Monday, May 16, 2011

Sharon Shinn's The Safe-Keeper's Secret

I read the Safe-Keeper's Secret partially because I'd heard good things about Sharon Shinn.  Now I realize that her popularity might be mainly based on her adult fiction, of which there seems to be quite a lot. 

I was somewhat disappointed, because very little actually happens in The Safe-Keeper's Secret..   I don't need a lot of car-chase-sword-fight action, but I do need conflict, and all the main characters are just so nice to each other.  There's not even a real villain. 

The most exciting part is at the beginning, when a mysterious rider drops off a baby we believe to be the king's illegitimate child, to the house of a safe-keeper who is also bearing a child the same night. The story is a slow (though nice) account of Fiona and Reed growing up, and how their mother's friends all gather every holiday, so it seems like the whole book becomes a cycle of what they do at the holidays each year.  It's warm and pleasant, but not very tense. 

Reed's rambunctious and life-loving but strangely sensitive character is interesting and well-drawn, even amusing in parts, and contrasts sharply with Fiona's calm and practical personality.  I enjoyed watching them get along so well despite their differences.  

There's not a whole lot of overt magic.  I tire easily of overpowering and mysterious magic, so I liked the balance here.  The magic settles mainly into three strange occupations.  Safe-keepers keep people's secrets (just so they can have the relief of sharing heavy burdens with someone) until the secrets are ready to come out.  It's not explained how the safe-keepers know this, or how the magic keeps the secrets in.  There are also truth-tellers who may only tell the truth, though it's not clear if the magic shows them truths they wouldn't otherwise know.  The dream-maker leaves a trail of fulfilled dreams, though she doesn't actually do anything to facilitate these dreams coming true.  So the magic is all a little hazy. 

Otherwise, the world-building is good, and you get a real feel for the place.  I loved the kirrenberry tree.  It's the emblem of the safe-keepers, and whistles made of its wood make no sound.  Very poetic.   

Shinn weaves in a few nice philosophical questions.  For example, Fiona wants to be a safe-keeper like her mother, who listens to people's secrets and then keeps them.  Fiona can't always be content to just listen.  She wants to fix people's problems.  It's the classic dilemma of priests, therapists, best friends, and spouses everywhere.  I kept expecting something bad to come of her benevolent interference. 

There's also a lot about the danger versus the importance of the truth, and how honesty may not always be the best policy.    

The question I found disturbing was whether it's okay to fall in love with an adoptive brother.  One of the themes seemed to be that love and shared experience make a family, not blood.   Fiona and Reed know they are not biological brother and sister, but they grow us as close as any siblings.  I found it a little creepy that they begin to fall in love.  I suppose it's a valid issue, but it was still disturbing, especially since it seems to clash with the above theme.  I've read a few reviews that say this romance is only "hinted at," but I think you'd have to be pretty dense not to pick up on it. 

The end was a little disappointing, making the whole book feel like a joke on us, an excuse to have a secret that in the end comes out.  Then everything ties up so perfectly for all the main characters.  I like happy endings, but 90% happy for 90% of the people is more than enough. 

The writing itself is very smooth, drawing the reader in even when not much is really happening.  I did enjoy it.  I cared enough for the characters to keep reading, and to be happy for them at the end.  But I think if you haven't read Sharon Shinn before, you might want to try one of her other more highly acclaimed books.  See her website for possibilities. 

My rating:  3

Addendum, 8-16-11:  I just read and enjoyed Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn.  A much better book, in my opinion.  To see my whole review, click here.

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