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.

Advertisements

Book Review: Blanca & Roja

blanca rojaBlanca & Roja
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Young Adult/Fantasy/Magical Realism
375 pages
Published October 2018

This is another enchanting tale from the author of The Weight of Feathers. She’s a little different from my normal fairy-tale retellings, as these are inspired by fairy tales, and have the atmosphere of fairy tales, but aren’t recognizably any particular tale, and definitely don’t follow the normal plot of an particular tale. We know the story of Snow White and Rose Red. This isn’t it. We know the story of the Swan Princess or Swan Prince. This isn’t it. It has elements of both stories. But it is something entirely new and absolutely enthralling.

The story also has minority representation; both girls are Latina, and we have a nonbinary love interest for one of the girls, who is a fascinating character in her own right. (She expresses preference for she/her pronouns in the book.) The other love interest is seeing-impaired. He’s not blind, but he has a lot of issues with depth perception, so he’s constantly running into things and misjudging where things are.

Blanca & Roja grow up in a family where there are always two daughters, and as soon as the youngest turns fifteen, a bevy of swans shows up and picks one of the sisters to become a swan and join them. When past sisters have resisted, the swans have taken both. Blanca & Roja love each other so much, though, that they can’t imagine living without the other. So they try to become as indistinguishable from each other as possible, in the hopes that the swans won’t be able to decide between them and leave them both alone. Blanca drinks bitter things and feeds Roja sweets, eats red rose petals and feeds Roja white ones, each doing the opposite of their personality to bring them closer together. That, of course, doesn’t work.

But when the swans finally do come, it’s after a local boy and his best friend have gone missing in the woods, and the two teens have gotten their lives entwined with Blanca & Roja’s. The magic surrounding them collides with the magic surrounding the sisters, and the story you expect is not the one you get.

At this point, I will read anything McLemore publishes, because she is outstanding. Her novels are magical, lyrical, and atmospheric, melding fairy tales into shiny new stories. I can’t rave about this author enough!

From the cover of Blanca & Roja:

THE BIGGEST LIE OF ALL IS THE STORY YOU THINK YOU ALREADY KNOW.

The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters – they’re also rivals and opposites, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them.

Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

Book Review: The Weight of Feathers

the weight of feathersThe Weight of Feathers
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Young Adult/Romance/Shakespeare Retelling
308 pages
Published 2015

The Weight of Feathers is a Romeo and Juliet story, with two families feuding over real and imagined slights, and a young person from each family falling in love and fighting their conditioning and the control of their families to be together. McLemore has added a touch of magic to the story, but it’s deft enough that at first it can be mistaken for metaphor.

Lace Paloma is the Palomas’ youngest mermaid, only just allowed to show herself in the shows, but not yet allowed to interact with fans. A big part of their performance is not being seen out of the water, out of costume, so when the show is over, all the mermaids swim off to deserted edges of the lake they perform in to exit, change, and make their way home. On her way home after one such performance, Lace is caught in the woods when some kind of acid rain from the nearby adhesive plant coats the town. While somewhat caustic, the rain is really only dangerous if it hits cotton clothing, which Lace is wearing. One of the Corbeau boys finds her in the woods, rips off her cotton clothing, and gets her to the hospital. Because she was in her normal clothing and not her costume, he didn’t realize she was part of the rival family. This meeting and rescue is not actually the start of their contact with each other; they’d talked briefly in town, when each thought the other was a local, but it does turn it from a passing contact to something more, and when Lace is spurned by her family, she winds up under the Corbeau boy’s protection.

The book is about family secrets, corporate conspiracies, abusive families, and control of one’s own destiny, swirled together with a touch of magic, feathers, and mermaid scales. While it is definitely a Romeo and Juliet story, McLemore has taken the story and truly made it her own. Both the Paloma family and the Corbeau family have such a mythology woven about themselves that each family really has an identity that defines them. (Feathers and “flying” for the Corbeaus, scales and swimming for the Palomas.) When Lace and Cluck try to bridge the gap between the two, things get difficult.

I really loved this book, and it has made me even more eager to read Blanca & Roja, McLemore’s next book. Her writing is gorgeous and surreal and I love it.

From the cover of The Weight of Feathers:

The Palomas and the Corbeaus have long been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for more than a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows – the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.

Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she’s been taught since birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep could be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees. 

Beautifully written and richly imaginative, The Weight of Feathers is an utterly captivating young adult novel by a talented new voice.

Book Review: For A Muse Of Fire

for a muse of fireFor A Muse Of Fire
by Heidi Heilig
Young Adult/Fantasy
494 pages
Published September 2018

I’m starting to realize I might have a thing for lady necromancers. They’re the right kind of dark, badass, I’m-going-to-do-the-right-thing-even-if-you-don’t-understand-it amazing women that I love. From Tea in The Bone Witch trilogy to Odessa in Reign of the Fallen to Jetta in this book, these women are amazing. I have one more lady necromancer book out from the library right now, Give The Dark My Love, and I hope it lives up to the rest of these women!

So in For A Muse of Fire, we have Jetta, with amazing powers but also with what she refers to as her malheur – she’s bipolar. She and her parents are traveling to another country to seek a cure for it, but in their journeys they wind up in the middle of a rebellion. Her powers let her see wandering spirits, bind them to physical objects, and command them. In this way, she’s made shadow puppets that don’t require strings or sticks, and her family has a small amount of fame as the best shadow puppeteers in the region.

We learn secrets about Jetta’s family, ancestry, and just how far her powers can go, while she fights off army deserters, generals, smugglers, and ghosts. She imbues unexpected objects with unexpected spirits (one such instance being the best scene in the book, in my opinion).

I can’t wait for the next book. Jetta is maturing into her powers and deciding what to do with them, and once she makes up her mind the world is going to shudder at her feet.

From the cover of For A Muse Of Fire:

Never show. Never tell.

Jetta’s secret has kept her family from starving. It has made them the most famed troupe of shadow players in Chakrana. With Jetta behind the scrim, their puppets move without stick or string.

Never show. Never tell.

With a drop of blood, Jetta can bind wandering spirits to the silk or wood or leather of the puppets and bring them to life. But the old ways are forbidden. If anyone discovered her ability, Jetta could be thrown in prison and left to rot – or worse.

Never show. Never tell.

As rebellion swells and desperation builds, Jetta’s power becomes harder and harder to hide. Especially from Leo, the young smuggler with sharp eyes and secrets of his own. When he and Jetta capture the notice of both the army and the rebels, she may be the spark that lights the rebellion . . . if she isn’t consumed by the flame first.

Book Review: Of Fire and Stars

of fire and starsOf Fire And Stars
by Audrey Coulthurst
Young Adult/Fantasy
389 pages
Published 2016

Having read the prequel to this book already, I can see why a lot of people complained about the lack of worldbuilding. Even though the prequel is based in a neighboring country, there’s a lot in this book that I understood based on events in Inkmistress. I definitely recommend reading that one first.

That said, I enjoyed this book a lot. I think Inkmistress is better, but that happens often with new authors. I think the sequel, Of Ice and Shadows, due out this summer, will probably be even better, and should bring the events of the previous two books together.

Like Inkmistress, bisexuality seems to be absolutely normal in Denna’s country, with Denna not expressing a preference, Mare having had male and female lovers, and one of Denna’s ladies having a female lover. (There is a brief mention of a gay couple as well.) I do wish nonbinary people would make an appearance, but it’s something, at least.

There are a lot of twists and turns to the plot in this book, so while Inkmistress was fairly straightforward, this one took me by surprise multiple times. It also makes it much harder to talk about the plot without giving anything away!

I wish we’d discovered more about the King’s council – several members of it seemed to have ulterior motives but we never got to see what those were. If we knew their motivations, some things might make a lot more sense and be a lot more satisfying.

Read Inkmistress. If you like the world, go ahead and read this book, because the events of this will be necessary to understand the third book, which takes us back to the country featured in Inkmistress. And I want to know more about that country!

From the cover of Of Fire And Stars:

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile nations. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire – a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses – and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine – called Mare – the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms – and each other.

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.