Disclaimer: Like most of my reviews of a sole title in a multi-book ecology, this review really covers elements common to the whole series, not merely the first book. The book is Mystic & Rider, and the series is called The Twelve Houses.
Every so often, I revisit the backlist of authors I love. It usually starts after I’ve finished the latest novel. When I’m done and I’m still hungry for reading and reluctant to leave that world behind, I go back to the beginning and read through all the way to the end again, series by series, chronologically by publication date.
It’s like going back home for a holiday and walking through the old neighborhood, only instead of the houses changing and the people moving on, I’ve moved on and changed. As time passes, my perspective shifts, and sometimes once-beloved stories look dramatically different then they did the first or even most recent time I read them.
I love Sharon Shinn’s work. All of it. Her Samaria series is a beautiful blend of a fantastical setting and some fabulous science. This series, though, remains my favorite from a craft standpoint. The world-building is rich in detail, the characters are all flawed, complex, and tied to one another by many motives, not merely the thin threads of a single plot, the dialogue is snappy, and the writing is uncluttered–not a word wasted. Reading it all again, now that I’m taking my own writing seriously, is even more of a joy than it was the first time around.
The world of the Twelve Houses is, on first sight, a typical medieval fantasy setting. Then little flourishes and details of a complicated social structure are dropped like gems into the plot. The plot of this introductory novel looks like your basic companion quest. Then the politics and the personalities start to clash. Complications set in. Relationships build and break, and people act in their own self-interest, sometimes at a high cost.
Fantasy stories are like chocolate chip cookies. The recipes all use same basic ingredients, but they achieve astonishingly different results. My oatmeal-chocolate-chip-banana bars taste nothing like my mother’s crunchy name-brand recipe drop cookies. Add an ingredient or two, change the proportions of a few others, and the end product will be unique. That’s what’s done here. It’s a chocolate chip cookie, but it’s a rich one, full of chunky tidbits and subtle flavors.
Religious persecution, racial discrimination and economic inequality are heavy topics to hang off the hero’s journey, but Shinn does so with finesse. This isn’t a morality play. It’s a rollicking adventure set in a complicated world. She doesn’t shrink from adding the grays and deeper shades to her societies and her characters, and the story is the better for it. Her characters are moral but mortal. They face hard choices with good intentions and get mixed results.
Best of all, from my perhaps-skewed viewpoint, there are no easy solutions. The story ends with a satisfying finale, but there’s no tidy resolution to the underlying issues. There is progress, there is always another conflict on the horizon, and the world goes on, even when the story ends.
If you like your fantasy with a little ambiguity and a lot of humanity, Shinn’s work is well worth the investment.