REVIEW: Quatrain by Sharon Shinn
Dear Ms. Shinn,
I remember being very excited when I first heard about your plans to write an anthology of four novellas set on four different worlds, the places first introduced in Archangel, Heart of Gold, Summers at Castle Auburn and Mystic and Rider. I’m happy to report that I enjoyed all the novellas in Quatrain to varying degrees. Here are my reviews of them:
“Flight,” the first novella, is set on Samaria, the world popularized by Archangel and its sequels. A few of Samaria’s people have wings and live in the high reaches of the angel holds. The angels, as they are known, also have the power to sing prayers for weather intercessions from the god Jovah. This makes them some of the most powerful people on Samaria, although they are as fallible as anyone else.
Even more powerful is the archangel, who rules all the angels. Since “Flight” takes two years before the events of Archangel, the archangel at this time is Raphael, a selfish and corrupt man. As the novella begins, Raphael and some of his fellow angels from the angel hold of Windy Point arrive at a farming community in Samaria’s Jordana province to pray for sunlight after many days of rain.
The story is narrated by Salome, a woman whose distant past was colorful but who has settled down and become a cook in the farm’s kitchen. Salome wants nothing more than to raise her niece, Sheba, in safety and peace, and thinks that one of Sheba’s best prospects is a devoted young man named David.
But Sheba is a pretty, flirtatious seventeen year old, not ready to settle down. She longs for romance and adventure as much as Salome craves security and safety for her. And no one represents romance and adventure more than the angels.
Unfortunately, Salome and Raphael are old enemies. Salome tries to remain hidden from Raphael’s sight during his visit, but when she slips into the kitchen for a nighttime meal, she finds him waiting for her. Raphael has recognized by Sheba’s resemblance to Salome that Salome must be nearby, and he wants to torment Salome with the power he holds over her.
During their conversation, another angel named Stephen is mentioned, and it becomes clear that Stephen and Salome were once romantically involved. In those days, Salome was an angel-seeker, a kind of groupie to the angels who hopes to bear an angel child. Despite her current bitterness toward angels, Salome is not entirely over Stephen, whom Raphael tells her left Windy Point for another angel hold following Salome’s departure.
Will Salome be able to protect Sheba from the glamorous lure of the angels? Will she reunite with Stephen and will they be able to forgive one another for past wrongs? And what of Raphael and the danger he represents? “Flight” answers all these questions.
While the novella contains a couple of romantic pairings, the central story is about Salome’s need to protect Sheba from Raphael and her own recklessness. For the most part, this story is well executed. Although I did feel that Salome had a change of heart that happened too quickly, otherwise her character was extremely well-drawn.
Salome and Stephen’s relationship felt a bit rushed to me, and it seemed like most of the interesting events in that relationship happened in their past and not during the course of the story, but I still liked Stephen a lot. The other romance (I don’t want to say too much about it) was touching and sweet.
Samaria is a fascinating place, and Raphael a delicious villain, the kind I love to hate. Sheba was a complex and believable young woman, and the secondary characters were all believable as well. As usual for me, I savored your prose. Although I would have liked more romantic developments in the two love stories, I enjoyed “Flight” and I give it a B.
“Blood” takes place on the world your readers have encountered in your novel Heart of Gold, which is peopled by three races, the gulden, the albino, and the indigo. As in Heart of Gold, the point of tension here is the difference between gulden and indigo societies when it comes to gender relations. Geldricht, the country of the golden-skinned race, has a patriarchal system while Inrhio, where the blue-skinned people live, has a matriarchal one.
The protagonist of “Blood” is Kerk, a gulden young man, who, as the novella opens, has just arrived with his family in the unnamed indigo city where it takes place. The differences between this city and Geldricht are so stark that at first Kerk can hardly take them all in.
Kerk is a kind of stepchild in his family (his exact relationship with them is revealed only gradually), and he knows his situation is therefore somewhat precarious. He is lucky to have survived to adulthood because before the age of twelve, children have no rights whatsoever in Geldricht. As the story reveals, the gulden’s social system works when the adult male in charge of the family is benevolent but fails when he isn’t.
Kerk’s stepfather Brolt has given Kerk a position in the family’s company. Kerk is hardworking and bright, but he worries that when Makk, Brolt’s biological son, reaches twelve, he himself will be displaced.
Although Kerk is close to Tess, his stepmother, he still remembers his biological mother, who took his baby sister and ran away when Kerk was seven. Such runaways are not entirely uncommon among the gulden. Women whose husbands or fathers are abusive sometimes leave their family and make for the indigo city, despite the grave dangers inherent in doing so.
Now that he is in the same city with her, Kerk can’t stop thinking of the woman who gave birth to him and raised him for seven years. He is determined to find her and try to reconnect.
When Brolt gives him a few days off from work, Kerk takes advantage of the opportunity to look for his mother. His search takes him to the Lost City, a place where impoverished gulden women and their children live. He doesn’t find his mother there, but an indigo woman confronts him about his presence in what is a refuge for women seeking to escape gulden men.
In the course of their argument, the woman explains that she aids the runaway women, and Kerk realizes that she might be able to help him find his mother. The two go to a cafe and the indigo woman introduces herself as Jalciana or Jalci for short. Jalci peppers Kerk with questions and he tells her a portion of his life story, but only a portion.
“Why did she leave your father? The usual reasons, I suppose?” He gave her a cold look. “What would those be, in your opinion?” She waved a hand. “Cruelty, abuse, starvation. Was your father a mean man?”
Kerk narrowed his eyes and did not answer. A gulden man did not disparage his father, not to anyone, even if his father was dead. Kerk would never speak a word of his father’s rages, his screaming fits, the beatings he had administered to his wife and his son.
Jalci agrees to help Kerk, and takes him to a compound of buildings. In the compound’s office, Jalci introduces Kerk to Del, a gulden woman whose first reaction to Kerk’s presence is hostile. Eventually, though, Del agrees to ask her contacts for information that will lead Kerk to his mother.
Afterward, Jalci takes Kerk to a community center where he sees young gulden boys playing the game of baltreck in the gym. The boys, who don’t see gulden men often, are fascinated by Kerk and want him to teach them to improve their play. Kerk is pulled into the game, and in the process, he sees how much these boys need a father figure, someone to teach them right from wrong.
As he returns to the compound periodically to inquire if his mother has been heard from, Kerk grows closer to the fatherless boys — and to Jalci. But what would his stepfather say if he knew that Kerk was going to such a place, and that after his visits there, he always dines out with a blueskin heiress? Is Kerk putting his position within Brolt’s company and the only family he has ever known in jeopardy by consorting with a young woman who behaves differently from any woman he knows? What about Tess, who has raised Kerk since age seven? How will she feel about Kerk’s search for his biological mother? And what will Kerk find at the end of that search?
“Blood” is a multifaceted jewel of a story. On one level it is about Kerk’s search for his mother, on another about his assimilation into the world of the indigo’s city, which is so different from Geldricht, and on yet another, it is about his growing emotional intimacy with Jalci. Ultimately, though, “Blood” is also about our universal need for connection and the way it can transcend our differences.
I loved everything about Kerk — his honor, his strength, his decency and his capacity for empathy. I loved the way he struggled to open his mind to encompass the differences between his culture and that of the indigo, and his willingness to do so. In fact the only criticism I have of the story was that I thought he was a little too quick to do so, and a bit too good to be true. But since he is now one of my favorites among your heroes, I can’t complain too much about this.
I also loved the gradual way the relationships in this novella unfolded, from Kerk’s family ties to his growing closeness to the boys at the community center and his coming to see Jalciana with new eyes.
As for Jalci, she was also likable, though impulsive and quick to speak her mind. I felt that she was what Kerk needed, whether he knew it or not. Like him, she was caring, strong-minded and empathetic, and if neither of them was what the other was used to in terms of behavior from the opposite sex, that was not just part of the conflict, but also part of the attraction.
Kerk and Jalci both represent their societies — Kerk the patriarchal gulden and Jalci the matriarchal indigo — but they are also the best of those societies. Although there were times when their differences tried their patience, they never asserted their superiority over the other, or tried to steamroll over each other.
The novella shows that sexism in either direction is not a good thing, and it is Kerk and Jalci’s ability to begin to negotiate a relationship of equals, one that is based on trust and admiration, that gives me a lot of optimism for their future, though I know they will face challenges.
My favorite scene in the novella was not a romantic one, but rather the scene in which Kerk’s stepfather learns about Kerk’s activities, and reacts to them. I don’t want to reveal what happens, but when I read this scene, I was completely enthralled.
The secondary characters in this novella were wonderfully well-drawn. The world in which the story is set is a complex, fascinating place in its diversity, and reading about it has left me greedy for more. More about Kerk and Jalci, more about Kit and Nolan, more about the gulden and the indigo, and what about a story featuring the albino? Please, write more. In the meantime, I give “Blood” an A-.
“Gold,” the third novella in this collection, unspools like a ball of magic yarn in the forest we readers first visited in Summers at Castle Auburn, some twenty years after the events of that story. Zara, the princess of the realm and daughter of characters from Summers at Castle Auburn, is traveling through the forest with a guardsman, Orlain, to the magical kingdom of Alora, which is hidden between the trees.
Zara has never been to Alora, but her great-uncle Jaxon lives there, as does his love Rowena, queen of the magical beings known as the aliora. Now Zara has been sent to Jaxon and Rowena because Castle Auburn may soon be attacked. Until they know the war is over, Zara’s parents want their children hidden in safety, so Zara and her brother Keesen are both sent away, in opposite directions, so that if one is captured the other may still survive.
But there is danger in going to Alora, because no human who has entered it has ever returned permanently to live among mankind. Jaxon is the only man who can move between the fey realm and the human one, but even he is always restless to return to Alora. To ward Zara from Alora’s enchantment, Zara’s mother, an herbalist, has given Zara potions which will remind her of home. She has also laden Zara with gold jewelry, since the aliora cannot touch the metal without feeling pain.
Seventeen year old Zara is concerned for her loved ones and filled with trepidation about visiting Alora. She does not want to forget her parents and brother, so she promises not to remove any of the gold pieces from her body, and to drink a vial of potion each night.
On the way to Alora, Zara and Orlain bicker, and Zara is miffed that the guardsman expects her to help him make camp instead of showing her the solicitude due a princess. Zara says she will marry for love, not politics, and describes the man she’ll give her heart to thus:
“He must be handsome and funny and intelligent and brave,” I burst out, goaded past endurance. “He doesn’t have to be noble, but he has to have an elegance of mind. And he will love me. He’ll shield me from the wind if it’s blowing and from the wet if it’s raining. He’ll–he’ll make great sacrifices to attain me, and he won’t care if those sacrifices put him in danger. It wouldn’t matter to him if I wasn’t a princess. He would love me just as much if I was a tavern girl. And he will never say an unkind word to me as long as he lives.”
There was as short silence after I finished up my list of attributes. “Well,” Orlain said. “I’m surprised it’s taken you this long to find him.”
The truth is that Zara is in love with Orlain, but she has no idea if he returns her feelings. Most of the time, he seems indifferent to her, but when Zara’s uncle Jaxon arrives and leads them to Alora’s borders, Orlain shows concern for Zara and promises to return once every ten days in order to see how she is faring, and bring her news of home.
Alora proves to be as ethereal and beautiful place as the aliora themselves, who look “as if moonlight had mated with a weeping willow and tried to produce a human shape.” They welcome Zara wholeheartedly and only her gold jewelry prevents them from touching her. But as she grows to know them, Zara feels horrible each time one of her bracelets burns an aliora’s skin, and she starts to remove her gold pieces.
Life in Alora is so contenting and wonderful, and Rowena’s son Royven begins to court Zara. Will Zara remember her love for her parents and brother, whose lives are in grave danger? Will Orlain return in ten days, as he promised, and if he does, will Zara still love him? Will she ever see Castle Auburn again?
I enjoyed “Gold” quite a bit, although it is not a perfect story. It is clear what Zara’s response to life in Alora will be from the outset, since it is heavily foreshadowed, and even if it weren’t, anyone who has ever read stories about humans entering fairy kingdoms would know what to expect. For this reason, I was more absorbed in the parts of the novella set outside Alora than in those set within it. I also wished that Zara had grown up a bit more during the course of the story.
But I loved the fairy tale feel of this novella. The descriptions of Alora were as magical as the place itself, and made me feel as though I, too, had entered an enchanted kingdom. I also loved the small fantastical details like the effects her mother’s potions had on Zara, and the way Alora’s borders shifted.
You have a knack for writing terrific, sympathetic male characters, and Orlain was one. Though a simple guardsman, he was also steadfast, loyal and determined. I wanted more of him, but Zara’s interactions with him were wonderful, and I enjoyed every scene he appeared in, so I give “Gold” a B+.
“Flame,” the fourth novella in Quatrain, is a prequel to your Twelve Houses series, which is set on a world where people with magical abilities, known as mystics, are sometimes persecuted for those talents. “Flame” takes place shortly before the events of Mystic and Rider, and Senneth, the heroine of that book, is also the main character here.
When the novella begins, Senneth, who has the ability to call forth and put out fire, is visiting with a relative named Evelyn in the province of Kianlever. Evelyn persuades Senneth to dress up for a dinner with guests of hers, which include a couple named Albert and Betony, and their neighbors, a brother and sister named Degarde and Julia. Julia’s toddler, Halie, is also present.
The conversation turns to Albert’s failed attempts at a trade arrangement with men from the nearby Lirrenlands. Senneth, who lived with a Lirren clan for a while, gives Albert pointers on earning their trust, and he asks her to join him on his next scheduled meeting with them, which is only days away. Because it seems rude to refuse, Senneth reluctantly agrees.
Shortly after that, the restless Halie catches her clothes on fire while running around and playing, and Senneth uses her power to put out the flames. There is some tension in the four guests’ reactions to the revelation that Senneth is a mystic, but they are also grateful to her for dousing the little girl before she can come to harm, and Senneth journeys with the group to their town of Benneld as planned.
Once there, Senneth is put in a quandary by Degarde’s fascination with her. He keeps asking her personal questions she does not feel comfortable answering, and wants to pursue a relationship with her, though she does not reciprocate his interest. Things get even more complicated when a fire bursts out in Benneld and Senneth’s abilities are revealed to the townspeople.
I enjoyed “Flame” more than I expected to. I am the kind of reader who prefers to read about new characters rather than revisiting protagonists from earlier works, and I also prefer other types of fantasy to high fantasy.
But “Flame” won me over — in fact I stayed up late to see how Senneth’s new acquaintances would deal with her powers. Senneth has always been a strong, self-reliant and sympathetic heroine, and the ominous sense of danger she faced kept me turning the pages even before that danger presented itself. I wasn’t sure which, if any, of Senneth’s new acquaintances could be trusted, and that made me keenly feel what it must be like to be a mystic in her position.
I did guess who the arsonist in the story was and there were a few scenes that were a bit similar to things we’ve seen in the other Twelve Houses books. But despite that, “Flame” really sucked me in, so I give it a B/B+.
To readers who are not familiar with your books, Quatrain will serve as an introduction to the angel series and the Twelve Houses series, as well as to the worlds of Heart of Gold and Summers at Castle Auburn. I would recommend though that readers who haven’t read the latter book do so before reading “Gold,” since “Gold” contains spoilers for Summers at Castle Auburn. I think for those readers who know these worlds, Quatrain presents an opportunity to revisit four magical places. I know I enjoyed the journey. My overall grade for Quatrain is a B+.
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