Summers at Castle Auburn (2001) was my first exposure to Sharon Shinn‘s fantasies, and it was pretty much insta-love for me (I like to think that Shinn returns my affections in a distant and anonymous fan-appreciation kind of way). It instantly set me off on a search for more of her books.
Corie is the teenaged illegitimate daughter of a nobleman who died before the story begins, but the royal family is still keeping close tabs on her. Most of the time she lives with her grandmother in a remote village, learning medicinal herbs and a bit of witchery from her. But her summers are spent with the royal family in Castle Auburn.
We follow Corie over the next several years as she hangs out with her half-sister Elisandra; Bryan, the stunningly good-looking ― and knows it ― prince and heir to the throne (and Elisandra’s intended husband, in that royal arranged marriage kind of way, which doesn’t stop Corie and a hundred other girls in the kingdom from getting wild crushes on him); and Kent, a serious young man who is the regent’s son. For a long time, Corie is totally oblivious to the fact that she, like Elisandra, is being groomed to make a strategic alliance (i.e., marriage) to benefit those in charge of the kingdom.
The plot is thickened by a subplot involving the Aliora, a lovely, faerie-like people who are hunted down and kidnapped by the humans in this kingdom, thereafter spending the rest of their lives as expensive slaves to the nobility. One of the most dedicated and effective hunters of the Aliora is Corie’s uncle Jaxon, a man she otherwise admires. They make very kind and attentive servants, and Corie loves them, but it takes her several years to realize how miserable they are in their slavery, and more to figure out whether there’s something she can do about it.
Summers at Castle Auburn is a lovely coming-of-age novel; it’s among my all-time favorites in the YA fantasy genre. Though it’s a young adult novel, it was interesting and complex enough for me to thoroughly enjoy. The romance in it is quiet and subtle, but appealing. There are some unexpected plot twists that nevertheless fit really well with the storyline. Kudos to Sharon Shinn for making (highlight to view spoiler): the handsome, sought-after prince slowly reveal himself as a despicable character and Corie’s beautiful half-sister Elisandra turn out to have some unexpected and startling depth.
I listened to the audiobook version of Summers at Castle Auburn narrated by Gabrielle Baker. I enjoyed every moment of this sweet but still intense story for the same reasons Tadiana did. I especially appreciated Shinn’s subversion of some common YA romance tropes which made this story feel fresh. (Tadiana mentions these in her spoiler above ― highlight if you want to read it.)
My only complaint about Summers at Castle Auburn was that I didn’t feel the romances. Tadiana called the romance “quiet and subtle” and those are good descriptions. Shinn wanted to surprise us with the romance ― and it was a pleasant surprise ― I just wish I had felt it more so that I could rejoice with the characters.
Gabrielle Baker gives a beautiful performance in the audiobook edition. It’s 14.5 hours long.