Quatrain, by Sharon Shinn

>> Monday, August 27, 2012

TITLE: Quatrain
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

PAGES: 384

SETTING: various fantasy settings
TYPE: Fantasy romance (just fantasy for one of them)
SERIES: See below

Four original novellas, all set in the fantastical worlds of national bestselling author Sharon Shinn.

National bestselling author Sharon Shinn's Twelve Houses books have fascinated readers and critics alike with their irresistible blend of fantasy, romance, and adventure. Now in Quatrain, she weaves compelling stories in four of the worlds that readers love in Flight, Blood, Gold and Flame.
I'm not normally much into anthologies, often feeling a little bit ripped off by having to pay for stories I have no interest in, just to read the one I want. Quatrain, with all four of the stories being written by Shinn, didn't have that issue. It also turned out that the standard of the stories was really good. I loved one of them, really liked two, and found the fourth not too bad.

Each of these stories is set in a universe Shinn's already explored in another book or series. Loved the idea, as it allowed Shinn to concentrate on the story, and not have to spend precious pages explaining her setting. I do think there's enough there for new readers not to get lost, but I expect those of us who've read other books will have had a much richer experience.

The first story, Flight is set in Samaria, a land ruled by angels. These are beings who might be winged and have a special relationship with the god, but who are very human in their needs and desires. In this world, nothing is more cherished than an angel child. Since most of the angels are male, this means that as far as many human women are concerned, catching the attention of an angel and bearing his angel child is the easiest way to change their lives into ones of ease and comfort. Some of them are quite forthright in putting themselves forward, and these "angel-seekers" are derided by many. So, a bit like aspiring WAGs, really.

The books in this series are set at different times (which means that previous characters are not even alive any longer in some of the other entries). This short story is set shortly before the events of Archangel and Angel-Seeker. The archangel Rafael is still in power, and he and a couple of other angels arrive at the farm where our heroine, Salome, lives with her niece, Sheba. Salome, who is in her 40s, has had some very painful experiences with angels in her past, and is determined to keep her beautiful niece from making the same mistakes she made. She will, especially, need to protect her from the evil and corrupt archangel, who would like nothing better than to torment Salome.

There is a lot here about the dark side of life as an angel-seeker, things the young girls, eager to romanticise what they're doing, willfully ignore, and which Salome is determined to make them understand. She's a really interesting character: a strong woman, unashamed of her past and content with her current, unexciting life. But at the same time, it's clear there is still something in her that's open to love. There's quite a bit of unfinished business between her and a particular angel, and the romance between them was nice, if undeveloped. There was some fascinating history there, and while I liked how Shinn dealt with, I kind of felt the events in the past would make for a much more interesting story than the current ones.


The second story, Blood, is related to the first Shinn I ever read, Heart of Gold. It's set in a world in which three races coexist: the Indigos, the Gulden and the Albinos. We don't know much about the latter, but the first two are pretty much polar opposites. The Indigos, blue-skinned and dark-haired, are a matriarchal society, mostly urban and increasingly liberal. The Gulden, golden-skinned and light-haired, are very much patriarchal and clannish, and quite conservative.

Our main character, Kerk, is a young gulden man who's just moved to an Indigo city with his adopted family. He didn't have an easy time growing up: his father was a cruel, abusive man, and his mother left him when Kerk was very young, taking his little sister with her. In gulden society, a woman belongs first to her family and then to her husband, and they can do anything they want with her. This means that a woman married to a bad man is trapped in the marriage. She can't just leave him and set up a new home; her only option, and one unimaginable to many, is to run away altogether. This is what Kerk's mother did, and he hasn't seen her since. His father died just a few years later, and Kerk was lucky enough that his new stepmother was kind and took him with her into her next marriage, and that the new husband was a good man, who informally adopted Kerk. However, it was not easy growing up without a real family in Geldritch.

Now that he's is in the city, which is the only place his mother could have ran to, Kerk is determined to find her. His first step is to visit the Lost City, a very poor neighbourhood where a kind of refuge for gulden women has been set up, and it is there he is confronted by Jalci Candachi. Jalci is a forthright Indigo heiress who volunteers helping out at the Lost City. Once she's assured herself that Kerk's intentions are good, she offers her help, and before long, Kerk is not only helping out at the Lost City himself, mentoring a group of gulden teenage boys, he's also becoming friends with Jalci.

This was my favourite story, and by a country mile, too. Kerk is a fascinating character. He both demonstrates the best of gulden manhood, and is a product of his society, with its prejudices and its willful blindness to what happens when things don't work as they theoretically should. Kerk's saving grace is that actually, he sees the problems, even if at first he feels acknowledging them is a betrayal, and much of the growth he undergoes in this short story involves him finding a way to accept the flaws in gulden society, while still feeling pride in his own culture.

For a story so short, there are plenty of really great moments: his mentoring of the kids, which allow us to see his sense of honour and his basic decency; his surprising conversation with his step-father, who is really an older version of Kerk, further along in his journey; and finally, the outcome of his search for his mother, which is both sad and satisfying at the same time.

The romance was good, but not the best element. Kerk's feelings for Jalci morph a little bit too abruptly from indifference and willingness to tolerate her only for the help she can bring him, to love. Surprisingly, since the whole story is narrated from Kerk's POV, Jalci's feelings feel better developed.

Still, a minor flaw. It's a fantastic story, and I'm amazed at how much Shinn was able to pack in, without it feeling cramped at all.


Straight after my favourite came my least favourite, Gold. This is set some years after Summers At Castle Auburn, with our heroine, Zara, being the daughter of the main characters from that book.

Seventeen-year-old Zara has been sent away from the castle by her parents, the king and queen, while they quell a rebellion. For her own protection, she's being taken to Alora, the kingdom inhabited by fae-like magical creatures called the aliora. Her uncle Jaxon is married to the aliora queen, Rowena, and they will keep her well hidden. But there's danger in Alora as well, as humans who enter that kingdom become enchanted by it, and inevitably want to stay there forever.

Zara's mother, who is a shrewd woman, tries as hard as she can to minimise that danger. Zara arrives at Alora dripping with gold jewelry and strict instructions never to take it off. The touch of the aliora increases the strength of the enchantment, you see, but they can't bear to touch metal, especially gold. Zara also brings with her a potion prepared by her mother, which is designed to keep her memories of home alive, and which she's supposed to drink every night. But the magic of Alora is strong, and though Zara is initially resistant to the charms of lolling around all day, she's soon forgetting her promises and in danger of losing herself completely. She's even forgetting Orlain, the young guardsman who escorted her to Alora, and who periodically brings her news, with whom she's supposed to be madly in love.

This was just ok, and mostly because of the whimsical, imaginative setting. The story itself was very meh. YA is not really my thing, I tend to find myself feeling irritated with teenage characters and can't really relate to their issues. This was the case with Summers At Castle Auburn, and it was also the case with Zara. Also, it's just so obvious what's going to happen here, that it's not at all interesting. It's not even much of a struggle, and Zara loses completely. She has to be rescued by Orlain and Cressida, one of the aliora. The aliora magic has completely defeated any inner strength she might have had. Even when she was holding out, at the beginning, it was just thanks to the protections her mother had built in. I wasn't impressed with her.

Orlain was a much more interesting character, but there just wasn't enough of him, and honestly, I've no idea what he saw in Zara.


Finally, Flame takes us back to the Twelve Houses series, right before the events of the first book, Mystic and Rider. Senneth is a powerful mystic, a woman with magical powers in a world where such things are often seen with mistrust, if not outright fear and hostility. Senneth's strongest power is that of controlling fire, and while visiting a distant relative, she's forced to make use of it in front of other guests, in order to save their little girl from accidentally burning to death.

The other guests are shocked, but ultimately accepting of Senneth, and she decides to accept the invitation to visit them that had been extended before the incident. But while she's staying at their house, strange fires keep popping up in town. Putting out the first one exposes Senneth's powers to the villagers, and soon she's suspected of not just putting them out, but lighting them as well.

Flame is slightly different from the previous stories in that it's not self-contained and about new characters, but a prequel. It's basically all about getting a glimpse of Senneth before the first book in the series, where she's the main character, and spending some time with her. For those of us who've read the series, there are some fun moments, of the "Ah, so that was when Senneth...", but I think there's plenty there for new readers as well, mostly an introduction to a wonderful character.

I guess, strictly speaking, this was a little bit episodic. There's the new acquaintances reacting to Senneth's secret, there's the visit to the Lirrenlands, there's the angry villagers and the mysterious mystic responsible for the fires. Each gets resolved before the next starts. I didn't care. I love Senneth, and had fun visiting with her, and I liked how the story set up her state of mind at the start of the first book.


So, a really good anthology. My only complaint was that I was left wishing Gold had been set in a different world altogether, maybe the one of Wrapt in Crystal. Now, that was an interesting place, and I seem to remember reading somewhere that Shinn had actually written some more stories set there early on. Here's hoping they'll see the light of day at some point.



Li 27 August 2012 at 16:03  

I got this in hardcover when it first came out and had no regrets. I agree having the novellas set in the various Shinn worlds was an excellent idea, plus it was so good to revisit them. I'll always have a soft spot for her Samaria stories, because that's how I first discovered her writing!

Barb in Maryland 27 August 2012 at 18:02  

Shinn is auto-buy in hardcover for me, so, like Li (above), I have read and enjoyed these stories. My grades pretty much echo yours--the Castle Auburn follow-on was my least favorite, the Senneth story was tops for me.

Yes! More from "Wrapt in Crystal" (which was the first of Ms Shinn's books that I read). I just love that book and its world.

Rosario 28 August 2012 at 19:27  

Li: I wasn't sure about her short stories, as the one I'd read (one set in the Twelve Houses universe) had been very meh, so I got this one from the library. I really wouldn't have resented paying it at all, though! :-)

And the Samaria books were my first as well, so I know exactly what you mean!

Rosario 28 August 2012 at 19:29  

Barb: It seems like such a waste that she hasn't done anything more with the Wrapt in Crystal universe. It was so well-realised and interesting, that I'd love to explore more. Maybe she'll change her mind, like she did with the Troubled Waters universe, and write something else set there!

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