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Literature / Twelve Houses

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Twelve Houses is series of novels by Sharon Shinn, which follow the adventures of an Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who have been sent on a mysterious quest by the king to tour the southern lands of the kingdom, where having magic is a death-worthy crime.

The misfits include Senneth, who can call fire, Kirra, who can shift shapes and heal people, Donnal, whose main power, although he is able to shift shapes, is mainly to follow Kirra (he is the only character whose point of view has not been used), and Cammon, a mind-reader. The “mystics" are joined by the “Riders" (natch), Tayse and Justin, who are around to make sure no one lynches the mystics. (Mind you, no-one has yet tried to lynch Senneth and succeeded. For good reason). Later, they are also joined by Ellynor, another healer, and Amalie, a Rebellious Princess you can actually like. Additionally, an new book has been written in the same world, following up on the story of one of the ragtag bunch's friends.


Well, yes, it does sound like your ten-a-penny fantasy claptrap, but distinguishes itself by being well-written and genuinely funny. Especially the bits with Justin.

The first four books each follow one romance, and one swathe of the truly massive plot: Mystic and Rider, the first book, has all of the characters meet, and Senneth and Tayse fall in love; The Thirteenth House is Kirra and Donnal, although not until the last few chapters - mainly, it's plot-heavy, interspersed with Kirra's affair with a married nobleman (so much better than it sounds); Dark Moon Defender, often called the weakest of the original four, follows Justin as he falls in love with Ellynor, although obviously the others have to turn up and be completely badass; and Reader and Raelynx, the fourth book, cranks the Kudzu Plot Up to Eleven, while also featuring the sweetest romance Shinn has ever written between The Empath Cammon and Rebellious Princess Amalie.


Although each book has a focal character (Mystic and Rider arguably has two, as Senneth and Tayse are both given close third-person narration), the feeling of True Companions is extraordinary, and mentioned often by the characters. Senneth and Tayse, who were each pretty badass on their own, make an almost unstoppable BattleCouple - being the best mystic ever and the best Rider ever will have that effect - and tend to steal any scene they turn up in with their mixture of dry humor and complete ass-kick-ery. Clearly the author agrees with the fans; when Shinn tried to write a fifth novel set in the same world, she intended not to use the original characters and start a new Myth Arc. This did not work - Senneth and Tayse were just too awesome to ignore, and so as the book progresses, their subplot quickly becomes the main plot. This makes for a fairly unsettling book, and Fortune and Fate is widely considered the weakest by a long way.


This series provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Halchon Gisseltess to Senneth.
  • Abusive Parents: Senneth's father. A lot. He killed her newborn son because he was a mystic.
  • Aerith and Bob: All over the place. Riders named Justin and Tayse. Malcolm naming his daughters Kirra and Casserah. Nobles whose names range from Martin, Eloise, and Ariane to Els, Coralinda, and Karryn to Halchon, Baryn, and Heffel. The most egregious example is probably the Brassenthwaites, with siblings named Kiernan, Nate, Will, Harris... and Senneth.
  • Action Girl:
    • Senneth, and, to a lesser extent, Kirra, and to a lesser extent, Amalie.
    • Wen in Fortune and Fate.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: This is Halchon Gisseltess's plan when he captures Senneth in Reader and Raelynx.
  • Angst Coma: After losing Romar, Kirra hysterically cries herself into unconsciousness. She only wakes up after Cammon has done psychic surgery on her out-of-control emotional state.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Everyone, all the time. Most of them angst about it afterwards.
  • Arranged Marriage:
    • At the beginning of Reader and Raelynx, King Baryn decides to set up one of these for Amalie in an attempt to divert the coming civil war. It’s averted when Amalie falls in love with the peasant boy mystic who’s supposed to be reading her suitors’ intentions instead, and the king dies. See listing under Suddenly Suitable Suitor below.
    • Casserah and Will go through with one of these, although it’s implied that theirs will turn out to be a Perfectly Arranged Marriage—or at least their confidence that it will be is why they agree to it.
  • Babies Ever After: Justin and Ellynor, at the end of Reader and Raelynx.
  • Battle Couple: Senneth and Tayse. Kirra and Donnal, even before they’re a couple, though they get only more effective after they finally hook up.
  • Berserk Button: Tayse goes loopy when anyone hurts Senneth.
  • Beta Couple:
    • Kirra and Donnal in the first book, then Senneth and Tayse from there on in.
    • Casserah and Will, whose entire courtship consists of exactly one short conversation in which they conclude that since getting married would be practical and advantageous to both their houses, that’s what they would like to do. Kirra dryly remarks that she and other members of their team, who are forever tangling with complicated romances, should have tried that method years ago.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Played with in Dark Moon Defender, when Kirra, Senneth and Ellynor sit together. Sort of.
  • Brought Down to Badass: Senneth loses her mystic fire power after the final battle, but even without it she still fights nearly as well as a Rider. As of Fortune and Fate, which takes place two years later, she has started to regain her power.
  • Burning with Anger: This has happened to Senneth a few times.
  • Burn the Witch!: Most of Gillengaria's population is nervous of mystics, and more than one terrified mob has consequently tried to execute Senneth. Usually by methods other than burning, though, because trying to burn the fire mystic alive would be less than effective.
  • Celibate Hero: Most King’s Riders, because having a spouse or Love Interest would forcibly divide their loyalty between their liege and their significant other. There are exceptions, though, as proven by both Tayse and Justin over the course of the series.
  • The Charmer: Kirra. She once said it herself: "Charm better be enough, because that and hair are all I've got."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Senneth’s connection to the Lirrens, when Justin wants to marry Ellynor.
  • The Conspiracy: The series’ main story arc revolves around the heroes trying to uncover and thwart one of these. Part of the nobility is plotting to instigate a civil war against the monarchy.
  • Cool Pet: Amalie’s raelynx.
  • Cover Identity Anomaly: When masquerading as her sister Casserah, Kirra nearly blows her cover by forgetting that the uncle she’s spying on, who dotes on Kirra, absolutely hates Casserah.
  • Cult: The sects of the Pale Mother.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Justin. Enough that the other characters lampshade it.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Donnal to Kirra (though it’s very subtle). Good thing, too.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Let's count them, shall we? Senneth: abusive parents, dead son. Tayse: emotionally distant father. Justin: Disappeared Dad, whore mother, grew up on the streets. Cammon: orphan, ex-slave. Amalie: dead mom, never allowed to have human connections with anyone. Kirra: repressed, violent, fell in love with a married man. Donnal: masochistic when it comes to Kirra.
  • The Empath: Cammon, once his “reader” powers come in. He’s actually much cooler and more effective than most uses of this trope, as his powers enable him to act as a Living Lie Detector, and not only read others’ emotions but influence them. An additional side effect is that he can sense when people are nearby.
  • Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory: A hilarious in-universe example. Senneth thinks that mystics are descended from the goddesses of Gillengaria. Then Justin calls her out on it, in a typical Deadpan Snarker kinda way.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Kirra’s got a pile of golden hair, and she herself notes how important it is to her abundant charisma.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Donnal often functions as this in his favorite shiftling form.
  • Failure Knight: This is basically Wen in Fortune and Fate, who is trying to atone for allowing her king to be slain by the rebellion.
  • Fantasy Pantheon: Senneth references, more than once, the existence of goddesses in Gillengaria’s history. Most of the land’s population seems to more or less believe in these goddesses’ (at least past) existence, but with the exception of the Pale Mother cults, most religious practice in Gillengaria is lapsed.
  • Foreshadowing: Senneth's comments about marrying Kirra into Brassenthwaite, and about Kiernan turn about to be about her own brothers.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Much of the plot of The Thirteenth House revolves around this. Deconstructed.
  • The Good King: Baryn. He is the heroes’ employer.
  • Healing Hands: This is Kirra’s second power and Ellynor’s primary one.
  • Heroes Want Redheads:
    • Mainly averted, but Amalie's hair is mentioned quite often.
    • Interestingly played with when Tayse falls in love with Senneth, very much against his preference and better judgement.
  • IKEA Erotica: Sort of; Cammon undresses in front of the extremely naïve Amalie so that he can explain very matter-of-factly “where everything goes.”
  • Impersonation Gambit: Subverted; Kirra spends most of the second book shapeshifted into the form of her half-sister, Casserah. Casserah is not a member of the enemy organization, but she is a better option for spying on potential conspirators because everyone knows that Kirra works for King Baryn and using her own form would instantly rouse suspicion.
  • The Ingenue: How Princess Amalie is viewed by most of her people, though over the course of the last book she’s revealed to actually be fairly savvy (though she remains exceedingly naïve regarding anything to do with sex, at least before her relationship with Cammon takes off).
  • Inheritance Murder: Attempted in Fortune and Fate - the Big Bad tries to marry her daughter to a minor noble who happens to be the closest living relative of the marlady of Fortnault so that they can be elevated in rank after she murders the marlady.
  • Intimate Healing: A mild version of this occurs in Mystic and Rider when Senneth complains that the only way to cure her magic-induced migraines is via a specialized massage…and discovers that Tayse is actually both strong and coordinated enough to successfully give one. It can easily be argued that this scene is when their romance really begins to get underway.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Maybe “happy” is a strong word, but Kirra destroys Romar Brendyn’s memories of their affair because she knows he will be better off with his own wife, despite that it breaks her own heart so thoroughly she passes out from hysteria afterwards.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Kirra inflicts this when she magically obliterates Romar Brendyn’s memories of their affair at the end of the second book.
  • Living Lie Detector: Cammon, as he further develops his “reader” powers.
  • Oh, My Gods!: Averted; though the inhabitants of Gillengaria have goddesses, they prefer to swear by red, black, silver, or opal hells, or any combination thereof.
  • One of Our Own: When Tayse is kidnapped, and then when Senneth gets shot.
  • Only Sane Man: Senneth, when the younger ones are all arguing. But then she goes and sets someone on fire.
  • Overprotective Dad: All Lirren males—be they fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins—towards their female relatives. They would literally rather die than see their daughter/sister/niece marry outside their clan.
  • Passed-Over Inheritance: In the second book Kirra loses her place as family heir to her younger half-sister. However, it's made quite clear that this was done purely because Casserah was far better suited to the life of a ruling noble than Kirra ever would be, and that Kirra would remain a respected and valued member of the family, even if she would never be its head. This is made quite clear when a vassal of the Danalustrous family makes some rather rude comments about Kirra in Casserah's hearing - and she promptly banishes him from Danan Hall.
  • Playing with Fire: Senneth’s mystic powers—and are they ever impressive.
  • Power Nullifier:
    • Moonstones have this effect on mystics, to the point where prolonged contact can kill the mystic.
    • Halchon Gisseltess has this effect on Senneth.
  • Professional Killer: A number of these crop up throughout the series and must be foiled by the protagonists. Some of the assassins are successful; some are not.
  • Rags to Royalty: Cammon, an orphaned former slave, eventually marries Princess Amalie and ascends to the kingship of Gillengaria.
  • Raised by Natives: A version of this occurs in Senneth’s backstory—after she was dispossessed by her abusive father, the 17-year-old mystic wandered into the Lirrens. The Lirren natives saved her life and adopted her into their clan.
  • Rebellious Princess: Amalie, most notably, but also Kirra, who juggles being a serramarra with being a lion, and Senneth, who ran away from home.
  • Religion of Evil: The cults of the Pale Mother are viewed as this by mystics—though most of the practitioners (aside from the inner circle, who are using it as a cover to commit treason) aren’t really evil, just narrow-minded and bigoted. No one remembers enough about the gods to say if the Pale Mother is truly evil, but she sure isn’t friendly to mystics in any case.
  • Running Gag: That they will each fall in love with the most inappropriate person possible. Which they do. Senneth, a serramarra and a mystic, marries Tayse, a glorified soldier with a severe distrust of magic; Kirra, a serramarra-ier serramarra, falls in love first with a married man and then with Donnal, a peasant; Justin, a glorified soldier, weds Ellynor, an over-sheltered Lirren girl; and Cammon, a peasant, hooks up with Amalie, princess/Queen of Gillengaria. And it all works out in the end, except for Kirra’s adulterous affair.
  • Secret Test of Character: What some fans think Baryn was doing sending the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits to find out things that he already knew.
  • Sensor Character: Yet another side effect of Cammon’s powers, as he can identify who is feeling what emotions nearby and where they’re coming from.
  • Son of a Whore: Justin’s backstory. (Luckily it doesn’t get brought up often.) Thanks to Tayse, Justin grew up into a Heroic Bastard with a respectable and elite career.
  • Spoiled Brat: What Wen believes sixteen-year-old Karryn Fortunalt is at the beginning of Fortune and Fate. As the story goes on, Wen (and the audience) learns that her late father's emotional abuse and Cloud Cuckoo Lander mother's distance have left Karryn very insecure and unsure of her own worth. By the end of the book, Karryn is a nice person rather than a spoiled brat.
  • Stealth Expert: Both Kirra and Donnal qualify, considering they can shapeshift into any animal they choose. Kirra particularly is fond of morphing a cat for this purpose, as they are acrobatic and virtually silent.
  • Suddenly Suitable Suitor: Senneth and a sympathetic noblewoman finagle this for Cammon to enable him to marry Amalie; the noblewoman invents a story about his being her long-lost son (a story that actually does have some truthfulness and therefore believability, except that her actual long-lost son was stillborn). The change in status makes him an acceptable consort for the new Queen. (Very fortunately for everyone, as Amalie had vowed not to marry anyone if she couldn’t have Cammon, a choice which would result in a Succession Crisis and most probably another civil war upon her death.)
  • Take That!: The wow-so-subtle message against discrimination.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Examined. Tayse and Justin, and to a lesser extent Senneth, are all fighting machines, but they are also the heroes, and even squeamish Kirra kills people with wild abandon when she's a lion.
  • Two Girls to a Team: Senneth and Kirra among the original six companions.
  • Unwanted Spouse:
    • Villain Halchon Gisseltess does not hide the fact that he wants to get rid of his wife Sabina so that he can marry Senneth. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Senneth herself is already Happily Married.)
    • Romar Brendyn makes no secret of the fact that he resents his wife during his affair with Kirra, though he’s not likely to actually bump off his wife to be with his lover. (Much of his marital unhappiness stems from the fact that his wife is apparently unable to have children, which is resolved by the novel’s end, hopefully to the betterment of their marriage.)
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: Poor Donnal looks like he’s going to be stuck as this while Kirra is head over heels for Romar Brendyn. Luckily for everyone, subverted in the end into a successful Childhood Friend Romance.
  • Unrequited Love Lasts Forever: Averted with Wen in Fortune And Fate. Most Riders are celibate anyway, and what with her heart being all smashed up over Justin’s marriage to Ellynor, Wen could pretty reasonably be expected not to get a romance subplot. Except that it’s Gillengaria, where unlikely romances practically grow on trees. Wen eventually falls for Jasper Paladar, who is luckily kind enough to return the favor.
  • UST: Shinn's MO anyway, and particularly bad between Kirra and Donnal. All four novels/couples have this in spades.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: The basic powers of any shiftling mystic, including Kirra and Donnal.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Kirra is asked by Romar's wife to give her a medical examination to see if her barrenness can be treated. When Kirra does so, she discovers that the barrenness is a side effect of a potentially deadly health problem, and if she stays silent about it, her rival would be dead and Romar would be free to marry her within a year, and nobody else would ever know. Instead, she cures her.
  • Wicked Stepmother:
    • Averted with Kirra's stepmother, Jannis, who is implied to have always treated Kirra well even though she is a mystic.
    • Averted with Queen Valri, who is rather stoic but cares deeply about her stepdaughter Amalie.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Cammon, early on. Amalie, until about the middle of ''Reader and Raelynx’’.
  • Wreathed in Flames: Senneth on multiple occasions, of course, but most notably in the Final Battle, where she literally burns herself out while saving the day and redeeming mystics in the eyes of her heretofore hopelessly bigoted family.

Alternative Title(s): Mystic And Rider