“Corie! You’re back!” Cressida exclaimed, coming over to kiss me on the cheek. My sense of well-being increased a hundredfold. She pulled up a small stool and sat before us, taking my hand in hers. “How was your trip?”
“Bryan kissed her hand,” Andrew informed her.
Cressida looked amused. “Ah, then it was most successful,” she said. “How is it that you have not died of the ecstasy?”
“Perhaps she believes that if she lives, she will experience the ecstasy again,” he suggested.
I shook my head. “Oh, no. I know whose hand Bryan should be kissing, and it is not mine. But it was wonderful all the same.”
“And the purpose of your journey? The hunt? How did that go?” she asked me.
“They captured none of our people,” Andrew said before I could answer. Cressida’s hand, which had been tight on mine, relaxed a little. I frowned slightly, for it had not previously occurred to me—
I shook my head. I was too content and happy right now to worry over odd little moral dilemmas. Like what my friends the aliora thought about my hunting trip to trap more aliora.
Author: Sharon Shinn
Synopsis: Since childhood, Coriel Halsing has spent her autumns and winters and springs as apprentice to her witch-woman grandmother—and her summers at Castle Auburn. The illegitimate daughter of a high-ranked lord, Corie lives for the visits to her adored half-sister Elisandra. But in the last few summers preceding Elisandra’s wedding to ladies’ man Prince Bryan, Corie’s innocent enjoyment of the royal life is darkened by the dangers and moral difficulties of knowing too much about castle politics—and by the fear that she cannot save sister or friends or slaves or anyone she loves from the ever-tightening snare of political finagling and fate.
Notes: Good worldbuilding is supposedly the high point of fantasy, and it’s still one of my favorite discoveries to make in a new author or book. Shinn’s quasi-medieval Auburn is not particularly expansive or inventive, but, through narrator Corie’s eyes, it’s beautifully realized. The fairylike aliora, the plethora of (as far as I can discover, imaginary) herbs, the layers of politics, and the little details of Corie’s upstairs-downstairs life are endlessly interesting and well-drawn.
Possibly better even than the worldbuilding, however, is Shinn’s rare capability for character advancement through plot and time, age and revelation. Corie’s perception—and therefore the reader’s—of various characters develops and changes throughout the book. The reader will see and anticipate more than Corie does, but the developments were well done, sometimes surprising, and in a couple of cases, downright creepy.
Corie fascinates as heroine; a shade too flawless in her fantasy herbalist role, perhaps, but human enough to go through that absurd crush on charismatic bad news that nearly all of us seem to get at some point in our youth. She holds the odd mix of morals more likely to belong to today’s neopaganism lite than to an actual medieval: strong distaste for slavery, cruelty, and mistreatment of women, but irregular convictions toward sex and lies, and no qualms whatsoever about meddling. The latter makes her weirdly unsympathetic at moments, but only moments; her bravery and openness keep her favorable overall.
Her ability to talk on free and equal terms with regent’s son and apothecary, guardsmen and lords alike, lets her fill out the plot with a dual perspective that’s just plain fun to read. She's also generally smart. The reader will spend half the book begging her to do one important work—scruples over meddling be damned, in this case—but she thinks it through and handles it wisely, although that storyline did involve the plot’s most obvious resort to herbalist ex machina.
While I rarely predict more than the basic ending of a book, I’m also rarely so confounded at every attempt to discern how things might resolve. Of Corie's two potential lovers, either seemed equally likely to become her final choice; either would have been acceptable, too, though I did wind up with a clear favorite. (Kent, if you must know. There stands a hero and a man.) As for the Elisandra plot thread, I saw none of those payoffs coming, though some were fairly obvious in retrospect.
The fact that Corie never figured out her own heart till she was asked for it made the romance feel a little underdeveloped from her side, but she gets the ending that’s right for her. And as one might expect from a book where the fairylike beings were shamelessly ethereal and the wise woman’s knowledge was shamelessly infallible, the ending was shamelessly cheerful. I certainly enjoyed it without shame. In fact, I’m anxious to track down some other Sharon Shinn works and read them, too.
Recommendation: It's brain candy made with quality ingredients—it's rather like going to the top chocolatier in town and discovering that dark chocolate with a hint of balsamic vinegar is startlingly delicious. Enjoy.