Feb 9 2012 10:45am

Charming Fantasy: Sharon Shinn’s Summers at Castle Auburn

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon ShinnThere’s a kind of fantasy I call “kingdom level.” I use it when a book isn’t epic or high fantasy, but it isn’t low fantasy either. I use it if a story is on a scale larger than the protagonists’ own lives, without endangering the whole world — when the fate of a country is at stake. We don’t really have good ways of classifying fantasy by how much things matter, especially as it’s an orthogonal measure to grittiness. (This is the very opposite of gritty.) When the King Comes Home is kingdom level, so is The Hero and the Crown. Kingdom level is a kind of fantasy I particularly enjoy and I wish there were more of it.

Summers at Castle Auburn is a perfect example of this kind of fantasy. Corie is a fourteen year old bastard daughter of a bastard son of an important noble family. She spends most of her year being the apprentice of her herbalist/witch grandmother, but her wholly legitimate, eccentric (and unmarried) uncle has arranged for her to spend her summers at court, at Castle Auburn. There she is addressed as “Lady Coriel” and mingles with the Regent, the Prince, and all the high nobility of the land. There she meets and befriends her legitimate sister, the Prince’s fiance, who against all expectations is delighted to know her. She deals with intrigue and romance and  she meets the aliora, who are elves, and who are kept as slaves.

This is a genuinely charming book which I enjoyed the first time I read it and enjoyed just as much re-reading it now. It’s not the kind of book that’s full of chewy originality, but that’s not a problem. This is a sweet fluffy absorbing novel. Corie is an outsider with a gift for making friends, the peasants are nicer than the nobles, this is a remarkably enlightened fantasy kingdom in all ways but for the treatment of the aliora — and Corie feels about that as we would and acts as we would. In some kinds of book the injustice of the treatment of the alora would be a great deal grittier and more central, but although it provides a great deal of the plot it’s relatively low key. We follow Corie through several summers, and her transition from child to young woman.

My only hesitation with Summers at Castle Auburn on this re-read was thinking that Corie gets away with everything too easily. She knows a bit of magic, and she’s always using it for people’s own good but without their knowledge, and there are never any consequences. She’s always right because the author says so, and I’d like it a bit better if this confident certainty of acting because she knows she’s right even occasionally backfired.

Corie’s narrative voice is lovely, it rattles along, both naive and knowing, drawing us forward through the story. There’s a romance, and as always with Shinn it’s well handled. It’s barely a spoiler to say that all ends happily, because it wouldn’t be this sort of book unless it did. It’s a story about growing up in the woods and castles of a fantasy world, half way to being a fairytale. If you like Robin McKinley you’ll enjoy this. Save it for a rainy day when you’re a bit tired and want to be drawn into a nicer world for an afternoon.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Bourgeois Nerd
1. Bourgeois Nerd
You describe this book perfectly. It's delightful and charming. One of my comfy favorites.
S Cooper
2. SPC
Agreed, this book has been a cornerstone of my comfort shelf for years.
Bourgeois Nerd
3. emmel
Like all of Shinn's work, it's a wonderful read. "Comfort" is a great word to apply to this book. Shinn is a great author who floats under the radar a bit, IMHO.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
I keep thinking Shinn will write something really brilliant and then everyone will notice her, but she keeps writing things I enjoy that don't quite take it to the next level.
Chuk Goodin
6. Chuk
While I am not in general a big romance novel reader, I've liked everything of Shinn's that I've read. But I agree, none of it has been amazing. (I didn't finish the Archangel books -- probably my favourite of hers so far was The Shape-Changer's Wife.)
Bourgeois Nerd
7. LM
How exciting to see this! Sharon Shinn has been one of my favorites since my German teacher - the same teacher who lent me her copy of Eye of the World - lent me Archangel. But I agree, she maybe isn't on the level of Tolkien/Jordan/Martin, but I love her books and they are my favorites (and this book specificially) for what I call 'bathtub re-reads' - when I want to soak in the tub and the book I'm currently reading isn't bathtub friendly, so I grab an old favorite.
Bourgeois Nerd
8. Un-lic-ed
I particularly enjoyed Troubled Waters as well. Jo, you are spot on with liking Robin McKinley as well - if I need some comfort reading on rainy afternoon I pick up Sunshine, Beauty or Troubled Waters! There is something delightful about both Shinn and McKinley's writing.
Bourgeois Nerd
9. Lynnet1
I love Shinn's Twelve Houses books for comfort reading that doesn't completely fall apart when you spend any time at all thinking about it.

Maybe I'm unusual, but I don't want Shinn to right something Great, I want her to continue to write beautiful, comforting books that I can read after a horrible day at work. And I wish more authors would do the same.
Bourgeois Nerd
10. HelenS
I hate to knock anyone's comfort reading, and I can see how this book would qualify, but it seemed awfully predictable to me. I kept wanting to hit Corie for not realizing Very Obvious Things, or, later in the book, for only slowly and boringly realizing Very Obvious Things. And I am not the kind of reader who usually notices Very Obvious Things on a first lazy reading of this sort of book. I am the kind of reader who can re-read most mystery stories five times or so before I remember whodunit.

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