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Retro Friday Review: The Dream-Maker's Magic by Sharon Shinn

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time! I include roundups from participating bloggers in my post every week.
The Dream-Maker's Magic is the third book in Sharon Shinn's Safe-Keepers trilogy. This trilogy is YA fantasy set in an unnamed kingdom in which, along with your average, run-of-the-mill people, there are also three sorts of quite special folk. The safe-keepers, the truth-tellers, and the dream-makers. While it is possible to find several safe-keepers and truth-tellers across the land, there is only ever one living dream-maker at any given time. It is a demanding calling and the individual usually resides in the capital, traveling throughout the kingdom making people's dreams come true. Or not. It all depends on the person and the nature of the desires of their heart. I'm featuring the third book in the trilogy, not only because it is my favorite, but because they really don't have to be read in order. Each volume features different characters, different towns, and different problems. And they each focus on one of the three groups of gifted people. I think each book is worth reading, but I also think they get progressively richer and more enjoyable. I'm not sure why these books didn't received as much attention as they deserve. It could be because they were not graced with particularly good covers (though the interior design is lovely). I am an unabashed Shinn fan, though (similar to Juliet Marillier) I do end up preferring her "adult" titles to her YA. She's better in larger and longer doses, I think. And I haven't loved her other standalone YA titles. But these three are so very good. Particularly the third one.

Kellen's life has been . . . unconventional. Though she appears in all ways to be a girl, she has been raised her entire life as a boy. Ever since the day she was born her mother has insisted she was born a boy, despite all evidence to the contrary. Her father went along with it as long as he could and then finally left when the stubborn insanity on her mother's part became too much for him to handle. And so it has been just Kellen and her mother ever since. When she goes to school she is met with understandable confusion and suspicion. But for once in her life she is not the worst off. At school she meets a boy by the name of Gryffin who receives worse treatment at the hands of the other kids because of his deformed legs. Perhaps inevitably, these two outsiders become fast friends. United in their struggle against the rest of the world, Kellen helps Gryffin maneuver around the village and serves as a sort of buffer between her friend and his abusive, n'er do well uncle. In turn, Gryffin helps Kellen with her studies and her trials with her increasingly out of touch mother. And together they erect a barrier of kindness and hope between themselves and those who deride or look down upon them. Of course their situations are much more complicated than they at first seem and they only grow more so as they grow up and strike out on their own. They both take jobs at a nearby inn where the owners treat them kindly and take them for who and what they are. Then one day a stranger rides into town and changes their lives within the space of a single afternoon and, just as she felt she was getting a hold on things, Kellen is suddenly very sure things will never be the same again.

I find myself coming back to this one more frequently than its predecessors. The last book in the trilogy, The Dream-Maker's Magic strikes just the right chord with me, I guess. A main character whose mother is convinced she's a boy. A best friend whose legs are crippled but whose mind is razor sharp. A Dream-Maker who is weary of making people's dreams come true. And a first-person narrative that maintains a dogged authenticity amid elements both magical and fantastical. I found myself empathizing with Kellen, trying to carve out a space for herself, her real self, while everyone around her insists on offering their versions. Kellen and Gryffin's friendship is the highlight of the novel. Low on angst and high on the thoughtful exploration of what makes us who we are and what goes into the way we perceive ourselves and those around us, this book is quietly beautiful. My favorite passage: 
At first I thought I had guessed wrong about my mother.

"A dress," she said, when I told her the requirement for me to work at the new Parmer Arms. "But you can't wear a dress. That would look silly. That would be indecent. Boys wear trousers."

I sat up straight enough so that my growing breasts made a definite shape against my tattered white shirt. "Girls wear skirts."

She looked at me as if she hadn't noticed my changing figure before, and her eyes slowly filled with tears. "You're not," she whispered. "You're not supposed to be."

"I don't know what I'm supposed to be," I said tiredly. "But this is what I am."

As it turned out, she neither granted permission for me to take the job nor told me outright that I could not. She merely ignored my request, ignored anything that had to do with my new identity. She did not help me cut and sew the three simple gowns I made for myself, following an extremely simple pattern. She did not ask about the work or comment on the money that I handed over at the end of every week. She pretended, as she had pretended my entire life, that I was someone else.

But I rather liked the new Kellen, who was, in many subtle ways, different from the old one. This Kellen was not quite so fierce, so independent, so wary. She smiled much more often--though that might have been to hide her shyness. She was not used to being stripped of disguises, unfamiliar with the casual appraisal a man might turn on a woman of any age on display, vulnerable, pulled out of hiding, a breath or two away from being starkly naked.

But she rather liked it.

I worked at the Parmer Arms four days a week--three evenings after school and one full day when school was not in session. At first, I walked through town, from my house to Sarah's, wearing my old boy's clothes and carrying my dress over my arm; I changed once I arrived. Sarah quickly decided it would make more sense for her to store all of my "restaurant clothes" at the Arms and made herself responsible for keeping them cleaned and mended. She also added two somewhat fancier garments to my small wardrobe, obviously having a seamstress tailor them after the template of the ones I had made myself. These dresses--one a dark navy and one a charcoal gray--were my favorite two things I owned.

Sarah also spent some time teaching me how to style my hair, though both of us tended to wear braids and buns to keep our hair out of the way while we were working. Still, she showed me how to soften my face with a few loose curls, and she trimmed my long, completely neglected locks so they fell with more grace around my cheeks. At times I didn't recognize myself when I looked in the mirror. And I was glad to see a stranger peering back at me from the glass that hung over the front desk at the Parmer Arms.

Most of the people who passed through the restaurant did not recognize me, either. True, the majority were strangers merely stopping briefly for food or a change of horses, but the restaurant had become a popular place for townspeople who wanted to treat themselves to a special night out. The first two months I worked there, I waited on at least a dozen people whom I had known all my life, and not one of them knew who I was.

But there was one person who was not fooled by my new looks or my modulated personality, and that was Gryffin. Or perhaps I put that wrong. He did not seem to notice what I was wearing or how I had arranged my hair, if I was dressed like the most disreputable street urchin or a quietly stylish young lady. Whether I saw him at school, whether I dropped by his uncle's house, or whether I unexpectedly encountered him on the street, he always greeted my with a smile and my name. I did not bewilder or surprise him. He did not think I was trying to be something I was not, as my mother did; he did not think I was trying to break a chrysalis and become something I was meant to be, as Besty and Sarah surely believed. He just thought I was Kellen.

I found this the most comforting thing that had ever happened to me. At times, when I lay awake at night, confused myself about what role I should take and what direction I should try to follow, all that kept me from slipping into tears was knowing that I was not completely lost if Gryffin knew how to find me.
See? Magic. Give it a chance and I have the feeling you'll fall as much in love with Kellen and Gryffin as I did. Pull it out on a night when you want to be especially cozy. 

Reading order: The Safe-Keeper's Secret, The Truth-Teller's Tale, and The Dream-Maker's Magic

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  1. Sunhi2:38 PM

    Hmm, I liked but didn't love the first two so I never got the third. I see that this needs to be changed.

    By the way, Shinn's Summers At Castle Auburn is my favorite work that she's written. Give it a try if you haven't!

  2. I bought this book recently. I thought it was a standalone. Now that I know it's the third book, I'll wait till I cana start from the first one.

  3. Oooh, the excerpt has me curious for more! Thanks for pointing this author out-I haven't heard about her until now o.O

  4. Oh, two in a row! I should go back and see how many of your retro Friday's I've read actually - there is definitely some shared reading history :-)

    I love Sharon Shinn, but I agree her recent YA standalones haven't quite hit the spot (Summers at Castle Auburn remains my favourite of her YAs). This one I recall liking, but I did think the story was going to end up slightly differently to how it actually did. I think. It's been a while.

    She says on her website that she's writing an urban fantasy next, that is going to be very interesting. I am very keen to see how her writing translates to a contemporary setting - I think it has the potential to be very very good. Ack - must manage expectations!

  5. Oooh a YA book from Sharon Shinn. I've only read Summers at Castle Auburn. Thanks for reviewing this one! I think I've seen a copy of it in one of the bookstores here. Now that you've recommended it, I might just buy it the next time I see the book.

  6. Charlotte, of course you do. :) Because they are lovely.

    Sunhi, yeah, I really do think the 3rd is the best. And I have read SUMMERS AT CASTLE AUBURN! Loved it. Especially the ending. ;)

    Janice, awesome, you've already got it in house.

    Pirate, weeeeeell then. If you really are a Shinn virgin, I recommend starting with either ARCHANGEL or MYSTIC & RIDER. Both the first in a series. Both splendiferous.

    Li, *grin* definitely. I'd love to know how many you've read as well. I, too, love SUMMERS AT CASTLE AUBURN, though I didn't realize it was marketed YA when I read it. I found it in the regular fantasy/scifi section. But Corie is pretty young, isn't she? And I saw that about her upcoming urban fantasy as well! Ohmygosh, I'm so excited about that!! I've not been disappointed by one of her adult novels, so I have high hopes. lol.

    Chachic, wow, if you've got access to a copy I do think you'd enjoy it. It's simple but very sweet.

  7. I read this one a while back and thought it was a sweet series. Quiet, but still touching in the way Shinn excels at in her writing, imo. :D

  8. Samantha, she does, doesn't she? I just love her style.


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