I’m in the middle of Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider … First off, it’s excellent. It meets all the criteria I usually maintain: characters that come remarkably close to being living, breathing people without the drawbacks therein (being, living, breathing people always disappoint); writing above average in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and clarity. The story: the world is largely inimical to mystics, those born with the ability to … do unusual things. The things that can be done vary widely from person to person, leading in the course of the book to speculation that each person has either been chosen by or is somehow descended from one of the land’s now rather neglected deities. Such speculation – particularly the possibility raised that mystics are descendants of the gods – makes others very, very uncomfortable. Hostility toward mystics is growing, to which end a growing number of people go about at all times wearing moonstone, the symbol of the Pale Goddess, the touch of which is intensely painful to mystics. Reaction upon someone being discovered to be a mystic ranges from shunning to execution.
Added to this unrest is the fact that the king is growing old. He has outlived two wives, and has fathered only one daughter – and to the consternation of most that daughter has been out of sight for many years. Is she ill? Is she in hiding? Is she a mystic? Is she fit to rule should her father die soon? No one knows, or no one who does know is telling. The king has remarried not too long ago, to a much younger woman, leading to speculation that he is trying for another heir – but the problem there is twofold: no such heir has been forthcoming, and the new wife is a mystic. And that is part of the growing distrust of mystics – generally running along the lines of “she’s a mystic, she’s done something to the princess and bewitched the king, therefore all mystics are bad, see we always knew it”.
Into this unease a mystic named Senneth is sent out with a small group, apparently by the king, to try to feel out what the mood of the country is. And that’s where this book stands out from most others. The plot – and I in no way mean this as a negative, merely an observation – reads like a D&D campaign. “Senneth, you’re a magic-user; you’re mostly the leader, but Tayse, the fighter, is in charge of keeping you lot safe. OK, everyone set with their gear and all? You’ve been on the road for some months, so all your characters know each other, though not everyone trusts everyone. On this day you come into a port town, and become aware of a magic-user being held as a slave in the local tavern. What’s your plan? … *rolls dice* Well done. The young, untrained magic-user joins your party.” The group – Senneth, Tayse (a King’s Rider, the most loyal of the loyal and fierce and fanatical fighters), Justin (a younger Rider), Kirra (a young noblewoman and mystic), and Donnal (retainer to Kirra’s house and also a mystic), to which is added Cammon, proceed with varying degrees of stealth and disguise from village to town to city to village testing the waters, and having adventures as they go… Their mission, while important, isn’t exactly urgent, though it becomes moreso as they go on; they don’t seem to have any timeline to start with, or even a firm plan – they’re adapting as they ride to what they find. All of which makes it a surprisingly leisurely, though never less than interesting, read. It almost feels like a serialization rather than a straightforward novel – events strung together. I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out. I think it’s a standalone novel; I hope so, although, as I said, I do like these characters a great deal. I like this world.