REVIEW: General Winston’s Daughter by Sharon Shinn
Dear Ms. Shinn,
You’ve written some of my favorite romances (Yes, I know that they are published in the SF/Fantasy and YA genres, but I consider many of your books romances). General Winston’s Daughter, your latest YA fantasy novel, may not be my most cherished among your works but it’s still an unusually good book, a tale of a young woman’s coming-of-age, a powerful depiction of a society that chafes under colonialism, and the story of a romantic triangle that is quite unlike most of what I usually come across in my reading.
Averie Winston is the only child of General Winston, the highest General in the Aeberelle Army. Averie’s mother is long dead, but Lady Selkirk, her very proper and widowed chaperone, is accompanying Averie to Chiarrin, where Averie will be reunited with her father and with her fiancÃƒÆ’Ã‚ ©, Colonel Morgan Stode, both of whom are stationed in Chiarrin as part of a military campaign.
At eighteen, Averie is curious and adventurous, and very much looking forward to her first visit to a foreign land. Averie hopes to be married in Chiarrin, and there to begin her happy life with Morgan. She is not aware, however, of the complicated political situation she is sailing into.
Aeberelle, Averie’s homeland, is an imperial power with a strong military force which is in the process of colonizing the much less well-defended Chiarrin. Averie’s father and her fiancÃƒÆ’Ã‚ © are both instrumental in carrying out the colonizing of the strategically located Chiarrin, something they view as necessary to maintaining the balance of power between Aeberelle and the country of Weskolia, with which Aeberelle is at war.
On board ship with Averie and Lady Selkirk is Lieutenant Ket Du’kai, also an officer in the Aeberelle Army. Lieutenant Du’kai comes from Xan’tai, a country Aeberelle colonized long ago. To alleviate the interminable boredom of their time on board ship, Averie and Lady Selkirk begin to dine with Lieutenant Du’kai, and although his background and dark skin at first incline Lady Selkirk against him, his manners are so impeccable that she quickly comes to like him almost as much as Averie did from the first.
Averie senses that her new friend is unhappy, and one day she learns the reason why. Lieutenant Du’kai wishes that his homeland of Xan’tai weren’t colonized, and has ambitions to join the government and lobby for home rule. Because he lacks social connections and wealth, he has no way to realize those ambitions, and so, he joined the Aeberelle Army hoping to acquire the money and connections that he needs.
There are times when Lieutenant Du’kai despises the uniform that he wears, but he made his moral compromise of joining the military in the hopes of being sent to guard commercial enterprises, and now he finds himself assigned to participate in conquering what was previously a free country. He admits to Averie that the thought of doing so oppresses his spirit.
The conversation disturbs Averie because it opens her eyes to things she did not want to know. Yes, she was aware that Aeberelle colonized other countries, but she believed that the Aebrians made these lands more productive and progressive than they had been before — as she has been taught all her life. Now she begins to question whether or not her government, her father, her fiancÃƒÆ’Ã‚ © and the other officers she has befriended in the past are justified in their actions.
A few days after that conversation, the travelers arrive in the Chiarrin port of Chesza. Despite its sweltering heat, it doesn’t take long for Averie to fall in love with the city. The very same exotic scents, colors, textures and flavors that her chaperone disdains appeal to Averie, who is also thrilled to be reunited with Morgan, her fiancÃƒÆ’Ã‚ ©, and quick to make a new friend in Lana, another Aebrian young woman of good birth whose father is also an officer stationed in Chesza.
Averie’s enchantment with her new surroundings makes her yearn to see more of Chesza than the house her father has appropriated for his household. Much of the city and the countryside are deemed dangerous for the women to visit since there are rebels among the Chiarrizi people who fight the Aebrians, but the marketplace is considered safe, and it is there that Averie and Lana meet Jalessa, a Chiarrizi fabric merchant who helps Averie purchase sandals.
Averie chafes at being restricted to the house and the marketplace, and tries to make bids for greater freedom, while scandalizing Lady Selkirk and chagrining her fiancÃƒÆ’Ã‚ © with her new Chiarrizi-influenced attire and her enthusiasm for Chiarrin.
One day, Averie and Lana are at the market purchasing fabrics from Jalessa when mortar shells are fired into the markets and the fabric merchant is injured. Averie’s compassion extends to the Chiarrizi woman and she insists that the soldiers rescue Jalessa. Lieutenant Du’kai, Averie’s shipboard companion, happens to be commanding the soldiers who appear on the scene, and he helps Averie bring Jalessa to the house where the Winstons are staying, so Averie can tend her wounds.
When Jalessa heals, Averie offers her a position in the household, and after she allays Jalessa initial fears, the Chiarrizi woman accepts. With Jalessa’s companionship, a whole world opens up to Averie, who now visits many magical places in Chesza with Jalessa at her side, and learns why it is also known as the City of the Broken Gods.
But this friendship deepens the growing chasm between Averie and her fiancÃƒÆ’Ã‚ ©, Morgan, who dislikes Jalessa. Though Morgan and Averie genuinely love each other and though they enjoy the passion of their stolen kisses, arguments begin to spring up between them, and Averie wonders if she is truly cut out to be the wife of an officer… if she even wants to be one… if colonizing Chiarrin is a grave wrong against its people… and whether her friend Lieutenant Du’kai has come to mean too much to her…
General Winston’s Daughter isn’t as close to my heart as some of your books but that is almost like saying that not everything Monet painted was equally beautiful. This is a lovely, pleasing book and moreover, it’s one of your most interesting works because the social and political issue at its heart is given a complex treatment.
One of my favorite things about your books is that they are love stories, but they are also more than mere love stories: often they become allegories too, about social issues as complicated and varied as religion, slavery, sexism, racism, cultural differences, persecution, and in this book, colonialism.
Because these issues are explored in the context of fantastical worlds, the stories remain entertaining, and at the same time, these conflicts give the romances in your books a larger context, provide interesting backgrounds for the characters, create some of the texture of your fascinating worlds, and give your heroines more to worry about than just “Does he love me?” concerns.
As much as I adore this aspect of your books, I also feel that not all your treatments of social issues have been equally nuanced. In the wonderful Samaria series, for example, the enslaved Edori were portrayed as almost universally kind, generous and sweet-natured, while the Jansai who sold them were almost always greedy, callous and unattractive, something that became especially problematic for me in Angel-Seeker, an otherwise excellent book. And while Summers at Castle Auburn was in many ways charming, I was a bit disappointed at how easily the slavery issue in that book was resolved.
Nowhere among what I’ve read of your writing (which is nearly everything you’ve written) is there a more thoughtful and complex treatment of social issues than in Heart of Gold, a book which surely deserves its own review from me but which I’ll briefly describe here as an iconoclastic love story that takes place at the intersection of two cultures conflicted along lines both racial and matriarchal / patriarchal, each equally alien to us and to one another, and equally fascinating to read about precisely because they are each portrayed in shades of gray (and blue and gold).
But if Heart of Gold is, in my humble opinion, your most successful creation of a social fabric, then General Winston’s Daughter is quite possibly your second best weaving together of societal threads. In General Winston’s Daughter we are shown clearly that colonists aren’t all cruel, bad people; that they can be as different from one another as the fastidious Lady Selkirk is from the flighty Lana, as the nationalistic Morgan is from the full-of-misgivings Lieutenant Du’kai, and as the tunnel-visioned, commanding General Winston is from his open-minded, kind-hearted daughter. You also show the readers that if the Aebrian colonists aren’t all devils and demons, the Chiarrizi aren’t all angels and saints.
And yet, what emerges is nothing less than a searing indictment of colonialism. Through the stark beauty of Chiarrin and the layering of small ethnographic details like the Chiarrizis’ use of different shades of headscarves to communicate different information, their dancing at their festivals, their sacred fountain at the heart of the city, and the “broken gods” they worship, you bring to life a country that for all that it is less technologically advanced, is no less rich in its culture than the Aebrians’ homeland, certainly no less vivid, and no less deserving of freedom.
Our window to this society is Averie Winston, and despite her initial self-delusion about Aeberelle’s subjugation of other countries, she is easy to like and worth rooting for. There were times when I wanted to give Averie a little shake for not taking a stronger stance against her father, and other times when I wanted to protect her from the consequences of her torn loyalties.
The romantic triangle between Averie, Morgan Stode and Ket Du’kai is unusual because although neither of the young men is as wealthy as Averie, Morgan is much closer to her in social standing and respectability, while Du’kai, although of a different nationality, race and social class, is much closer to her in his egalitarian values and his appreciation for Chiarrin.
I liked that despite this, you did not make Averie’s choice too easy. For all his dislike of Jalessa, Morgan truly did care for Averie, and she for him, and though she was attracted to Lieutenant Du’kai, Averie still enjoyed Morgan’s kisses.
It should also be noted, I think, that General Winston’s Daughter may very well prove to be your most accessible book to readers who don’t generally read science fiction or fantasy. The countries and cultures it depicts are fictional and imaginary, but there is no magic whatsoever in the book, no people with paranormal abilities, no advanced technologies, no spaceships or blue-skinned people or intervening gods, nothing, that is, beyond the world itself, in which to suspend disbelief.
With all that I’ve praised here, why is this book not among my most favorite of yours? Well, first there is the fact that Aeberelle seems to me to be very closely patterned on nineteenth or possibly early twentieth century England. This similarity is both a strength and a weakness of the book: a strength because it makes the colonists instantly familiar and the setting easy to adjust to, and a weakness because sometimes the parallels to our own world are so close that the book feels just slightly heavy-handed in its message.
Second, though the world building is terrific in many of the ways I described above, there is also one way in which Chiarrin felt a little underdeveloped to me — its cuisine. Early on, the reader is introduced to three foods: bumain, a potato-like vegetable; wikberry, a sweet purple fruit, and hodee, a goat-like animal whose meat tastes a little like beef. After that, whenever food appears in a scene, it inevitably consists of bumain, wikberry or hodee. As one who tires of eating the same foods over and over in life, I noticed this perhaps more than other readers would, and it struck me as strange that Chiarrin would be a place where one fruit, one vegetable, and one meat would be eaten over and over. I appreciate that the book is short and that it probably required some kind of shorthand in matters of food, but a little more diversity would have been welcome.
Third, I would have preferred the book to be a bit longer for another, more important reason: Lieutenant Du’kai’s character, though interesting, sympathetic, and appealing, also seems a little underdeveloped to me. That he would join the Aebrian Army despite his feelings about colonialism seemed somewhat unlikely to me, but I accepted it even so. His emotions where Averie was concerned were so compelling, and in one scene, so poignant, that I wanted more of them, and more of an opportunity for Averie and us readers to get to know him better in the pages of this book.
The first half of General Winston’s Daughter felt a bit slow to me, too, like the languid lull before a summer storm. I enjoyed it whenever I picked the book up to read more, but I wasn’t unable to tear myself away, as I often am when I read your books, until the second half.
Still, for a short book marketed to teens, General Winston’s Daughter is remarkably substantial and thought-provoking, and its pleasures are considerable. Not least of these are your rich voice and the wealth of sensory description, as in this evocative passage depicting Averie’s arrival in the port of Chesza, and her first sight of Chiarrin:
How warm and bright it looked, a sprawling mix of browns and tans and reds and dusty greens, so unlike Aeberelle, with its chilly shades of gray and blue. The port was a welter of boats, and behind it the city fanned out in a haphazard and inviting fashion. The buildings were all low to the ground and seemed to be constructed of a uniform reddish-brown material, while the roofs were copper and slate and verdigris. Even from shipboard, Averie could see the great white plume of the Mualota Fountain that Lieutenant Du’kai had described. It was the only thing in this entire vista that looked cool. Heat lay over the city like a sweltering fog, saturating the air, the buildings, clothing, hair, skin. Averie stood very still, breathing the heavy air, feeling her palms start to perspire as she held tightly to the railing.
That is the kind of writing that satisfies my soul; the kind of writing that makes me want to journey with you to any number of exotic worlds and fantastical lands.
A strong B+ for this one.
This book only comes in Hardcover.