AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: Echo in Onyx by Sharon Shinn, narrated by Emily Bauer
Dear Ms. Shinn,
When you offered me review copies of three new audiobooks in your Uncommon Echoes series of fantasy novels, I wasn’t sure if I could get to reviewing them in time or even at all, but you suggested that I take them anyway. I’m glad you did because I enjoyed Echo in Onyx greatly.
In the Regency-like world of the Uncommon Echoes series, a small percentage of the population, mostly members of the nobility but a few others as well, are attended by echoes, creatures who resemble them exactly, copy their gestures precisely, but cannot speak.
The echoes are conferred on these nobles by the triple goddess (her three aspects represent justice, mercy and joy) for reasons that only become clear as the story unfolds. Echoes have been around for centuries and have developed into a status symbol; one can be born with up to three, and the number you have is a factor in how exceptional you are considered.
The series is set in the Kingdom of the Seven Jewels, seven provinces each represented by a different gemstone, but each ruled over by the same king. There is quite a bit of intrigue around the royal family, and the series introduces characters from a number of provinces and tracks their involvement in these goings-on. The books take place concurrently so many of the characters appear in more than one book.
This novel begins in the province of Orenza, where onyx is mined and is therefore the symbolic gem. Twenty-three-year-old Brianna is a country innkeeper’s daughter. She never knew her father, but she has a close relationship with her mother, who owns the inn.
Brianna is fascinated by stories about Lady Marguerite of Orenza. Though born in the same year as Brianna, Lady Marguerite leads a much different life. The day after her birth, Marguerite was gifted with three echoes. Not only that, but she is the daughter of the governor of Orenza.
Orenza is one of the three western provinces that frequently threaten the crown with rebellion and the king has recently decided to break the betrothal of his heir to Lady Vivienne of Thelleron (one of the loyal eastern provinces), in favor of marrying his son to a lady from one of the western provinces. Lady Marguerite is the rumored to be the most favored candidate for this position.
Brianna works hard in her mother’s inn, but dreams of expanding her horizons. Her heart was recently bruised, if not broken, by a lover who ran off to marry another girl. So when Brianna learns that her aunt Jean, second cousin to the governor’s housekeeper, heard that Marguerite needs a new maid and that Jean has secured Brianna an interview for the position, she is thrilled.
Brianna travels to Oberton, Orenza’s biggest city, in pursuit of this job. Her odds are slim, but she’s granted an interview anyway. Marguerite feels unwell that day and Brianna’s kindness and consideration win her the position despite her inexperience. The girls discover a similar taste in clothes and Brianna is creative in styling Marguerite’s hair, so Marguerite quickly comes to appreciate Brianna.
The two become close; at least, as close as employer and servant can be, and Marguerite even confides in Brianna that unlike most nobles, she can not only “release” her echoes, allowing them to control their own movements and gestures, but also tell them apart. She has even named them (Prudence, Patience and Purpose), though that would be considered beyond eccentric if other nobles knew.
Though the echoes are different from each other, they feel like an extension of her, Marguerite says. To lose one would be like having an arm or leg severed from the rest of her body.
There is one secret Marguerite does not confide to Brianna, but that Brianna eventually unravels: Marguerite has a secret lover. The lover’s identity isn’t known to Brianna; she only knows that Marguerite secretly corresponds with someone through the local temple, whose priestesses send messages to be delivered to other temples on a worshipper’s behalf.
Marguerite does not want to marry the prince, but her desires don’t matter to her parents or to the king. Her father is ambitious, and since there are few eligible, high-born girls from the western provinces, much less with three echoes, the same number Prince Cormack has, the king has bigger considerations than Marguerite’s happiness. So Prince Cormack is invited to visit Marguerite’s family.
Shortly before Prince Cormack’s arrival, Brianna runs into and flirts with an attractive man named Nico. Later, it’s revealed to her that Nico is in the employment of his uncle, the king’s inquisitor, Malachi Burken. Brianna knows that Malachi is a dangerous man, and by extension so is Nico. But she can’t do away with her attraction to him, and they continue to flirt in the following days.
When Brianna accompanies Marguerite to a temple, Nico sees them enter and correctly surmises that Marguerite may be corresponding with a secret lover. He warns Brianna that this correspondence must stop; he will keep quiet about it but Malachi’s spies will not. But although Marguerite promises Brianna that she will not pursue the relationship further, her visits to the temple continue.
Not too long after that, Marguerite journeys to the capital city of Camarria. So as not to offend other nobles, the king has invited other daughters of the nobility for a long stay, purportedly so Prince Cormack can choose a bride from among them.
Brianna accompanies Marguerite on the trip, but halfway there, something terrible happens that results in the death of one of Marguerite’s echoes and the implication of Marguerite in a very serious crime. Brianna and Marguerite know that if they arrive in Carmarria one echo short, Marguerite will be immediately identified as the criminal and she and perhaps Brianna, too, will be put to death immediately.
Brianna proposes a solution—she will impersonate one of Marguerite’s echoes. Since she and Marguerite are somewhat similar in appearance, this is possible, if she and the two echoes wear diaphanous veils. Marguerite is concerned for Brianna’s safety should the masquerade be uncovered, but Brianna is insistent, and Marguerite is desperate enough to accept her help.
So begins a daring deception. But can Brianna emulate the movements of Marguerite and her echoes flawlessly while staying at the royal palace for weeks, even as she makes sure she is viewed in the role of Marguerite’s maid in her free time? Can she fool everyone, even the man she’s coming to love? And will Marguerite, her echoes and Brianna survive or get caught?
I enjoyed Echo in Onyx a great deal. The book kept me in suspense throughout, making the tension both in the main plot and in the secondary thread about Brianna and Nico’s romantic relationship impeccable. Brianna’s good nature, her practicality and her affection for and loyalty to Marguerite shone through even when she was deceiving everyone else and that made her a very likable character.
Since the novel is written in first person, Marguerite’s thoughts and feelings are only delved into when she shares them with Brianna or when Brianna strongly suspects something. For that reason, there is a mysterious aspect to Marguerite until late in the novel, when it is finally revealed whether she is as loyal to Brianna as Brianna is to her.
The same is true of Nico, Brianna’s lover—it’s not clear to the reader / listener whether Nico loves Brianna enough that if he were to uncover her deception, he would keep her secret and protect her from his uncle. Readers are kept guessing until close to the end, and some of the conversations Nico and Brianna have are fraught with the possibility of double meanings.
Due to spoilers, I can’t say how I ended up feeling about Marguerite and Nico as people, other than that they were both well-drawn and interesting characters, and that I rooted for Brianna’s romance with Nico even as I worried about whether she was safe with him.
There were a couple of times when Marguerite and Brianna carried on a conversation in public while away from the palace and I didn’t understand why. I put it down to the author’s desire to place the characters in a different setting rather than to always have them closeted in Marguerite’s rooms, but it was an inconsistency for the girls to take such a risk when they were so careful in other parts of the book.
It takes some suspension of disbelief to go with the premise that Brianna can pass for an echo. To emulate all the movements and gestures of another person perfectly is quite a feat. Even though Marguerite aided her, I thought Brianna was an extraordinary actress to pull off the deception as well as she did for so long. I was able to go with it, though, and her masquerade was made more plausible by a couple of things that happened.
I didn’t love the prince’s invitation to multiple young ladies; it smacked of a certain reality show and is one of my least favorite tropes. But there was an interesting twist on it here, because rather than wanting to win the prince, Marguerite is decidedly ambivalent about marrying him.
The sequel-baiting was, for the most part, subtle and unobtrusive—until the last scene in the book. Just when I wanted to absorb the ending, the focus shifted to a plot point that didn’t have much to do with this book but was setting the stage for the next one. That was a little disappointing, but only because you’ve written some of the most beautiful last lines I’ve come across in romantic books and I was hoping for more in that vein.
The story was exciting and I kept my fingers crossed for Brianna throughout it. The concept of the echoes and of the switch was fascinating and for the most part, well-executed.
The regency-like setting was also a lot of fun. I love the way you world-build because it never feels intrusive, and yet your fantasy novels are far from run of the mill. I found a review on Goodreads that perfectly summarizes what it is that you write:
What also makes Shinn that special to me, is the particular kind of fantasy she writes, it’s neither epic, heroic or young adult. It’s definitely fantasy, but it’s her own version of the genre. Her books are neither boring nor naive, she manages the best equilibrium between creating a world without making it austere, making it fun but not simplistic, dealing with serious issues (sexual abuse, violence, death), but without being crude or prudish. If I had to qualify it I would just say that it’s adult fantasy for women.
On to the audiobook.
My biggest issue with the audiobook was the audio narrator’s delivery. Emily Bauer has a sugary voice that is not to my taste and doesn’t suit Brianna’s character well. She doesn’t hit the low tones of the voices of male characters as well as she does the higher ones of the women, but she does do a good job of differentiating the different characters and I was rarely confused as to who was saying what.
One of the things I found most annoying about Bauer’s narration was her propensity for dramatic pauses. She had this way of pausing after the words “And then,” and every time she paused for so long that after a while it took the away from the suspense she was trying to add to the story.
Eventually I got used to Bauer’s narration, but it took a long time, and I wished the book had a different audio narrator with a less treacly voice up until the end.
TL;DR: I loved the book but did not love the audio narration. My grade for the novel is a B+/A- and for the narration, a C. Since Echo in Onyx is now out in print and digital, I recommend reading it. As I write this, the ebook is selling for only $3.99, a price it is more than worth.