Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Quatrain" by Shraon Shinn

A few years ago, my good friend at Half Price Books sent me a little paperback called "Archangel" by the author Sharon Shinn. I was flummoxed as to why, since I had seen this same title several times in my years there at the store; the darn thing never seemed to sell. I certainly never felt the urge to read it, either, so I was just going to skip it. But the good friend insisted that I at least try it, saying it was a very, very good book, and not to be put off by the blah cover art, the list of characters on the inside, or the map of this strange world the author had created. Sigh. I finally gave in - and doggone it, she was right. That was a fabulous book, and I loved it so much that I read the other four books in the series. As you can guess, when I learned that Shinn had put out this work of novellas that re-visit some of her worlds, including Samaria from "Archangel", I couldn't wait to read it. I'm going to review the stories for you in the order I read them, rather than the order they appear in the book. Stick with me, and you'll see why...

I did what I almost always do and started with the shortest of the four (not that it's that much shorter, just a few pages, but this is a weird quirk I have - reading shortest to longest). "Gold" tells the tale of Crown Princess Zara, a young girl who is sent away from her father's castle to keep her safe from an impending war. She is sent to the kingdom of Alora while her brother is sent elsewhere; her parents know that it's better to split up the children in such a troubled time. She travels to Alora with Orlain, a good young man (not of noble birth, though) whom she has a crush on. Once in Alora, Zara must keep her wits about her; often humans visit the aliora only to stay forever with them, enchanted by the strange yet beautiful beings. Zara's mother has mixed her a month's worth of potions that she must drink every night so as not to fall under the aliora's spell. Does Zara do as she's told? Does she fall for the handsome aliora named Royven? Will she return to Castle Auburn when it's safe again? Sadly, there are no surprises here. In fact, this is by far the weakest story of the four, so much so that had this been my introduction to Shinn, I would have stopped right there and sent the book back. Thank goodness I knew better! However, I can say that I will not be looking for the "Summers at Castle Auburn", the book that introduced her readers to the aliora. I thought they were just too cliche - the uber-beautiful fae that can make you forget all your troubles (indeed, even your former life) and want to stay in their world forever. Barf.

Things picked up with "Blood", the second novella in the book. This is more like it - two clashing cultures, one patriarchal, the other matriarchal. A man and a woman from each culture meet and form a bond, not necessarily a romantic one, but a close one nevertheless. Kerk is a gulden man who lives with his step-mother, her husband, and their children. His own mother left Gold Mountain when Kerk was a child; his father remarried, then died. His step-mother made some wise moves so that Kerk wouldn't end up homeless, and it's obvious that she loves him, but he still longs to find his biological mother. His memories of her are faint, but he knows where she fled - the Lost City. It is there that he meets Jalciana, an indigo woman who has been helping the gulden women who flee their abusive husbands. Jalci is rich and privileged, and as an indigo, she has the power and the prestige. She offers to help Kerk find his mother, but tells him it won't be easy - the Lost City is called that for a reason. Women who have run their don't want to be found; their new lives are too precious to them. Kerk and Jalci form a bond, one that you'd love to see turn into a full-blown romance. Wisely, Shinn leaves us hanging on that count. And as she did in the Samaria books, neither culture is all-good or all-evil; she infuses each with the subtle nuances that keep from devolving into caricature.

"Flame" introduced me to the world of the Twelve Houses, and to Senneth, a mystic who can control fire. Not only can she create it, but she can also control it, including killing it. It's a very handy talent, letting her do things like warm the air around her so that she's never cold, bring a cup of tea up to temperature (something I'd love to be able to do), etc. But in this world, it's always dangerous to reveal your talents - mystics scare the common folk, often risking death from the villagers. Senneth is drawn into a more "normal" life by a well-meaning friend. She's given a nice dress, a haircut, and is thrown a small dinner party by said friend. There she meets a group of people from a nearby village, including Degarde, his sister Julia and her daughter Halie, as well as Albert and his wife Betony. When Albert starts discussing his difficult business dealings with the Lirrenfolk, Senneth offers him advice. Albert is so impressed he asks her to come along with him to "help", which she eventually (and very reluctantly) does. While visiting with Albert and her new "friends", small fires start in the village. Senneth puts them out, saving the town, but of course, at a price - there are those in the town that claim she is the one starting the blazes. Can she find the real culprit before she faces greater danger? A very solid if somewhat non-exciting story.

Finally, we come to the best, which is why I saved it for last, both in this review and in my reading order. I knew I wanted to wait to read about Samaria again, sort of draw out the anticipation, and I was right to do so. "Flight" was like visiting old friends - delightful. Salome lives and works on a farm, taking care of her almost-grown niece Sheba. She has a dull but good life. So she is none too happen to learn that angels have heard the pleas for a weather intervention (you'll have to read the series to understand - for now, just go with it); not only have they stopped the rain, they have decided to stay and attend a celebration dinner. Salome had her fill of angels when she was young, and these angels in particular make her dread the evening. She tries to stay in the kitchen as much as possible so as not to see any of them, but all her caution is for naught - she runs into the Archangel himself, Raphael, when she sneaks into the kitchen for a midnight snack. Salome warns Raphael away from Sheba, indeed, away from all the young girls at the farm; he just laughs. The angels do leave, which relieves Salome greatly, and she and her niece make plans to go with friends from the farm to a festival in nearby Laban. Unfortunately, there are angels there as well, including one that Salome knows very, very well from her past - Stephen. It's a bittersweet reunion, and there's trouble almost as soon as they reconnect; Sheba goes missing. Salome knows exactly where she is, and she must ask Stephen for help in rescuing her. This is Shinn at her best, and I fell back into the arms of the angels with a great gladness. In fact, I want to go back and read the books again, try to find the first time that Salome is introduced, because I'm almost certain that I've read about her before. Not from her first-person narrative, but through the eyes of another character, I'm sure. What a wonderful way to end this book - I knew there was a reason I saved it for last! (sort of like dessert...)

Overall, this is a solid offering of Shinn's work, all but the story "Gold", which you could easily skip over. The other three are enough to make me want to read the books that started them, or re-read them, as the case may be.


Wendy said...

Being that I am said friend, and being that I am so often right about such things, don't you think maybe you should give the Gabaldon series a try now? :)

Traci (aka the Bookbabe) said...

You do make a very valid point. Hmm.... perhaps I should give it a try, huh? OK, put it on my TBR list - which means I might not get to it right away, ya know. That list is getting mighty long!!!