Friday, November 12

Quatrain - Sharon Shinn

This is a collection of four novellas, each set in one of Shinn’s universes.
Flight is a story of Samaria, a land where angels intercede with Jehovah when sickness, drought or flood afflict the populace, and giving birth to an angel is almost the only way for a woman to rapidly raise her status.
Salome is content with her life in a small town, a life she has devoted to raising her niece, Sheba; it’s not an exciting life, but Salome has had enough excitement to last her a lifetime. The arrival of three angels in the village is cause for great excitement, particularly among the young women – the angels’ beauty is surpassed only by their voices, and every girl hopes an angel will be smitten by her and whisked away to Windy Peak or another angle enclave.
Sheba is particularly restless, despite the affections of David, a local boy who loves he and who is a steadying influence. Salome sleeps in Sheba’s room, to prevent her sneaking to an angel in the night, and she tries to warn the girls that life as an angel seeker is not the glamorous and easy time they imagine. Yet she knows they will not listen, the same way she would not have listened before she left home to learn for herself about depravity she could never have imagined. “Flight” takes place just before the archangel Raphael is scheduled to step aside for his successor, Gabriel, and is a beautiful encapsulation of the rest of the series in miniature – the writing is coherent and believable, the characters vivid and rounded, we learn a little more about the world and its peoples, there are two romances, and there is betrayal, redemption, and a very satisfying ending.
We also learn more about the risks angel seekers take – a very high miscarriage rate, ninety percent likelihood of a human child if the pregnancy continues, and a thirty percentage chance of dying if the baby is angelic. And nobody cares about the non-angelic children, often not even their mothers; as we’ve seen in other books, the towns at the base of each enclave ran wild with unwanted, abandoned children. This is an aspect I hope will be a central focus in a future novel, but here, as in the rest of the series, it’s just an accepted and unquestioned fact. Yet the absence of discussion about this apparently inevitable aspect of Samarian life in no way detracts from the pleasure and engagement I had with “Flight.”

In Blood a young gulden, Kerk Socast, travels with his family through Geldricht from Golden Mountain to a city that houses all three races. With his father dead, his step-mother Tess remarried, and his step-mother’s husband’s eldest son Makk nearing his majority, Kerk’s position is fragile; he may legally be cast aside, a fact he has been aware of ever since his mother took his younger sister and fled Golden Mountain. It is his hope that, while away from the work he does for Brolt Barzhan, he may be able to find his mother.
I was unacquainted with the Geldricht universe, introduced in Heart of Gold, and this glimpse of it was fascinating. Kerk is bronze haired, golden skinned, and speaks goldtongue, a circumlocutory formal language that reflects the stratified, codified and rule-bound culture of the gulden. As a fatherless man Kerk has low status, though not as low as an unmarried, unattached woman. Resolutely patriarchal, gulden society grants men absolute power over their family members – females indefinitely, and males until they reach their majority at the age of twelve.
The Inrhio people are blue of skin and dark of hair, speak the more direct bluetongue, and have greater gender equality. We learn less about them than the Geldricht because, though third person, “Blood” is very much Kerk’s story. We take away almost nothing of the third race, who are albino, not even their name.
There are other elements here, including a very nice riff on the cruelty of older siblings toward younger ones that, as an eldest child, articulated a reality I wish I could share knowledge of with my youngest sibling – the only one who didn’t have that impulse. And twinned with that aspect of siblinghood is the delight and enduring love of siblings, the deep connection and wholeness of that relationship. I so liked the world that I’ve requested Heart of Gold and will be reading it shortly.

Gold is set some years after Summers at Castle Auburn. In the aftermath of the death of Prince Bryan, a peace has settled, but now a claimant for the throne has arisen in Tragonia, and he marches on the castle. As heirs to the throne, Princess Zara and her younger brother Keeson are in jeopardy and have been sent off in different directions for the duration of the battle. Orlain, a knight, is taking Zara to the aliori, a race of otherworldly creatures known to ensorcel humans. Vulnerable to gold, Zara has been draped in jewelery for her protection – earrings, bracelets, and a necklace welded closed in case, despite her protestations to the contrary, she tries to remove it herself. In addition her mother has provided Zara with potions to take each night, potions that will remind her of herself and her home.
I found “Gold” the weakest of the four stories, in no small part because of the realistic but unsympathetic self-centredness of Zara - she’s undisciplined and thinks rarely of others. The time she spends with aliori is appropriately dreamlike and bewitching, but I just didn’t really connect with the character or the story, and the ending felt unsatisfactory and, though inevitable, unlikely.

Flame is a prequel to the quartet of Gillengaria novels that tell of the uprising against King Baryn. Senneth is a mystic who has the gift of fire – she can raise and quench flames, and create a false fire that wreaths but does not harm living flesh or property. Though for the most part requiring only direction and force of will, she has learned that the combination of anger and magic wielding exerts a toll, and as the story opens she is recovering from a crippling migraine, this time caused not by emotion but by the fierce concentration needed to ensure that only the contaminated cottages burned, while the neighbouring homes lit up, a task complicated by a driving rain and sodden timber.
Senneth travels relentlessly, both unwilling and unable to call any place home. Since being banished from her marlord father’s home, she takes care not to stay too long with anyone, nor to put too heavy a strain on any friendship. Despite this, and despite the gratitude of the villagers that she burned cottages where quarantined people died – cottages too close to other building to be safely burned in any other way, and too contagious for villagers to pull down – it takes very little for the mob sentiment to turn. When spontaneous fires begin igniting, Senneth is draped in moonstones, which burn mystics, and locked in a bedroom, awaiting judgment.
“Flame” not only captures the distrust and fear of ordinary people encountering mystics but, more importantly, introduces Senneth to the people who will become her family, including her future husband. She already knows shapeshifter Kirra Dannalustrous, a fellow marlady but one accepted by her unconventional father, and she knows Kirra’s companion, who also transforms his physique, Donnal. The novella also acquaints Seenth with the valuable knowledge that she, alone of mystics, does not feel a burn when touched with moonstone, a fact that becomes important later in the series. But it is her introduction to King’s Rider Tayse that is the most rewarding for readers of the series, particularly the penultimate line:

She could already tell she was fated to have his escort for the rest of her trip.
- Alex

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