Librarians are the best, y’all. A few months ago I was in a serious fantasy funk after completely losing my head and heart to Laini Taylor‘s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. I wanted to read something high fantasy, with maybe a little romance thrown in, but not exclusively written for young adults. Where could I go for high quality reader’s advisory? Only the largest collection of badass librarians anywhere on Facebook: the ALA Think Tank. After posting about my reader’s ennui and desperately pleading for suggestions, I was flooded with a rash of amazing book suggestions by some seriously well-read folks. Thanks to them, my public library book hold list is out of control, and I am now a complete literary-evangelist for fantasy-writer Sharon Shinn.

Have you read Mystic and Rider? Because you should. It is high fantasy at its best, and it was a 2005 Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice nominee for Best Epic Fantasy. You get a romance too! Bonus!

The first book in Shinn’s Twelve Houses series, Mystic and Rider is an introduction to the world of Gillengaria, where mystics (people with magical abilities) are held in suspicion, the king’s wife is rumored to have ensnared him with sorcery, and the twelve powerful noble houses of the land are divided in their loyalties to the crown. Aware of the growing unrest in his kingdom, King Baryn dispatches Senneth, a powerful mystic with power over fire, to learn more about the political situation he faces. Accompanying her on this journey are Justin and Tayse, two members of the King’s Riders; Kirra, a noble-woman, shape-shifter, and magical healer; Kirra’s constant companion and fellow shape-shifter, Donnal; and Cammon, a young, untrained but powerful empath whom they rescue.

It’s a classic on-the-road adventure story of people from different worlds brought together for a common mission. Although the story moves with purpose, Shinn’s focus is primarily on her characters. From the opening chapter we get a sense of each mystic and rider and the interpersonal relationships that shape them: Donnal’s unwavering loyalty to Kirra, Justin’s older-brother-style fondness for Cammon, and Tayse and Senneth’s growing connection. It’s a far cry from so many fantasy-adventure stories that suffer from what I call Plot-Plot-Plot Syndrome (i.e. this happens! Then this other thing happens! Then something else happens to a person you don’t care about because the author hasn’t developed any one character very well!). Shinn’s a thoughtful crafter of characters. Her party of travelers is now among some of my favorite ensemble casts from literature and television–“the Scooby Gang” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clan Fraser in the Outlander novels, the crew of Firefly…You get the idea.

That’s not to say that Mystic and Rider doesn’t benefit from some awesome world-building, because it absolutely does. There’s a sense of history unfolding as the travelers make their way across Gillengaria. Old grudges are revealed and the roots of alliances grow, all while our band of six get to know one another as we learn about them.

Did I mention there was romance? Because there is, and it is lovely. The groundwork for a romance between Tayse, the first among the King’s Riders, and Senneth, the powerful mystic, is laid early in the novel. Senneth is a strong woman clearly capable of using her magic to take care of herself and those she cares about, which makes her attraction to Tayse that much more powerful. She’s a woman who knows what she wants. The fact that Tayse, a strong man in his own right, is drawn to Senneth’s power makes him king among alpha-male heroes in my book. Their romance is a slow burn, but it’s a good one. My only criticism is that I wished the flames had burned sooner and brighter.

Rating: A+ (For badass women who can hold their own, stellar world-building and character development, and a great romance on the road.)

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