The Thirteenth House (The Twelve Houses, Book 2) is the sequel to Mystic and Rider (The Twelve Houses, Book 1) by Sharon Shinn. Both books, along with the third, Dark Moon Defender, are fantasy-romances set in the mythical kingdom of Gillengaria, and are, unfortunately, fraught with the saccharine tendencies of romance novels of every other genre. Sharon Shinn, although a fascinating world-builder, is prone to romance novels, which is every author’s right, I suppose.
I love Gillengaria, and the concept of mystics that Shinn has developed. They are human beings with extraordinary powers often called magic, and sometimes thought to be gifts from mostly-forgotten gods. They are oddly linked to the Twelve Houses, who are the aristocracy of this feudal kingdom; my mystical heart loves the reference to twelve (zodiac of course) and the latent pyromaniac in me loves Senneth, whose power is as an almost incarnation of living flame.
But what moved me to review The Thirteenth House is a more basic human condition: the situation of adultery. In Mystic and Rider, we met Senneth, nobleborn mystic, and her new found love, the King’s Rider Tayse; Tayse’s protege, also King’s Rider Justin; Kirra, another nobleborn mystic (a changeling and healer) and her faithful sidekick, the lowborn changeling Donnal. The sixth of their group of wandering friends is also lowborn and mystic Cammon, whose gentle soul reads the hearts of others with amazing accuracy and unending compassion.
In The Thirteenth House, King Baryn sends the sextet on a secret mission to rescue the man he intends to name regent-apparent of his kingdom for Baryn’s young daughter who will inherit the throne. Romar has been captured by enemies of the king, and it is hoped his freedom and nomination as future regent will bring some stability to a kingdom sliding inexorably into the throes of civil war. All the pieces for a great political/fantasy adventure are in place, and all that is needed is some UST and an impossible romance.
Obligingly, Kirra, who is unmarried but practically joined at the hip and heart with Donnal, and Romar, who is in a noble marriage-for-heirs as he couldn’t find a marriage-for-love partner among the aristocracy, meet and fall desperately in love, tragically having missed each other when Romar was looking for a partner, as Kirra would have done nicely as a match. I was initially impressed that Kirra and Romar are portrayed as actually having the affair, mainly because Kirra is our protagonist, not the wife. It is singularly brave, I thought, for the Other Woman to be the viewpoint, and the character whose story continues on after the affair is eventually concluded.
However, my delight quickly cooled. Shinn unfortunately falls into the trap of placing all consequences – if not all blame – on Kirra. Kirra’s beloved friends all express their disapproval and fear that this situation can come to no good end, only hurting her in the end; all viewpoints I can agree with and applaud their expressing. However, in each case, they do it with disgust, so that eventually she is left alone to make her decisions, and alone to handle the ultimate consequences of her actions.
Meanwhile, Romar is not a POV (point of view) character, so we are not treated to what his friends think of the situation; but while Kirra is accompanied by intimates who care deeply about her welfare, Romar is accompanied only by Kirra’s group and his own house guards, who are under his command. No one apparently who matters to him knows about his affair; we can safely assume no one takes him to task for it.
Eventually, Kirra, Romar and the others make it back to the capital city of Ghosenhall and deliver Romar into the relative safety of the king’s care. Kirra comes face to face with what it is she is doing when she meets Romar’s wife, who comes to her in private to ask for her woman’s opinion on what she can do to hold her husband’s affection. Romar’s wife is not a fool; she knows her husband does not love her, and wishes Kirra to give her a mystical spell to get his attention. Kirra, of course, does not have love potion type magic; she is able to transform her body and inanimate objects, and to heal herself and others from illnesses, not perform spells.
What the encounter does accomplish is to present Kirra with a wicked dilemma; she finds that Romar’s wife is ill with a stomach illness that will kill her within the year, if Kirra does not act to stop it. This cliched and coincidental meeting gives Kirra the opportunity to do nothing and get to marry her beloved in a few years time, or heal his wife and thereby deprive herself of his love probably forever. Naturally our heroine finally makes the “right” choice and heals not only the wife, but Romar himself, taking his love for her from his very mind so that he does not remember her with those feelings. (This is something outside of her usual abilities, and is a bit of a plothole besides.)
In all of this, Kirra’s friends are distanced by their disgusted disapproval, so she does all of this alone, and ultimately is the only one who suffers for an affair that was not her fault alone. Donnal who has almost never left her side will barely speak to her or show himself; even empathetic Cammon cannot bear her presence and independent Senneth only comes to her aid after the deed is done.
So, kudos to Shinn for making the heroine the Other Woman instead of the cuckolded wife; thumbs down for making the resolution the same tired old trope that it’s All Her Fault, and making the woman take not only the blame but the punishment for what happened. Obviously there’s no good resolution for a situation like that; but I am disappointed that such an imaginative world-builder could invent no better solution than this one.