Book Review: The Thirteenth House Is the Least of The Twelve Houses

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Sharon Shinn’s stellar writing, wonderful world-building, and charismatic characters have secured her Twelve Houses series a place on my list of favorite series. Of the five books, my least favorite is the second, The Thirteenth House. The first four of these sword and sorceries each revolve around the romances of one or more of the six main characters (the fifth revolves around a minor character from the first four). The Thirteenth House is the story of Kirra Danalustrous, a shiftling (a mystic with the ability to change the shape of herself and of objects that she touches) and serramarra (daughter) of one of the twelve main houses between which the country of Gillengaria is feudally divided. I like this story least frankly because Kirra disappoints me and frightens me. This time, reading the book, I realized that Kirra and I are the same age, and it worries me that someone my age (albeit that I’m sure the life expectancy is lower in medieval-esque Gillengaria and characters mature more quickly as a consequence) could make the poor choices that Kirra does. Each romance in this series is an unlikely pairing but the other matches are unlikely because of class distinctions or cultural differences, Kirra’s romance is a likely match a few years too late that is now just an unhealthy affair, so while all the elements of a romance novel are there, there can be no happy ending for all, and that’s also unsettling, another reason that this novel is my least favorite. Kirra grows a great deal through the story, and that is heartwarming, but her growth comes at the cost of a lot of heartache for herself and others. This is more bildungsroman than it is romance in the sense of genre. I’d have liked Kirra to make better decisions.

Alongside the whirlwind affair, Shinn presents a country on the brink of turmoil. Amid swirling gowns and in grand ballrooms, beside talk of marriage alliances, every character discusses war and whom they might side with. The king’s regent, Romar Brendyn, comes under attack, is rescued, and despite continued threats to his person proceeds to attend secret negotiations and politically fraught parties with lesser lords, collectively known as the Thirteenth House. Meanwhile a plague sweeps through the country that cannot be cured except by breaking the unwritten laws that curb magic.

These many plots are fairly well woven together by Shinn.

I admire Shinn’s world-building particularly. There are several religious factions among the people of Gillengaria and each goddess has a unique sphere of influence and unique abilities that they can grant the mystics under their particular care. I really do think that a strong and unique religion can add a great deal to any story.

For being my least favorite, this is more than a bridge book, and it has merit in its own right.

As one wise reviewer on Goodreads has said, I won’t condemn the book for the adultery of its protagonists.  I won’t cheer their choices, but I choose to see this as a bildungsroman rather than a romance.  So just don’t expect the fairy tale ending; it’s not a fairy tale for all that her lover is painted by Kirra as a white knight or a Prince Charming.  Kirra is not the princess.

****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses, Book Two: The Thirteenth House. New York: Ace-Berkley-Penguin, 2007.  First published 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon Shinn, Ace Book, Berkley Publishing Group, or Penguin Group, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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