Sharon Shinn

The third in the romance/epic fantasy series the Twelve Houses. This time, the focus is on the King’s Rider Justin and one of the Silver Lady’s Daughters, Ellynor, who is not from Gillengaria. The other familiar characters have also significant roles.

Huge spoilers and sorry for the length!

Tayse sends Justin into the town of Neft. He is supposed to spy on the Lestra Coralinda Gisseltess who is the high priestess of the Silver Lady. She hates and persecuted mystics and is also suspected of plotting against the king. Justin isn’t happy because he’s sent there all alone but he goes grudgingly. Cammon escorts him and Justin declares to him that he isn’t that interested in girls, especially ones who need to be fussed over and protected all the time. Justin gets a job as a stable hand and starts to think about a way to the Lestra’s convent so that he can see what’s going on.

Ellynor is a girl from Lirrenlands who doesn’t know much about the Silver Lady at all. She was sent to the convent by her family’s men as an escort to her cousin Rosurie. Poor Rosurie had fallen in love with the wrong man and tried to elope with him. The man had been from a wrong clan whom Rosurie’s family did not approve at all. They would have gone to war before allowing Rosurie to marry him. Instead, the couple was separated and Ellynor and Rosurie had been sent to a convent in a different culture.

The girls aren’t allowed to leave the convent (except to proselytize but the only time Ellynor does this is near the end of the book and how can you proselytize a goddess you don’t know anything about?), but Ellynor is fortunate and she can go to Neft on her own. In a short time, she manages to get lost and a man attacks her. Justin saves her and they talk for a while. In the end, they both like each other very much and hope that they can see each other again. Intellectually, Ellynor knows that nothing can come out of it because Justin isn’t from Lirrenlands. The men of the Lirrenlands clans don’t allow their women to marry outside the clans. Instead the men will hunt the hapless suitor until he’s killed. Also, Ellynor loves her family; she doesn’t want to leave them or see any of them killed.

Even though the tough swordsman Justin doesn’t like helpless women, he falls for Ellynor after one conversation.

Ellynor has another problem: all her life, she has worshipped the gentle nigh goddess Dark Mother. She hasn’t converted to the worship of the Silver Lady and hasn’t told anyone about it. Dark Mother has also given her the gifts of healing, seeing perfectly in darkness, and moving almost invisibly in darkness. Ellynor doesn’t consider these gifts to be magic or herself to be a mystic. Unfortunately, according to Gillangaria’s culture she is a mystic. If her fellow priestesses find out, they will burn her on the stake.

There’s a secondary plotline about the Tayse and Senneth who are recruiting fighters and allies for the king. They even talk to some men from the Lirrenlands. Senneth has spent a few years there and was adopted into one of the clans so she’s hoping to persuade some of the clans to ally with the king. She also returns to her erstwhile home where her high-born family hears that she’s in a relationship with “a common soldier”. (I would hardly think of the Chief of the King’s Riders to be a common soldier…)

The book contains a lot of fighting, escapes, desperate lovers, fast plot twist, and friends closer than family. So by itself it’s an enjoyable read.

Unfortunately, some of the things in it just don’t make sense. One of them is right at the start. In the first chapter, Cammon and Justin save a mystic who is being tortured by the Lestra’s men. One of the men is allowed to live. Yet, instead of asking the man about, for example, the Lestra’s plans and the overlay of the convent, he allowed to go away. So, they already know for sure that the Lestra is ordering men to kill mystics. If the Lestra is clearly responsible for murdering other citizens, shouldn’t the king be more than justified in arresting her and her followers?

Which bring me to the second point: there also seems to be no legal system. The Lestra’s men are killing mystics and the King doesn’t like it. Yet, the King doesn’t do legally anything to stop it. When a man attacks Ellynore on the street she doesn’t even consider the possibility of reporting the man to authorities. Or to the Lestra, for that matter. So, it seems that the characters in the book aren’t citizens who could rely on any sort of legal protection. How a large country can work like this, I can’t really understand.

There’s a lot of talk about the goddesses and yet, the convent system seems to be the only form of organized religion.

Then there’s Ellynore and her cousin in the convent. Her cousin Rosurie fell in love with the wrong man and was sent to the convent “while the men decided what to do with her”. Ellynor was sent to keep her company. The problem here is that the girls and their families are from a country where apparently only the Dark Mother is worshipped and the Silver Lady is completely unknown. Why would any family send their girls to worship a completely unknown goddess? The girls don’t even know what a mystic is!

However, my main problem was, once again, that the whole thing wasn’t fantastic enough. The cultures of Gillangaria and Lirrenlands are only superficially different. Inside, they are very much the same. Both value warriors highly. Both value warriors as husbands and neither seems to have any reservations about, for example, the warrior husband dying early or becoming violent towards his wife. Superficially, both have strictly monogamous marriages and yet pre-marital sex doesn’t seem to be a problem. Everybody is 100% heterosexual. Both cultures are also patriarchal and have modern Western rape culture. The one where, when a man attacks a woman, *she* is the one who is blamed and gets in trouble.

Also, Justin and Ellynor don’t talk about the practical side of the marriage. In previous books, it was sort of understandable when the couples came from the same culture so it’s likely that they understood what, for example, their legal standings are. However, when the couple is supposed to come from different cultures, they don’t know any of these things. Does the man now own everything the woman owned? Is the woman now considered part of the male and is therefore not, for example, a whole person in the eyes of the law or not able to make contracts on her own? A lot was said about how Ellynor’s male relatives would thrash Justin before the wedding but what about after it? Would Justin be held accountable for how he treats Ellynore or could he do anything to her? What about divorce? Was there an expectation of children within a certain number of years?

It felt somewhat ridiculous that the two would talk so much about practically everything else but not about what would happen and be expected in the marriage. To me, it also felt that their lives would end after wedding because clearly no-one was interested in what would happen afterwards.

I was also a bit disappointed how easily things worked out in the end. It also seems to me, that once again, the woman in the relationship has to give up her family, friends, future plans, and everything else to be in the relationship while the man gave up… well, being single. Not balanced at all!

I have also some problems with the inconstancies in Cammon’s powers but hopefully the next book will deal with them at least a bit.

Ultimately, the book didn’t really work for me. I liked it when I listened it, but when I started think about it even a little, many of the things in it made no sense. However, I’m curious enough about the fate of Gillengaria to get the next book. I believe that the major story archs will be closed in it.

It seems that quite a few readers have liked Shinn’s SF more and I hope they will also come out in audio format.

The second in the Twelve Houses – fantasy romance series and part of my 2nds challenge.

In the Mystic and the Rider, we got to know a group of mystics and the King’s Riders who traveled across the fantasy world of Gillengaria in order to find out any unrest. The main threads were left unresolved. Now, the six friends are back and continue to unravel the mysteries in their country. The previous book focused on Senneth, a powerful mystic, and her relationship with Teyse, a King’s Rider who didn’t trust mystics at all. This time the main character is the mystic Kirra from the noble house of Danalustrous and her relationships.

Kirra is a shape-changer and a healer, and she’s also the heir to her noble House. However, she’s always been a restless person who doesn’t like to stay in one place for long. Donnal who is also a shape-changer has been her constant companion during her whole life. However, Donnal is a peasant and Kirra’s father has employed him to be Kirra’s defender.

The book starts with Kirra leading a small group that consists of Donnal, a King’s Rider Justin, and a powerful male mystic Cammon to rescue Gillengaria’s future regent Romar Brendyn. Some dissidents have kidnapped Romar and the king fears that they might kill him. The group manages to rescue Romar and then they escort him back to his lands. Kirra is strongly attracted to Romar and during their time together, she starts to respect him, too. Alas, Romar is married. Still, he flirts with Kirra most of the way home.

Then Kirra returns to her home. Much to her surprise, she finds out that her father has decided to make Kirra’s younger half-sister, Casserah, the heir. After her initial shock, Kirra realizes that her father has made the right choice; Casserah loves the land and the people, and would do anything to protect them. Others take this as an opportunity to tell how much they distrust and despise mystics and particularly Kirra. However, her family supports her.

Malcolm, the father of Kirra and Casserah, decides that it would be good for Casserah to visit other noble houses and get to both know them and let them see the new heir. So he demands that Casserah must accept invitations to various balls around the country. However, Casserah has no intention of leaving her beloved Danalustreous. As a compromise, Kirra takes the form of her sister and visits the balls instead.

Her first destination is the king’s house Ghosenhall where she finds out that the king is also sending her daughter to the balls. Princess Amalie has lived a very secluded life and the king wants to introduce her to the nobles who know next to nothing about her. Kirra’s old friends Senneth, Tayse, Cammon, and Justin will be protecting her. In addition, the mysterious young queen Valri and the king’s brother Romar will also escort the princess.

Kirra tells her old friends the truth but she has to lie to everyone else about her true identity which turns out to be harder than she expected. Also, she’s still very attracted to Romar.

During their journey, the group encounters a lot of mistrust and outright hatred of mystics. It also becomes clear that there is a plot against Romar. Some people are concerned about Amalie’s ability to lead the country and would like to have their own candidate on the thrown. Also, some members of the minor noble house, the Thirteenth House, are frustrated with their own position in life and are plotting against the ruler.

While there are some action scenes in the book, this one is more clearly a romance novel than the previous book in the series. The emphasis is in Kirra’s choices: will she start an affair with Romar even though he’s married? What about Donnal who loves Kirra? Kirra will also have to make some unpleasant choices about the way she will use her magic which can make even more people fear the mystics.

The book continues the storylines from the Mystic and the Rider; the unrest among the nobles, the hatred of mystics, and the return of Coralinda Giesseltess who teaches that all mystics are evil and want to corrupt others. Will the nobles accept Amalie as their next queen? Just who is queen Valeri and what are her secrets? However, this book raises more questions and the answers will still have to wait for the next books.

To me, the book felt slower in pace because of the emphasis in the relationship between Kirra and Romar. I also don’t like cheaters which made the whole romance quite pointless to me. Romar admits that he married only to have kids and they don’t have any, yet. Apparently, in Gillangaria it’s dishonorable to have a divorce (or set aside a wife, as they call it) which feels ridiculous to me. How can lying, cheating, and hurting everyone involved which goes on for years be more honorable than a clean divorce? Romar could have easily given her wife a pension and then married Kirra which should have made clear to most people that Romar’s first wife wasn’t to blame. Also, I don’t understand which institution is propping up the “marriage without divorce” thing. Historically in the West, it was the Catholic Church. I haven’t seen any institution which is equally powerful in Gillangaria. So, the whole thing felt quite artificial to me.

The characters are still as likable as ever. Kirra is a merry young woman who likes to play pranks on her friends and it’s easy with her shape-changing ability. She’s also a healer and wants to heal everyone who’s in pain. When she encounters a foreign disease which she can’t heal, she’s very upset about it. Donnal is a far more mysterious figure. He prefers to stay in animal shape and is constantly guarding Kirra. However, they don’t seem to talk much. Together they seek out more information about the old gods and especially about the Wild Mother who is the patron of shape-changers and animals. The six friends are a very close-knit group who all look out for each other – even when it might feel inconvenient.

Romar is a quite honorable (except in his marriage). Despite being a noble, he doesn’t shun the company of commoners and talks to them almost as equals. He also wants to do all the exciting things himself such as fighting or walking into danger instead of being protected. He takes his responsibilities very seriously. However, it was a bit confusing that he doesn’t become official regent unless the king dies, even though he’s constantly referred to as the regent.

The plot focuses on the relationships, both romantic and friendships, and political scheming.

Overall: interesting if somewhat slow continuation.

This is the first in the Twelve Houses fantasy series. I was a bit hesitant to get this because it’s often said to be romantic fantasy. I’m glad that I decided to get it because it turned out that to me the romance was a subplot and not the main plot. Also, I’m intrigued by the concept of the series: that the main characters in every book are different but come from the same circle of friends.

Good: characters

Not-so-good: pretty standard setting

Bad: –

Senneth is a very powerful mystic with a mysterious past. She’s also the leader of a team of five people whom the king has sent to investigate rumors of rebellion. Kirra and Donnal are also mystics but their power is mainly the ability to change their shape. Kirra can take on the shape of most animals and to change her human form and clothing. She’s also a noble. Donnal can take on the shapes of animals. He’s a peasant-born and has protected Kirra for a long time. The king has charged Justin and Tayse to protect the three mystics. Tayse and Justin are two of the most elite fighting men in the country; they are the King’s Riders who put their loyal to their King before anything else. The story starts when the group frees a young slave, Cammon, who continues to travel with them. Cammon is also a powerful mystic who is a reader. A reader can see into the souls of other people However, he has never been trained and so Senneth and Kirra start to instruct him. Tayse and Justin don’t trust the mystics and the mystics don’t, of course, like that.

The mood of the people has turned against mystics. While before mystics were at worst just thrown out of their house and family, now they are even killed. The king finds mystics to be very useful and so he’s rather fond of them and employs many of them. The group finds out that a group of priestesses who are devoted to the Pale Mother are encouraging the people to turn against the mystics. The priestesses claim that the mystics are evil and corrupted and will corrupt all other as well. Because the group has four mystics they have to face these attitudes or hide effectively.

The king has heard rumors that some of his nobles are not content and has sent his best mystic to investigate them. Senneth has connections to the nobles as does Kirra so they can approach the nobles who seem to be the most unsatisfied. But the roads are dangerous even to a group like this. They have to learn how to work as a team and to trust each other.

The story is quite character-driven which is somewhat unusual for epic fantasy. While the main plotline is fulfilling the king’s order of probing the loyalties of some of his nobles, the adventures that happen along the way are usually initiated by the characters opinions or attitudes. The main plot isn’t completely solved in this book but the ending isn’t a cliffhanger.

Characters: 7 The characters aren’t really original but they have their own personalities and histories which makes them interesting.

Plot: 6,5 There are quite a few side or subplots which move quite quickly. Still, the main plot is pretty standard fare.

Setting: 7 The setting is quite standard pseudo-medieval country. The only difference is the magic. Each mystic in the group has her or his own distinctive power but apparently the powers are pretty rigidly grouped because Senneth can quickly name Cammon’s power. Senneth herself is a fire mystic who has many powers.

Overall: I liked this book more than I expected. I’ll likely get the next one although I’m not in a hurry to do it. I also really liked the unhurried reader.