Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn

Title: Mystic and Rider (Twelve Houses, #1) 

Author: Sharon Shinn

Rating: 5 Stars

From the ages of six through thirteen, I dreaded Back-to-School Night. Every year, my parents would meet the new teacher I had been assigned that fall and every year, that teacher would repeat the same phrase: "...an advanced and voracious reader, but fails to read diversely." Following those meetings, my parents would return home with a concerned frowned on their faces, having been told their daughter was bright and apt in all subjects, but simply refused to pick up a novel outside the fantasy genre. In fact, it is thanks to those very same Back-to-School Nights that I've stockpiled on beautiful editions of the classics: everything from Little Women to Anne of Green Gables has made its way under my Christmas tree for years, to no avail.

Eventually, I grew bold enough to venture into contemporary fiction, but to this day, it fails to bring me the same sense of grounding -- of lightness of being, if you will -- as fantasy does. I can't explain it, but there's something incredibly calming about losing yourself in an other world, forced to remember a multitude of names, cities, and countries which don't exist on our plane, but do in another.

Mystic and Rider, after a long and hollow reading slump, has awakened my passion for both reading and writing after a too-fatigued era of empty novels. Inevitably, fantasy never fails to bring me around; I just don't know why it took me this long to remember.

Shinn's introduction into her Twelve Houses Series is a bold and unforgettable story. I dare you to try to put this aside after finishing its first chapter -- it may as well be declared impossible. While many reviewers have claimed Mystic and Rider is slow to start, I found it riveting from beginning to end, unable to turn my eyes away from this tale of political turmoil and religious upheaval. Gillengaria, a country overseen by a king, twelve houses, and home to mystics, is in grave danger. Rumors that the king has been ensnared by a sorceress, his young new queen, have shaken the land and, secretly, the houses prepare for war. Senneth, a mystic in the king's favor, is dispatched with two of the King's Riders, Tayse and Justin, alongside Kirra, another mystic, to travel the kingdom and bring back news of the nation's unrest.

From the surface, Mystic and Rider follows the most basic format known within the fantasy genre. Shinn's novels, as I've learned, though action-packed with plenty of intriguing plot action, are driven primarily by her characters. Senneth, our protagonist, is a powerful mystic, capable of controlling fire. Kirra, a shapeshifter, joins her journey with her bodyguard, Donnal, yet another shapeshifter. Lastly, Cammon, a young boy Senneth finds in captivity and frees, discovers that he, too, is a mystic, capable of sensing those nearby. Accompanied by two King's Riders, deadly bodyguards whose sworn loyalty to the king and weaponry skills are legendary, the six traveling companions are far from friends. Justin mistrusts mystics and aristocrats, Donnal mistrusts anyone who isn't Kirra, and Tayse is wary of Senneth for her secrets and, more importantly, for her lack of allegiances. With the exception of Senneth and Cammon, each of these travelers bears loyalty either for the king or for one of the twelve noble houses they belong to. With a multitude of warring loyalties, the inner politics of this group alone are sufficient to carry forward this story.

But Shinn's world-building is beyond impressive. Mystics, or those who possess magical ability, burn when brought in direct contact with moonstones. As such, a religious sect devoted to the Pale Goddess of the Moon, is bent on eradicating the mystics from Gillengaria. Meanwhile, the twelve houses are torn, some determined to erase mystics while others merely seek to install a different king to the throne. Wherever Senneth and her group of companions travel, they lack no end of deception, intrigue, and danger at every corner. What makes Mystic and Rider a remarkable novel, despite its hefty length, is its sheer presence. Shinn allows her characters to creep under your skin, slowly but surely. Each of these six travelers, remarkably unique and starkly different in their own light, find a way to breach their differences and trust one another, quite unexpectedly, as the story wears on. In most novels, such situations can seem easily contrived but Shinn weaves these into the narrative, never deviating her focus from Senneth's task and the political upheaval of this nation. Yet, the emotional impact of this novel never suffers for that focus, only benefits from it.

Moreover, though, the romance present within the pages of Mystic and Rider stole my breath away. Subtle and slow, wavering but kind, doubtful yet aware; it's a mature, entirely beautiful arc that unfolds carefully, rewarding the reader for their patience. Senneth, the protagonist and one of the main narrators of this tale alongside Tayse, is precisely the type of heroine I crave to read about. While she is powerful, she is no "Chosen One" for her successes are empty without the help of those around her. Yet, it is her strength of will that builds her into such a compelling protagonist. Shinn balances courage alongside vulnerability so well within each of her characters, rendering them incredibly realistic, and then she does it again, balancing their personalities and strong wills alongside a romantic interest in such a way that they complement one another, on perfect ground and equal footing despite the surface inequalities that may lie between them. I remain in awe of her skill, constantly, and can only be grateful for having discovered such characters; characters who not only understand one another, but who -- inexplicably -- understand me.

It is hard to tell if I've enjoyed Mystic and Rider more or Troubled Waters, though I suspect it is the former, after all. Sharon Shinn's novels, even the one I have been disappointed by, always manage to strike a powerful cord within me, likely because of their quiet brilliance. While I heartily love the loud, voracious novels of fantasy, such as The Song of Fire and Ice Series, I find that I equally appreciate -- if not more -- the silent stories; just as strong, just as fiery, just as compelling.


  1. I've been searching for good fantasy reads lately, but it's the genre I'm most picky about and there aren't many recommendations I actually trust. Now, however, I know exactly where to turn.
    I don't think I've ever even seen this book before, but I bet I'll enjoy it a lot. I appreciate beginnings like you describe. They rarely seem slow to me.

  2. LOL--I was just going through my physical book shelves and, really, they're just UF/PNR and SciFi/Fantasy (both adult and YA). I try to branch out but I always come back to my faves. I'm definitely adding this series to my list.

    Right now, I'm finishing up a 5-book series, Tairen Soul by C.L. Wilson. I can't put it down. I'm secret-reading at work, even!! Have you read it? If not CHECK IT OUT!!

  3. Just as recently as last year I would have avoided this book like the plague Keertana, convinced fantasy was not the genre for me and I'd get lost in the expanse of the worlds. WRONG! Since then I've read a variety of fantasy books and couldn't love them more, I'll definitely have to give this one a try. You sold me completely on that beautiful romance:)

  4. I love your last line there "even the one I have been disappointed by, always manage to strike a powerful cord within me, likely because of their quiet brilliance"

    It says a lot about this author.

  5. I swear Sharon's covers just don't do her books any justice. Everything I've read from her has been spectacular, but the covers hardly imply as much! I love that you describe her novels as a "quiet brilliance" though, because there really is an understated elegance to them! Great review, Keertana :)

  6. Oh my friend loved her and she even bought me a book but I confess I haven't read it as I'm really difficult with fantasy... and it's big and written in a small way. LOL yeah I'm like that. But I really should to try her after your wonderful review.

  7. Well, you have me convinced that I must start this series at some point. I know exactly what you mean about the fantasy genre. Even when I buy books from another genre, I still find myself inexplicably drawn to fantasy time and time again. There is something wonderful about escaping to a new world, and this book sounds like my type of read. The mystics sound epic and the world building as well. Great review, Keertana!

  8. Do teachers actually *CARE* that students only read one genre? Isn't the idea that reading anything is better than not reading at all? And eventually, unless I'm much mistaken, something else will catch one's interest and the reading field will open up.

    As for the review - I've had this series on my shelf for years but I haven't started it yet. Maybe the next time I'm in a fantasy mood....

  9. That's great you loved this one so much! I think if a kid is reading a lot, it shouldn't matter if they stick to just one genre. I mean, variety is good, but it's not a huge deal. :)

  10. Okay, you have totally convinced me to add this author to my wishlist. I mean you can't decide which you like better? Oh yea, I like the sound of that. I also love really great worldbuilding and that is why I enjoy fantasy so much. Great review!

  11. I am not in love with the cover. Fantasy is either love or hate with me. I don't know what makes the difference for me but the magic has to be there. Sounds like it is for you with this author, mostly. I know I've written this before, but I have to start her books soon. Great review!

  12. Oh this book sounds fantastic Keertana, I'm glad a good old fantasy novel was able to get you out of your slump! Also how amazing does this romance sound too? I love subtle and slow romances ;) Thanks for putting this book on my radar!

  13. This sounds so so good Keertana! I am almost tempted to drop everything and just read this right now.

    Fantasy is not my comfort genre but at the same time, if anyone were to ask, I would always say it's my favorite. I don't read a lot of fantasy anymore, not because I outgrew it but because I am so afraid to be disappointed. It's the one genre I can always count on no matter what but I think it's time to pay it more attention.

    I am really glad to see that you enjoyed this Keertana :)

    Lovely review, as always! :)

    Rashika @ The Social Potato

  14. Your teacher serious said that?? Well my dear friend she should be happy that at least you were reading. She haven't met my sister, who I strongly believe has read many 5 books in her life. Anyhow this series is new to me, but as it's fantasy of course I want to read it. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! :) Great review, Keertana :)

  15. ha funny, in HS I used to read nothing but fantasy novels and when I met my husband I have introduced him to a lot of good fantasy books because he enjoyed them as well, so I know the feeling. I did finally venture out of my comfort zone as well and found out I liked lots more of other stuff. But you are right, it's nice to go back to something so familiar after a while.
    That being said, never heard of this one, so must now add to my amazon wishlist!


  16. Aw I loved reading your snippet about your reading life! I'm fortunate that no one ever tried to tell me I read too much of the same sort of stuff, but if they did have a criticism about my reading habits growing up, I'm sure it would have been the same. Like you, there's just something so wonderful about fantasies that I just can't find in other genres. At least, not in its entirety.

    And I've said it before, but I'm glad you're reading more of Shinn's novels. They're lovely. I don't think I've finished this series yet, though, so your review is my wake-up call to get back to it.
    Lovely review, Keertana!

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