That cover is stunning! I’m not normally one to squee over covers, but this one features an actual scene from the book, give or take some artistic liberties with the fire in the sky, and still catches the eye.
The books centers around two well-drawn cultures, one Eastern and one Western, based loosely on Japan and England. In one, dragons are revered, in the other, reviled. The world has primitive guns that don’t work very well, but I wouldn’t say it’s a “flintlock” fantasy.
Magic users gain their magic from the titular orange tree. They eat it to obtain the magic, and can keep that magic if they carefully hoard it for months or even years. They also train extensively in the martial arts.
The characters are good, Sabran the Western queen, Ead the bad ass warrior monk/spy from the East, a dragon rider named Tané who actually has a saddle, unlike certain folks on TV shows with blue-eyed bad guys and a high body count. She rides one of the eastern dragons, the more serpent-style ones featured on the covers. They are the good dragons: the Western ones look more like traditional dragons and are evil, a nice touch.
Oh yes, most of the main characters are women. If you find dragons realistic but strong women who excel at fighting or leading unrealistic, you will hate this book. It’s not for you.
Similarly, if you can handle magic fruit but can’t handle characters who are attracted to folks of the same gender, you will also have a bad time. For instance, another main character is Niclays, an ethically-challenged alchemist who, before the events of the novel, lost his lover, a prominent nobleman. Clearly, Niclays never really gotten over him. Refreshingly, no one in the world has any hangups about same-gender relationships.
Speaking of which, a relationship grows naturally between Sabran and Ead, and there are few sex scenes with a sprinkling of detail. It’s clear what’s going on, but not too clear. The primary focus of the novel is a well-done version of the epic fantasy end of the world scenario, but it’s possibly a bit too much for YA readers depending on their age.
About YA: Samantha Shannon’s other work, a series, is a YA series. I could not get into it, it wasn’t bad, but was rather different in tone and not my cup of tea.
The writing is fluid and clean. Despite its length (800 pages), the story keeps a good pace. There are 4 viewpoint characters, and all of them are interesting. The book is a standalone, which is nice in this day of 17 book series. It has a trilogy’s worth of action and world-altering events.
Apparently the plot is a gender-bending retelling of St. George and the dragon. I did not realize that while reading it, so clearly knowledge of that is not needed to enjoy it. It may add a nice layer to those who enjoy retellings.