Summers at Castle Auburn (2001) by Sharon Shinn
Back Jacket: She was a girl...with a talent for witchcraft and a taste for adventure. The illegitimate child of a royal lord, she longed for a man who could never be hers. And she lived for her summers at Castle Auburn. She is a woman...who has grown accustomed to standing alone. What she once loved, she has lost. Where she once saw joy, she now sees terrible injustice. And at the castle where she once lived in peace, she now walks in fear for her life.
Review: Okay, let's be honest: the back jacket gives you no clue what this story is about. And even maybe sort of makes the book sound like a trashy medieval romance/mystery.* But that's okay, because I'm here. Also, there's a great synopsis on Shinn's official site (third one down).
The story begins when Corie is fourteen years old. Throughout the greater part of the year, she lives with her grandmother in a small village, acting as her apprentice in potion-making and other beneficent witchery. Because she is the illegitimate child of a noble man, Corie travels to Castle Auburn with her Uncle Jaxon every summer, unaware that those around her are prepping her for sale into an advantageous marriage. All she knows is that she loves the company of her kind and graceful half-sister, Elisandra, and Kent, the good humored cousin of the prince who always makes time for her. And then there is the prince himself: Bryan is arrogant but beautiful, and despite his flirtation with every girl at the castle and his betrothal to Elisandra, Corie can't help but fall in love with him more each time she sees him. (Bryan would be the man for whom she yearns but cannot have, as indicated by the back jacket). AND THEN there is the reserved but talented new guardsman, Roderick, who is blond and has a nice smile. So there's the romantic angle of the book, and all the important main characters.
The other angle of the book is a mixture of fantasy and politics. All the noble families hunt and capture aliora--ethereal, beautiful creatures**--shackling them with harmful metals so that they cannot escape. At first, Corie sees nothing wrong with this: it's how things are done, and it's how households are maintained. Even working as servants, the captured aliora are kind and gentle, always ready to comfort Corie. But as each summer passes, she grows more uneasy with the arrangement and becomes appalled by the uncle she once loved, for Jaxon is the most renowned hunter in the land and he is on a mission to capture the aliora queen.
I love this book for its pacing and its characters, and the way Corie changes over time between fourteen and seventeen. Slowly but surely, she comes to see Bryan as erratic, reckless, and a frightening prospect to be king. She also comes to understand that Elisandra, who she has always thought was lucky for her betrothal to Bryan, feels trapped and devastated. As for the romance, unless you're very smart (which I am sometimes not), you won't have a CLUE how it's all going to pan out. Because there are all sorts of misunderstandings, and people not saying what they're thinking. I love how Shinn writes: Often, it's not what the characters are actually saying to one another that's exciting and romantic; it's what they're not saying. Or it's the implication of what they're saying. I like Shinn's approach to the romance because she doesn't make you wait for it, but she doesn't overdo it, either. I have several favorite scenes from this book. In this scene, Corie is fourteen and on a hunting trip with her Uncle Jaxon, Prince Bryan, Kent (the prince's cousin), Roderick (the new guardsman) and Damien (the prince's food tester). Corie left with the boys before the female chaperone who was supposed to accompany her was awake (sneaky chit!). They've come across a wide, rushing river and after two days of hot, wearying travel through the woods, are ready to play:
I hadn't exactly packed for swimming, but I was wearing a dark shirt under my man's jacket, and it hung to my knees. Modesty enough with my uncle as chaperone, don't you think, Greta? Yes, I think so, too!Conclusion: 4/5. This book is well paced, has plenty of plot and romance, and I've loved it and remembered it since I was about fourteen. I love the subtle humor to Shinn's writing and that Corie's emotions are very real. She makes mistakes, is playful, kind, and also torn between the many contradictions in her life. I like to re-read it every few years, and I'm so happy to finally own a copy. I mentioned before that I had to order it because the bookstores aren't stocking it anymore, but if you're interested, libraries should be able to get it pretty easily.
I was the first one in the water, Kent and Roderick right behind me. The river was not as cold as I'd feared, so it must have lain quiet in the sun a mile or so before it raced down the falls, but it was frothy as a cauldron bubbling over the fire. It boiled past me with a delicious tickling effect, and I squealed with chill, sensation, and delight.
"Careful! Don't go too far in!" Kent shouted, splashing over beside me and spraying water everywhere. He had stripped to his breeches, and as he strove with the river, his pale chest seemed more well-muscled than I had expected. "It's probably deep farther in."
"I can swim!" I called back.
"Not in this current!" he replied.
So I was careful to go no farther than my feet could find a purchase on the sharp rocks of the riverbed. Roderick had instantly dived for a handful of those same rocks, and now he came up, his sandy hair sleeked back from his face. The sudden severity of the hairstyle threw his broad cheekbones and strong chin into relief; he looked like nothing so much as a model for good, sturdy, yeoman strength. I watched him as he began skipping rocks into the lively water. The current swallowed his first two stones on his first two throws, so he adjusted his stance and sent the next one skipping downstream, along the face of the moving river. This time the rock leapt back into the air, two times, three, four. He had got the trick of it already....
Myself, I was delighted with a chance to get clean, and I ducked under the water again and again so that my thick hair would let go of its day's store of dirt and twigs. Every time I surfaced, I found Kent nearby.
"I'm not going to drown!" I informed him over the steady roar of water. "You don't have to be ready to snatch me to safety!"
"You look so small--like the current could sweep you away!" he called back. "I'll just stand right here." (p. 33-34)
*Don't get me wrong; trashy romance/mysteries are great. Love 'em.
**Cate Blanchett in LOTR most readily comes to mind as an example:
P.S. You can read more excerpts on Amazon here.
P.P.S. If you like Sharon Shinn's writing, you're in luck. She's prolific! I highly recommend Jenna Starborn, a sci-fi retelling of Jane Eyre.
FTC: No one is sending me free books. I buy them all on my own. Also, I am not affiliated with Amazon in any way.