The Silver House

The Silver House by Janet FrenchFull Title: The Silver House (Book One: The Cardanon Chronicles)
Janet French
Publisher: Gypsy Shadow Publishing (2011)
Number of Pages: 439
How long it took me to read: 3 weeks
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission

Like a Moth to a Flame

Fantasy novels written for adults, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings being a major exception, have only recently been garnering the attention of the literary elite. For example, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has so exploded with popularity that it now has its own HBO series, and courses exploring its themes are being offered at multiple universities. Fantasy authors, and fantasy fans, are tirelessly chipping away at the societal assumption that wizards and dragons are inherently childish. As one of those fans, I decided to review French’s The Silver House, the first book of her Cardanon Chronicles.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “The Mothers’ cloaks shimmered in the gloom with translucent colour that took nothing from the fires outside. Those that shone with the nature of the stones showed the red of garnet and spinel, amethyst purple, olivine and malachite green with clear quartz and salt reflecting the colours back. Even granite and dolerite, normally so steady and quiet, were gleaming with life. The cloaks of the Mothers who were bound to the nature of metals and their alloys mostly glistened in textures of gray; mercury, lead, tin and pewter all served the house in their own ways.” (p.9)

4. “Bertran had a way of starting her talking and then facing her with questions that had never occurred to her before. He didn’t even mean to do it; he did it because his background was completely alien to her. She had been taught to be tolerant of those who were not talented with Power but always with the assumption that those talented few were somehow superior and more knowledgeable.” (p.54)

3. “ ‘Mother Exilia is an example to us all and deserves our devotion. She is sorry you have not arrived here in happier times. For the moment she requires your obedience and looks forward to your understanding why your maturity makes all clear to you.’ Lena intoned these sentiments in a manner that was almost rapturous and made Marka feel sick. There was nothing here she recognised as the way of Power or even common decency. She could not hide her contempt.” (p.135)

2. “ ‘I am sure you said no heroics,’ Leroc replied. ‘You led forty of us and a rag bag of pony herders and housewives against one hundred and twenty Zashran. How many do they have to outnumber us by before you hold back, I wonder?’ ” (p.272)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Guz was born in the breeding pens of the Blackeye Fastness in the ownership of Zashran Lord Brast Blackeye. Guz’ mother’s status as tenfold brood gave him protection and kept him well-fed until his sixth year when she failed to breed and was exposed in the snows of the mountain winter. By then, he was sturdy and fought for the right to follow the dead women through the pine forest to stone them. In the new light of the next day he brought down the first of the ravens that came to feast, and carried its wings back to the pen as proof he was ready to train for war.” (p.368)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: spinel (noun)

Definition (Source: a hard crystalline mineral consisting of an oxide of magnesium and aluminum that varies from colorless to ruby red to black and is used as a gem
: 1528; from Italian spinella, diminutive of spina ‘thorn’
As in: “Those that shone with the nature of the stones showed the red of garnet and spinel…” (p.9)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Even within the first chapters of The Silver House, there is some very rich world-building. I’ve already been introduced to two different races with two different magic systems, city-states on opposite sides of continents, a besieged Cardanon, a class system rife with politics, and a long list of characters including a spunky story-telling street urchin and a heroic little dog. The Silver House is a busy book that doesn’t have time to linger over day-to-day activities. Several weeks can pass in the course of a paragraph, and they have to if they want to keep up: there are two story lines in the novel and they begin a world apart from each other. How else will they converge by the end of the book if they don’t start hurtling towards each other at top speed?

“The sheer geography of The Silver House and the pace of the plot both contribute to the feeling that I’m reading a travelogue rather than a novel. A good chunk of the story seems to merely be getting from point A to point B and describing all the interesting sights to see along the way. French is almost tour guide for her continent, pointing out this city, which celebrates that annual festival for which I have arrived just in time. The only thing that’s missing is visiting the local farmer’s market to sample exotic cuisine. The speed of the novel, how two weeks can suddenly flash by, combined with the travelogue style, makes it as if I’m traveling around the countryside on French’s tour bus, the storyline added as a bit of theater for the tourists, like those robberies they perform on historic trains to alleviate the boredom of simply riding a train. I’m really here to experience the culture, to visit landmarks, take photos, wear loudly floral-printed shirts, and eat regional specialties specifically concocted by locals to see how many weird things they can get the funny-looking tourist to eat. This happens quite a bit in fantasy novels because so much of the author’s passion goes into the construction of their world. They sell you the book the same way they sell a vacation package.”

“One thing I have to stop to appreciate about French’s world is her use of culture and religion. The use of Power in the novel isn’t so much a religion as a belief system, perhaps, but the true nuance of the setting is that while most of the nations, tribes, and conglomerates believe in Power, they all react to it and its users, the Mothers and Fathers who run the Houses, in different ways. As a self-proclaimed amateur anthropologist, people watcher, eavesdropper, and conversation analyst, these sorts of social subtleties always draw me in. Most writers don’t realize that politics, culture, and religion all rely heavily on one another and only in their mingling is light cast upon societal identity. I’ve noticed that the most solid communities coagulate around people who share core beliefs in all three categories, and that others who don’t quite share all three tend to gather on the fringes of that community. My personal experience with this is that while I’m a Christian (religion) and a Middle-class American (culture), two things which mesh well, I’m also more Libertarian (politics) than anything else. This means I will never reside at the center of my community. The fact that French can create communities that reflect that real trifecta is notable and elevates the book from childish daydream to complex adult novel.

“Something else I’m impressed by is that French gives her villains, the Zashran, a complex culture of their own. The occasional glimpse she gives into the Zashran mindset is fascinating. In many fantasy novels, villains are simplistically evil and under developed. However, while the Zashran have a unique culture of their own, there is no quibbling over whether they are actually evil or not. I personally prefer my villains to be threatening moral ambiguities, a la George R. R. Martin where nearly every character seems to have a bit of villain and a bit of hero, rather than undeniable bastions of evil, but French does save some moral ambiguity for other villainous characters interspersed throughout the novel.”

“I can’t get over the use of third person omniscient for the narration. While I appreciate world-building and fast-paced plots, I’m mostly a character person. I want to approach the characters as if they’re truly people, acquaintances that I’ll eventually label as friend or enemy. (I’ll watch a film comprised entirely of sock puppets if the characters are compelling.) Unfortunately, third person omniscient just doesn’t allow for much character development. The author is always telling me what the characters are thinking and doing rather than showing me.

“I do understand that it’s harder to develop the depth of characters I prefer when there’s such a large cast. The Silver House is odd in that there is no real main protagonist. Even specific scenes rarely follow one character in particular. There’s a definite lack of the destined hero archetype in this novel, which makes it unusual in the fantasy genre. The access to all the characters thoughts at the same time puts distance between me and the novel. I feel I’m watching everything from above rather than being in the thick of the action and this is making me lose all interest in the characters. I still feel compelled to read the novel: I want to know more about the world and how events will eventually play out, but more as if I were a historian doing research. The characters, however, are now mere agents for furthering the plot, and this makes it difficult for me to get through the novel at my usual speed. I don’t feel personally invested in the outcome. I have the same difficulty with other authors who prefer the epic style, even Tolkein. The author wants to present the big picture—I want to minutely examine all the little pictures that compose that big picture.”

“I find the climax to be the most engrossing part of the novel (as it should be). The two story lines finally, literally, run into each other at break-neck speed, one set of protagonists bursting in to save the other set from utter annihilation at the hands of their enemies. Good stuff. I’m a bit annoyed at the length of the resolution—French methodically wraps up every single subplot, of which there are many, which could have been done more efficiently—but I’m glad that the length allows the story to conclude well for a novel at the beginning of a series. I find myself satisfied enough that I don’t mind waiting for its sequel. I’m not going to be pounding on French’s door for her next book, but I will happily pick it off the shelves when it arrives at my local bookstore. The Silver House still appeals to the scholar in me, if not the romantic.”

Rachel Castleberg

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1 Comment

  1. Janet French says:

    Thank you for your comprehensive and very fair review. I am genuinely humbled at the time and effort you have put in to it. You have given me a lot of food for thought as I struggle through book 2 and more than enough encouragement to keep me going.

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