This Week, I Read… (2022 #5)

#12 – The Safe-Keeper’s Secret, by Sharon Shinn

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A beautiful narrative style that’s soft, lyrical, and comforting; a lackluster story.

I can’t say there’s nothing about this book that I enjoyed, but there was far more that troubled me. As much as I liked the ideas about the magic of the Truth Tellers and Safe Keepers, both roles come with moral challenges that the story only partially addresses. When Fiona realizes that her mother has to keep secrets that are deeply hurtful in some way, like those about abuse or other crimes, she suffers pangs of conscience and an anger that her mother can’t/isn’t doing anything about those harmful situations. I thought that was great, and later on was glad to see that she skirted the edges of her own Safe Keeper position in order to help someone in need without betraying the secret directly; but even if Fiona “saved” the girl in trouble, there was no justice for her, as the trouble she was in went unpunished, and the girl’s mother seemed very blithely uncaring that her husband might go on to molest other young girls, the implication being that they don’t matter because they’re not family. And I’m not okay with that.

Another issue is the incredibly ableist attitudes of most of the characters, which I found surprising and disturbing. At this point I’ve read most of Shinn’s catalog of works, with only some of the most recently published that haven’t crossed my path yet. And I genuinely don’t remember any of them being this ableist. One of the minor characters is described as weak and frail due to an accident when she was younger. Her fiance marries her anyway, despite her telling him she doesn’t believe she could ever bear children, because of her health–he insists he marries her for love and will live with the disappointment of not having children. When truths and secrets come out later in the story, it becomes clear that a) she probably could have safely had kids, and b) having a kid was the husband’s deepest wish. So everybody in that marriage was suffering, and fair enough, but the blame is laid entirely on the disabled wife for her selfishness and frailness. Everyone who knows them sees the husband as the nobly suffering victim of his situation, while ignoring the actual physical pain of the wife, and whatever presumable emotional trauma she dealt with from being branded as the disappointing wife who the husband so nobly endures. Fiona, our main character, immediately hates the wife because of this situation and says some pretty awful things about her. I thought at first that it would be a character flaw of hers that got resolved somehow later, but no, everybody else goes along with it, and the ending makes it very clear that the wife was in the wrong.

Which, in a larger sense, is also pretty misogynistic, because the story definitely looks down on a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother. Yes, apparently she lied about her ability to be one and that’s not great, but since the couple’s childlessness is the source of the husband’s suffering and that’s treated more seriously by the narrative that the wife’s actual pain…yuck. Just yuck, all around.

There are other problems with the ending, too. I figured out some of the secrets revealed, but not all of them–I’m not convinced that one in particular wasn’t a total ass-pull that would have been impossible to determine ahead of time. But despite all these dreams being granted and all this secret knowledge shared, somehow the ending still feels incomplete, and the preview chapter for the next book seems to be dealing with entirely new characters, so I’m not sure any further resolution would be forthcoming if I kept reading. I don’t think I will.

#13 – Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s rare for me to wish a novella were longer, but here we are. I loved a lot about this, and a lot of what it clearly wanted to do and say, but I think the basis of most of the problems I felt it has is that it’s too short.

While I understand the gist of how this universe categorizes its magical alternate worlds, and several characters are actively working on refining this system, I wish there had been more depth, more explanation. There were many example worlds mentioned and roughly categorized, but those efforts were complicated by some students not fully sharing (or understanding) their experiences with their “home” worlds, which meant others could only speculate about them. I understand why the story is better suited to an emerging organizational structure rather than a rigidly defined one, but I still think within that framework there was room for improvement.

To some extent this same complaint applies to the characters. There are many of them, and some are noticeably less developed than others, even accounting for their relative importance to the story. Jack as the snarky and dapper mad-scientist wannabe is fantastic and just about my favorite thing in this whole story; Nancy is also interesting and gets a lot of depth from being the most commonly used POV character. Kade, I would have liked to know more about, though he gets a decent amount of attention. But Christopher, for example, feels like a plot convenience: a Latino kid who went to a Day-of-the-Dead-esque skeleton world, who is only relevant because at one point the mystery plot needs someone to talk to bones, and he can do that. He wasn’t introduced until right before he was needed, and he didn’t really do much afterward. The general student body beyond our small main cast of characters is filled random names attached to speculations about their home worlds, and they show up occasionally to be mean to Nancy or Jack or Kade. And the various people killed off by the mystery plot are barely people enough to feel like credible victims. I know we can’t (and shouldn’t) have full histories of every single student and staff member, but again, this aspect of the story would benefit from a little more page time devoted to it.

As for the mystery plot itself, the student body is so fixated on two obvious red herrings that it narrows down the field of actual possibilities to basically nothing, so it’s easy to figure out the whodunit by process of elimination. Once again, making the story longer might have enabled adding at least one or two more possible suspects, or at least fleshing out a few existing characters to the point where they might be suspects, in order to obscure the real killer’s identity enough to make it a revelation rather than a foregone conclusion.

I realize I’m being hard on something that I’m rating four stars, but it’s good enough, and I liked it enough, that I suppose I’m a little angry it’s not actually better than it is.

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