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DUELING REVIEW: Reader and Raelynx by Sharon Shinn

Dear Ms. Shinn,

Book CoverI was tired, crabby, and busily packing for a trip when the ARC of Reader and Raelynx arrived on my doorstep. Minutes later, I gleefully sent off an email to my fellow Dear Author reviewers, quoting the little note that said “Sharon Shinn said you would be interested in seeing a galley of her upcoming book for possible review! Enjoy!” Was I interested? You better believe I was. And did I enjoy the book? Absolutely, although I have a few caveats.

Reader and Raelynx is the fourth novel in your Twelve Houses series. Although published as fantasy, the books all contain romantic storylines that take center stage. The series is set in Gillengaria, a kingdom where mystics (those people who have magical abilities) are frequently persecuted by those who fear them, and the books follow the fortunes of a group of friends, five mystics and two elite soldiers belonging to the king’s personal guard, as they seek to help Gillengaria’s sympathetic King Baryn.

As Reader and Raelynx opens, the group is dispersed, with shapeshifters Kirra and Donnal prowling though the kingdom and newlyweds Justin and Ellynor (he a king’s rider and she a mystic with healing and cloaking abilities) still honeymooning in the Lirrenlands. Senneth, a powerful fire mystic, and her husband Tayse, another king’s rider, are in Ghosenhall, Gillengaria’s capital, as is Cammon, an exceptionally gifted young mystic who can read people’s emotions and silently communicate with them.

It is Cammon who first senses the dark intent of an assassin sent by Baryn’s enemies to murder the king, and who helps Tayse and Senneth neutralize this threat. Shortly afterward, Cammon is invited to live in the palace, where he can watch over Princess Amalie as suitors come from throughout the kingdom to seek her hand in marriage. The king and his queen, Valri, both fear that one of those suitors may try to do Amalie harm, and Cammon’s job is to spy on their emotions and try to sense if any of them pose a danger to the princess.

Things get more complicated as Cammon and Amalie, friends since their shared journey together in The Thirteenth House, develop an even warmer rapport. Cammon is warned repeatedly by more than one person (including Senneth and the queen) that his station is far below Amalie’s and that he’s not to get too familiar with her. But he’s caught in a bind when the princess is angry and hurt each time he tries to heed these warnings and pull away.

Cammon knows that the princess will have to marry someone else for political reasons, and that he should not make her his friend, or worse, fall in love with her. But he can’t change his feelings, which deepen more with every day. Two by two, Cammon’s friends return to Ghosenhall and observe that like the rest of them, he can’t help but love unwisely.

Cammon also senses that Queen Valri possesses some unusual abilities which she uses to protect Amalie, but he’s not sure what it is that Valri is trying to hide. Then, one day, Cammon and Amalie visit the raelnyx that resides in the palace gardens. It is a dangerous creature over which only a very few people can exert even partial control. To Cammon’s shock, Amalie not only controls the raelnyx better than he’s ever seen anyone do, the beast actually responds to her with affection. Cammon fears that he’s inadvertently uncovered a terrifying secret that could throw the kingdom into complete chaos — Princess Amalie herself may possess mystical powers.

As Cammon struggles over what, if anything, he should do with his suspicions, the rumblings of war grow louder. Senneth, furious with Cammon for forgetting his place and befriending the princess, leaves with Tayse, Kirra and Donnal on a mission to recruit mystics to fight for the king. Elsewhere, troops are amassing for an epic battle that will determine who sits on Gillengaria’s throne. And then Cammon and the princess fall into reckless, desperate, impossible love…

Reader and Raelnyx is the climactic book in this series (although I understand there will be at least one more related book). It brings together many threads from the three previous novels and the novella “When Winter Comes,” and for the most part, does this successfully.

I admit that at the outset I was a bit skeptical as to whether I would enjoy a book focused so closely on Cammon. In the past I had found him a little annoying, perhaps because he possessed such an array of magical abilities and was so quick to learn to use them, and perhaps because he was so trusting and friendly (I know it’s irrational, but sometimes I balk at liking characters who are so open and nice, while saving a soft spot for the flawed, the prickly and the complicated).

But this was a non-issue in Reader and Raelynx, where the sweet pain of forbidden love throws Cammon into passion and self-doubt. His devotion to Amalie is so complete that he is willing to remain by her side even at the cost of seeing her wed someone else, or to pay the price of leaving Gillengaria and the friends who make up the only family he has if Amalie falls in love with someone else and sends him away from her. Here Cammon is vulnerable and yet willing to endure any heartache, and the sweetness of his love won me over.

As for Amalie, she is quite possibly my favorite female character in the Twelve Houses books. She’s intelligent, headstrong and deeply lonely, isolated by her royal birth and by her father’s protectiveness of her. Despite her youth and her inexperience, she knows what she wants and it is Cammon’s friendship and love. Gillengaria’s well-being is also important to her, as are her father and stepmother. And as war wraps itself around her lands, Amalie comes of age as she witnesses others sacrifice their lives.

Amalie and Cammon’s forbidden love was beautifully handled, and I enjoyed the rest of the story as well. It was especially nice to get another glimpse of Darryn and Sosie and to visit the mystical town of Carrebos. I liked that we learned more about the mysterious Queen Valri, too, and enjoyed the direction her relationship with Cammon took.

As much as I liked the book I am nicking a few points off of my grade because I felt that toward the end, some of the plot twists that resolved the various conflicts were a bit too convenient (particularly one involving Rayson Fortunalt) and because there was so much attention given to Senneth in the later sections of the book.

I like Senneth very much, but I’ve already read a lot about her in the previous books, and I enjoyed Cammon and Amalie’s love story so much that I wanted the focus to stay on them, so that I could spend even more time with them in these pages. But you had so many different elements to juggle in this book that I can see why this wasn’t always possible.

I closed Reader and Raelnyx feeling satisfied and happy, and gladly recommend it to our readers. B+.

Sincerely,

Janine

* * *

Dear Ms. Shinn:

Book CoverI am an unabashed fangirl of yours and my review might be a case of heightened expectations. Dark Moon Defender was one of my favorite books of 2006.

Reader and Raelynx suffered from too many characters jockeying for space, the use of magical contrivances to have “good” win over evil. While there was some attempt at showing that the religion, in and of itself was not an evil, but the users of it could be, mostly it was bald battle between Senneth, the good, and Coralinda Gisseltess, the bad. There was a question I had about the world construct that was never answered. If the magic that each human had was a gift from one of the gods, what happens to the magic when the god no longer exists?

Janine hinted at this in her review. While I love Senneth, she simply overshadowed the story of Cammon and Amalie. Was it that Cammon, in his youthful exuberance and sunny disposition, was not well suited to carry a book on his own? Was it that Senneth was simply too powerful a character that she simply could not help but to take front stage?

Much of the story was no revelation. The hints of what was to come were given too broadly in previous books. Amalie’s secret, Valri’s secret, the power of Coralinda Gisseltess, the fall of Halchon Gisseltess, were all easily sussed out. To some extent Reader and Raelynx served as a series of mini denouements with all the crescendos and peaks occurring in previous books.

The story seemed to predictable and allowed for no sense of discovery. The forbidden love between Amalia and Cammon was telegraphed from book 2. It was no surprise that it happened, nor that it played out the way that it did.

The nuances that Janine talks about above, the way that Cammon made himself vulnerable and was willing to be with Amalie, no matter if she married, no matter if she loved elsewhere, were what saved the book for me. There was a good deal of humor when Cammon serves as the “reader” of the suitor’s intentions toward Amalie. In the hands of a less skilled author, this might have been a did not finish. I did enjoy it but it took me several days to read it. For a devoted follower of the series, this is probably a must read. For new readers, I wouldn’t recommend this one and for those on the shelf, I would say wait for the paperback copy. C

Best regards,

Jane

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

13 Comments

  1. Janine
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 15:29:42

    Just to “duel” further with Jane, there are a few differences (and a few similarities) in our opinions of this book that her review brings up and I want to address.

    First, it wasn’t a slow read for me at all — I stayed up late into the night reading it. That might be partly because Shinn’s writing style enthralls me and because I liked Cammon and Amalie so much. But I also didn’t feel that the book was predictable because I was really drawn in by the way the mysteries about Amalie were gradually unveiled. I didn’t suss out the nature of her abilities at all (trying to avoid spoilers here), and I am usually very good at guessing surprises ahead of time.

    Second, to me, Reader and Raelynx was actually less predictable than Mystic and Rider, a book I know you loved, Jane, and that I liked a lot. Probably because Mystic and Rider read more like traditional Tolkien-influenced sword-and-sorcery fantasy, while Reader and Raelynx was not focused on the jouney of several strangers together on a mission or a quest, so to me, it felt more fresh.

    Third, I didn’t feel that Senneth overshadowed Cammon and Amalie. I felt that in this book they were every bit as interesting as Senneth.

    I do feel though that the book would have been stronger if the focus hadn’t shifted away from Cammon and Amalie and toward Senneth at the end of the book. There were some beautifully romantic lines at the end of Cammon and Amalie’s last scene in the book, and I would have loved for the book to end with those.

    And I absolutely agree with you about the contrivances. Maybe, too (I almost hate to say this because I love happy endings) the war would have been more meaningful if more people we’d cared about had been killed or maimed in a more major way. It did seem to me that Shinn was trying too hard to protect the characters and Gillengaria itself from the consequences of war.

    Still, this book is my second favorite in this series so far (after Dark Moon Defender), and Amalie is my favorite heroine in the series. And I ended up enjoying Cammon much more than I expected to. So for me, it is definitely a recommendation, and I am glad I didn’t have to wait a year for it to come out in paperback! I think it’s worth the hardcover price, myself.

  2. rebyj
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 18:07:43

    I am a big fan of Shinn’s Angelica/Archangel series I recommend it often and it has a prominent space on my keeper shelves. I rarely choose books from the sci/fi fantasy section but have been very happy with Shinn’s work and also Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series.
    I have toyed with the idea of reading this newer series ,but have hesitated for some unknown reason, your reviews are sending me to the bookstore! thanks

  3. kardis
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 19:42:44

    I am a serious Shinn fangirl and I only wish that I weren’t studying for a big exam right now so I could have read this book and chatted about it. I will definitely be getting the hardback of this ASAP! I’m glad that this was the subject of a dueling review.

    Jane, how would you rate this book compared to The Thirteenth House? I know that I could just compare the grades, but color me lazy.

  4. msaggie
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 19:57:33

    Thanks Jane and Janine for your duelling reviews. I fall somewhere in between both of you as regards enjoyment of Reader and Raelynx. I think my disappointments are because I expected too much, like Jane says. Although my grade is slightly higher than Jane’s (B-), I agree totally with all her points. There are some beautiful moments and scenes in Reader and Raelynx. However, the resolution to many of the conflicts (and fate of the villains) were all rather convenient and predictable. Having said all that, I would still recommend it, but given another chance, I would have waited for the paperback. My favourite of the series is Mystic and Rider (I do love Tolkien, too, of course), followed by Dark Moon Defender.

  5. LinM
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 21:50:34

    Janine’s review of “Dark Moon Defender” prompted me to reread “Mystic and Rider” and read the next two books in the series. I’m waiting for my library to get “Reader and Raelynx”. I have mixed feelings about the series. Shinn’s prose has a serenity, simplicity and confidence that I love. When I’m reading her books, I’m enthralled. But after I put them down, I wish that the lines between good and bad, (Sennet and Coralinda as an example) were more ambiguous. The villains are often over-the-top and I notice this more because the settings Shinn creates would lend themselves to more rounded characterizations. But maybe I’m asking for the impossible – maybe the serenity that I love in Shinn’s books would be sacrificed if the characters were more ambiguous.

  6. Janine
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 21:51:57

    Rebyj — The angel/Samaria series is my favorite of Shinn’s series, but I enjoy her other books a lot, too. I’d suggest starting the Twelve Houses series in the beginning, with Mystic and Rider, since it does set up the rest of the story.

    Kardis — I don’t believe we’ve reviewed The Thirteenth House yet. Personally, it’s my least favorite Shinn so far. I still enjoyed some parts of it, but overall I enjoyed Reader and Raelynx much more. I will be interested in how Jane answers your question, though.

    Msaggie — Your B- grade falls exactly in the middle between mine and Jane’s. When you say that you agree with all of Jane’s points, does that mean that you figured out the nature of Amalie’s ablilities? I ask because it sounded like Jane might have, but to me, those came as a big surprise.

    Since you brought up Tolkien, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit, but could not get through The Lord of the Rings. However, what I meant was less a criticism of Tolkien himself than of the way so much of the fantasy genre is composed of books that try to duplicate his success by emulating his books (many books do this in a far more obvious way than Mystic and Rider did).

    Therefore I find it much more fresh and interesting when a fantasy novel goes in a completely different direction than the group-of-companions-traveling-together-through-a-
    fantastical-land-on-a-mission-or-a-quest story. When Tolkien came up with it it was unique and different, but at this point, it’s less so. I generally find that type of story formulaic, and frankly can’t finish most books with that premise, so it’s a huge testament to Shinn’s beautiful writing style and her compelling characters that I still enjoyed Mystic and Rider and thought it was a good book.

    I mainly brought it up to say that though I agree with you and Jane about the resolutions to the conflicts and the fates of the villains, I still consider Reader and Realynx the fresher and more interesting of these two books.

  7. Jane
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 21:55:42

    I actually thought that Thirteenth House, with all its emotional dissatisfaction, was a better book that this one. Like msaggie, Mystic and Rider and Dark Moon Defender are my favorite.

    Part of the reason I liked Mystic and Rider was that it was the beginning of a new adventure. I knew nothing about the people and their world. By Reader and Raelynx, I felt that the story had already been told.

    I liked everyone. I liked Cammon and Amalie and felt that they were well matched. It just lacked the sparkle that I felt in the other books.

  8. kardis
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 21:58:27

    Yeah, after I made that comment I looked for a review and didn’t see one. I think I am the only person who doesn’t think that TTH was the weakest in the series. I have a hard time trying to find a weakest, really. DMD is my favorite (though of course I haven’t picked this one up as I said earlier). Thanks for the answer Janine!

  9. kardis
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 21:59:43

    Thanks Jane, that is good to know. :)

  10. Janine
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 22:05:45

    LinM — I’m glad you are enjoying the books. You bring up a good point — I think it is tricky to write serene books with happy endings when good and evil are more ambiguous.

    Nontheless, I think Shinn has written some beautiful books with more ambiguous characters. Jovah’s Angel, in particular, has a fascinating fallen archangel named Delilah, and Miriam in Angelica is also an interesting ambiguous secondary character. I would also suggest Heart of Gold, not so much for ambiguous characters as for what I thought was a very rich exploration of social and cultural conflicts, one that didn’t simplify them or offer an easy way out. And Shinn’s recent YA book, General Winston’s Daughter, did not have clear cut villains and heroes, though it does take a strong stance against colonialism.

  11. msaggie
    Nov 06, 2007 @ 23:21:19

    Janine, I have to be very careful not to give away spoilers about Amalie, but in the midst of all the predictability in Reader and Raelynx, I thought the category that Cammon puts her in was most interesting. Like Jane, we already had the foreshadowing in The Thirteenth House (which I actually enjoyed as much as Reader and Raelynx) and Dark Moon Defender about Valri. Actually, at the duel in the end, I thought “this reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor”, and I was right! (I really have read too many fantasy/sc-fi books/plots). I have some extra thoughts about the duel too – but it would be spoiler territory, so I am going to keep mum. I look forward to the next book in the series which Sharon shinn has planned – more for our friends from these 4 books than for the Rider it’s going to be about, really!

  12. Janine
    Nov 07, 2007 @ 01:29:08

    I look forward to the next book in the series which Sharon shinn has planned – more for our friends from these 4 books than for the Rider it's going to be about, really!

    I look forward to that book, too. We don’t really know too much about that rider but I think she could be interesting, and it would also be interesting to see Gilengaria post-war. Actually what I would most love to see in a Twelve Houses book is one that is set in the Lirrenlands. I think the Lirrenlands sound fascinating.

  13. readerdiane
    Nov 10, 2007 @ 20:42:29

    I saw your review of this book but had to wait until I finished it. My opinion falls more with Janine. Since this appears to be the final book in this part of the series, I like how all of the pieces came together. We get to see some characters from the other books (even minor ones.)My favorite character was Sennet. I really like how she draws the other characters to her in a family that she really didn’t want to be responsible for. All of Shinn’s characters grow and I found them fascinating. There might have been some predictability about the characters and the storyline but isn’t that why we chose Fantasy. I like the Happily ever after.
    I hope Ms. Shinn lets us see more of what happens to these characters.This series is a keeper for me. A-

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