Author: Rachel Neumeier
Publication Date: July 2012
Paperback: 352 Pages
Orphaned, two sisters are left to find their own fortunes.
Sweet and proper, Karah’s future seems secure at a glamorous Flower House. She could be pampered for the rest of her life… if she agrees to play their game.
Nemienne, neither sweet nor proper, has fewer choices. Left with no alternative, she accepts a mysterious mage’s offer of an apprenticeship. Agreeing means a home and survival, but can Nemienne trust the mage?
With the arrival of a foreign bard into the quiet city, dangerous secrets are unearthed, and both sisters find themselves at the center of a plot that threatens not only to upset their newly found lives, but also to destroy their kingdom.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel, but with potential for more
How did I get this book: e-ARC from the publisher (via NetGalley)
Why did I read this book: Rachel Neumeier is one of my new favorite authors – I’ve read and basically loved all of her books (most especially The City in the Lake) – so when I learned of this forthcoming title, I was ecstatic. PLUS, a self-contained fantasy novel is hard to find these days.
In the sea and mountain shrouded city of Lirionne, a prosperous merchant raises his eight daughters in a home of love and happiness. When the merchant dies, however, his daughters are left to fend for themselves – and most urgently, they must figure out a way to run the stone masonry (though legally, they cannot, as women) and to pay off the mounting debt following their beloved father’s debt. With no other alternative and the possibility of imminent war (as the treaty of Brenedde, between Lirionne and Kalches, ends), the daughters agree that two of their number must be sold to help the others survive. Karah, the most beautiful and selfless of all the girls, goes to a keiso house in the candlelight district. Even here, among the most lovely and talented flowers of the kingdom at Cloisonné House, Karah’s unique blend of beauty and naivete fetch an incredible sum – but still not enough to save the family from their debts. Nemienne, neither the oldest nor youngest sister, neither the fairest nor plainest sister, also goes to Cloisonné House to become a keiso, but instead finds her path as an apprentice to the Lirionne Mage Ankennes, for another tidy sum. Under the tutelage of her new master, Nemienne learns magecraft and finally finds her calling, for she has always felt separate from her sisters and has perceived of things no one else could. However, her apprenticeship also is fraught with danger, as she uncovers a plot that could shake not only the political structure of her land, but threatens the lives of everyone in the kingdom.
Through her sister Karah, Nemienne’s path tangles with two others – Leilis and Taudde. Leilis is a beautiful but solemn girl that is neither servant nor keiso thanks to a vengeful curse, but she finds it in her jaded heart to help shield the sweet Karah from her new jealous deisa and keiso sisters. Taudde is a sorcerer from Kalches who is half-extorted and half-willingly compliant in planning the prince’s assassination.
Nemienne, Leilis, and Taudde’s destinies converge, and together, they will determine the fate of a kingdom.
A self-contained novel, House of Shadows is an imaginative fantasy complete with a strong trio of main characters – including two wonderful heroines – and some truly awesome worldbuilding. Though House of Shadows isn’t quite my favorite book by Rachel Neumeier, it certainly is a memorable one that is high on the list.
Let’s talk worldbuilding first, shall we? As I mentioned before, House of Shadows is a very, very rare creature in the fantasy genre – it is a completely self-contained novel. Lest you think that ‘stand alone’ equates to an underdeveloped world or lack of different characters and magical systems, allow me to rid you of that notion. House of Shadows effectively creates not only an effective and believable political climate (with the tensions between Lirionne and Kalches coming to a head), but also weaves rich magical and cultural distinctions in this world. I loved the different magery of Lirionne and its focus on the sea and unrelenting darkness, just as I loved the very different tang of magic from Kalches, with the reliance and focus on music to ensorcell. There’s a history of great and awe-inspiring dragons, of hidden and forgotten truths of magic, darkness and light, too, which I also loved. More than just the magic systems, there’s also a connecting thread of different beliefs and customs that separates Lirionne – of the sea – and Kalches – of the mountains. Through the eyes of Taudde, these divisions become clear; as does the history of tension between these two realms.
Of course, a large part of the story also details the keiso life, and the value of the keiso in Lirionne culture. The keiso, inspired by the geisha of Japan, are a powerful and respected class in Lirionne – not prostitutes (though we do hear tell of these, disparagingly), a keiso must earn her robes and her keep, but is trained in the arts and can even marry should they choose to, becoming a “flower wife” to a courtier. This intricate system – in which women may not have the same rights and powers as men, but through the keiso path can amass their own status and power either through marriage or reputation – is fascinating and beautifully rendered by Neumeier (reminiscent of the servants of Namaah in Jacqueline Carey’s novels, and of course redolent of any number of geisha novels and histories).
Just as the worldbuilding is superb, so too are the characters. I adored our two female protagonists. The quiet apprentice-mage Nemienne and the solemn, cursed Leilis are both intriguing and conflicted heroines. Nemienne’s story, following her training and excitement for learning magecraft was my favorite thread of the three, closely followed by Leilis and her own conflicted, painful past. Taudde is another strong and relatable voice, though perhaps not as complex and less sympathetic than his female counterparts. That said, I did love that Taudde treads a grey area of morality that no one else quite does in the book, and his motivations are more selfish than those of any other character’s (even including the ‘villain’!) – particularly his compliance in planning the death of a prince. There’s also a great reveal about Taudde in the climactic chapters of the book, but I won’t spoil that here.
These praises said, House of Shadows is not without its significant flaws. From a character perspective, not-quite-a-protagonist Karah (and her prince) is just plain boring as a character. Unwaveringly good, incredibly beautiful, untouchably innocent, Karah is the type of sweet, sheltered princess character that should be singing songs to cheerful birds and fluffy wood creatures. Her character makes sense in the context of the novel, though, and I fully appreciate that she’s not really a protagonist as much as she is a connecting force between our three heroes. Her romantic involvement with the prince is predictable – of course such an innocent little dove would capture the heart of the prince! This said, I fully appreciate what Rachel Neumeier has done with the character, because instead of telling a very trite and predictably boring love story between Karah and her prince, Neumeier tells the story through the eyes of Leilis – who is infinitely more interesting.
My only other major complaint for the novel is that it felt disjointed – though our three protagonists’ stories come together, their individual threads felt as though they were pulling apart instead of converging towards each other. Each character seemed as though they were the star of an entirely separate story that should have been written for each of them alone, almost to the point where I felt that these were three completely different novels, cobbled together to make a cohesive – yet noticably patchworked – whole. There’s also a lack of early intensity and direction for the story because of these separate plot threads, though the pacing does become more even as the novel continues. Finally, there are some tendencies towards the excessive regarding explanations and setting, as well as noticeable repetition to the dialogue (lots of strangely placed “mmm”s, and from at least two different characters) – however I should stipulate that I read an ARC and these more minor stylistic issues may have been changed in the final print.
All this said, I still truly loved House of Shadows, for its fantastic world and especially for its two heroines (ok, Taudde was great, too). Although I love that this can be read as a stand alone novel, I would not be averse to reading more set in this world – particularly as Nemienne continues with her magical studies.
Absolutely recommended, especially for those who like strong heroines, and undoubtedly House of Shadows makes my list of notable reads of 2012.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
In a city of gray stone and mist, between the steep rain-swept mountains and the sea, there lived a merchant with his eight daughters. The merchant’s wife had died bearing the eighth daughter and so the girls had raised one another, the elder ones looking after the younger. The merchant was not wealthy, having eight daughters to support, but neither was he poor. He had a tall narrow house at the edge of the city, near his stone yard where he dealt in the blue slate and hard granite of the mountains and in imported white limestone and marble. His house had glass windows, tile floors, and a long gallery along the back where there was room for eight beds for his daughters.
The eldest of his daughters was named Ananda. Ananda was nineteen years old, with chestnut hair and pretty manners. She was not precisely engaged, but it was generally accepted that the second son of a merchant who dealt in fine cloth meant to offer for her soon, and it was also generally understood that she would assent. The youngest daughter, Liaska, was nine and as bright and impish as a puppy; she romped through her days and made her sisters and her father laugh with her mischief. In between were Karah and Enelle and Nemienne and Tana and Miande and Jehenne.
Gentle Karah, loveliest of all the sisters, mothered the younger girls. They adored her, and only Karah could calm Liaska on her more rambunctious days. Practical Enelle, with their father’s broad cheekbones and their lost mother’s gray eyes, kept the accounts for both the household and their father’s business. Tana, serious and grave even as a child, made sure the house was always neat. Lighthearted Miande sang as she went about the kitchen tasks, and made delicate pastries filled with cream and smooth sauces that never had lumps. Jehenne learned her letters early and found, even when quite young, that she had a feel for both graceful lettering and graceful phrases.
Nemienne, neither one of the eldest nor one of the youngest, neither the most beautiful nor the plainest of the daughters, drifted through her days. Her attention was likely to be caught at any moment by the sudden glancing of light across slate rooftops, or by the tangled whisper of the breeze that slid through the maze of city streets on its way to or from the sea. Though Nemienne baffled her father and puzzled her sisters, her quiet created a stillness otherwise rare in their crowded house.
For her part, Nemienne could not understand how her sisters did not see the strange slant into which light sometimes fell, as though it were falling into the world from a place not quite congruent. She didn’t understand how they could fail to hear the way every drop of falling rain sometimes struck the cobbles with the pure ringing sound of a little bell, or the odd tones that sometimes echoed behind the sound of the wind to create a breathy, half-heard music pitched to the loneliness at the heart of the bustling city.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Make sure to check out Rachel’s Inspirations & Influences guest post as she discusses the books that helped shape House of Shadows. Plus, there’s a chance to win a copy of the book! Go forth and comment!
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Alien on a Rampage by Clete Barrett Smith
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)