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Sharon Shinn and magic

I've been rereading Sharon Shinn's Twelve Houses series, just for the heck of it. I'll be taking a break now that Brandon Sanderson's new 1000-page epic is out, but I've already hit Mystic and Rider and The Thirteenth House on my Nook, and reserved Dark Moon Defender at the library. I don't think I ever read the concluding volume, Reader and Raelynx.

I have a love/hate relationship with Shinn. Her Samaria books are among my absolute favorites. Summers at Castle Auburn is also a favorite to reread. But Heart of Gold was painful and General Winston's Daughter completely forgetable.

I read the first three aforementioned Twelve Houses books when they came out, and I couldn't explain why they left me a little cold. I mean, sure, the first book has way too much infodump and the action is a little slow, but there's a nice romance, strong female characters and whatnot. Except in the second book one of those characters gets headstrong to the point of stupidity and you can't really feel that sympathic for her when it all goes to hell.

Anyway.

Rereading, I discovered the thing that really bothers me about the series is the magic. In the world Shinn is created, a small minority of people are born 'mystics'. Presumably the power is hereditary although far from dominant. The king is pro-mystic while many of the powerful Southern houses are bigoted and often violent against them, which creates a good bit of the tension in the series. In the first couple of books, the only mystics we really meet are in the core group of main characters: one who can create fire, one who can read minds, two who are shapeshifters.

The problem is that there are no rules for the magic that takes place in the series. If there's one lesson I've learned at the proverbial knees of Sanderson and Orson Scott Card, magic has to have rules just like everything else, and the fewer rules your system has the less practical help it can be. Some of Sanderson's magic systems have been extremely complicated, almost as though he was creating whole new natural laws. But because his planning was so meticulous, when a character used her powers to get out of a jam or solve a tricky problem, it was believable.

Not so in the Twelve Houses books. We have some theories about why some people have powers and others don't, but the powers themselves are... kind of a mess. The mystic who controls fire can also heal people and make herself invisible and share bits of her power inside trinkets and withstand anti-mystic magic. The mind reader can see through disguises and tell if people are lying and mentally control wild animals and shield others from pain and amplify the power of others and he's great at defensive swordplay because he knows what his opponent will do. The shapeshifter - well, one of them - can shapeshift things and other people as well as herself, and heal people, and erase or modify memories. And the worst part is that the characters just seem to discover these things on the fly, which makes the story that much less believable. If a character needs to modify someone's memory, and although she's never done so before that we're aware of, but she tries to and suddenly can... meh.

I know, sometimes you have to just let these things go. Go with the flow. But I am looking forward to Sanderson's The Way of Kings as a nice contrast. Probably the biggest drawback to reading it on my Nook will it not being quite so easy to flip back and forth to various helpful glosseries and appendices. On the upside, I won't need to lug around a 1000 page hardcover for the next week. Winner: me!
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