Why You Need to Read: “The Priory of the Orange Tree”

The Priory of the Orange Tree

By: Samantha Shannon                                    Audiobook: 25 hours 52 minutes

Published: February 26, 2019                          Narrated by: Liyah Summers

Genre: Epic Fantasy

            A low growl rolled through Nayimathun. She spoke as if to herself. “He is stirring. The shadow lies heavy on the West,” (Chapter 25, East).

            Avid readers—especially those who read history, biographies and memoirs, and speculative fiction—do not fear tackling “long” books. In fact, many readers get upset when a long book is about to come to an end. Then, there are “long” books in which readers ask themselves, “how am I going to get through this?” This is what I asked myself when I heard about The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. This 800+ page book was declared “one of the Best of 2019,” and other readers who have managed to finish the book had nothing but positive things to say about it. First, I borrowed the standalone novel from my library and started to read it. However, I knew I would need more than 2 weeks to read this book (library policy). So, I bought the eBook—when it was on sale—and I kept reading. Yet, I felt I wasn’t reading it at my usual pace. So then, I bought the audiobook and started listening to it from the beginning. It took me two months, but I enjoyed every minute of it! And, I bought the printed edition because I wanted my own hardcopy edition of the book (and it was half off)! I don’t regret purchasing these editions of this novel! The Priory of the Orange Tree is Samantha Shannon’s epic fantasy novel about female leaders, dragons, conspiracies—both political and historical—imminent danger, and identity. Don’t allow the length of the story to intimidate you, this epic tale details everything that occurs throughout this fantasy adventure!

            Like most epic fantasies, there are several characters who are part of the story and play their roles. Yet, there are three protagonists who provide both the point-of-view and the connections both to the events and to several other main characters throughout the narrative. First, there is Tané, a poor orphan who is given the rare opportunity to train as a dragonrider. Overcoming the rigorous training and her destitute status, Tané is about to Test to become a dragonrider for her island home in the East. However, on the night before the Passage, an outsider washes on to the beach. Fearing that the outsider will cause a delay of the Tests—outsiders are quarantined in order to prevent any illnesses from spreading into the population— Tané hides the outsider at the home of a resident who is also not from the island. This leads to the second protagonist, Doctor Niclays Roos (a male) who resides in the East in exile after failing to please the Queen in the West. This Queen in the West, Sabran the Ninth of House Berethnet, has remained unwed since her coronation. This is a dilemma because one of her roles as queen is to bear a daughter in order to protect her kingdom from an ancient evil. However, Queen Sabran’s time consists of avoiding assassination attempts and suffering from vivid nightmares. But, she has allies. One of them is the third protagonist, Ead Duryan—one of the ladies-in-waiting to the Queen—who is really a member of a hidden society of mages whose mission centers around protecting the royal bloodline of House Berethnet, and the entire world, from Armageddon. These protagonists are rounded—they have strengths and weaknesses, they are selfish and sympathetic, they are motivated, and they are survivors—which make them believable to the readers as their narratives are presented to them. These protagonists are neither royalty nor the elite social class, which is relevant because they are able to maneuver through their societies with access to the knowledge and the information given to them by the upper class. At the same time, these protagonists are able to uncover the truth of the past for themselves and of their societies and the world they live in. And, it’s up to them to try and save it. Yet, out of the three protagonists, it is both Tané and Ead Duryan who demonstrate the most character development. Even though both women make mistakes and lose the trust of their friends and allies, they hold on to their convictions that danger is coming. Meanwhile, Doctor Niclays Roos decides to start up the same research that led to his exile. He doesn’t have anything to lose, but his experience is essential to the plot. Although, the band of characters make it difficult to keep track of at times, they appear and are mentioned enough for readers to recall who they are and their relationships to the protagonists and the other main characters. 

            The plot—similar to other fantasy and/or adventure tales—involves prophecies, magic and saving the world. About 1,000 years ago, heroes of the world defeated and sealed an ancient threat. However, the seal would break after a thousand years, so the heroes and the armies left and established new kingdoms—and secret orders—in order to prepare for the return of that ancient threat. Unfortunately, history becomes myth, and religion and legend with all sources of information becomes lost or altered. The story and the plot take place just as the 1,000 years are up, and the descendants are searching for a way to defeat the threat before it emerges. The subplots are how each of the four continents are preparing for Armageddon. Obviously, many do not believe or know that this event is about to occur. It takes time for the plot to develop because all of the subplots—from the introductions of the characters, the settings and the conflicts to the character development and the world-building—must develop alongside the plot. This is a slow, but an appropriate rate for the plots and the subplots to develop and to converge because this is a standalone novel. After the subplots have developed—not resolved—then the plot continues to develop on its own and at its own pace. 

            The narrative is told in present time and from the P.O.V.s of the protagonists. Each of the six parts of this story presents the stream-of-consciousness of Tané, Doctor Roos and Ead. This allows readers to comprehend the motives, the culture and the decisions they make throughout the story. Given that the protagonists have their desires and the events are happening in real-time, each part of the narrative is reliable because the revelations and the reactions are believable and the situations the characters find themselves in are because of the decisions and the demeanors of the characters. The narrative is easy to follow because of the step-by-step action and reaction narration presented to the readers. 

            The style Samantha Shannon uses for this novel is a combination of fantasy tropes, history, literature and folklore. In other words, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a reimagination of true events and culture. History and folklore such as Christianity, the Amazons, and dragons were influences for this novel. Historical moments and the literature that were written—the Crusades and stories such as The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley—are also found within the pages of the novel. The style the author uses for this story is not new; in fact, folklore and religion are often retellings of both history and culture. However, readers become aware of this while reading the story, but would they ever consider a similar possibility that the same thing could be possible with our life and culture? The mood of the novel is foreboding and callowness. The tone is what to do and how to handle information based on what actually took place and how the truth can remain hidden within all of the stories, the mysteries, and the lies for hundreds of years. The tone and the mood work in tandem, but this plot device is revealed to the readers through a handful of characters who know the (actual) truth. This reflects reality because the truth of events is revealed to a select few of people (typically) and that is only when the truth surfaces (not always).

            The appeal of this novel have been noteworthy. The Priory of the Orange Tree was labeled “one of the Best Fantasy Books of 2019,” by numerous critics and fans of epic fantasy written by Jacqueline Carey and Brandon Sanderson or any standalone fantasy story will enjoy this book the most. As for the narration of the audiobook, Liyah Summers did a great job voicing all of the characters—male and female—without there being any confusion as to which character was speaking and the accents used for each dialect of speech. Her pacing of the narration worked for both the length of the novel and the given size of the world as hinted from the numerous locations. Liyah Summers was a great choice for this large narration and its large assembly of characters. 

            The Priory of the Orange Tree is an ambitious story of strong female characters, dragons and wyverns, magic, conspiracies, lost histories, and the end-of-the-world. Anyone who is familiar with epic fantasy stories should read this book; and, fans of fantasy and speculative fiction should not be daunted by the size of the book, but know that the story within it contains a world with rich characters whose lives are about to become interconnected for reasons lost to their histories. Not only will readers be satisfied with the narration up to the end, but also feel a sense of accomplishment for completing this amazing and adventurous fantasy story. Readers will find the time and a way to read this book as I did.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!! 

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “A Queen in Hiding”

The Nine Realms #1: A Queen in Hiding

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: January 21, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Coming-of-Age/Military Fantasy

            Though dusty sits the Nargis Throne

            While tyrants befoul and bluster;

            Though citizens do their yoke bemoan,

            And the Fountain’s lost its luster:

            Someday the drought shall be broken,

            And the wondrous Waters course clean,

            One dawn the words shall be spoken,

            As the long-lost heir becomes queen,

                                                                        (Epilogue, Cascada).

            Binge reading. It’s something some readers will do when the time comes for it. If a book in a popular series is about to be released, then fans will not just re-read, but binge read those books. This happens a lot with readers of comics, graphic novels and manga, but it occurs amongst fans and readers of other genres of literature as well. Within the fantasy genre, readers have and continue to binge read their favorite series, and it happens when the series has enough books for fans to pass their time with while waiting for the next book (i.e. Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.,). Yet, every once in a while, an author will put out several of their books within a short time frame so that fans and readers can read them all at once and they won’t lose track of the events of the story. Brent Weeks did it with his The Night Angel Trilogy(from what I’ve read online); and now, Sarah Kozloff is doing the same with her debut series, The Nine Realms. All four books in the series will be released within four consecutive months so readers don’t have to wait too long to learn what happens next. A Queen in Hiding is the first book in the series. 

            The novel begins with the central protagonist, Princella Cerúlia, who is eight years-old, and her mother, Queen Cressa, on a visit to Chronicler Sewell, the royal scriber and historian, for Cerúlia’s Definition—the moment when the future queen’s Talent (magical ability) manifests, and then announced throughout the kingdom of Weirandale. Queen Cressa is an Enchanter whose Talent involves gaining the truth from other people and alternating someone’s memories, and her late mother, Queen Catreena was known as “The Strategist” for being able to strategize her movements several steps ahead of her opponents. While Queen Cressa worries about her daughter’s future, she is dealing with grievances from the realm of Oromondia—which is dealing with drought and poisoned water—who accuses the Queen and Weirandale of sending poisoned food to them, which they did not do. After an assassination attempt on the royal family, the queen spirits her daughter away to the region of Wyndton. There the princella is disguised as an orphaned peasant and hidden with a family who is loyal to the throne. Cerúlia goes by the alias, Wren, the adopted daughter of Wilim and Stahlia, and sister to Percia. This happens because Cressa learns that her Lord Steward, Matwyck, arranged the assassination attempt in order to rule as Lord Regent through her daughter and then imprison her once she comes of age to rule by herself. Meanwhile, Sumroth leads an army from Oromondo through the other realms in order to obtain food and resources for Oromondia’s survival. At the same time, Thalen, the son of a potter, is accepted into the Scolairíum (a university) in the Free States where he divides his time between studying the subjects Earth and Water, and History and Diplomacy. Throughout the narrative, Cerúlia/Wren and Thalen are the protagonists who develop the most; not only because they demonstrate growth through their learning and maturity, but also because it is obvious that their stories are the most relevant to the entire series (so far). There are several minor characters who are essential to the story in their own ways: those whose remain faithful to the Nargis Throne, those who sided with Matwyck and his treachery, and Cerúlia’s foster family who remain oblivious to Wren’s true identity. These characters are just as heartwarming and memorable as the protagonists. 

            The plot of A Queen in Hiding is one that will carry throughout the entire The Nine Realms series. The Queen of Weirandale fled her kingdom with her daughter so that the Nargis Throne could not be usurped by her traitorous council. However, she is killed before she can reclaim the throne, which forces the princella to remain in exile in order to avoid capture by those who usurped the throne in the first place. The main storyline narrates the occurrence of the before and the after of the usurpation, which follows Queen Cressa’s campaign to reclaim the throne, Princella Cerúlia’s upbringing while in hiding, and the “Regency” of Lord Matwyck and the lengths he goes to in order to maintain power. There are several subplots within this novel and they’re all necessary for the plot and its development. This first is the threat of Oromondia and its army. Due to the land not being able to sustain life, the leaders decide to invade the Free States for their survival. At the same time, the fire priests who travel with the army act as the Spanish Inquisition and punish the denizens stating that their “lack of faith” caused the land to become uninhabitable. The next subplot is Thalen’s education at the Scolairíum. Thalen (and the readers) learn how each of the realms operate, why the Oromondos are invading the other realms, and why the lack of a Weirandale ruler is upsetting the balance of the world. The last subplot is how the lower-class denizens of Weirandale are handling the brutal regency of Lord Matwyck and how they avoid detection from other nobles—and how they continue to track down the princella—as they continue to hope and to prepare for the return of the new Queen. All of the subplots go at an appropriate rate with the plot, and the pacing is believable because all of these campaigns and events would develop over the course of several years. 

            The narrative is told from several points-of-view from both the protagonists and the other characters in a chronological sequence. As all of the events unfold, the narrative moves from character and setting to character and setting. This allows readers to know everything that is going on from each of the characters’ 1st person P.O.V.s and their stream-of-consciousness. Because of this flow of narration from character to character, readers are able to keep track of everything that happens within the story. In addition, readers can determine for themselves which characters’ motivations and actions are justified. 

            The style Sarah Kozloff uses for A Queen in Hiding follows the tropes and the traditions of epic fantasy with elements of reality that make the story more believable to her audience. The elements of magic and religion with the use of science and knowledge lets readers know that the author does not want either her characters or her readers to become too reliable on one factor of knowledge over the other one. This is similar to our world; science doesn’t explain everything, and different realms have different governments and cultural practices. The author’s word choice and sentence structure reflects the age, the level of education, and the location of each P.O.V. character. The author’s style for her characters and settings enriches her world and her story; and, the inclusion of science and military strategy—knowledge we take for granted—demonstrate realism and familiarity for the readers and any potential foreshadowing in the next book(s). The mood in A Queen in Hiding is chaos. Weirandale is without a queen and at the mercy of a tyrant, Oromondia believes conquest will ensure their survival, and all of the scholars and the students at the Scolairíum lack common sense when it comes to preparing for and to fighting against an army of invaders. The tone in this novel is the consequences and the results of chaos across all realms regardless of conflict and government. I should mention that I read a digital ARC of this book and there were no maps to be found in my edition of the book. They’re not necessary, but they would have been helpful to have them in the book. 

            Fans of other epic fantasy series such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Daevabad Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings and The Priory of the Orange Tree will enjoy this series the most. This is because A Queen in Hiding focuses on one main conflict and fantasy trope of “the missing heir” while exploring several other conflicts and world-building in other settings from the points-of-view of several other characters. And, there’s a bonus: each book will be released in consecutive months, so by April 2020, readers can read the entire quartet in one sitting! If the story moves at the same pace and uses the same style as in the first book, then the appeal for The Nine Realms will be a positive one. The time and the effort of the author to write this series and to convince the publisher, Tor, to release them all in consecutive months must be lauded because one, over 2,000 pages and God knows how many characters written and presented as one chronicle is an accomplishment all on its own; and two, I already plan (and want) to read the rest of the series, starting with Book 2, The Queen of Raiders

            A Queen in Hiding is a bold debut epic fantasy novel. Sarah Kozloff creates one world with nine realms and numerous characters and conflicts which are tethered in ways that keep the attention of the readers from beginning to end (of Book 1). By the time readers reach the end of this book, they will be pleased with the short waiting period for the next one, and the one after that, and the last one.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Lost Boy”

This episode has three parts. The first part mirrors the 2007 movie. Lyra, the Gyptians, Lee Scoresby, and Iorek Byrnison are traveling further North to “The Station” where the missing children are being held by the Magisterium. Farder Corum meets with Serafina Pekkala to discuss both the Magisterium and their love affair. It’s Serafina who describes the importance, and the threat, of both Lord Asriel and Dust. Lyra reads her alethiometer again and learns more about The Station and about a “ghost” in a nearby village. 

            The identity of the “ghost” is the same individual as it was in the 2007 movie. However, this is NOT the case in the books. I believe the studio(s) kept this change in order for the same emotional reaction(s) from Lyra, Lee Scoresby, the Gyptians, and the audience. The answer to the question of “what” the Magisterium is doing to the children has been answered, but the question “why” has not been answered, yet. The brutality of the power of the Magisterium has been revealed in the most devastating and heartbreaking way. 

            The second part is a prequel to the events of The Subtle Knife, the second book in His Dark Materials trilogy. This is not too much of a spoiler because the series has already received a second season; and, the scenes of Will Parry and his mother are NOT in the books. The man from the Magisterium has been staking out the house where both Will and his mother lives. After his “talk” with the mother triggers an episode, Will has to be the adult and take care of his mother. These scenes between Will and his mother reflect the reality of what many people who know and/or live with someone with mental health issues experience on a regular basis. 

            Will’s mother tells him a bit about his father. The expedition he was on when he disappeared and whatever was written to her in the letters Will’s father sent her. And, while Will’s mother’s mental health is sad to watch, we—the audience—know that she’s not as crazy as everyone else believes her to be. 

            The third part is the further explanation about daemons and their importance to the humans in Lyra’s world. Daemons are souls which are manifested outside of the human body. There is a reason that many people place “the soul” in such high regard, and Philip Pullman—regardless of him being an atheist—makes sure that his audience, both readers and viewers, comprehend this information. Lee Scoresby tells Lyra his reason for the Magisterium performing “intercission,” but similar to our world, things are not always that simple. Then again, the Magisterium cannot be allowed to commit such atrocities and expect to get away with them. 

            In all, Lyra’s discovery about both the motives of the Magisterium not only makes her desire for rescuing the missing children more essential, but also sparks her interest in the relationship between Lord Asriel and the Magisterium. The introduction to Will Parry is a treat to book readers who wanted to learn of the events leading up to the beginning of The Subtle Knife. The last scene of the episode puts the last events of The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass in the order of the books, and not the 2007 movie. This climatic episode lets the audience know that the falling action is coming next.