It has been a while since I first read Mystic and Rider, picked up from the "Hot Books" section of my local library when nothing else caught my fancy. I remember taking a little while to sink into the story, almost reluctant to start the novel by this unfamiliar author (much later, I realized rather bemusedly this was the same Ms. Shinn who wrote the Archangel books, but I digress.), but that changed significantly after the second chapter. One of the most notable traits about Sharon Shinn is characterization, which counts as probably the single most important element in a book after plot. The reader's connection to the characters guides how enthralling, interesting, and gripping a tale will be. Mystic and Rider presented a strong, central heroine (Senneth) with very obvious flaws and then wove a core group of people around her. Each of the supporting cast possesses an individual personality with clear traits, whether it's Tayse's stoicism, Kirra's flightiness, Cammon's quirky innocence, Donnal's hint of wildness below the surface, and Justin's scrappy past. The combination worked splendidly in the first part of the story, and I eagerly awaited The Thirteenth House on the grounds Mystic and Rider established.
The Thirteenth House begins out in the province of Tilt, with dubious deeds following a hostage taking. As the previous book laid out, the nobility in the country has begun to air grievances in the light of an aging monarch and the apparent unreadiness of his young, untested, and secluded daughter to assume duties of the heir presumptive. One key noble family, a cornerstone of the aristocracy as an "upper house", exists in a state of semi-disgrace because the scion of the House has all but declared himself willing to seize the throne in a coup d'etat and depose Princess Amalie. The scion's sister leads an influential religious order from Lumanen Covenant, and their worship of the Silver Lady (or the Pale Lady), the goddess of the moon, has grown rather fervent and zealotous. Key among the shared beliefs between the lord and lady, the key adversaries in Mystic and Rider, is that mystics are a plague that ought to be purged.
That core element of conflict becomes more important because the hostage held at the beginning of The Thirteenth House is none other than the appointed regent for Princess Amalie and several of the central characters to the story are mystics. This time, Ms. Shinn focuses the story on Serramarra (Lady) Kirra Danalustrous, a shiftling and healer. She has the unusual gift of two mystic abilities where most have only one. Her powers of transformation generally apply to herself and inanimate objects, although theoretically she can transform living creatures into other things. Such practice is strictly forbidden by the tenets of the Wild Mother, a goddess faded into obscurity along with shiftlings. It becomes an issue Kirra is forced to consider at several points in the plot.
Kirra is the most capricious of the troupe that goes grandly traversing across the continent. She belongs to the aristocracy, as does Senneth, but she is the only character raised truly in that lifestyle. However, her status as a mystic pushes her to the edges of acceptable society and it's only her wittiness, beauty, and no doubt important family name that keep her in the right circles at all. This book focuses a great deal more on the aristocratic element, therefore, and Ms. Shinn develops a good sense of the cloak and dagger world that her nobility occupy. Close family ties, schemings and machinations make events very interesting at the best of times, and as the country inches closer to open rebellion and war, disentangling loyalties becomes of prime importance. Kirra's ability to shapeshift and loyalty to the throne put her in the thick of it all, with rather disastrous consequences.
It's the timely rescue she makes of the regent that sets off a twisted skein of events. The rescue begins with Kirra feeling infatuated with the regent, despite her obvious camraderie and feelings towards Donnal, the other shiftling who trained alongside her as a mystic since childhood. Her careless treatment of him has the smackings of whimsy and childishness, though Kirra herself is nearly 26 (a refreshing change from the ignorant 18 year old, a point Ms. Shinn stresses in objections to the "young" Amalie who is herself 18). The relationship between Donnal, Kirra, Justin and Cammon receives greater attention than in Mystic and Rider, and I can't help but thinking Justin has unrequitted feelings for Kirra. It's hard not to be bowled over by this airy, giddy woman but early in the book she takes on the role of her sister, Casserah.
Casserah's reprised role from the first book is a welcome one, primarily because she provides such a contrast to her sister. And besides, I rather love her name and apparent unflustered, controlled way of bullishly smashing through social conventions. The differences, starkly drawn, between Casserah and Kirra provide a constant reassessment even though Casserah herself appears only sporadically.
Several other reviewers made a point of expressing their dislike for adultery. (*Spoiler Warning*) Kirra does, in fact, move from infatuation to love with the regent for the Princess. As the Princess and Queen make their procession through several of the major provinces in a show of strength and to introduce the cloistered heir to the crown to her nobles and people, Kirra ends up in several precarious positions where the regent's safety and life are endangered. She contrives to rescue him on one occasion, and provides enough distraction on another to prevent harm from coming to him. Just as many disaffected nobles of the so-called Thirteenth House -- those who are a lesser nobility, tending the lands of the higher aristocrats in the Twelve Houses, and feel underappreciated and as though they lack appropriate political/social power -- are displeased by the regent as the king's weakening grip on power.
However, the regent is married and Kirra has prior attachments to Donnal. Despite warnings from her nearest and dearest friends, she carries on her dalliance with a recognition what she does is wrong but she still can't help herself. As much as this has been panned by some, Ms. Shinn's treatment is entirely realistic. She portrays Kirra throughout the series as a young woman rarely measuring the consequences of her actions or stopping for long to think on the negative. Even if Kirra recognizes at some level she's headed towards disaster or courts ill fortune, she never lets that stop her. She is the sunny sort to see the bright side with a wild optimism, so it stands to reason she shouldn't take the warnings to heart in the same way that other, more controlled characters might. She's as unpredictable as weather in spring, and that's precisely the point I feel some readers might be overlooking: Kirra isn't always logical, her emotions often rule her head, and she lived up til this point like a zephyr. When the gravity of her choices fall upon her, even as she long expected, she finds herself unprepared for the despair it causes her. It goes to show even when we can accept something with our head, our heart and our feelings don't neatly fall into place.
This is a book that stirs up responses, and yes, there are points where you may be beating your head against a metaphorical wall because we, the readers, can see where this path is likely to go. But Kirra herself does not, despite ample warning and stirring up gossip. She stays true to her course though her own misgivings mount. And the outcome of it is not butterflies-and-rainbows for everyone involved, possibly setting the stage for future developments that may take an uglier twist in the next book(s). Casserah Danalustrous, in particular, will have a lot to take on.
My only disappointment from this novel lies in an unfinished plotline. Kirra's abilities as a healer come up only around the "red-horse disease" afflicting many people. It has no cure and causes intense suffering, but worse, no one knows where it originates from. I hope sincerely it's looked into farther, because it holds so much promise.