House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier

House of Shadows
Rachel Neumeier

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.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
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.”

14 thoughts on “House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier

  1. I didn’t know that this book had multiple points of view or that it had a dash of Japanese culture infused into the story. I’ve passed this book in B&N once or twice and found the cover pretty but it’s good to know that its insides are as nice as the cover, lol. Great review 🙂

    • 🙂 Thanks, glad to help with your curiosity about this one!
      I think this is worth checking out and my ONE issue with it might not be your issue. I checked out goodreads after I reviewed it, and other people thought this was more character than plot driven, while I thought it was the opposite.

  2. Wow, the world building sounds lovely! I want to read about that shape-shifting house in the mountains especially. I may take issue with the character development, though. BUT it seems like a good choice if I want to read something by Neuemeier one day. Thanks for reviewing it. 😀

    • I *love* the house. The house was my favorite.
      Yup, this is definitely a good choice to try out this author. I think this actually is my current favorite of her books I’ve read so far.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this one! I went through it fairly quickly. I thought the worldbuilding was lovely but what kept me reading were the characters – Leilis and Taudde even more than the sisters. Your review has reminded me that I have a draft of this sitting on my dashboard for a while now, I should probably work on that. I also have a copy of The Floating Islands on my TBR pile.

    • Yeah I think I was one of the weird people who read this and wanted more from the characters – when I checked goodreads most people felt differently. Oh well! 🙂 Ah, yes, drafts of reviews. This one was in draft FOR-EV-ER, so.. I can’t really nag anyone about working on their reviews. I need to get to The Floating Islands too.

      • Did you feel like the characters were spread a bit thin because there were so many of them?

        Tomorrow, I’ll try to post a review! Maybe…

        We both need to read The Floating Islands because our headers now have floating islands in their design. 😛

        • Maybe…. I think I just didn’t feel like I really got to delve into one particular character? But there wasn’t enough time to do that because things were happening.

          Wow, tomorrow. That’s a quick turnaround! 🙂

          I know! We’re obligated to read all floating island books.

          • I get your point, I wouldn’t have minded if we got to know the characters better. I just didn’t have an issue with it. I liked this one a lot more that City in the Lake.

            Well, I haven’t posted a review this week so maybe I can work on one of the drafts I have lying around.

            Yes, we are! LOL I remember you mentioned that you have a fondness for floating islands.

  4. This is such a lovely review! I’ve been interested in this book ever since I first learned of its publication, but my interest has increased dramatically after reading your take on it. I am always a little wary of multi-protagonist/POV stories myself, but it sounds as though Neumeier knows how to handle the characters and storyline pretty well. And I do love it when I find out about a fantasy standalone – there aren’t enough of those! Neumeier is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet. Hopefully I can change that very soon!

    • Aw, thanks. Well hopefully if you do pick this up you will enjoy it. This is a good one to try out Neumeier, and I think my one nitpicky issue wasn’t shared by most people. And YES, finding a fantasy standalone is surprisingly difficult. Except for certain authors (Robin McKinley) who usually only write standalone fantasy, and then you want MORE books. Hmm. That would be a good post: recommended fantasy standalones.

  5. Pingback: House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier | Chachic's Book Nook

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