Four quarters, four bridges, four keys, four hearts
So, The Shuddering City isn’t out yet. Looks like it comes out, let’s see, November. However, as you can see, I had an advanced copy, so, although I’ll try to remember to link over to it again later, when it’s actually available, here are early comments.
First: I’ve never thought of starting a book with a … hmm … a prophecy or riddle or whatever, and now I feel like I’m missing out, because I really like that little quatrain above. I found that immediately appealing, much more so than (most) prologues or (almost any) explicit prophecy. I’m not even sure why, but I hope I remember to do something like that eventually.
Second, this novel included possibly my very favorite metaphor of all time. I’m just dying to steal this line. Maybe I’ll eventually use it as inspiration, but I don’t know, I never seem to use metaphors like this. I’ll quote it in a minute, it’s not a spoiler, or not too much of a spoiler, but wait for it, because I want to mention the characters first.
So, the characters. There are lots of characters! I actually remember talking to Sharon a year or two ago about SO MANY CHARACTERS and the challenges this produces. I was writing Tarashana at the time and, well, it would be a major spoiler to refer to the means I used to get most of the characters out of the way toward the end of the book. I’m sure readers have had highly variable reactions to that technique, but I bet relatively few readers guess that one important reason for doing, uh, that, was just that I HAD TO get most of the characters out of the way. (I also wanted to scatter the characters so I could give Ryo a chance to have that private chat with Lalani, but that was extra.)
Well, Sharon obviously didn’t consider trimming the character list important in this book. Or maybe she did, but even after cutting them back, we still have a bunch of viewpoint characters and a bunch more important secondary characters, and this is particularly interesting because she starts off in the viewpoint of a character who is important, but not central. So let’s take a look at —
Pietro – an older guy returning to the city after a long time away; he has important secrets. We start off in his pov, but he’s not the central pov character.
Jayla – a mature and confident woman, a professional soldier who doesn’t like to make real commitments; she’s traveled to the city for no special reason. SHE is the most central pov character, which is fine because she’s also my favorite character.
Aussen – a little girl on her own because her whoever was responsible for her died en route to the city. Pietro asks Jayla to take responsibility for her and on no account ever tell him where she is, should he ever ask.
So, yeah, that’s fraught.
Cody – a courier with a lighthearted approach to life and, it turns out, an attraction to serious soldier types who might be commitment-shy.
Madeleine – a possibly spoiled rich girl with a distant father. She is expected to marry a guy who is plainly all wrong for her. Also, people have started trying to kill her, for mysterious reasons. You know what she needs? A bodyguard. You know who would be perfect for that? A female soldier, new to the city and looking for a job.
I don’t like characters like Madeleine very much, as a rule. But, surprise! I liked Madeleine a lot, and for me the central relationship in the story is not any of the various romances, but the relationship between Madeleine and Jayla. I commented to Sharon that it seemed to me that Jayla came to life as a character once she met Madeleine, but looking back on it, I think both Madeleine and Jayla came to life for me when they met. I particularly like bodyguards, so that may have been part of it, but these two also support and complement each other in important ways.
But we are not at the end of the character list! So, moving on:
Tivol – the wrong guy for Madeleine. This is plain from the beginning, but Madeleine’s father wants her to marry Tivol, his mother wants that, everyone wants that, they’ve been promised to each other for ages, she’s been fine with that her whole life and is still telling herself it’ll work out just fine.
Yeah, no, he turns out to be absolutely the wrong guy. In spades.
Reese – the right guy for Madeleine.
Harlo – the high divine. Have I mentioned the backstory? It’s all about a god stitching the world together way back when. There have been a lot of earthquakes recently. Harlo, as the high divine, considers this very important. He would pretty much do anything to avoid the city being torn apart and destroyed, and I admit, you can see his point.
Brandon – a temple guard, currently assigned to guard –
Villette – a young woman who lives in reasonable luxury in a house in the city and who must never be allowed to escape.
That’s not everybody. But it’s all the pov characters and the majority of the most important secondary characters. How many even is that? Ah, ten. All right, that’s a lot. The pov is carried, in order from most important on down, by Jayla, Madeleine, Pietro, and Brandon. So, there are four threads of romance through this story – that’s the four hearts, of course. I hardly need to mention that no one is forced to marry the wrong guy, that everyone winds up with the right person, and that the city is not torn apart by earthquakes. I bet you guessed that.
I don’t want to say too much about this. I will say, this story is not actually a fantasy-mystery. Partway through, everything is explained, or almost everything, and we then set about solving problems rather than trying to figure out what is going on. This was fine, although I did think that certain problems had been allowed to become a lot more dire than was perhaps strictly necessary. On the other hand, people mismanage dire problems all the time, so that’s not actually unbelievable. But this construction does mean that if the reader may have the impression that this story is meant to be a mystery, and that’s not really the case. Certain other elements may turn out to be a surprise, I will add.
I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend starting a novel in the pov of a secondary or tertiary character. I would suggest that it’s generally best to start out in the pov of the most important pov protagonist and also wind up in that pov. However, it actually worked well to start in Pietro’s pov and then shift to Jayla. This is perhaps partly because Pietro knows what’s going on and is better able to set up the mystery and partly because to begin with he’s more interesting than Jayla. Actually, he’s more interesting than Jayla period, I just liked her best anyway.
Also, it worked well for me to have all the romances happen around the periphery of the story. The central positive relationship is between Madeleine and Jayla: Madeleine needs Jayla’s strength and confidence, and Jayla needs someone to commit to. The Shuddering City is a fantastic example of a story that centers friendship and parent-child relationships while also including important romances. That always appeals to me very much and it certainly did here.
But, on the way from the beginning to the end, the actual most important relationship is, how should I put this, the anti-romance – it’s Madeleine ditching Tivol. Who absolutely deserves to be ditched. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that he’s betrayed her – I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that just about everyone she most trusted has betrayed her – and the reason I want to say that is because this leads to this stunning metaphor, which yes, I am now going to share with you all:
She hadn’t wanted Reese to leave, but she hadn’t wanted him to stay, either. Her head was full of thunderstorms and carrion crows, and she couldn’t hear her own thoughts over the din. She had eventually sent him away so she could curl up in the window seat and think, but it turned out she still couldn’t concentrate. So she just rested her cheek on her updrawn knees and listened to the wordless howling in her mind.
Her head was full of thunderstorms and carrion crows! Wow. I don’t think I have ever seen a better expression of the shock of betrayal. I don’t know, maybe many readers just read over a line like that and keep going. I personally stopped dead, re-read that page, emailed Sharon to tell her how much I loved that line, and tucked it away in the back of my mind, where I will refer to it forever when considering examples of perfect metaphors.
A fast, engrossing story, low-tension because hey, It’s Sharon Shinn, I think we can all be confident everything will work out. Although I generally prefer stories with a tighter focus on one or a small number of primary characters, I liked all the characters here and had no trouble shifting from one to the next. If you enjoy Sharon Shinn’s work, and I know many of you do, by all means keep an eye out for The Shuddering City this fall.