“House of Shadows” is what you get when you blend Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” with sorcery and dragons. A merchant dies, leaving his eight daughters orphaned. The sisters are in dire financial straits, and so they come to the conclusion that two of them must be indentured.
Karah is startlingly beautiful, and so she receives a lucrative contract at a keiso house. A keiso is pretty much the same thing as a Japanese geisha–a skilled entertainer and artist whose hope to one day become the Flower Wife of a wealthy patron.
Nemienne isn’t as pretty as her sister, and she’s a bit too old to be a worthwhile investment for a keiso house. However, the mysterious Mage Arkkennes takes an interest in her and sees her potential for sorcery. The two sisters find themselves in the middle of a plot that threatens to shake the fabric of their entire kingdom.
There are two other point-of-view characters, the first of which is Taudde, a bardic sorcerer from a neighboring kingdom. In his homeland, magic is channeled through music rather than through incantations. He finds himself manipulated into an agreement to kill the crown prince, but then has second thoughts about the entire situation. Taudde is one of the most interesting characters in the book because he is so conflicted, and I enjoyed the way that his character developed as the story progressed.
And finally, we’ve got Leilis. Leilis was a keiso-in-training, but became the victim of a magical attack perpetrated by a jealous rival. Ever since then, her skin delivers a painful and weird shock to anyone who touches her, which means that she’s now unsuitable to be a keiso. Leilis makes it her mission to protect Karah from bullying in the keiso house.
This is a standalone novel, although the ending does leave a bit of room for a sequel if the author ever decides to return to the same world for another adventure. I get excited when I find fantasy novels that aren’t a part of an unfinished trilogy. This one was also relatively short (around 350 pages), which seems to be pretty standard for the young adult demographic. I would have liked to see a bit more explanation and exploration of the world and magic systems, but Neumeier kept it short, sweet, and to-the-point.
Lately I’ve come to the realization that I’ve unfairly judged YA novels. This one had a well-constructed world and an engaging story, and the characters were sophisticated and intelligent rather than angsty. When I’m reading fantasy, I don’t like it when characters whine and wallow in self-pity. I was so glad to see characters who seemed to be emotionally mature.
We don’t see a lot of each character’s thoughts, but you still got to see progression and development (Mind you, as far as character development, Karah was relatively flat and unchanging, but Nemienne, Taudde, and Leilis more than made up for it). Even the minor characters grow throughout the story, and there’s more to each of them than we initially suspect.
Oh, and did I mention that there are no love triangles? Instead we’ve got political intrigue and dragons.
Point of clarification as of 8/9/12: Heidi pointed out to me that the book is actually being marketed as an adult novel, despite the fact that Goodreads says otherwise. I screwed up by not double checking. However, if you’re a younger reader who is considering reading it, it doesn’t really have any content that would make it inappropriate.