|Sharon Shinn revisits four of the memorable fantasy worlds she has created over the years in Quatrain, a collection of short stories. While the stories are entertaining, only one approaches the richness and emotional resonance of the author’s full-length novels.
“Flight” takes place in Samaria, the setting for Shinn’s popular Archangel series, where humans rely on a race of beautiful, sometimes vain and occasionally less than honorable angels to petition the god Jovah for good weather through their stirring voices. Years ago, Salome was an angel seeker groupie who hoped to catch the attention of the powerful Archangel Raphael, only to realize too late his cruelty. Now she lives a quiet life in a farming community, trying to protect her flirtatious niece from similar temptation.
A chance encounter with Raphael and another angel who meant more than Salome ever admitted to herself throws the community into an uproar, and Salome must save her niece and ultimately forgive herself for her youthful foolishness. Salome is a strong heroine whose tale of redemption rings true, but the few scenes with her lost love are too brief to provide a satisfying romance.
The strongest story in the collection is “Blood,” which focuses on the interactions between the patriarchal Guldens and the matriarchal Indigos in a futuristic world first portrayed in Shinn’s novel Heart of Gold. Kerk moves with his stepmother and her second husband to the city, where the two diverse races coexist in an uneasy alliance. Kerk is hoping to find his mother, who abandoned Kerk and his abusive father when he was a child. His search takes him to the Lost City, where he develops a tentative friendship with an energetic Indigo woman named Jalci who volunteers at a shelter for abused Gulden women. Shinn uses carefully nuanced language and customs to demonstrate the vast differences between Gulden and Indigo cultures, and it’s impossible not to feel for the lonely Kerk, who is without blood relatives in a society that values family ties above all else. When the search for his mother reaches its climax, your heart will ache for him.
I don’t remember much about Summers at Castle Auburn, which may not be a bad thing since “Gold,” the story that spins off from the novel, is easily the weakest in Quatrain. Princess Zara is sent to the magical kingdom of Alora for safekeeping during the threat of civil war in her homeland. Before her parents came to rule over Auburn, hunters caught and enslaved the beautiful, fey aliora, selling them to rich households. Now the aliora live safely in their own world, but humans who travel there must take special precautions not to be caught under their spell. Zara is loaded up with gold jewelry, which the aliora cannot bear to touch, but the seductive attention of a charming aliora man tempts her to shed her protection. Fortunately, she is visited regularly by Orlain, the Auburn palace guard who scowls at her but also makes her heart beat faster.
Unfortunately it’s difficult to care which male wins the spoiled, passive princess’ attention. While all of the real action is taking place off stage, Zara is stamping her feet, pouting, and requiring frequent rescue by an elderly aliora woman who was once a friend of Zara’s mother. Shinn usually creates strong, memorable heroines, but Zara is a rare misstep.
Finally, “Flame” serves as a prequel to Shinn’s Twelve Houses series, before Senneth, a mystic of royal blood, met Tayse, the King’s Rider and her future husband. After being exiled by her own father, Senneth lives a nomadic life, occasionally using her magical abilities to control fire when called upon to help, despite the danger that the public’s growing distrust of mystics will turn violent. When unexplained fires start breaking out in her vicinity, Senneth is caught in a web of suspicion, and has to rely on her own wits and the help of her shape-changing friend Kirra to save herself. Shinn drives home lessons about difference and prejudice, but the true value in the story is watching Senneth realize that, despite her mistrust of noble society, she can’t continue living as a virtual hermit. The events in this story help explain why Senneth goes on to create an unusual fellowship that endures through numerous journeys and adventures over the course of the five (so far) Twelve Houses novels.
Quatrain served to whet my appetite for Shinn’s next full-length novel, but each story, at less than a hundred pages each, was not enough to fully engage me. The collection could serve as a good introduction for readers who are unfamiliar with Shinn’s work, although I would recommend instead starting with one of the novels from the Archangel series that brought her so much critical acclaim.