I have loved fantasy since I was little, growing up on a diet of Norse Mythology, British folklore, and Godzilla.
For years, I helped bankroll the fantasy genre; I patronized specialty bookstores, and even (introvert that I am) went to conferences and Renaissance Faires. I probably ate up every Tolkien-spinoff quest series ever written. Eventually, I burned out and wandered to other sorts of reading, but over the last decade, several wonderful books revived my love of fantasy. One of those gems was Sharon Shinn’s, The Dream-Maker’s Magic.
Shinn’s first book, The Shape-Changer’s Wife, (1995)was critically acclaimed. With her Samaria series, she went on to make a name for herself as an author of adult fantasy. In 2004 she launched a trilogy of thematically connected young-adult fantasies, publishing one a year: The Safekeeper’s Secret in 2004, The Truth-Teller’s Tale, 2005, and The Dream-Maker’s Magic in 2006.
The stories are set in the same world, where magic is part of the fabric of life, and yet it plays a surprisingly minor role. These are not sword-and-sorcery tales. They are more akin to Shakespearean comedy. They are coming of age stories with romantic intrigue, complicated by plot twists and questions of identity, some even resulting from babies swapped at birth.
In The Dream-Maker’s Magic, Kellen Carmichael’s mother almost dies in childbirth. Two weeks later, when she is well enough to care for Kellen, she becomes hysterical, convinced beyond reason, that she gave birth to a boy – and Kellen is a girl.
Kellen says: I was that baby. I was that strangely altered child. From that day on, my mother watched me with a famished attention, greedy for clues. I had changed once; might I change again? Into what else might I transform, what other character might I assume? As for myself, I cultivated a demeanor of sturdy stoicism…It was as if I hoped my unvarying mildness would reassure my mother, convince her to trust me. It was as if she was some animal lured from the wild lands and I was the seasoned trainer who habitually made no sudden moves.
But, Kellen concludes, She never did learn to trust me…or accept me for who I was. It was my first lesson in failure, and it stayed with me for the rest of my life.
If life is hard for her as a child – growing up in boy’s clothing, with sugar-bowl haircuts and a mother who refuses to acknowledge what she is – it becomes even worse in adolescence. Luckily, Kellen begins to meet allies, none more important than Gryffin, a boy who was born lame, whose legs are getting worse, and whose uncle periodically beats him. Kellen initially scoffs at his unquenchable optimism, at his belief that with an education, he can be anything he desires. Several days after they meet, however, these two broken people are inseparable friends.
Betsy Palmer, an innkeeper, and her daughter, Sarah, also befriend Kellen, and teach her such arcane mysteries as how to sew a dress that fits and how to do her hair, yet that alone does not end Kellen’s confusion:
…there was one person who was not fooled by my new looks or my modulated personality, and that was Gryffin…He did not seem to notice what I was wearing or how I had arranged my hair…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 Betsy 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 I was not completely lost if Gryffin knew how to find me.
That was the point where I put the book down on my first reading, and have every time since, to marvel at the simple way Shinn breaks through all the limits of genre, to evoke something everyone probably longs for: I was not completely lost if Gryffin knew how to find me.
The Dream-Maker’s Magic is about magic, but it cuts both ways when it appears, and separates Kellen and Gryffin. The story is a lyrical romance, though you have to watch for the two kisses that Kellen and Gryffin exchange at the very end of the book. It is a novel whose ending surprises Kellen and the reader; she is not the person she and we imagine her to be.
The ending satisfies in the way that Shakespearean comedies satisfy: what was lost is found, those who were separated are reunited, and poetic justice is meted out. The story ends on Wintermoon, the holiday when people attach tokens of their hopes and dreams to a wreath, and burn it at midnight, to let the smoke carry their desires to heaven. Kellen asks Gryfinn what he wishes. “That every Wintermoon be better than the last,” he says.
Not a realistic wish, as anyone could have told him – but I would not be the one to say so. Why limit your dreams, after all? Why not hope for the grandest and the best? I watched Chase throw the wreath into the bonfire, and I saw the flames scrawl secrets on the sky, and I closed my eyes and knew no end of dreaming.
Be sure to check out Sharon Shinn’s website. There’s a permanent link in my Blogroll.