Saturday, March 13, 2010

10-14. Novels of the Twelve Houses

10. Mystic and Rider, by Sharon Shinn

I've enjoyed other books by Sharon Shinn - she tends to write light, plotty, enjoyable romances, that range from fantasy worlds populated by humans and angels to a modern reworking of Jane Eyre - so I was intrigued by her new series, a fantasy set on an island named Gillengaria. Mystic and Rider introduces the six major characters who she follows in the series: Senneth, a mystic in the service of the King, two of the King's Riders who he has sent to guard her, the noblewoman Kirra and her companion, Donnal, and Cammon, a boy that they rescue from an abusive master. (Cammon also serves a very convenient function as a plot device in the introductory chapters, as the other characters explain the structure of the kingdom (the Twelve Houses of royalty that govern various parts of the land) and the way that the world works.

Mystic and Rider is the story of these characters as they follow the king's commands, searching out the source of the unrest in the kingdom and finding it in the southern Houses, where Coralinda Gisseltess is stirring up hatred of mystics and promoting the worship of a moon goddess. Senneth, for one, believes that the magic possessed by the mystics comes as gifts from the various gods and goddesses that are no longer worshipped in Gillengaria, but that seems to be a largely untestable theory. The Pale Lady, the moon goddess, is the only one who's still worshipped, and that appears to be largely due to Coralinda Gisseltess and her actions. She's convinced that the Pale Lady hates all magic and mystics, though, so she isn't content to remain secluded in her convent - instead, she sends her men out on nighttime hunting sprees to slaughter mystics or burn them to death in their homes.

The book gets off to a bit of a slow start, with all of the characters slowly learning to like and trust each other, but it's quite enjoyable once it gets going. The characters are fun to read about, albeit a little one-dimensional at time, and the budding romance between Senneth and one of the King's Riders keeps the suspense of the book building when all of the camping and spy missions get to be a little too dull.

11. The Thirteenth House

The second book in the Twelve Houses series features Kirra, the noblewoman and shape-shifter who was introduced in the first book. She ends up taking her sister's form for the summer and going on a tour of the social circuit - because Casserah, the newly proclaimed heir to Danalustrous, absolutely hates leaving her home. There are plenty of amusing incidents, as you might imagine, with mistaken identities, but Kirra's charm and humor always win the day.

It's a bit racy in parts, as Kirra has the misfortune to fall in love with a married man - and not just any married man, but Romar Brendyn, who has been appointed regent to the heir, the Princess Amalie, should anything happen to the king. Amalie has been kept secluded from the nobles all her life, so she and her step-mother, who is even more of an enigma, make their debut in society on the social circuit and attend all of the balls and various events, while Romar, Kirra, Senneth, and the rest of the initial band of characters strive to protect her amidst the growing unrest of the kingdom.

Shinn's romances are hardly unpredictable, but always emotionally satisfying, even when they run along the old formulaic plot-line. Of course Kirra and Romar's affair ends unhappily, but in the end, Kirra discovers that her trusted companion, Donnal, has remained faithful all along. After her heartbreak with Romar, the scandal of a nobleman's daughter pairing with a serf's son hardly seems worth considering.

12. Dark Moon Defender

In the third novel in the series, the King's Rider Justin has been sent back to the convent of the Daughters of the Pale Mother, in order to keep an eye on Coralinda Gisseltess and any mischief that she might get up to. In addition to disguising himself and serving as a stablehand, he manages a few daring midnight rescues when Coralinda's men are on the rampage.

And, of course, he falls in love ... with one of the novices as the convent. Ellynor is from the Lirrenlands, the strange part of Gillengaria. Beyond the mountains, it's largely inaccessible to the other inhabitants of Gillengaria, and the Lirren live in a complicated society of interconnected clans and families. They place a great deal of importance on kinship, and Ellynor's cousin Rosurie was sent away to the convent for having the audacity to fall in love with a young man from the wrong clan. Ellynor goes with her to keep her company, but instead of becoming a convert as Rosurie does, she longs to leave and explore the rest of the world.

Instead of worshipping the Pale Lady, the Lirrenfolk worship the Dark Mother, who watches over them all at night and who gives them special powers of healing and concealment. Unbeknownest to herself, Ellynor is a mystic, and her position in the convent has put her in grave danger. Will Justin be able to save her? Will her brothers kill Justin for falling in love with her? It's a thrilling story, with more than one exciting twist and turn before the ending.

13. Reader and Raelynx

Cammon, who was picked up by the group almost by accident in the first group, has been staying in the capital city to hone his mystical powers. He's the kind of mystic known as a reader, and seems to have abilities close to telepathy - he can tell if someone is lying or honest, and sense treachery. After managing to foil two assassination attempts against the King, he's summoned to the palace to watch over the Princess Amalie as she meets young noblemen of the realm and attempts to choose her suitor.

The realm is still a place of unrest - Coralinda Gisseltess is still brewing mischief, many of the nobles are planning rebellion, and the lesser lords are jockeying for more political power - but there's always time for a good romance, especially if you're a mystic and can carry on silent mental conversations with the one you love. Cammon falls in love with Amalie, and she with him, and they only need to win a war in order to live happily ever after.

It's overall a good read, although the romance is predictable, as it always seems to be - by chapter three, it's pretty obvious who is going to fall in love with whom, but that doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable to see how exactly it works out. My biggest problem was that we didn't see a great deal of King Baryn; while it's obvious why some of the nobles are plotting against him, and others are ready to give their lives to defend him, we never get a strong sense of who he is and why he's worth fighting for. His wife, on the other hand, becomes a much clearer character in this book, and we realize why Baryn married her and what her secrets have been all along.

14. Fortune and Fate

In Fortune and Fate, Shinn leaves the original sextet and focuses on Wen, one of the King's Riders. With the end of the war, she's left her service in the capital city, and is roaming the land and trying to find good deeds. She has a guilty conscience due to the war, but nothing that she does seems to appease it.

She meets and rescues a young noblewoman, daughter of one of the lords who rose up against the king in rebellion in the previous book. Karryn, fortunately, isn't made in the same mold as her father - she can be a bit witless, and spends a great deal of time with gossip about clothing and balls, but what sixteen-year-old doesn't? Her uncle, who is the regent appointed by Cammon to take care of her and her lands until she comes of age, is doing his best, but Karryn's more than able to get into trouble ... until Wen comes along, that is.

Having rescued her once, Wen feels responsible for her safety and eventually accepts a position as captain of her personal guard. All of the training she had as a King's Rider comes to use as she gathers new soldiers and trains them to protect Karryn. She has her work cut out for her ... not to mention her guilt to deal with, a reunion with old friends, and a burgeoning interest in the regent....