Mystic and Rider: A mystified, riderless horse…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Sharon Shinn Twelve Houses Mystic and Rider Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn

Like a mystified and riderless horse, Sharon Shinn’s fantasy novel Mystic & Rider gallops to the point of fatigue and frustration. This conclusion is especially unfortunate in light of the excellent opening chapter. But buyer beware: the tension and excitement rarely increase from that point, and the last of the 440 pages brings us little closer to some kind of resolution or revelation than the first. Rather, the entire novel is simply a prologue for the rest of the series.

The novel’s plot is perfectly plain. A band of adventurers is dispatched by the king to investigate troubling rumors in the southern provinces. Shinn’s writing is usually transparent and, in some places, strikingly good. Her characters are likeable if on the bland side, and the magic system is passable. (Some people are born as “mystics” with useful, though usually minor, powers — not unlike mutants in the X-Men comics.) But neither the writing nor characterization overcome the lack of focus and tension in the story itself.

Most genre novels follow a pattern of rising action, climax and resolution. (The Fellowship journeys toward Mordor; it splits and the situation darkens as Frodo struggles toward Mount Doom; the characters reunite in the aftermath, and loose ends are bound.) I’m all for creativity, change, and other advancements of genius that limit cookie-cutter tales; however, there’s a reason why the pattern of rising action is the standard: it makes good stories; it’s logical; it works. By contrast, Mystic is entirely episodic. On the plus side, I’ve never read a fantasy novel with this wandering feel before. On the minus side, I realize there’s a reason why. What you have here is a company setting out with a goal, yes, but an unfocused one: see what’s out there and gather information. So there’s no tension or increasingly difficult series of obstacles or increasing political or relational entanglements. Rather, the company meets a different problem in each spot along the way. A series of episodes results, and the chapter titles could be listed accordingly: They rescue a mystic boy from slavery. They find slain mystics. They endure a snowstorm. They save a village from a strange predator. They help deliver a mystic baby. And so on — and the tension never intensifies because it’s as if they’re not staying in the same story.

What’s even more maddening: early on, they’ve mostly gathered the information the king will need. However, they just keep wandering in and out of trouble, just to get a bit more. They meet two potentially interesting villains along the way, but just as quickly, they leave them behind… (Nor do they consider sending someone to report back to the king in case the others are killed or captured. Also, [SPOILER here, highlight the text if you want to read it] their rescue of Tayse from the convent was absurdly easy: (1) the leader trots out her defenseless novices to meet this dangerous company, instead of surrounding them with armed soldiers; (2) a raelynx can dodge whole volleys of missiles?; (3) why not shoot the companions instead of the raelynx? Better yet, use some foresight and cunning and hurl glass globes of powdered moonstone at their mystics to disable them.) [END SPOILER]

As a final note, the main character, Senneth, is decent: a powerful mystic (with a mysterious past, of course) who is also a competent swordswoman. However, how can the reader even begin to worry about her or the others when, time and again, she’s described as the most powerful mystic in the world? In fact, no one even comes close to her — she can even burn down cities! A good person to travel with but, unfortunately, not necessarily to read about.

In sum, I really liked the first chapter or so, and Shinn’s writing kept me chasing this riderless horse of a novel until the unsatisfying end. It may be that, now that the set-up for the fantasy kingdom is complete, this turns out to be a wonderful series (because this could have been a great book with a stronger plot and focus). However, I’ll wait and see before spending any more time or money on the chase. Recommended as a library loan for die-hard readers of fantasy. Two-and-a-half disappointing stars.

Twelve Houses — (2005- ) Publisher: Clouds of unrest are darkening the land of Gillengaria. In the southern region, ill feeling toward magic and those who use it has risen to a dangerous level, though King Baryn has ordered that such men and women are to be tolerated. Whispers abound that he issued the decree because his new young wife is herself a mystic, who has used her powers to ensnare him. The king knows this — and he knows that he now sits uneasy on the throne. There are those barons of the Twelve Houses, who, out of their own ambition, might well use this growing dissent to overthrow him. So he dispatches the mystic woman Senneth on a journey to see firsthand how dire the situation might be. Accompanying her are Justin, a young Rider who distrusts the magical arts; Kirra, a healer and shape-changer born of the Twelve Houses; her servant, the lowborn Donnal, also a shape-shifter; and Tayse, the first among the King’s Riders. He, too, holds a hard view of mystics in general — and Senneth in particular. As these unlikely allies venture further into the south, they ecounter a land under the sway of a fanatical cult that would purge Gillengaria of all magic users. They will face death — and worse. And the will come to realize that their only hope of survival lies in standing together, mystic and Rider, side by side…

book review Sharon Shinn Twelve Houses: 1.  Mystic and Rider 2. The Thirteenth House 3. Dark Moon Defender 4. Reader and Raelynx 5. Fortune and Fatebook review Sharon Shinn Twelve Houses: 1.  Mystic and Rider 2. The Thirteenth House 3. Dark Moon Defender 4. Reader and Raelynx 5. Fortune and Fatebook review Sharon Shinn Twelve Houses: 1.  Mystic and Rider 2. The Thirteenth House 3. Dark Moon Defender 4. Reader and Raelynx 5. Fortune and Fatebook review Sharon Shinn Twelve Houses: 1.  Mystic and Rider 2. The Thirteenth House 3. Dark Moon Defender 4. Reader and Raelynx 5. Fortune and Fatebook review Sharon Shinn Twelve Houses: 1.  Mystic and Rider 2. The Thirteenth House 3. Dark Moon Defender 4. Reader and Raelynx 5. Fortune and Fate fantasy book reviews

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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

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