Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Heart Readers by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I occasionally pick up a group of books from StoryBundle, when one of their offerings contains several that look interesting. In the most recent of those bundles was Heart Readers by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Heart Readers is a fairly dark story. It takes place in the kingdom of Leanda, and within the first few pages the king has already considered killing one of his newborn twin sons. The king himself had killed his brother in a struggle over succession, and knows he should spare the kingdom another contested inheritance. But instead he lets both live, and they grow up together, until the day the king is dying and a decision must be made.

The book has two major story threads: the succession to the throne, and the story of Stashie. Her village is conquered by a soldiers led by a man named Tarne, who personally killed her family and brutalized Stashie. She barely survives, and eventually finds her way into the company of Dasis, a woman who becomes both life partner and companion Heart Reader. Despite Dasis' help and support, Stashie still is very traumatized by her experiences and finds life extremely difficult.

The world is mostly mundane in a medieval age, but Heart Readers are an exception. These are pairs - usually two women - who can see the true character of a person and describe it. This is known as reading the person's heart, and is consulted primarily by people wanting to understand themselves better.

All the major characters come together when the king wants to read the hearts of his sons, to determine which deserves to be the heir. The results of the reading, and the eventual death of the king, trigger the succession struggle that everyone fears, with Tarne pulling the strings behind the scenes. And Stashie gets her opportunity for revenge, but not without cost and risk.

If I had to categorize Heart Readers, it would be as a tragedy. Much of the subject matter is difficult and Rusch pulls few punches in describing the effects of violence, brutality, and fear. None of the characters make their journey without wounds. Some are more extreme than others - Stashie in particular has a really rough time. The ending is a bit too cheerful to be a true tragedy, but I think the description still fits given everything that leads up to it.

Heart Readers was an interesting read, though I felt a bit let down by the ending. It's almost the perfect outcome after a story in which almost nothing else goes perfectly. Despite that, the story is entertaining and kept my interest throughout.

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