This is a review of a book provided to me by Orbit books.
The Premise: In the town of Lonne, in the country of Lirionne, a merchant dies, leaving behind his eight daughters. The women can’t own their father’s business, and without their father, they’re destitute. The only path is for the oldest to marry so her husband could own the business and let her level-headed sister run it. This way they should make profit in a few years. The only problem is that no marriage can take place without a dowry. To save their sisters, two of the women volunteer to be “sold”. Karah, the second oldest and everyone’s favorite, secures a remarkable price at Cloisonné House, the best keiso house in the candlelight district. Eccentric Nemienne, the other sacrificing sister, turns her oddness into an asset when she goes the Lane of Shadows to become a mage’s apprentice. Meanwhile, a bard named Taudde is caught in Lonne (in violation of the the treaty of Brenedde) and is forced by his captors to carry out their agenda. As war looms between Lirionne and its neighbor, Karah earns a protector in Leilis (a young woman who is not a servant but also not a keiso) against the jealousy of the other deisa, Nemienne explores the mage’s house and is led to unexpected places, and Taudde struggles to escape the conspiracy he’s been entangled in.
My Thoughts: House of Shadows is a multi-protagonist story where the point of view cycles between three main characters. The first chapter’s focus is on the sisters and their decision to sell two of their number, the second’s on Leilis of Cloisonné House, and the third’s on Taudde and his difficulties. Because of the rotating points of view, it takes a third of the book (about 100 pages) before a unified plot makes itself known. (This review is going to talk about the threads, but not necessarily explain how they interweave because I try not to give away specific details on plot if it happens after page fifty).
There’s always the danger with multiple protagonists that I’ll end up invested in one character’s storyline and want to skim everything else. At first I was afraid this would happen here because I really liked Karah and Nemienne’s storyline. The death of a merchant father, the eight sisters–each with their own unique ability, and the necessary sacrifice to sell their loveliest and their strangest, infused the story with a fairytale quality I wanted to explore. I saw Beauty and the Beast in the sisters trading themselves in for their loved ones’ comfort. I wanted to dive into a story that revolved around their training to be a keiso and a mage. The shift to Leilis, a servant who is not really a servant was a surprise, but she was still in the same orbit as Karah, and smooths Karah’s transition into the House, so it wasn’t a bad shift. Also, Leilis is mysterious and I wanted to figure out what was behind someone who could be unobtrusive and also navigate the in-house politics of Cloisonné. It was when the the story moves to Taudde in the third chapter that I struggled the most. That’s when I really had to accept that the focus wasn’t just on the two sisters forging new lives. On the other hand, with Taudde, the the scope of the story widened from personal drama to political intrigue. This wasn’t the story of two sisters that I was expecting, but the world building combined with wanting to know what was going on lured me forward.
What I liked about the world building in House of Shadows is that you can feel the influence of other stories on it, but it still remains distinct from them. I’ve already mentioned fairy tales when I talked about the sisters’ story, but there’s also hints of it elsewhere: an unexplained curse, enigmatic animal guides, a man with an iron will. The sense of fairy tale also compliments how the magic of Lirionne is described. Lonne seems to be seeped in magic, yet most of the city is totally unaware, so when it is encountered, it’s strange and secret. I felt like there was a sense of wonder and mystery because here was something complex and unpredictable. The best example of this (and my favorite) is the mage’s “oddly outsized” house built into the mountain, where rooms may move and hallways stretch and bend. I love the “magical buildings that grow at will” trope.
Another influence I could see was Japanese culture — appearing here as the keiso, Neumeier’s version of geisha, with an emphasis she says, on “their roles as artists and high status women”. Beautiful, respected, and independent thanks to their artistry, keiso are sought after and could even marry, becoming “flower wives” to wealthy men (their sons would be acknowledged by their fathers). I liked that this suggests a different kind of world building than the default Western-based one. The cover reflects that, depicting a girl with with Asian features, but in the book, race is actually hazy: Karah has blue eyes, “creamy skin”, and “clouds of twilight hair”, Leilis has “storm-gray eyes” and hair “so dark it was almost black”, while another character has “dark eyes” and “straw-pale brows”, his hair, “a shade lighter”. That this story nods at Japanese culture, but it’s only a facet of the world building, not all of the world building, is good too.
Overall: This was a nice multi-protagonist story and bonus: it’s standalone, which isn’t too common in Fantasy (the ending leaves the door ajar for further adventures, but I haven’t heard any news about a sequel). The one complaint I have is that I wouldn’t have minded getting to know individual characters more, but it didn’t feel like there was room for that and to have the plot threads interweave so neatly and so well-synchronized. Character development is a big part of my personal scoring system, but I loved the world building, so in the end this fit into a middle-ish “liked” category for me.
The Book Smugglers – 8 (Excellent)
Bunbury in the Stacks – ” I enjoyed the fairy tale beginning, but it was from halfway through to the end of this book that I was truly glued to the pages and unable to put it down.”