Quatrain is a collection of, as the name suggests, four all-new novellas from Sharon Shinn. Each is set in a distinct world established from previous books, and each story stands firmly against the others. Shinn did an excellent job of varying the up four short pieces, not just the setting but also the characters and even the type of stories themselves.
Check out our lengthy interview with Sharon Shinn as well.
Two are love stories, and two are friendship stories (although one has intimations that more is possible); one involves a girl still discovering herself, one focuses on a young woman firmly grounded in her goals, and two feature women past the first reckless blush of youth; two are from blatant fantasy settings (read: full of magic), and two are from fantastic science fiction settings; two are sequels and two are prequels to other books; there are lost loves, new loves, and loves that have always been there but never bloomed; there are characters we’ve seen before and completely new personalities. In short, it has just a little bit of everything.
“Flying” takes place in Samaria, about a year and a half before Archangel. A reformed angel-seeker who had known Rafael years before finds her life overrun with angels whose very presence threatens to destroy all she has worked to build with her new life and her young niece.
“Blood” follows some years after the controversy stirred up by Heart of Gold. A young gulden man has moved to the city with his stepmother’s family. Once there he begins to search for the one kind of family tie he no longer has—blood kin. His mother ran off to the city years ago, but she may not want to be found….
“Gold” is set in the world of Summers at Castle Auburn and deals with the next generation. Queen Coriel’s daughter is sent into the magical kingdom of Alora for safekeeping when Auburn’s peace is under siege. Once there, she struggles to find an anchor strong enough to keep her from succumbing to the enchantment of the aliora.
“Flame” is the story with the most direct link to any other works. It is a prequel to Mystic and Rider and shows us exactly what Senneth was up to in the weeks before leaving on her tour of the Twelve Houses—saving a town from an untrained fire mystic and finding out that even magic used charitably can be met with suspicion.
Every single one of the stories is strong. In another kind of anthology—the kind where they would be pitted against other writers’ works and not each other—each would probably stand out as a favorite. Compared to one another…how do I pick my favorite?
Sweetest? “Flying.” The lost love story is romantic and piercing, while the deep maternal devotion to an impetuous young girl from someone who isn’t even her mother is uplifting and hopeful.
Most amusing? “Flame.” Possibly just because Senneth is a character that I know very well from having read a five-book series focused on her, but still. I had a smile on my face throughout this story (even when she was in trouble, because this was still the Senneth who could burn down a barn and have plenty left over for singeing the hair off trouble-makers), and the first meeting with Tayse had me shrieking with laughter.
Most beautifully written? “Gold.” The writing befit the dreamy magic of Alora, lyrical and sparkling and gorgeously rendered imaging. Like Princess Zara, I didn’t want to leave the fey kingdom behind.
Sharpest characters? “Blood.” Everyone in this story was fascinating, from Kerk and his diffident charity to the young gulden of the Lost City to his stepmother and her husband, who embody in a way not so clearly shown in Heart of Gold how loving the gulden society can really be, to the self-confident, headstrong Jalci who is like a happier version of her Aunt Kitrini at that same age, to the other gulden Kerk meets in the city.
I really enjoyed each of the stories collected here, and I absolutely loved the whole premise of the project. After such a long stretch in one world with the Twelve Houses series, I’m not sure I could have imagined a better way for Shinn to break out into something new (or, rather, old).
Quatrain is a fantastic Shinn Sampler. If you have heard about her but never read her work, these stories will give you a really good representation of the kinds of stories she writes and the type of worlds she creates. Or, if you have someone you would like to introduce to her writing, this collection is a good way to do that. Each of the stories is about a hundred pages, so less of a commitment for a skeptical reader than a full novel (or series) would be. And if you’re like me and already a fan, this set of stories reads like a reunion of old friends—comforting, amusing, and satisfying.
Sharon Shinn’s novel Fortune and Fate is another in her Twelve Houses series, although this one was not part of the original story arc. It did have the same group of characters from the main arc as minor characters here, but the story was about the aftermath of the war rather than the building up to and then fighting the war itself. It picked up two years after the last book (Reader and Raelynx) ended, and followed a minor character from the last book who had a life-changing event happen during that story.
I get too in-depth with details about places and names; it’s high fantasy, and the story is basically about a restless career soldier who finds herself tasked with creating a strong guard to protect a young woman set to inherit an important property and political position when she comes of age and who has recently been targeted by unkown violent faction(s). The soldier finds herself drawn to the girl’s legal guardian, and slowly develops a relationship with him above and beyond steward and captain of the guard.
The book had Shinn’s hallmarks–prickly woman, opposites attract love story, and some political considerations that give the story more of a plot than just “do they fall in love or don’t they?”–but with a slight spin. The usual style for Shinn’s opposites (and she has had a few like and like pairings, too, just to change things up) is the fiery antagonistic attraction. The Elizabeth and Darcy style of courtship through conflict. Fortune and Fate, however, took a different route, with a pair of lovers who were very different but quietly fascinated with each other rather than constantly at odds. I applaud the new tactic, but it fell a little bit short for me. I think this had to do more with the cross-purposes of developing a relationship beteen the two but keeping the larger plotline going. Because while we get to audit virtually every conversation they have regarding the girl’s safety or the potential enemies, we are only told about the many, many other hours they spend together. So it’s a case of telling and not showing, and so, for me, at least, when they get to the point of declaring themselves and acting on their attraction, it seemed kind of out of the blue even though supposedly it had been simmering this whole time.
On the other hand, the subplot of the young heiress (she’s 16 when the book opens) and her budding romance with a possibly unsuitable–or possibly perfect–man was more exciting and somehow better developed, even though it was a minor plot element. Maybe it just felt better developed because in the context of where it fit into the story, it was maximized, whereas the main love story was not?
Overall, though, I really enjoyed the book. The thing about the romance is a fairly minor criticism, because this was not a story I was really reading for the romance. I was much more interested in seeing what changes the end of the war had wrought on the land and the people within it, and I felt like that was explored beautifully. It’s actually not a scenario I’ve read too many times, even in fantasy, which is a genre famous for its catastrophic, world-ending battles. Presumably the putting back together of the world is too boring for most people? So I liked seeing this different aspect of the epic war.
As always, the writing was perfect. Not one typo; not one sentence I found myself re-writing. Shinn may not have a flashy style–though she does have an artist’s eye for imagery–but I find her amazingly readable. I can sink into the words and forget that I’m reading. For me, that is the best kind of narration for a story: a story that I can simply absorb without having to stop and sort through a hundred dependent clauses to decipher the meaning, or sit there and replace the string of ten large words with simple ones, or just step away from the story to admire the rhetorical flourishes like a peacock preening. Not that complex sentences and big words and clever writing don’t have their place (and not to imply that Shinn never uses them!), but, for me, in a storybook story, they can’t take over the prose to such an extent that it distracts from the story. And Shinn balances her writing quite beautifully; she writes elegantly but without ever pulling me out of the moment.
For me, this was a great book. But I don’t know that it would have the same resonance for someone who had not already read the first four books set in this world, so I doubt this will be a book I give to friends who decide they want to know what this Sharon Shinn is all about and why I love her so much. But if you’re already a Shinn fan, or if you’ve read the rest of the Twelve Houses books, this next installment is definitely one you’ll enjoy.
It feels weird to call this book vintage Shinn and mean it as the highest of all compliments, because I loved all five books in the Twelve Houses series, and last fall’s novella collection was a delight. But Troubled Waters was the first stand-alone book in a new world in a very long time, and it reminded me afresh why she’s my favorite author.
I went into this book without reading anything about it, not even the premise on the back, but I don’t think that made a difference in my reading experience: the main story establishes itself within a few chapters. Zoe’s once-influential-but-now-outcast father has died, and shortly after his funeral a man from the king’s court comes to her remote village to take her back to the capital city to be the fifth wife of the king. At first Zoe is too subsumed in her grief to care, but once they reach the city she realizes she cares enough about her life to know she would rather slip away and live on the outermost fringe of society than accept the king’s offer. As she rebuilds herself piece by piece, she comes to realize her heritage is much more than her father ever told her…more powerful than she had guessed and more necessary to the society as a whole than anyone had realized. But Zoe, having lived free of obligations and politics for so long, will not allow her destiny to control her—and that makes her more dangerous than anyone could have suspected. Most especially herself.
This wasn’t the most fast-paced novel Shinn has written, but it reads quickly, and the time it takes events to play out, even at a sometimes meandering pace, only makes Zoe’s journey both emotional and literal from where she starts to where she ends seem more real.
In terms of scope and basic outline, this book reminded me a lot of Summers at Castle Auburn. It features an outsider to the court whose attitude and opinions do not conform to society’s expectations, and whose intrinsic power makes her a catalyst for sweeping changes. There’s court intrigues and a mystery to solve, and the steadfast, inscrutable man entrusted with protecting the king even from his own follies as the unlikely suitor. If Auburn is your favorite Shinn book, you can stop reading now and just go get Troubled Waters, because you will love it. I’ll need a few months and a few more re-reads to know if it actually surpasses it, but if not—still closer than any other book has come, for me.
One standard I always judge fantasy worlds on is whether I want to visit them. Not go for a drink with these particular characters, or live for myself these particular events, but actually just go visit the world itself, for the sake of itself. I want to go to Welce. I want to go into a temple and pull up a random blessing when I was in need of guidance or hope or advice. I want to find three strangers to pull a blessing for my newborn (although I suppose this is actually the father’s role, since it’s done right away…interesting way of investing him in the child right away, though). I want to see the Marisi River; I imagine it would be something like my own river, but I would like to see it to make the comparison. It’s a low magic world, but full of a sense of wonder all the same. What magic there is would be impressive to see, if I were lucky enough to do so, but even if I wasn’t just knowing it was there would be pretty awesome.
Zoe made a wonderful heroine to cheer for. At the start of the book, she was so fogged with grief that, reading, you just want her to wake up and care about something again. When she does, it feels triumphant. Later, as she repeatedly butts heads with the social protocols and the secrets at court, she becomes a champion of independence and honesty. She is not unconcerned by the social strictures because she does not know better; she is unconcerned because she will not let them rule her, and it makes her a strong, relatable character. She even has moments of hard pragmatism that grounded her optimistic outlook in the realities of the world; the one I remember (because it was sort of tragically hilarious in the context) is her thinking that a young guard in love with his charge enough to “give his life for her” would be the best protection a girl could have. It’s true but unexpectedly cynical. Darien made a mysterious, sometimes frustrating but always fascinating romantic lead, and his declaration at the end took me by surprise. And made me go re-read the first few chapters immediately.
Bottom line: I loved this book. If you’re a fan of Sharon Shinn, you definitely want to pick it up, and if you have been wanting to read one of her books without having to commit to a series, this is definitely a good place to start.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.