even though it was published second. I prefer to read in chronological order when I can.

Inkmistress follows Asra, a demigod of unknown parentage, as she first follows and then is chased by her lover-turned-dragon who is intent on vengeance for the destruction of her village. Her lover, Ina, is convinced it is the King’s fault that the village was destroyed, as he’s been letting bandits roam over the outer reaches of his kingdom unchecked. So after taking on the form of a dragon, she’s off to kill him to avenge her family. Asra is trying to talk Ina out of it, and chases her across the country, from their remote mountain to the inner forests and cities.

I really love Asra. Ina’s kind of a bitch, but Asra is loving and funny and just an awesome person, fighting to protect herself and those she loves, even as those she loves evolve and change past what she can hold onto. Her magic takes a terrible price if she uses it, both on her and on the rest of the world. She has to wrestle with so many unknowns – her parentage, her magic, the world off her mountain, politics, other demigods – and somehow she manages to land on her feet. (Though not without help!)

The romance is sweet, and I love the emphasis on chosen families. Both Asra and Ina appear to be bisexual, which also doesn’t appear to be unusual in this world. Reviews of Of Fire and Stars complain about the lack of worldbuilding, which is NOT a problem in this book. Perhaps I’ll have an easier time having read this book first; which is a bit of a problem – you shouldn’t have to read a prequel to understand the setting of the first book in a series! It does make me glad I’m reading them in this order, though.

I really loved this book. The urgency of the chase really came through in the story – Asra had to get to certain places and get certain things done before certain times, and obstacles thrown in her way made you worry she wouldn’t get things done in time. It was well-written, with good character development of Asra, at least, and great world-building.

From the cover of Inkmistress:

Asra is a demigod with a dangerous gift: the ability to dictate the future by writing with her blood. To keep her power secret, she leads a quiet life as a healer on a remote mountain, content to help the people in her care and spend time with Ina, the mortal girl she loves.

But Asra’s peaceful life is upended when bandits threaten Ina’s village and the king does nothing to help. Desperate to protect her people, Ina begs Asra for assistance in finding her manifest – the animal she’ll be able to change into as her rite of passage to adulthood. Asra uses her blood magic to help Ina, but her spell goes horribly wrong and the bandits destroy the village, killing Ina’s family.

Unaware that Asra is at fault, Ina swears revenge on the king and takes a savage dragon as her manifest. To stop her, Asra must embark on a journey across the kingdom, becoming a player in lethal games of power among assassins, gods, and even the king himself. Most frightening of all, she discovers the dark secrets of her own mysterious history – and the terribly, powerful legacy she carries in her blood.

A sweeping and romantic fantasy full of dangerous magic and dark choices, from the author of Of Fire And Stars.

Book Review: The Great Zoo of China

great zoo of chinaThe Great Zoo of China
by Matthew Reilly
Action/Thriller
393 pages
Published 2015

I don’t typically read thrillers, and I haven’t read Jurassic Park because the movie gave young me nightmares for YEARS. (I haven’t seen ANY of the sequels, it was that bad!) But this was billed as Jurassic Park but with DRAGONS. And dragon-themed ANYTHING gets my attention, so in the queue it went! And I am glad for it, because this book was awesome. From the first glimpse of dragons flying above the tourist area, to the moment when everything starts to go wrong, to racing through the pages to find out how our hero manages to survive, this book had me entranced. The action just careens through the swamps and mountains of the park, almost as out of control as the dragons CJ is running from. And while we know CJ has to survive, because she’s the main character, she has a brother, a little girl she’s taken under her protection, old colleagues, and countrymen that she could lose at any moment.

And the dragons. Oh my, the dragons. They come in three sizes – Princes, about the size of a small car, Kings, about city bus size, and Emperors. Emperors are the size of passenger jets. With creatures this size, the action is supersized, too! Picture dragons picking up garbage trucks and flinging them at buildings, and you’ve got the idea! These dragons are intelligent, too. They have a language, and can plan and set traps together. They are devious and DEADLY.

If the dragons weren’t enough, the story is also set in China. China is known for squashing dissent, and it’s no different with the zoo. No one outside the zoo knows about the dragons, and until they have things under control, and the zoo up and running, they can’t let anyone know about it. Which means any witnesses to this dragon rebellion need to die, whether to the claws of the dragons or the bullets of the Chinese military.

The Great (Dragon) Zoo of China is one heck of a ride, and the action is amazing. I think this is one of my favorites of the year. It’s also the fourth book on my Summer reading list.

From the cover of The Great Zoo of China:

Get ready for action on a gigantic scale.

It is a secret the Chinese government has been keeping for forty years. They have proven the existence of dragons – a landmark discovery no one could ever believe is real, and a scientific revelation that will amaze the world. Now the Chinese are ready to unveil their astonishing findings within the greatest zoo ever constructed.

A small group of VIPs and journalists has been brought to the zoo deep within China to see these fabulous creatures for the first time. Among them is Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron, a writer for National Geographic and an expert on reptiles. The visitors are assured by their Chinese hosts that they will be struck with wonder at these beasts, that the dragons are perfectly safe, and that nothing can go wrong.

Of course it can’t….

Series Review: The Memoirs of Lady Trent

a natural history of dragons lady trentA Natural History of Dragons / The Tropic of Serpents / Voyage of the Basilisk / In The Labyrinth of Drakes / Within the Sanctuary of Wings
by Marie Brennan
Fictional Memoirs
300-350 pages each
Published 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016 / 2017

I had been drooling over this series for quite some time. Every time I went to my local game store, I’d paw through their small fiction bookshelf, and these were always on it. I finally found the first four all at once at the library, and seized the chance. (I had to request the fifth.) I did not regret it. These are fantastic.

tropic of serpents lady trentThe Memoirs of Lady Trent, as one can expect, are told from the viewpoint of Isabella Camherst, who becomes Lady Trent partway through the books. (But since they are written as her memoirs, she is “remembering” back to her adventures before she became part of the peerage.) Lady Trent’s world is analogous to our own Victorian age, except they have dragons, and she is fascinated by them. In the first book, she maneuvers her husband, also an amateur scholar of dragons, into joining an expedition to go study mountain drakes, and manages to get herself brought along. That begins her career.

The representation in these books is excellent for the time period they are based on! In the second book we get an asexual character, who turns into a side character for much of the rest of the series. (In figuring herself out, she mentions she had also tried the affections of women before realizing she didn’t want that, either.) In the third we get a culture with a third gender, and mention from Lady Trent of men who love men back home.

lady trent voyage of the basiliskI actually quite enjoyed how these books treated other cultures. We see a lot of effects from Scirling (British) colonialism, but Lady Trent herself sees other cultures as interesting things to study and become part of temporarily, not as “savages” that need to be “civilized” (or just used) as so many Victorian-age naturalists did. (And, indeed, how the Scirling military sees them.) Her ultimate goal is always the dragons, but if that means becoming part of a jungle or island tribe, and tending camp and hunting and traveling as the villagers do, then that is what she does. I could see the argument for painting Lady Trent as a white savior figure, but if she wasn’t part of one of the dominant cultures in this world, she wouldn’t have the means or access for all the different adventures described in the books. I suppose she could have been Akhian or Yengalese. (Arabian or Chinese, respectively, the other two dominant cultures.) She also forms genuine friendships with the people she lives among, and tries to do her best by them.

I enjoyed the introduction of the Akhian archeologist, and how that helped pull the focus of the books a little bit more onto the ancient culture of Draconeans, who Lady Trent had been largely uninterested in before. He soon became one of my favorite characters, so I was quite happy to see the events of the fourth book take Lady Trent to Akhia.

The fifth book unveiled quite a few surprises. We get to learn a lot more about the Draconeans, which was really cool. They also presented a culture with allowance for group marriage; at one point a villager asks Lady Trent if all four men she’s travelling with are her husbands!

The five books altogether were a really interesting progression in the history of the study of dragons, and I quite enjoyed them. They were definitely unique.

From the cover of A Natural History of Dragons:

Marie Brennan begins a thrilling new fantasy series in A Natural History of Dragons, combining adventure with the inquisitive spirit of the Victorian Age.

“You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .”

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.