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!Sharon Shinn through the fabulous Archangel--the first book in her Samaria series. I was instantly smitten and plowed my way through that series quick like a bunny. I'm pretty sure I picked up Summers at Castle Auburn while waiting for the fifth Samaria book to come out. I knew it was YA and much more traditional fantasy (also no sci fi), but honestly I was just sort of making time, if you will. I wasn't expecting that much. You know how you find a new author via a series that just steals your heart, and after devouring it in its entirety you're simultaneously dying for more but so afraid the author's other books won't hold the same shine that those first ones do? Sometimes your fears bear out. But sometimes you end up eating humble pie, quite happily and deservedly so. That was the case here. That is to say nothing, of course, of the prejudice I am occasionally guilty of when it comes to one of my favorite adult authors crossing over and writing YA. So often I feel like they come off as just lite versions of themselves, and I'm left longing for the depth and emotional intensity of their adult titles. Thankfully, Summers at Castle Auburn is a gem of an exception--a beautifully told coming of age tale set in a deceptively idyllic fantasy realm.
Corie inhabits a fairly unorthodox space in her world. The illegitimate daughter of a deceased lord, she spends the majority of the year learning how to be a village healer with her grandmother. But she spends summers at Castle Auburn. Her father's brother, Lord Jaxon, convinced her grandmother to let him foster Corie at Auburn just for the summers, so that she can get to know her half sister Elisandra and learn to be a lady in the hopes that she might make a good marriage one day and rise from the obscurity her father's dying left her in. Jaxon is hearty and hale and full of life and fourteen-year-old Corie loves her summers at his home. She also loves her beautiful half sister Elisandra who is betrothed to the debonair Prince Bryan. Corie harbors something of a crush on Prince Bryan, secretly hoping he will notice her one of these summers, even though she knows he will eventually wed Elisandra. As Corie grows up, however, she begins to understand the darker machinations at work behind these lovely facades. Bryan is more than he appears to be. Elisandra is not as calm and quiescent as she seems. And the fabled Aliora, the fey creatures who are hunted and forced into slavery to the nobility, are far more complex than Corie has been led to believe. She must decide who she will be and what she will do with her new-found knowledge.
Corie is very much an impressionable young girl at the novel's start. Her goals and crushes and ambitions are small ones, shaped by her limited experience and perception of the world and the people that surround her. Initially, I wondered how far Ms. Shinn would take her as such. But this is one of those wonderful stories where the characters evolve and reveal their depth--all of them--and the reader is privileged to witness their various and sundry transformations. The fascinating bit is that the world undergoes the same unveiling process. At first glance, it's prettily medieval, full of charming hunts, dashing young men, and mystical faery beings. But the gloves come off, so to speak, as the scales fall from Corie's eyes. Even Uncle Jaxon has things he'd rather keep hidden. Themes of despair, doubt, and disillusionment run like ribbons throughout the story. But they are balanced by a cautiously and skillfully written love story, which even I didn't see coming and which isn't fully revealed until Corie has accepted herself and made her decisions about her world and her place in it. I love how her voice changes as she matures. I love how several characters managed to surprise me. And I love where things end. Always retaining that fairy tale feel, Summers at Castle Auburn reminds me of the novels of the wonderful Patricia McKillip, especially The Book of Atrix Wolfe. When you find yourself in need of something new, I suggest tracking down a copy of Summers at Castle Auburn. It's sweet and comfortable, with a surprisingly dark and gooey center. In other words, one of the ones I can (and do) hand anyone.
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Retro Friday Roundup
Heidi @ Bunbury in the Stacks reviews Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones
Bookworm Nation - "This is my favorite Shinn book."
Finding Wonderland - " . . . totally immersing and the world-building was believable and fantastic."
The Reader's Refuge - "Lovers of young adult fantasy will love Summers at Castle Auburn."
The Sleepless Reader - "Summers at Castle Auburn continues to be my ultimate comfort-book."