This was my least favorite of the Twelve Houses books. I re-read the previous four leading up to this, and when placed back to back like that their si...moreThis was my least favorite of the Twelve Houses books. I re-read the previous four leading up to this, and when placed back to back like that their similarities began to wear on me. Four romances with class distinctions as their primary conflict got tiresome, especially when so few people actually seemed to care about the class issue in any other setting. Perhaps it is true, what the British say, that Americans simply do not understand class the way people with a history of an aristocracy do -- certainly Sharon Shinn does not. The book felt very odd, coming, as it does, after the major political and religious conflict in the series has already been resolved. It also would have been stronger if it had followed Wen solely. Shinn spent a great deal of time getting all the principle players in the previous novels together again and then to Forten city, but none of them had any real stake in the matter. They are all happy, and while I am happy that they are happy, there was no conflict in any scenes with them. I found myself even disliking Senneth a bit, reduced as she was to grousing about ball gowns and travelling -- totally out of character for her, as in every other book she has wanted nothing more than to be on the road. Wen's heartache never connected with me on anything but an intellectual level, and there was virtually no jeopardy to anyone through vast swaths of the book, despite all her vigilance. I understand that that is the usual lot of a bodyguard, but it does not make for dramatic reading. Still, Shinn does have the trick of making you care that her characters are happy, and the book reads quickly enough that it did not feel like an imposition. I only hope that she is now done with this series and can turn her imagination to something new.(less)
Just as with the other two titles in this series, this was a light, pleasant afternoon's read, suitable for anyone roughly 10 and up. The characters a...moreJust as with the other two titles in this series, this was a light, pleasant afternoon's read, suitable for anyone roughly 10 and up. The characters are likable, the world is likable, though people do bad things there's no real sense of danger or despair. . . it's sweet and quite innocent. The comparisons to Shakespeare in the editorial quotes, as a result, come off as a tad overblown, but I do understand where they come from -- the novel rests on mistaken identities and people in disguise, and everything of course comes together all at once for a chaotic but happy resolution. So pleasant, probably the most pleasant of the three, but ultimately probably forgettable.(less)
This is a sweet, serviceable young adult novel. Shinn's writing style suits the genre, featuring long passages telling the story and no real action/fa...moreThis is a sweet, serviceable young adult novel. Shinn's writing style suits the genre, featuring long passages telling the story and no real action/fantasy set-pieces to liven things up, and the characters she introduces here are fine, but not particularly memorable. The novel moves quickly and fairly gracefully, and is really marred only by the too-neat tying up of loose ends that undercuts the interestingly hard emotional revelations of earlier passages. Still, it is unfortunately not a novel I will remember long.(less)
I was incredibly conflicted in deciding what rating to give this collection. Two of the novellas were near perfect, one was kind of lame, and the last...moreI was incredibly conflicted in deciding what rating to give this collection. Two of the novellas were near perfect, one was kind of lame, and the last one was such complete trash I'd almost rather believe it was written as a satire of romance novels. Still, I am going to try and focus on the stronger stories, so I bumped the rating up a little.
The first story, loosely centered around the element "Air" and also very loosely a reimagining of the Cinderella myth, is called "Bargain with the Wind," and is written by Sharon Shinn. It is the reason I bought this collection, and it really impressed me. Shinn's writing style is fairly simple and a little weak, but she excels at creating characters that the reader cares about. This story is some of her strongest work in some time, nearly at the level of her Campbell Award-winning first novel, The Shape-Changer's Wife. Like that novel, it also ends with a melancholy, haunting beauty that lingered in my mind for some time.
The second novella is very loosely centered around the element "Earth." "Birthright," by Jean Johnson, was the story I found a bit lame. It felt pulled in two directions -- there was too much romance to have enough time building the world and setting up the plot, but there was so much plot (and a rather weak plot to boot) that Johnson skipped all the most interesting parts of the romance: the actual falling in love. Her characters meet, want each other, spend a month together that the reader doesn't get to see at all, then fall into bed (or in this case a bathing pool) with each other and are ready to pledge their undying love. Still, it moved quickly, and the bathing pool scene walked the fine line between being R-rated and X-rated carefully enough that it was titillating rather than either horrifying or ludicrous.
The third novella is the strongest. Centered around "water" and set in the world of her major trilogy, "Unmasking" by Carol Berg was a revelation. I had read Berg's standalone novel Song of the Beast and wasn't terribly impressed; it read quickly, but I forgot it almost as soon as I finished it. This novella caused me to go out and get the first novel in her Rai-Kirah trilogy immediately on its strength alone. There is nothing flashy about her writing style, but it is serviceable and there is no clunkiness as there sometimes is in Sharon Shinn's writing; but the strength in this story is her characterization. It is the shortest of the novellas in this collection, yet its characters are the ones I will remember the longest -- the inhabit a world I can picture perfectly, they are multi-faceted, and the protagonist faces quite a few hard choices with wonderfully realized courage and grace. While the romance takes up very little time, it made my heart ache. Truly an impressive work.
The fourth novella is sadly the weakest by far, and left a horrible taste in my mouth after Berg's small masterpiece. Centered around "Fire" -- and much more literal an interpretation of the element than the other three novellas -- "Huntress Moon" by Rebecca York was disgustingly inadequate from the very first page. The characters make no sense, the world-building is trite and nearly non-existent, the plot is hackneyed, and the content is. . . well, I have to say that I don't read romance novels. I will admit to some snobbishness about them. But I never really believed that someone (and a woman no less!) could write such utter filth, and that other people (women!!!) could enjoy it. It is a horrifying tale of a girl buying into her own destruction wholeheartedly. The main character agrees to become a sex slave with the hope of saving her mother and is instantly swooning over her purchaser. Their sex is described graphically (but not at all sexily) and repeatedly, and then they are magically brought together by several coincidences, the evil-doers are conveniently routed, a couple of slaves are freed (but of course, not all of them can be, that would be a sign of weakness -- but by the way, when did Zarah learn to care about slavery? it isn't shown in the text), and everyone lives happily ever after. I only kept reading after the first two pages because I didn't feel qualified to review it if I didn't finish it. I strongly recommend anyone else picking up this collection to simply cut the pages out of the book and burn them.
Still, if I ignore the fourth novella, this is a strong collection -- one brilliant story, one excellent story, and one that is adequate. I will take my own advice and burn Rebecca York's novella, and then I can absolutely place this collection on my keeper shelf.(less)
This was a deeply disappointing collection for me. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first reason is that, to borrow Jo Walton's phrasing, the init...moreThis was a deeply disappointing collection for me. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first reason is that, to borrow Jo Walton's phrasing, the initial volume in any of Shinn's series always blows me away, then each successive volume is only half as good as the one before. Two of the four novellas in this volume are set in the worlds of Shinn's two longest series, and those two novellas have reached only homeopathically good territory. The second reason is that I just don't think Shinn is capable of writing stories with the sort of thematic freight she attempted here -- the two non-series novellas are drawn from two of her more message-heavy novels, and the two series novellas attempt to address some of the seriously thorny issues inherent but not really addressed in her previous world-building.
Still, it's the sort of volume that if you are a Sharon Shinn completist, you simply have to read it. And since her prose is always pleasant and easy to read it goes very, very quickly.
Flight (set in Samaria, just before Archangel) This was by far the worst story in the bunch. It features the return of Raphael as the Biggest of all Big Bads, doing evil just because he can; a really, really, really clunky and histrionic speech about the evils of a system where women are only valued because they can produce angel babies; and a completely forced romance. I rather wish I could erase my memory of it.
Blood (set in the world of Heart of Gold) The novel this is based on is one of the few by Shinn that I have never re-read; though I don't remember disliking it nothing about it ever stood out enough in my memory that I wanted to revisit it. So this was the one case where I could not tell what information was new for the novella and what was a reference to the novel, which probably made it feel fresher than it would have otherwise. It too features some clunky speachifying on the evils of a patriarchal system, but there is a greater focus on the budding friendship between Kerk and Jalci, a very Hollywood but still somewhat heartwarming set of scenes at a sort of shelter for abused women and their children, and an actual honest-to-goodness moment of heartbreak and moral ambiguity. That moment gets completely ruined a moment later when Jalci recasts everything as black and white, but it made the story worthwhile for me. I think this was the best of the bunch.
Gold (set in the world of Summers at Castle Auburn) I think this novella would actually work better for people who have not read the novel. If you have not read the novel, it's a fairly straightforward story about the dangers of living in fairyland -- not a particularly memorable entry into that canon of literature, but I happen to like those stories with their depictions of dangerous beauty. If you have read the novel, as I have (though not tremendously recently), something about the story just doesn't quite seem to match what came before -- I spent the whole time trying to figure out what on earth happened in the interim to twist the recurring characters' motivations to this result. The story also featured a tremendously whiny teenage girl protagonist, and again the romance seemed forced.
Flame (set in the Twelve Houses, just before Mystic and Rider) Senneth is my second-favorite of all of Shinn's characters (right after Jovieve in Wrapt in Crystal) and Shinn went a fair way to ruining her for me in this story. Here she is wishy-washy and whiny or self-righteous by turns. Because of the difference in her character, I assumed that the story was set several years before Mystic and Rider; I would believe that this teenage Senneth would grow into the wonderful Senneth I so loved. Unfortunately, Shinn then made it explicit that Senneth went straight from the events of this story into the events of Mystic and Rider, so my interpretation was invalidated and I was left feeling merely annoyed. Plus the resolution was completely predictable (which is problematic because the story is set up as a pseudo-mystery rather than a romance) and again there were far too many soapbox moments. (It's bad to burn witches. I know this already.)(less)
This is a decent collection, pleasing throughout but not excellent and likely not terribly memorable. Needless to say, I come at it from the fantasy e...moreThis is a decent collection, pleasing throughout but not excellent and likely not terribly memorable. Needless to say, I come at it from the fantasy end of the spectrum, and I suspect that fantasy readers will be more pleased by it than romance readers, for only one of the stories properly delivers the happily ever after ending that the romance genre demands. Still, as mind candy it works admirably well, and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon reading it.
I picked the anthology up for the first story, Patricia McKillip's "The Gorgon in the Cupboard." It is also the best in the book -- so good, in fact, that it was later included in the Science Fiction Book Club's anthology The Best Short Novels: 2005. It is a story about Harry, a struggling painter desperately in love with his mentor's beautiful wife, and Jo, a girl destitute and forsaken on the streets after several hard turns of fortune. The fantasy element comes into play when Harry pulls out a painting he never finished because his model disappeared and paints his mentor's wife's mouth onto it in a fit of despondency that he will never be able to create a work worthy of her; he is understandably shocked when the mouth comes to life and begins to speak to him. That is the only fantasy element obvious in the story (though it is a rather glaring one); the setting is vague and paintings speaking are clearly not a common occurrance. The romance is also very slight. This is because what the story is really about is perception, the ways that we see what we want rather than what is. It's gossamer-light, yet far richer than it seems on the surface, wise and sensitive to the myriad ways life is fragile and bittersweet, particularly for women. It is stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks (reading-wise) beautiful.
The second story, Lynn Kurland's "The Tale of Two Swords," is the one I suspect romance readers will be happiest with, and it made me smile and roll my eyes in equal amounts (often at the same time). It made me roll my eyes for more reasons than I can count -- the self-conscious modern fairy tale narration (complete with "In which [blank happens:]" as the title of each chapter); the combination of hopelessly modern actions on the characters' part even as they speak in hopelessly archaic (and likely inaccurate) dialogue; the fact that the man has just lost his family and his kingdom in an epic battle, the woman has a price on her head, and all they do is frolic in the forest getting muddy. It also doesn't have time to even get to the two swords part of the title -- the story is entirely the romance component (and the true happily ever after ending). I believe the story is something of a prequel to one of Kurland's ongoing series, so perhaps the two swords part is dealt with in one of the novels. However, despite all those things that irked me, I still couldn't help liking the characters and liking their romance, so I suppose Kurland did her job well. (Should I hate myself a little for falling for it?)
The third story, Sharon Shinn's "Fallen Angel," is the one romance readers will have the most trouble with, and it may even be hard for fantasy readers that are unfamiliar with Shinn's Samaria series. It's set ten years after the end of Archangel (and even has a fairly toothless cameo by the Archangel Gabriel) and Shinn seems to assume that the reader has enough background knowledge of her books that she doesn't need to explain the slightly unusual way Samaria works. Unfortunately, this has led to some readers calling the story sacrilegous, because they have no context for this tale of angels behaving badly. For those who want to read the story and don't have that context, please keep in mind that the angels are nothing more than humans with wings -- they are not actually the angels of Christian mythology. Even more unfortunately, "Fallen Angel" just doesn't quite work as either fantasy or romance -- as I already mentioned, Shinn doesn't give enough grounding in the fantasy world-building to satisfy those fans, and the romance is decent (if of the "ooo, what a sexy bad boy" variety) only until the ending totally destroys suspension of disbelief with an out-of-left-field resolution that heaps all the evils in the world on one head. Still, I didn't hate the story, because it actually starts to address some of the thornier side of the world of Samaria -- the sort of chaos that can ensue when a ruling class with a free love worldview comes into conflict with a merchant class with very strict rules of propriety.
The fourth story, Claire Delacroix's "An Elegy for Melusine," is a retelling of the Melusine myth. It hews very closely to the story as described on Wikipedia (I wasn't overly familiar with the myth, so I looked it up, lol) and is rendered in serviceable enough prose that the myth's full power shines through. It has a totally unnecessary framing story, unfortunately, but other than that I quite liked it. However, romance readers should again be warned: the myth does not have a particularly happy ending.(less)
This is one of McKinley's strongest works to date, and it makes me laugh to think that she essentially wrote it on a dare. From what she's said on her...moreThis is one of McKinley's strongest works to date, and it makes me laugh to think that she essentially wrote it on a dare. From what she's said on her website, she had no love for the sleeping beauty myth -- after all, the princess spends it completely useless and out of the action, exactly opposite McKinley's usual heroines. The story she crafted in response to the fairy tale beautifully recasts the outside of the tale (the curse, the fairy godmothers, the spelled sleep, and rose hedge) with a new interior, upending the usual story into one in which the princess is a real person that the reader cares deeply for -- and a person who is instrumental in her own salvation, rather than a bystander to it.
But beyond the female empowerment coming-of-age tale are the glimpses of depth all of McKinley's best stories have: explorations of what family means, and the necessity of acting with courage and compassion even when it may leave you vulnerable to dark forces. The moments I loved best about this novel are when McKinley shows us that even the best ending, the one that leaves everyone happiest, may still have unexpected sharp edges, little bits of pain that come with gaining a great victory at the cost of something you didn't necessarily value in the first place. The unexpected resolution to the story (even more unexpected because it continues to remain true to the outside form of the sleeping beauty fairy tale) is brilliant and winning and just the tiniest bit bittersweet.
Even laying aside how wonderful the novel ends, it is a joy from start to finish. It has more humor than any other McKinley work, and the Gig (and Woodwold within it) is certainly one of McKinley's most delightful worlds. For those who have read her obsessively (as I have) there are even hints that this is Damar, the world of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, many generations later, and it is implied that the princess' mother comes from the kingdom that Lissar settled in in Deerskin. On rereading, I am even further convinced that this is one of my favorite novels of all time.(less)
For those readers who have never read McKinley before, who exist on a diet of paranormal romance or Laurell K. Hamilton or Anne Rice or Twilight, I sa...moreFor those readers who have never read McKinley before, who exist on a diet of paranormal romance or Laurell K. Hamilton or Anne Rice or Twilight, I say you must read Sunshine. The world McKinley creates in this novel goes well beyond the edges of the page, and it only gets richer on rereading. The characters have width and depth and color and not a single one is simple or easy to understand. The narrative voice is pitch-perfect, the themes of light and dark and blood and cleanliness always serving the story and adding depth. Best of all, it makes its vampires feel new, not least by avoiding making them sexy and glamorous but rather, well, undead.
For those who are avid readers of McKinley -- as I am -- Sunshine is on the surface a wild departure from her other works, but in its bones is the culmination of everything that came before. It has the requisite McKinley heroine: mistrusted and awkward, struggling to carve out an unconventional place only to have that place snatched away by events out of her control, but ultimately discovering herself and her past just in time to meet the darkness seeking her. It has the love of myth and fairy tale that led McKinley to retell the Robin Hood myth, retell the story of Sleeping Beauty, and retell Beauty and the Beast not once, but twice. It has the necessity of going on after the climactic battle, starting to put the pieces of a life back together when all has been torn apart multiple times, the sense of hope that it is possible warring with the sense that the person inside has changed too much to fit in any normal happy life from now on.
Most of all, it has many, many echoes of Deerskin, which I consider to be McKinley's greatest work, from the blood imagery to the rediscovering and reinventing oneself bit by bit to the doubt that ones resources won't be enough to overcome all the evil in the world. Especially affecting and evocative for me was the line "Sun-self, tree-self, deer-self. Don't they outweigh the dark self?" that Sunshine begins to repeat to herself like a mantra. Each time she says it it has a slightly different meaning.
There are some things McKinley does in this novel better than she has done in any other. The climactic battle scene is her most coherent and cohesive, even when I was tempted to speed through it because I so desperately wanted to reach the end. Sunshine's narrative voice, already mentioned, makes her a more approachable heroine than any of McKinley's other heroines, which makes her peril and her self-doubt all the realer (though that distancing McKinley mastered for Deerskin's third-person voice was probably necessary given how harrowing that novel is). It is jarring if you go in expecting McKinley's usual high fantasy narration, but it just gets better the deeper into the story you go. There is also more humor in Sunshine than I think there is in any other McKinley novel, and it is always found in the lightest doses when things get blackest.
All in all, the more times I read Sunshine the more I am convinced that it is a near-perfect book. None of McKinley's novels race along (well, until the climax) but I always find the slower parts necessary resting times, times to catch my breath and assimilate all that went on in the last battle (be it internal or external). It is undoubtedly an adult novel like none of McKinley's other novels are -- there is quite a bit of violence and one brief explicitly sexual scene. But it is a rich and worthwhile read that ages well, and I hope it continues to find a wide audience.(less)
Through the first three quarters of this novel, I was very much enjoying it. It seemed a curious throwback in McKinley's cannon, more akin to The Hero...moreThrough the first three quarters of this novel, I was very much enjoying it. It seemed a curious throwback in McKinley's cannon, more akin to The Hero and the Crown than more recent works like Sunshine or Dragonhaven. It was again in a sort of distant third-person limited replete with lyrical imagery, and very much like The Hero and the Crown it completely ignored the convention of telling its story linearly. It was also set in a beautiful imaginary world that felt small but deep -- geographically it covered maybe 50 square miles (minuscule for a fantasy novel) but it felt like there was history there going back hundreds of years.
I loved the political system McKinley imagined, magically tied to the land and thus chosen by the land itself. Again very much like The Hero and the Crown, very little about the setting is ever spelled out for the reader: we see the role of the Chalice because Mirasol spends the novel trying to embody it, but the Master, the Grand Seneschal, and the rest of the circle are left in shadow. All we know about them is what we are able to glean from the corner of our eyes and our common sense knowledge of language (the titles are, after all, descriptive). I found this refreshing; it's wearying at times to read modern fantasy novels that spend page after page lovingly detailing their world but without actually using that world in their plot. None of the Circle had a major role, so giving the reader a prosaic job description for each of them would have broken the point of view (Mirasol knows what they do, so she doesn't need to think about their day to day tasks at any point) and would therefore have been pure indulgence on the author's part (a way of saying "look at what I made!").
And of course, like all McKinley novels, it is a Beauty and the Beast tale.
Unfortunately, while in The Hero and the Crown all the digressions and flashbacks subtly build to a climax that is moving and wondrous, in Chalice the ending feels abrupt, almost anti-climactic. Just as we are fitting the characters into their world and feeling the tension starting to rise toward some final showdown, the showdown is over and we are given a happily ever after that doesn't feel deserved. Mirasol never has to make a hard choice like Aerin does, her beast is magically transformed back to a man, and we are left saying "huh?" It really feels as though McKinley simply didn't know how to end her story, so she pasted some images together and sent it off to her publisher.
Still, none of McKinley's writing is ever unpleasant to read, and even if the ending fell flat, the rest of the novel was very much McKinley in top form. Like all McKinley novels it also leaves the reader wanting a sequel, wanting many sequels really, so we can peer longer into all the delightful little corners we glimpsed here. A sequel is highly unlikely, given McKinley's track record, but that craving indicates how good a writer she is, even when the novel isn't her best.(less)
This is a melancholy book, both because of its subject matter and because it is likely the last Kage Baker book I will ever see published, given her d...moreThis is a melancholy book, both because of its subject matter and because it is likely the last Kage Baker book I will ever see published, given her death last January. The speculative fiction field is lessened by her loss, and this book is a reminder of exactly why.
I suspect I will be in the minority in holding this opinion. It's a slight book, both in length and in that it is one in which not a whole lot happens. The heavy-duty world-building went on in the previous two novels, and this one is essentially nothing more than a gentle coming-of-age travelogue and romance. It has a likeable young protagonist, some light adventure, some not-very-dark secrets, and a happy ending. All of that is usually enough for a young adult audience, which is why I think it will work best when aimed at that reading level.
But that's just the gloss, the stuff the publisher sees (based on the jacket description which, as always with Baker's novels, spoils some things better left unspoiled and gets other things completely wrong). At its core this novel is just as subversive as the two that came before in this gloriously zany fantasy world -- unlike 95% of fantasy written today, it is a novel about the commonplace events that make up the lives of the vast majority of people inhabiting any world, real or imagined. It very gently paints a portrait of the lower classes, the working (and non-working) poor, whose lives are counted so negligibly by the characters portrayed in most fantasy novels. It's about the everyday tragedies of a hard life, and the way small lives get swallowed up by large ones, and the difference that creates in perception.
There is a beautiful passage between Eliss and Krelan where they talk about the way they see the universe. Krelan, living amongst the nobility his entire life, waxes on about how ordered the world is, the strict hierarchies keeping everyone in balance, in their place. And Eliss, whose idea of luxury is eating at a Red House (an establishment Krelan thinks terribly declasse) breaks in to say "But there isn't any balance. That's just made up. A Diamondcut can end up dead in the river mud, and a demon can fall in love with a goddess. Things just happen. Sometimes they're even good things."
That viewpoint is exactly the viewpoint so often missing from fantasy worlds. This loosely related trilogy, no matter its outer trappings, has always been about the value in seeking happiness, in forming families, in striving to be true to individuals rather than principles, and in enjoying life today, because it is a fragile thing. And that message, when delivered in such a gently beguiling way, is one I hope resonates with everyone who reads it.(less)