Mystic and Rider ~ Sharon Shinn

  • Title: Mystic and Rider
  • Author: Sharon Shinn
  • Series: Twelve Houses #1
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Own
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  Gillengaria seethes with unrest. In the south, hostility toward magic and its users has risen to a dangerous level, though King Baryn has ordered that such mystics are to be tolerated. It is whispered that he issued the decree because his new wife used her magic powers to ensnare him. The King knows there are those in the noble Twelve Houses who could use this growing dissent to overthrow him. So he dispatches the mystic Senneth to assess the threat throughout the realm. Accompanying her is a motley band of magic-users and warriors including Tayse, first among the King’s Riders—who holds a hard view of mystics in general, and Senneth in particular.

But as the unlikely allies venture farther into the south, they will face death in a land under the sway of a fanatical cult that would purge Gillengaria of all magic users. And they will come to realize that their only hope of survival lies in standing together.

Review:  This is a re-read, probably the third time. I was in the dumps, tired of all the mediocre books I started but couldn’t finish. I wanted to cheer myself up, so I turned to a book by the author who has never let me down yet. The novel lived up to my expectations: an enjoyable read with all the fantasy tropes present but with a twirl that makes them unmistakably Shinn. It’s a story of love and self-discovery, masquerading as a fantasy quest.

The novel opens a new series, set in the imaginary land of Gillengaria. The setting is as much a character in this tale as the protagonist Senneth, a mystic (sorceress), entrusted by the king to assess the mood of the kingdom.

With her citizens’ intertwined wants and desires, biases and convictions, Shinn’s Gillengaria emerges as a rich multicolored tapestry, with Senneth in its centre. Those who expect a straightforward epic fantasy will be disappointed in this book (as some reviews indicate). There are no overt battles or evil wizards here. The conflict is much deeper and much more subtle than in a typical quest story. This tale centers on the hatred of the different.

Alas, we all know such stories; history books and newspapers are crammed with them. Depending on the century and the location, such hatred has lifted its ugly head again and again: towards those with a different skin color or those who follow a different tradition or those who worship a different god. In this fictional account, the persecuted are those who can wield magic.

Because most of the action happens in people’s heads and hearts, the story seems slow on the surface, but as in any psychological thriller, tension runs high. Although nominal villains appear briefly (what fantasy novel is worthwhile without them?) they’re just figureheads, representing the enemies much more amorphous and much more dangerous: social intolerance and religious fanaticism, the twin themes that not many fantasy writers dare to tackle in such depth.

Despite the complexity of the theme, the plot is deceptively simple. Senneth, the king’s most trusted and most powerful mystic, travels around the country accompanied by a small, uneven team: three other mystics plus two King’s Riders, members of the king’s elite private guard. In the beginning, the mystics and the riders mistrust each other, but gradually, from one dangerous adventure to another, from one hardship endured together to the next, the dynamics in the group shift. By the end, the former strangers gravitate towards friendship.

Senneth is the catalyst of those changes. Her loyalty, courage and kindness force everyone – characters and readers alike – to reassess their own values. She is the glue that keeps these disparate individuals together; she is the torch to light their way. Nobody stays indifferent to Senneth, but one of the King’s Riders, Tayse, falls the hardest. He falls in love. Their romantic line punctuates the bigger issues of the tale, adding a personal melody and intimate overtones. Like the characters themselves, Senneth’s and Tayse’s love affair is multifaceted and fragile, studded with obstacles. Even the positive denouement of the last pages seems quiet and uncertain. Although the lovers finally acknowledge their attraction, nothing is resolved yet, not in their relationship, nor in the political arena of Gillengaria. The stage is set for the next book in the series.

I love this novel.  It touches my soul and resonates with my worldview. I want to write like Shinn.

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