94 pages 3 hours read

Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2019, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon is an epic high fantasy novel set in a fictional universe in which dragons are real and women rulers are the norm. The novel is notable for its subversion of the medieval fantasy genre, as well as its queer and feminist themes. The densely plotted novel spans several continents to tell the story of a divided world threatened by the return of an ancient enemy. To vanquish this enemy, the various regions of the world must cast aside their differences and come together, heroes must retrieve lost magical artifacts, and people must question all known truths. Inspired by the folklore and mythology of Europe, Japan, and China, the novel’s key themes are the redemptive power of love and the importance of feminist and queer retelling of stories. Though the novel is supposed to be a stand-alone work, the text leaves many questions unresolved, suggesting the possibility of a sequel. Critically acclaimed for its rich world-building and progressive themes, the book was a New York Times bestseller in the epic fantasy genre in 2019. This study guide follows the Bloomsbury UK 2021 edition.

Born in London in 1991, Samantha Shannon is a writer of futuristic and fantasy fiction. Shannon, who read English at Oxford, began writing at an early age, finishing her first (unpublished) novel in her teens. Though her works are set in alternate and fantasy universes, they are often loosely based on real-world history and offer a commentary on historical narratives. Shannon has a special interest in history, Middle English, and world mythology. She published her debut novel, The Bone Season, in 2013 as part of a seven-book futuristic fantasy series. Shannon has published the first four books of the series so far. The Priory of the Orange Tree is Shannon’s first book outside The Bone Season saga. Shannon is currently based in London.

Plot Summary

The Priory of the Orange Tree is set in a fantastical world that resembles Earth during the 16th and 17th centuries. However, in the world of the novel, magic is real, as are dragons and other legendary creatures, and rule by women is common. The world of the novel is divided between regions of the West, East, and South. The story is told in the third-person limited through the point of view of four characters: Tané, Ead Duryan, Niclays Roos, and Loth Beck. West and East are completely isolated from each other, each believing the beliefs and practices of the other heretical.

In the East, a young woman called Tané has been working all her life to be a “dragonrider.” Dragons are considered holy in the East. The night before the dragonrider trials, Tané breaks an important rule and ventures out on the shore, where she encounters a stranger from the West. Foreigners are forbidden in the East, but revealing the stranger’s presence could highlight Tané’s own transgression, so she hides him with the help of her friend Susa. Tané is chosen as a dragonrider and paired with a water dragon named Nayimathun. However, her transgression is discovered soon after and leads to Susa’s execution. The East then exiles Tané to a region called Feather Island, where she must spend her life in study. In the process, pirates who trade in forbidden dragon flesh capture Nayimathun. On Feather Island, a childhood injury begins to pain Tané, who eventually discovers the wound is a gem sewn into her side. Tané learns that this is a celestial jewel: a gem with extremely special powers. Since the gem can control water, Tané wishes to use it to rescue Nayimathun from the pirates. Meanwhile, the world is experiencing more earthquakes and dragon eggs are not hatching, suggesting some great evil is at hand.

The West considers the East heretical for their worship of dragons since the West has faced great destruction from fire-breathing dragons. However, the Eastern water dragons are noble and distinct from the fire-breathers, or “wyrms.” In the Western country of Inys, Ead pretends to be a lady-in-waiting in the household of Queen Sabran Berethnet. In reality, Ead is a member of the Priory of the Orange Tree, a secret society of mages in the South mandated to protect the world from wyrms. It is believed in the West that Sabran’s ancestor, Saint Galian Berethnet, slayed the “Nameless One”—the most terrible of wyrms—and married Princess Cleolind of the South and that Galian’s bloodline keeps the wyrms from returning. Ead has been sent to protect Sabran on the off chance that this theory is true. However, most people in the Priory, including Ead, believe it was Cleolind—founder of the Priory—who bound the Nameless One. Moreover, Cleolind never married or had children.

Sabran does not wish to marry and have a child. To prolong the protection the Berethnet line affords, she asks the alchemist Niclays Roos to brew her a potion of immortality. When Niclays fails in his mission, Sabran exiles him to Orisima, an island in the East. Without the elixir, Sabran has no choice but to marry. She weds Prince Aubrecht of the Western state of Mentendon, and soon becomes pregnant. However, Aubrecht is assassinated in a political attack, and Sabran later miscarries after a wyrm descends on her palace. Sabran will never be able to bear another child—a fact that begins to cause unrest in her court. Meanwhile, increased wyrm attacks all over the world suggest the Nameless One may awaken soon.

Ead gains vital information that it is not the Berethnet bloodline that has been holding back the Nameless One; rather, Cleolind bound him for 1,000 years. Now that the thousand-year cycle is ending, the wyrm and his army are rising. To defeat the Nameless One, the world will need the same tools with which Cleolind bound him. Meanwhile, Sabran and Ead fall in love, but Sabran’s advisors learn of the love affair and ban Ead from Inys. Ead returns to the Priory where she finds a celestial jewel with extraordinary powers. The jewel can only be wielded by the person who discovers it and may be used to bind the Nameless One again.

Loth, a friend of Ead and Sabran, lands on Feather Island. He tells Tané about Ead and the gem she possesses. Together with Tané’s jewel, it may be able to defeat the Nameless One. Tané and Loth use Tané’s jewel to rescue Nayimathun from the pirates. Nayimathun advises Tané to shed her mistrust of the West and travel to Inys to combine the power of the jewels. However, there is still a missing piece of the puzzle: a lost sword called Ascalon that Cleolind used to injure the Nameless One 1,000 years ago. Ead suspects a disgraced mage called Kalyba, known in legends of the West as the dreaded “Lady of the Woods,” can reveal the secret of Ascalon. Ead seeks out Kalyba and learns the shocking truth: Kalyba forged Ascalon and is the founding mother of the Berethnet house. She gave Ascalon to Galian, whom she loved. Cleolind found the sword on an injured Galian and used it, along with a celestial jewel, to defeat the Nameless One. After this, Cleolind returned to Lasia to found the Priory. Kalyba enchanted Galian to believe she was Cleolind and married him. Moreover, Cleolind was not alone in binding the Nameless One. A woman of the East called Neporo helped Cleolind, possessing a similar jewel as hers. These are the same jewels that are now with Ead and Tané. Meanwhile, Kalyba now wishes to destroy the Berethnets and join the Nameless One.

Sabran seeks an alliance with the East to defeat the Nameless One and his army of wyrms. The leaders of South, West, and East join hands and head towards the Abyss, the deep sea between the West and East under which the ancient wyrm slumbers. Niclays meets Tané, Sabran, and Ead and tells them the Nameless One can be killed if Ascalon pierces him at the same spot where Cleolind injured him. With the united forces, the help of the water dragons, the gems, and Ascalon, the three protagonists kill Kalyba and the Nameless One.

Ead is appointed Prioress. Sabran plans to tell her people the truth about Galian and Cleolind and usher in an era of democracy. Tané becomes a dragonrider again and reunites with Nayimathun. Though Ead and Sabran have to be separate for some time to fulfill their duties, they plan to live together after 10 years have passed. The novel ends on a positive note, ushering in a new and peaceful world order.

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