Review: Wrapt in Crystal by Sharon Shinn

Today I had nothing better to do than finish this book because cramps. My only exposure to Shinn’s writing previously has been Troubled Waters, a very character driven fantasy with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. I thought Troubled Waters was good, not the best I’ve ever read, but I’d be interested in a sequel.

So now I come to Wrapt in Crystal, a character-driven science fiction novel with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure.

I’m beginning to see a pattern here.

The novel takes place on the desert planet of Semay, where two different orders of priestesses, the jovial Triumphantes and the austere Fideles, serve the goddess Ava. Despite serving the same goddess, the two traditions are as different as night and day. When a serial killer begins preying on members of both orders, however, Cowen Drake, a member of the intergalactic special forces known as Moonchildren, is sent to investigate. Caught between two different worlds and two very different women, it’s up to Drake to catch the killer before they claim their next victim.

My summary probably makes the book sound more like a mystery novel, and there are some times where Drake does a little detective work, but that’s not the focus of the story. The focus of the story is definitely the characters and their relationships to each other. In genre terms, Wrapt in Crystal could probably be classified as a space opera (if I’m reading Wiki correctly). Even the world, though interesting, is secondary to the character drama.

As many of you might know, I like books where religion plays a role beyond just being a prop for the characters to be like “Oh my gods!” all the time, and religion definitely does play a role in this book. There are two dominant religions on Semay, both worshiping the same goddess. The Triumphantes are a popular sect who focus on the “joyful face” of the goddess, and this sect enjoys immense popularity among the upper classes. The other sect, the Fideles, emphasize austerity and service to the poor. The two sects are so completely at odds that one character remarks that someone will think twice before inviting a couple who frequents a Triumphante temple to the same dinner party as someone who receives blessings from a Fidele priestess. Much of the novel focuses on our protagonist (who has, predictably, lost his faith in any deities) seeking to understand these two sects. At times, the book becomes downright philosophical, touching on love and forgiveness and faith, but it never really becomes preachy, this I like. I like when books don’t preach at me.

In terms of the characters, our main character is very much a just-doing-my-job, serious kind of guy (who is also a bit of a dick), and his character pretty much remains constant throughout the novel (except near the end, where he becomes lovesick and can’t go for two seconds without thinking of his love interest). He’s also lost his faith in deities (he comes from a family of polytheists, in case you’re wondering) due to a personal tragedy, so much of the theological discussions have him playing the role of the skeptic. Personally, I didn’t really like Drake, because he was kind of a dick, but he wasn’t completely unsympathetic.

At this point I should inform you that the back of the book lies, because at one point there are three potential love interests, and all of them get what TV Tropes calls the Ship Tease. There’s Lise, a fellow Moonchild who is the hothead to Drake’s calm, cool and collective demeanor, Jovieve, a member of the Triumphantes who is quite the flirt, and Laura, a Fidele who is really, really, really devoted to the goddess. In short, both of them are pretty much their orders personified, hooray. My personal preference is for the Triumphantes over the Fideles, so I naturally liked Jovieve a whole lot, but there’s nothing I particularly disliked about any of the women, probably because Drake is a bit of a jerk.

The thing is, for a novel that’s so character-driven, the characters seemed kind of…flat. This might have something to do with the fact that Shinn likes to repeat herself a lot, so the reader is constantly being informed that Lise is the type of girl who can “take care of herself” and Laura is very devout, and Jovieve has a “thing” with the governor. It’s like Shinn took, at most, two traits and is simply referencing them over and over in the hope that the reader won’t notice.

If I had to name one major flaw with this book, it’s that it’s slow. It seems like Drake does a lot of driving around and thinking about things, then he goes to talk to the two women, then he gets teased by his fellow Moonchildren, wash, rinse, repeat until the mystery is solved. This is the same problem I had with Troubled Waters, you have to be in a particular mood to enjoy these books, otherwise you’re going to want to throw it across the room. I can say with confidence that her writing is also much, much better in her more recent work. The one lengthy action scene in this book was so terribly written that I had to check to see if I was still reading the same book.

Other things of note: I like how Jovieve and Lise pretty much fuck who they want and don’t give a shit when stupid men try and slut-shame them. Jovieve also admits to being polyamorous in all but name. Drake can be a sexist dick at times, though, and there is a possible homophobic insult (involving a guy who mistakenly believes Drake and Laura are signing on with a pimp). I don’t remember any POCs with significant roles to play (several characters are described as “dark-skinned”).

So, my recommendation? If you don’t mind a main character who is a bit of a dick, like science fiction that doesn’t require a degree in physics to get the most out of the story, and don’t mind the slow as molasses pacing, you might like this. In the end, it’s just sort of an okay book. I’d say get it from the library.

2 thoughts on “Review: Wrapt in Crystal by Sharon Shinn

  1. I’ve read Shinn’s Archangel books, two or three of them. They were intriguing because despite using Christian mythology they really aren’t about Christianity at all, as it turns out.

    • I’ve heard really good things about her Archangel books. This one really wasn’t about Christianity either, even though both sects used very Christian terms in their vocabulary (penance, penitent, sinners, saints, etc.) it was more about faith and doubt in general.

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