Well, the summer was just as busy as expected. I did get to write my reviews, but only on legal pads. I realize that doesn't do any of you any good, so I'm in the process of transcribing them. For an updated list of what I have read, see the GoodReads link on the right hand side.
After reading the Iron Druid series, I was all hyped up on magic. I also had given myself a deadline. The last time I had borrowed a "few" (around a dozen or more) books from my friends "Shannanna", it took me the better part of three years to return them. When I last visited them in March, returning the last of the previously borrowed tomes, I was handed a whole new series. So after completing the Iron Druid books, in April, I decided to spend the month of May working my way through my rented fiction, which was also heavy into magic, though of a different kind.
Officially titled the Twelve Houses series, by Sharon Shinn, I've taken to calling them the Mystic & Rider series, after the first book; it was just easier to remember that way. Unlike the urban setting of the Iron Druid books, this series is pure fantasy, set against the backdrop of an entirely fabricated universe. There is even a map, though it is small and hard to read, clearly an image rendered in black and white from color. Given that I love geography, and I believe it can only enhance a story to have a map for readers to follow along on, if you are going to provide one, make sure it is clear an detailed enough to be read accurately. Ok, I'm putting away the soapbox, for now.
In this particular world, there is a country (continent? island?) called Gillengaria, and it is divided into twelve fiefdoms who owe loyalty to the king in the royal city. These fiefdoms are each ruled by a noble family, and they own the land in trust for the king. The problem begins when certain nobles decide the king is getting old, and it might be worthwhile to stage a coup. They argue that the king's heir (the princess) is a recluse, and that he is unlikely to have another child with his second wife. There are rumors that his queen is a mystic, a practioner of magic. The first book starts here, as a group of mystics and King's Riders (an elite guard chosen by the king) are sent out to gather information on the state of unrest growing throughout the kingdom.
Mystic & Rider is a Nancy Kerrigan. The book is technically flawless; it has all the components to a fantasy novel that I enjoy. However, it lacks passion, an emotional tie-in that pulls me along by the short hairs. For the first hundred pages, even the author seems mildly confused as to why they are on a mission. Once everyone gets over their awkwardness, and the author has a clearer idea of where the story is going, the reading gets easier. The story moves along great, though the romantic scenes are still somewhat stilted and uncomfortable, as though the author was trying not to write about falling in love, even though that was where the characters were going.
The counterargument to this viewpoint is that the author was trying to express the amount of restraint the characters themselves feel. The two main characters are extremely rigid in their self-control; they ARE stilted and reserved as they fall in love. While this seems a valid argument, I think that the author could have written it better. You can be rigid and yet still emote other feelings. It seems to me that the author was the one uncomfortable with voicing the emotions, not the characters.
However, in The Thirteenth House, there is almost a complete role-reversal, and all the control is stripped away. The characters fall heavily in love against the backdrop of court intrigue, and the passion is bubbling out of the pages. The fear and unrest in Gillengaria continues to rise, and the king decides to send the princess on a tour of the noble houses during the height of the social season.
Focusing on a different member of the group from the first book, the author continues to examine the definition of love. The main character is a mystic, with the power to change her shape. Because of this, her family asks her to assume her sister's identity and go on tour with the princess. Through this guise she falls in love with the regent, who is uncle to the princess, and a married man. His temperament is similar to hers, and as tempestuous people do, they fall madly in love.
Unfortunately, it is only a momentary happiness. Her most faithful companion, steadfastly in love with her, cannot bear to watch her in love with another man. Her other companions try to get her to reconsider. Rumors begin to flow, saying the regent is compromising her sister's virtue. And then there is his wife, who is by all accounts a good person. Who suffers the most from love? Is it always a bitter pill when happiness is found?
I've entertained arguments that the foil of the regent was a false entity, that he was a bit of a cad. To that I say, everyone falls in love sometimes, even those who don't seem to deserve it. Also I don't think he was a bad guy. I think he was a good representation of the ultimate temptation; he was everything she thought she wanted, and she couldn't have it. The love she could have, she had taken for granted. There are a lot of hard choices in that situation, and I sympathize fully.
The third book is Dark Moon Defender. This isn't a Western, not that I care for that genre at all. However, it reminds me a good deal of a cowboy story. The country is still in quiet turmoil, and a war seems imminent. The king sends out one of his loyal Riders on a mission to gather intelligence about the religious fanaticism that seems to be sweeping the populace and pushing for the destruction of all mystics.
I can't explain why, but this story honestly seems like a John Wayne movie. The heroine is strong, yet in need of protection from those who pretend to car for her. The hero is a rough and rowdy sort, a street tough turned loyal soldier. He wants to save her from the evil surrounding her, and she is the softness he never had. They are a good match, the hard stone and the soft spot, a proper balance to each other.
However, it is the last book that actually solves all the mysteries (well, obviously). Reader and Raelynx brings the story arc to its final conclusion. In this case, there is no avoiding the impending civil war. The strange qualities observed in both the princess and the queen are defined, and a very unlikely lovematch occurs between a commoner mystic and the princess herself. As is the case with epic fantasy like this, good triumphs in the end, but not without a very heavy price. No one comes out unscathed, though for some the change is a new beginning.
Technically there is a fifth book, Fortune and Fate, which shows the aftermath of the war, though the focus is on a side character and not one of the original members of the companions in the first four books. It was good, though in a way it felt like a four hundred page epilogue at times. It tied up some of the loose ends that were left, and the whole thing was smoothly done.
This series was very good as far as standard epic fantasy go. From my understanding, the author intended them to have a strong romantic edge. In this I would say there is some success and some failure. It was romantic insofar as the main characters eventually declared love for each other, and spent a lot of the book trying to understand each other and their own feelings. However, I'd say the scenes of "searing passion" were few and far between, and written by someone who did not want to offend anyone with said scenes of passion. It was like peaking through your fingers at kissing scenes in a PG13 movie when you're nine.
I know I've left out a lot of details, but that was to avoid any spoilers. However, if you're in the mood for some fantasy with a twist, take a look at this series. Now that I've returned it, I am tempted to buy it for myself (or at least put it on my wish list for the holidays).