Sharon Shinn, Dark Moon Defender (Ace Books, 2006)

Dark Moon Defender is the third in Sharon Shinn's series The Twelve Houses. (This novel is the sequel to The Safekeeper's Secret.) It features an intriguing universe, appealing characters, believable villains, and some serious missteps.

Justin is a King's Rider, sent to the town of Neft as a spy. There are rumblings of rebellion, and the activities of the Daughters of the Pale Mother at the nearby Lumanen Convent are of concern. The new leader of the cult, who styles herself the Lestra, hates the mystics who wield magic: there have been mysterious fires at cottages in the wood, and disappearances. The Lestra, Coralinda Gisseltess, is also the sister of one of the leading nobles in the area, who happens to be forging alliances against the king. While in Neft, Justin meets Ellynor, a novice at the convent from lands over the mountains, where women don't marry without their brothers' or fathers' consent, and many are talented healers and can disappear in the dark.

This is my first encounter with Shinn's work, and she appears to be one of those writers, in this volume at least, who is treading the somewhat shaky borders between fantasy and romance. Others have done much worse, but then, others have done much better. Part, at least, of my reservations about this book stem from the fact that I lose patience with minute introspective examinations of every nuance of every feeling. I'm of the school that says "Don't tell me how the character feels, show me what she does." Shinn tells me how the characters feel, and consequently, the book lurches along.

There is also the problem of missed signals writ large: why do so many authors think that the way to move the story along is to have the characters not tell each other what is important? The developing relationship between Justin and Ellynor is fraught with deception, and apparently we are supposed to be satisfied with periodic references to the "secrets" each is hiding and how they have to learn to trust each other. Unfortunately, their actions don't really bear that out. Ellynor's people don't marry outside their extended clans, and women don't get involved with men whom their brothers and fathers don't approve -- the result of that is a duel to the death. When it finally comes down to it, though, nothing happens -- Justin is accepted by the clan because he is part of Senneth's "family" (the group of six Riders of which Justin is part) and Senneth was adopted by an allied family some while back, and so everything is hunky-dory.

This seems to extend to the book as a whole. Of course Ellynor is discovered by the Daughters to be a mystic, and is to be burned. Of course there is a complicated rescue by Justin and his friends among the King's Riders. Of course it works. And there's not a shred of tension in the whole episode, nor in the book as a whole. (Nor is there any resolution -- there is obviously a sequel in the works.)

Justin and Ellynor are both appealing characters, as are Justin's comrades among the Riders. Even the Lestra, the main villain, is far from being a cartoon -- she's a real person, although her agenda is repellent. We're never quite sure why she hates mystics, which is a problem, but I assume that will come out at some point, if not in this particular book.

I was, as you might have guessed, disappointed. As I said at the beginning, the universe is fascinating, the characters are appealing, and the story line could have developed into something truly engrossing. Unfortunately, the "crises" never quite make it to critical mass, with the result that reading the book is like eating vanilla pudding: comforting, maybe, but not quite the same as chocolate with raspberry sauce.

[Robert M. Tilendis]