Tag Archives: The Twelve Houses

Book Review: Mystic and Rider: Internal and External Journeys as Foreground

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I hadn’t read Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider for four years. I’d reread all the other books in the Twelve Houses series at least once before returning to this first book. There’s much to draw me to the Twelve Houses books as I’ve discussed before, but there is something especially compelling to me about the deep friendships between the six primary protagonists. In this first book, those friendships remain unformed for the majority of the book, the six are instead plagued by prejudiced distrust and several brief fights that must be broken up by more level-headed and duty-driven members of the group. It was interesting to revisit this time before their friendship because I had foreknowledge; I know how inseparable this unlikely group becomes. More than that, I know the trials that they will face in the future, and I can see the foreshadowing in their dialogues. I enjoyed laughing and mumbling, “Oh honey, you don’t even know.” I can also enjoy a writer who foreshadows because it shows a plan and it shows forethought (usually).

The exterior action of the plot is concerned with assessing the attitudes of various regions and ranks of a kingdom. The worldviews of a society are the sort of detail that is usually relegated to an emblematic scene or a throwaway line of dialogue or exposition. It’s impressive to see Shinn maintain the readers’ interest in what is so often so condensed and shoved to the background by other writers.

Granted, Shinn supports this plot with a romantic co-plot and the drama of six diverse personalities in prolonged, close quarters.

I think Shinn does a good job of integrating these the internal and external plots so that neither seems to take precedence over the other. It could be read with either or neither as the primary focus.

Shinn also adds a bit of mystery by concealing one character’s background in particular and having another spend the book not trusting her because of that concealment. I never read the story without knowing Senneth’s story, having read the third book in the series first. I suspect though that that mystery helps too to drive the reader through the story.

Shinn writes fantastic characters, all invoking a great deal of empathy. She writes a fantastic, vast, and vivid world. If you haven’t yet been intrigued by my earlier reviews of these books, I advertise them one last time. Beyond this, there are no more books in the series for me to review, so this will be the last you’ll hear of them from me for a while. If you like high fantasy; poetic, solid prose; empathetic characters and stories of close friendships; if you like fantastical romance; if you enjoy a little politics and intrigue and fantastical religion, give these a try.

I’ve grown a bit with these books, and as I’ve grown, I see them differently, but they are only a bit tarnished for being away from a circle of friend and fellow fans. My rankings of them fluctuate a bit with my circumstances. What once I liked least, I think I now like almost best. And these books set the bar for fictional boyfriends very high. I’m glad that I have these books as warm friends’ smiles in my bookcases, and I considering purchasing the series a solid investment for all the times I will pick them up to smile over a scene or ask Shinn’s advice on worldbuilding.

****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses, Book 1: Mystic and Rider. New York: Ace-Berkley-Penguin, 2005.

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

Book Review: Dark Moon Defender: Rereads and the Effects of Nostalgia

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Dark Moon Defender, third in Sharon Shinn’s The Twelve Houses series, is well written, its characters rounded and alive, its world expansive and deep, the cultures and religions and worldviews diverse and detailed, but when I tried first to write a review of this book based on those merits, I couldn’t find much else to say.

Sometimes the real value of a book is nostalgia, the times that it recalls, the friends with whom it is connected.

Such may be the case for me for Dark Moon Defender. This was the first of the series that I ever read, a recommendation from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master when we were still college kids. It was then passed around a group of us.

When I first read the series, I’d have said that Dark Moon Defender was my second favorite after the fourth and climax, Reader and Raelynx.  I hadn’t read it since.

Rereading Dark Moon Defender was like meeting a friend again—a friend introduced to me by friends and with whom I share friends, none of whom I’ve seen face-to-face in too long. It reminded me of all of those friends.

But since we last had seen one another, we’d grown apart a bit—Dark Moon Defender­ and I. Life happened. And while I enjoyed rereading the book, preferred it to other books that I had been reading, it was not the same book that I remembered—or I wasn’t the same person who had read it those few years ago.

Perhaps in some ways it is because of what this series means to me that this book did not sink as deeply into my heart this time around. This series—for all its many strengths—I like perhaps best because of the incredibly strong and warm friendships between the six main protagonists—a friendship that in some ways echoes that which I share with the friends with whom I first read the book. But the friends in this book are separated—not indefinitely but for large portions of the book. I found myself enjoying the book best when at least two of the friends were together.

Though I think Shinn would say that these books are meant as romances, the romances are just not as moving to me as are the friendships or as exciting as the overarching series plot of treason and war.

The Thirteenth House, second in the series, I realized this previous read-through is more bildungsroman than romance. When I read it as a bildungsroman, I liked it much better than when I had read it as a romance. It has perhaps even surmounted Dark Moon Defender in the ranking of favorites. I suppose there is an aspect of bildungsroman in Dark Moon Defender if one assumes that a healthy marriage is a necessary step in growing up—which I’m not sure that I do, though certainly it can be a step in some people’s journey. I feel though that most of Justin’s growth and education had occurred prior to this book and would classify this more as a romance than any other genre.

Maybe I enjoyed Dark Moon Defender so well the first time through partially because I had not read the others and did not know what Shinn was capable of and so was able to enjoy it as a straight romance, expecting nothing else.

If Dark Moon Defender is read primarily as a romance then it has to be noted too that while Justin is, I know, the ideal hero to some, he is not the type of hero to whom I am immediately attracted, and because the story is primarily a romance, I think my “type” hindered my enjoyment of the story. I like adorkable and cute and brainy more than I like brawny, dutiful soldiers. My preference makes Justin no less of a wonderful character and no less loveable.

Perhaps because I was more apart from the world and the characters than I had been during any other reading of one of Shinn’s books, I found myself stumbling a few too many times on Shinn’s flowery prose—a strange critique from me (my own prose has received the same critique on many occasions). Sometimes “said” really is the best verb.

****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses, Book 3: Dark Moon Defender. New York: ACE-Berkley-Penguin, 2006.

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

Presents Under the Tree

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A friend sent me this message:

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Happy Christmas.

***

He wore the bow as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as un-self-conscious as he had been when he had stripped in the walled garden to explain to her what to expect on her wedding night.  I could almost ignore it, but the shiny, red curls were just too garish in his dark, untidy hair.

“Cam,” I asked, “what’re you doing here?”

He grinned.  “You wanted me here.”

“Well, yes, of course.  I mean it’s Christmas–”

“So I came.”

“Won’t Amalie mind?”

“She knows I’m here.”

“Of course she does.”

I put on the kettle and cut slices of plum pudding.  We ate while seated crossed legged on the floor, a most unsophisticated banquet for the queen’s consort.

***

He could have chosen no more garish color than green for the bow that perched amid the true red tendrils of his hair.  I think he knew it too.  He wanted to draw attention to the effort that he’d put into his role.  He wore one of those soft, secret smiles as he lifted his hand from the lute strings, letting the last thrums of the song vibrate on the warm air.

“It’s a beautiful song.”  It was the best thing I could have woken up to, an alarm I would pine for daily once he was gone.  He didn’t acknowledge the compliment.  I didn’t expect him to.  Instead I fell back to our script.  “What’ve you brought me?”

I felt a pang of regret as he put the lute down in the case by his feet and reached behind his back to retrieve a bottle that he’d hidden.

“Avennish fruit wine.”

“And what’s in the wine?”

“The smile of a cat,” he said easily, “and Christmas cheer.”

I gave him a cat’s smile.  “I’ll have some of that.”

“What’ve you brought me?”

***

It was an odd noise that had woken me, a sort of huffing, wheezing, groaning.  I stumbled down the hallway.  The Christmas lights had been lit.   I had thought I’d unplugged them the night before.  Must not have.  It was pretty though, with it’s white lights twinkling.

“No!  Christmas trees are no good.”  A man in a blue suit came hurtling past me.  “Bad, bad Christmas tree.”

“What’s so bad about Christmas trees?” I asked the man.  He’d put himself between the tree and I, and with a flourish he’d drawn from his pocket a strange, bulky pen that he pointed like a sword now at the tree.  Its lights flickered.

“Oh lots of bad things about a Christmas tree.  Basically–”  He bent his long, lithe body around.  I had a brief moment to inspect his face before he grabbed my hand and finished, “Run.”

He yanked me out the door, and we were hurtling down the stairs.  We were a block away before I had time to notice the blue curling ribbon in his hair and it wasn’t till much later that I was able to ask him how it had come to be there.  I didn’t understand the answer.  I came to believe that he had used technobabble to cover the embarrassing tale.

***

My own characters are getting a little jealous.

“This is one of your worst ideas yet,” Aidan grumbled, affixing the green bow to his hair yet again.  It had a tendency to slip.

Darryn had an easier time keeping the bow from sliding.  He barely moved his head as he promised, “She’ll like it.”  He said it as if that covered any of the bows’ faults.

“She’d better.”

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.

Book Review: Reader and Raelynx: A Must-Read but Not a Stand-Alone

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Reader and Raelynx is the fourth book in Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series and of the series the least easily read as a stand-alone.  I have now read Reader and Raelynx three times since May 2011, so about once every six months.  That alone should speak to my love for this book.  It is easily one of my favorites in this fantastic series, with really only the third in the series—Dark Moon Defender—giving it any true competition.  (Coincidentally, if you’re looking to begin the series, I read Dark Moon Defender first, as did several of my friends, and while I will not say that the series is best read this way, I will say that you will almost certainly be and are more likely to be hooked by this third book than by books 1 or 2.)

Reader and Raelynx is as pleasurable a third time as it was a second time and a first, even though I’m starting to commit the details to memory, so the surprise and thrill of the unexpected is fading.

This fourth is the book in the series that most deeply concerns my favorite of the six characters that the books primarily follow—Cammon, a scruffy reader who can’t bear to be alone and is always seeking to improve everyone’s lives, often through his strong and deeply mysterious magic.

Sourcebooks’ Deb Werksman, when discussing her criteria for a successful manuscript, mentions that the hero of a romance book must be someone to fall in love with—and Cammon is this, not for everyone, but certainly for me.  I could list reasons—his innocence that experience has been unable to corrupt, his experience that makes him in some way damaged and in need of tending and also makes him more knowledgeable than myself, his ability to know when something is wrong without anyone telling him, his ability to ease pain with a caress….

There is much to love about Sharon Shinn’s series: a coherent and almost gapless fantasy world, extremely strong and likeable characters extending beyond even the six and their lovers.  Many of these more fringe characters—Darryn and Ariane Rappengrass, Sosie, Valri, Baryn, even Lara and Kelti—return to this fourth book.  The series further boasts romance, magic, intrigue, the threat of war, battles, fanatic religious cults, a wealth of gods and goddesses, and tasteful sex scenes.  There is little more that I could ask of the series or Reader and Raelynx in particular,in which all the threats and past dangers come to a head in several days of bloody battle.

I have few complaints either with Shinn’s language, which is nicely balanced between poetic and concise.  Shinn demonstrates prowess with prose and dialogue, stillness and action, violence and sweetness.

If I can complain about anything it’s that even as the series comes to a close with the fifth book, there are loose ends:  Some characters whose fates I’d like to learn don’t return to the story after they’ve fulfilled their initial role.  I still don’t fully understand Shinn’s magic system, though I don’t believe that the characters do either.  As a writer I’m a little miffed by Shinn’s incomprehension of her own system as much as I may love (and I do love) what I understand of that system.

*****

Shinn, Sharon.  The Twelve Houses Series, Book Four: Reader and Raelynx.  New York: Ace-Berkley-Penguin, 2007.

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

Book Review: Fantastic Fantasy: Fortune and Fate

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Fortune and Fate, the last in—or maybe just the add-on to Sharon Shinn’s The Twelve Houses series, returns readers to the world we reluctantly left, but does not entirely ease the ache for our own battle comrades nor wrap up all of the loose ends of Reader and Raelynx that I hoped that it would.  Yet, Shinn’s world is as masterfully crafted as ever:  She still creates the sense of camaraderie, though now with a new group; battles are still as thrilling; and we do catch up with our friends, if not enough.  I cheered aloud upon the first mention of Senneth, the first of our dear six to return to the stage.

I say that I feel that Fortune and Fate really is not of the same series as the first four books because it does not follow the same group, primarily, and while I can believe that that group was close to Wen and felt her absence in the time between Reader and Raelynx and Fortune and Fate, I felt no particular attachment to Wen when she parted ways with the other Riders and so felt no real anxiety for her nor great joy at our reunion.

Much of my pleasure in books two through four was in reuniting with old friends

I came to love Wen through Fortune and Fate, though never perhaps with the same intensity that I love the six main characters of the first four books.  She shares a Rider’s nobility and strength, and she is rendered as expertly as any of the other six by Shinn.

Of all of The Twelve Houses, this is the most overtly feminist and made me rethink the feminism of the previous books.  Here, the real difference is that the shift in power towards women is bluntly mentioned, where before we had witnessed the shift subtly as overthrowing cruel rulers (the exception being Baryn), without ever directly pointing out the gender of those lords.  Still, as in previous books, as some of the most powerfully good are women, [SPOILER] so are the most powerfully bad. [END SPOILER]  This book too might result in the pairing with the most radically reversed gendered roles.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this story.  I tore through the pages, and this book does leave few if any dangling threads.  Perhaps what left me most unsatisfied was the absence of the full legends referenced.

Literature does wonders for creating a realistic world.  Shinn’s almost didn’t need it, as so few of the characters that we loved in the first four books seemed the type to be even casual readers, but it is good to know that a canon exists in Gillengaria as do bibliophiles.

The Twelve Houses series as a whole are nicely balanced between being plot- and character-driven, full of exciting battles, sweeping romances, political intrigue, and a complex religion that adds flavor to the world.  Too, unlike many writers today, Shinn does not neglect setting, especially important as the majority of these are journey books.  She captains the reader to hamlets, rowdy taprooms, through the barren wilderness, and into the ballrooms of nobles.  Each of the fourteen regions (including Goshenhall and the Lirrenlands) is unique, a feat achieved primarily through landscape and the culture of its people.

*****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses Series, Book Five: Fortune and Fate. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2008.

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