Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn, was published in 2001 by Ace.
Summers at Castle Auburn has been on my reading list for quite a while—since the first Sharon Shinn book I’ve read (The Safe-Keeper’s Secret), I think. The title, plus the rating on Goodreads, plus my love for 2000s fantasy, all contributed to my desire to read the book. It took me a while to actually get it, though.
But, boy, did it not disappoint.
Now, I’ve read other books that are more immediately gripping—The King of Attolia, for one—and it’s not the type of book that I feel I could read over and over again. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoyed Juliet Marillier and Kate Constable—and Shinn’s other works. It’s slow, and meandering, but there’s so much to think about and to see develop.
The book is pretty slow up until about the middle, but once you get to the middle, you see why the first part was important. There’s a bit of odd stuff scattered around, but it all contributes to the world and to the characters. The most prominent is the aliora, which seem like a pretty useless addition—take them out of the story and everything stays the same—but they do contribute to the world in a way that perhaps wouldn’t be as effective if they had been left out.
There’s a lot of court intrigue, which I loved, but the best part is that its intrigue interpreted through the eyes of someone who isn’t really involved in all the intrigue. So we see parts of it, and only get hints at the rest. The best part of this intrigue is, of course, the slow reveal of the character Bryan’s personality and tendencies, as he goes from flirtatious, energetic teenager to smiling monster. And, of course, my favorite part of the book was the ending, where intrigue collides with tension, and there are several big character moments for all of the main characters.
Shinn does make a small error towards the end—basically, Corie tells her sister something, and then later on wonders how her sister knows about that thing—but everything is so well paced and revealed that I could ignore it. And what I mostly cared about was the romance, which was maybe not as romantic as some people might like, but it was very well-developed, and I loved what it had to say about love and about how sometimes loving someone means doing something you normally wouldn’t do.
I’m not sure Summers at Castle Auburn will be on my “Could Read Again” list, but I thoroughly enjoyed almost every page of it—even the slow beginning. Shinn and 2000s fantasy prove their worth again!
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Dark themes (murder is the most prominent, subtle hints at rape)
Beastly Bones continues the oddball, eclectic fun that I loved so much about the first novel. Central to that fun is, of course, Jackaby, who’s basically a nicer Sherlock Holmes (at least in the Sherlock iteration), but various side characters also contribute. Abigail Rook, though portrayed as the serious, “let’s bring this back down to earth” type of partner, also has her moments, especially in her awkward moments with Charlie Barker.
This book has a much better mystery than Jackaby did, though once the revelation came, I realized that I probably should have figured it out sooner. I didn’t, though, so I was delightfully surprised. And I liked the introduction of a Shadowy Figure, as it gives a united goal and an arc for the books, though I honestly wouldn’t mind if each book was separate and only united in characters and other minor details (like Jenny’s backstory).
These books have been really fun so far, and I’m hoping the quality of mystery improves without ruining the fun of the characters and the quirky nature in general. I like mysteries just a little more detailed and involved, but that might mean not having as much fun in general. And these books were clearly written to be fun.
Also, the covers of these books! To be honest, if it was just the silhouette and the title, it would be perfection. The picture in the middle kind of ruins it a little, but they’re still very pretty. I don’t gush about pretty cover art enough, in my opinion.
The Novice, by Taran Matharu, was published in 2015 by Feiwel and Friends.
I really wanted to enjoy The Novice. The cover art is eye-catching, the premise seemed intriguing, and the summoning aspect of the novel was interesting. I could ignore some of the other worldbuilding flaws as long as the summoning continued to be interesting, and for a book that started on Wattpad (*shudder*), some of it seemed pretty decent, if plagued by mistakes that first-time writers often make.
But, eventually, I couldn’t get past the characters, their terrible characterization, and the stilted, clunky dialogue.
There is no nuance in any of the characters. The main character, Fletcher, is pretty much perfect: he has a rare demon, his flaws in magic are made up for in his innovation and outside-the-box thinking, and he’s perfectly good and true and just. The lack of nuance means emotion is expressed too strongly, and gray areas are never addressed. There’s “Fletcher (and his friends and the commoners)—good” and “Nobles—bad” type conflict, and the characters act as if they’re ten years old, shouting at each other, screaming, and making melodramatic statements at every turn.
The world also falls apart once you even start considering the mechanics of the summoning school. Apparently the rules are able to change at a whim—no one bats an eye when the tournament format is changed last minute to suit the evil teacher’s desires (and this teacher is one of about three teachers at this so-called famous school), and this teacher apparently didn’t even have to fill out any forms or discuss it with a council or anything. In addition, there seems to be no sense of structure or discipline—students go or don’t go to class, are allowed to leave the school apparently at any time and come back at any time, and don’t seem to be on any sort of schedule or regimen (despite the reference to timetables).
Then again, there’s only three teachers, so how are they supposed to keep an eye on all of these wandering students, anyway?
Plus, Matharu’s stark, black-and-white, all rich people are corrupt worldbuilding grows tiresome after the –nth instance of telling rather than showing.
And don’t even get me started on the number of comma splicesin every single dialogue.
I wanted to like The Novice, but its Wattpad beginnings are too obvious, and its worldbuilding and character flaws too numerous, for me.
Broken Things, by Lauren Oliver, was published in 2018 by HarperCollins.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Lauren Oliver and her books. Some, I liked. Some, I hated. I enjoy her writing a lot, but occasionally her plots leave a lot to be desired. Panic was a jumbled mess of unrealistic garbage. Vanishing Girls was interesting and compelling.
Luckily, Broken Things is more like Vanishing Girls. The plot, which may have been inspired (but I’m just guessing) by the real-life Slender Man murder, is intriguing and a fairly decent suspense novel. The characters are interesting, too, if generic and too teenager-y for me. I liked the inclusion of the Narnia-esque fantasy book and the nod to fanfiction, though I’m not a fan of the “end a book mid-sentence” aspect.
I was ultimately going to give this book a 4 out of 5, but when I figured things out a hundred pages before the characters did, and when I realized how much of the book was clues and how much was just Brynn and Mia thinking about how terrible Summer was to them, I knocked its rating down. I mean, they really should have figured things out with the wildly obvious clue that was mentioned and then immediately forgotten because Oliver didn’t want her characters to figure it out for another two hundred pages, so she had them deliberately bypass it.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be a superfan, or even a fan, of Lauren Oliver. Her writing is beautiful, but her books never appeal to me beyond the interesting plots that they sometimes have. There’s always something about her books that set my teeth on edge, that make me want to hurry up and finish so I can be done with the teenage angst and the attitudes and the catty behavior. Broken Things has a decent, compelling plot, marred by the actions of the characters, but it’s character-driven and I’m not that big of a fan of character-driven books, especially when the characters are forced to forget things in order that they don’t figure things out too quickly.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: LGBTQ themes, sexual situations, swearing, drinking, drug abuse.
Wolf Tower, by Tanith Lee, was published in 1998 by Dutton.
I first read Tanith Lee’s Claidi Journals around ten years ago. Though my memories of the last three books have faded, except for the odd bits and pieces (including what’s probably an important plot point of the second book which has stuck with me), the first book has always been the one I remembered the most. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of the first books I read with a proper twist ending. Or maybe the fantasy was strong enough, memorable enough, to stay with me.
That being said, I did forget quite a bit. Claidi’s voice, for one. I love her character: brave, yearning for adventure and freedom, yet at times doubtful, hesitant, unsure. I love my characters with a dash of uncertainty—it makes them feel more realistic. And while for most of the book she’s more of an observer, soaking in all the new sights and sounds, she never feels passive. And towards the end, she becomes pretty fierce.
I also forgot various sights, sounds, and plot points. Though I’m not a huge fan of the world—big, empty, waste-y, with scattered villages and cities with different governing systems and no sense of scale—I did enjoy seeing it as Claidi saw it—as she is experiencing it for the first time just as we, the readers, are.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but I remember the plot twist blowing my teenage mind a bit when I read it. Now, of course, I spotted it much more easily and was able to enjoy the lead-up more. I also really like the idea of Claidi being torn between the dazzling stranger who rescued her and the stranger who takes his time to get to know her, as it seems pretty close to human nature: we feel indebted to the people who rescue us (I know Claidi rescued him, technically, but I don’t really mean “rescue” in the “saving” sense. More in the “opened up the world” sense), but we come across people who are more genuine and heartfelt, we feel torn because of our sense of loyalty to the first set of people.
Anyway, I enjoyed re-reading Wolf Tower very much. I’m looking forward to seeing how much of the other three books I actually remember, and how many plot points I know, and how surprised I will be if I don’t know them.
Jackaby was all over Goodreads the year it was published, and I noticed it at the time, but didn’t really put much stock into it (most books that are popular on Goodreads don’t reflect my tastes). But even back then, the cover and title font intrigued me, so when I saw it on the library shelf, I thought, “Why not?”
The blurb for this book says it’s a “Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes” story, but to be honest, it reminded me a lot more of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series. Jackaby is a more eccentric Lockwood, while Abigail is a less adventurous, more normal Lucy. The tone of the book and the characters are great: quirky, fun, interesting. I’m not a big fan of fairy elements, but the inclusion in this book was smooth and I didn’t mind it so much.
I loved the characters and the atmosphere, but the mystery itself was simply all right. It was fairly simple, with most of the attention focused on building up the world rather than the mystery itself. The red herrings Ritter threw in were so obviously red herrings that there was no shock or tension in the unraveling of the plot. And, though the book is decently long, it feels quite short, mainly because the majority of it does deal with establishing characters and not so much on action. And for a first book, that’s okay—it’s important to do that. I was just hoping for something with a bit more punch and intrigue that would really make me want to go out and get the next book.
I think I liked Jackaby just enough for me to get the next book in the series, but if the mysteries remain as tepid and obvious as in this first book, I might have to call it quits. Or maybe the delightful characters will keep me reading—we’ll see!
After devouring Sharon Shinn and Kate Constable, I immediately went on the hunt for more 2000s fantasy and found Alison Croggon’s Book of Pellinor quartet. I’ve actually read this series before, something I realized once I started, but it was long enough ago that I only remember bits and pieces. And I don’t quite remember if I actually finished reading the series, though I think I did. Anyway, the whole book seemed hauntingly familiar, though I barely remembered anything of the plot. To be honest, the thing that I most remembered was the “let’s pretend this book was an actual historical document that’s been translated” gimmick.
Anyway, on the back cover, Tamora Pierce describes The Naming as Tolkienesque, and that is definitely apparent in the book. Of course, it’s not nearly as vast or extensive as Tolkien made the Lord of the Rings. Though much having to do with the politics and culture of the world is ignored, Croggon has developed the Bard part of the world well, with its own language and customs, and the whole legend of the world is also done well, if a bit trope-y. There’s the standard Light and Dark concept, with the standard Evil Villain. The magic is unexplained and described only as “the Gift,” with very little to show how it works or what it does. However, the world was much better developed than many similar fantasies I’ve read, and I could tell Croggon put a lot of thought into it.
The one thing that held me back from complete enjoyment of the book was the writing style, which was too old-fashioned. That’s probably not even the right word to use, but that’s the only thing I can think of to describe it. I was not a huge fan of the way characters spoke, and I especially didn’t like how differently Maerad spoke than other characters. It’s like every character is formal and speaks in a bit of antiquated syntax, and then Maerad speaks normally. Perhaps that’s to contrast her with the other Bards, but I didn’t enjoy it.
Also, I had trouble reconciling the fact that traveling seems to take no time at all, or at least seems to take no time at all, but then Maerad is consistently mentioning her period. So, Croggon is apparently trying to say, “It’s been three months since she left Gilman’s Cot!” when the way time has been tracked before then makes it seem as if it’s only been one month, if not two. There needs to be a better way for the readers to follow the time then for a character to think, “Oh, time for that monthly thing!”
The Naming has some promising worldbuilding, though there’s not much explanation for many of the concepts, and there’s very little sense of the world beyond Bards, Hulls, and some semblance of a Bardic ruling system. The fact that I’ve read this book is both a blessing and a curse, since I can’t wait to get to the parts I do remember liking, but am dreading the parts I remember not liking (which, to be honest, isn’t anything in specific—I just remember being let down by the ending. If I even finished the books, which I think I did).
The Sherwood Ring is a delightful story full of political intrigue, ghosts, stories of the past, mysteries in the present, and an intriguing, shadowy gentleman known as Peaceable Sherwood. I wasn’t expecting the intermixing of past and present as each chapter is dedicated to a particular story that Peggy hears from one of the family’s ghosts.
Of course, since there needs to be a plot beyond “ghosts telling stories,” Peggy’s present troubles and dramas are, of course, linked to the stories as she discovers more about her family’s history and her Uncle Enos’s strange behavior. Nothing in this book is particularly surprising or complex, but the real charm lies in the story, not the plot, if that makes sense. Peaceable Sherwood is such a fun villain that Peggy being used mostly as a vehicle to find out more about him is something I don’t actually have a problem with (and she gets her own story at the end as she figures out why she’s being told all these things to begin with).
My favorite chapter was “The Bean Pot” because Barbara Grahame is amazing and the battle of wits she plays with Peaceable is fantastic. It’s interesting that all it takes is a good story and interesting characters for me to actually like books set up like this; normally I’m not a fan of disjointed storytelling or characters as plot devices. However, The Sherwood Ring was a fun, enjoyable read, though it wasn’t quite what I expected initially!
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Young Adult, Supernatural, Historical Fiction
The Dream-Maker’s Magic is my least favorite of Shinn’s Safe-Keeper trilogy, though it’s still a delightful read. Kellen, whose mother has always insisted that she was a boy, learns to find her own way in life with the help of her friends, especially Gryffin, the lame boy she befriends in school. Along the way, several (unsurprising) plot twists occur, faces from the previous two books appear, and several happy endings occur.
While this last book is about the Dream-Maker, that really takes a backseat to Kellen’s story. Shinn is fond of the long, slow development, something I noticed in The Truth-Teller’s Tale. She likes to build the characters up before doing much of the plot, so the book is much more character-driven than story-driven. I didn’t quite like the romance as much in this one, but Kellen’s journey is delightful, though predictable. Shinn has a knack for really making small-town life come alive with its own unique characters and dramas. As an added bonus, while she does include several things that are darker, her fantasies are, overall, light and fluffy, which is nice. Sometimes I want to sit down and read some Finnikin of the Rock, but sometimes I want to sit down and read Sharon Shinn, who I know will deliver me plot, character, and the light-heartedness I crave.
Overall, I’m very pleased with my discovery of Shinn. Though I’d probably not reread The Dream-Maker’s Magic, as it was a bit too slow and plodding for me, with an underwhelming romance and plot, I would definitely go back and reread the first two books, as well as, of course, discover her other books.
The more I read 2000s fantasy, the more I become convinced that the YA and middle grade fantasy of that decade was particularly strong. Or maybe it’s just the authors I’m reading were particularly strong. Whatever the case, Sharon Shinn delivers another delightful tale in The Truth-Teller’s Tale.
Now, I read The Safe-Keeper’s Secret a very long time ago—at least a couple of years. I loved it, if I recall, and Shinn immediately jumped to the top of the “authors I must read more of” list. However, it took me a while to get this book, though I’m not sure why. I think I simply forgot about it. Once it arrived back on my radar, I didn’t hesitate in picking it up.
I love the magic of the world Shinn has built—the magic of the Safe-Keepers, the Truth-Tellers, and the Dream-Makers. The Truth-Teller concept is especially intriguing—and, luckily, that’s what we get to experience the most in this book (as you might expect from the title). I’m not sure if Shinn is trying to say that all Truth-Tellers are blunt, or if Eleda’s personality simply makes her an exceptional Truth-Teller, but the development and the results that come about because of Eleda being a Truth-Teller were some of my favorite bits of magic in the book. And I like that it’s subtle magic—less flashy and more ingrained in the character.
As much as I enjoyed the book, especially the ending once Things Started Happening (despite the rather obvious reveals), the beginning and middle parts were fairly slow. I understand that the book is very concerned with developing the characters, but I wish there hadn’t been quite so much time spent on “let’s watch the characters grow up before getting to the part the book summary talks about.” By the time Part Two rolled around, I was getting just a bit exasperated with the slow pace of the book. Of course, Part Two almost immediately made me forget about Part One’s slow pace.
It’s books like The Truth-Teller’s Tale, with its sweet romance, interesting magic, compelling characters, and a plot that if easily guessable is at least interesting, that make me love the fantasy genre. Shinn has cemented herself as an author who I want to read more of, so you can expect to see more of her works on my blog.