General Winston's Daughter
Sharon Shinn’s Archangel is an all-time favorite of mine. I love her world-building, her characters and their romance. So I was curious about reading a Young Adult novel of hers. I was not disappointed in General Winston’s Daughter. This is a very good book, even if it does not quite achieve the depth of Archangel.
First a word about genre: Although the novel is set in a world that is clearly not Earth, there is no magic at all. I am therefore hesitant to call it fantasy, but consider it an alternate reality novel.
Lady Averie Winston is on board ship to travel from her home country, Aeberelle, to newly conquered Chiarrin. She plans to spend time with her father, General Winston, the invading army’s commander, and her fiancé, Colonel Morgan Stode, who, in spite of his youth, has taken important steps in a promising military and political career. It’s a love match on both sides, but for Morgan, it’s also advantageous to marry an heiress and the daughter of an influential general.
On board ship Averie meets Lieutenant Ket Du’kai, a member of the Aebrian army stationed in Chiarrin. Ket is not Aebrian himself, but from Xan’tai, a country that was colonized by Aeberelle 75 years earlier and which sounds a lot like India. He also has political ambitions and dreams of negotiating independence for Xan’tai, but for now his only career opportunity is the Aebrian army. Unfortunately, he will never have the chance to really rise in its ranks due to his ethnic background. Averie and Ket become friends of sorts, mostly because they are the only young people on board ship, and the insatiably curious Averie tries to milk Ket for information about both Xan’tai and Chiarrin. (A note: The author crams lot of information into the first two chapters. It becomes less after that, however.) Ket obviously likes Averie, but he feels the barrier between them created by race, class, fortune and her engagement.
In Chesza, Chiarrin’s most important harbor, Averie quickly settles into the Aebrian colony of officer’s wives and daughters and enjoys spending time with Morgan. She is very keen on exploring the town, and delighted when she manages to strike up an acquaintance which later turns into friendship with Jalessa, a seamstress and seller of fabrics. Through Jalessa she tries to take part in Chiarrizi life, joining the festivals, visiting the holy sites, wearing local costume, and learning a bit of the language. She regularly scandalizes her chaperone, but she perseveres and grows to love Chiarrin, and begins to doubt whether the invasion and occupation are really morally acceptable.
For most of the novel, Averie has the golden touch. She is headstrong, impetuous, willful and unconventional, but has a good heart and uses her brains to think beyond what she is being told. She is very likable, but her perfection eventually annoyed me. Come on, if you snub conventions, sometimes you will go wrong. So does Averie in the end, and quite dramatically so, but I would have preferred more mixed results to her actions throughout the novel.
Without a doubt, this is a highly political book, and its unequivocal message is that colonialism is wrong. But, and this is important, Shinn blames the institution of colonialism, not the people who are caught up in it. There is no black and white here. None of the characters escape from the situation entirely pure of heart. Either they deceive, lie to themselves, are willfully blind, or compromise their integrity in some way. The cost of colonialism on everyone’s life is presented as high. Averie loses a lot, but I loved the way she reacts at the ending, still strong in spite of everything.
The romance is strong, although it is not center stage some of the time. I found the development entirely believable, the two men with their different characters carefully depicted. The scenes where we can see that Averie chooses the right man are charming.
The General’s Daughter is a delightful book and highly recommended if you are prepared to give some of your attention to names and foreign customs and the everyday life in a colony. It’s all very well-developed, but does take up some space. As for me, I mostly liked the book for the characters, with all their flaws and delusions, and for the beautifully handled ending.