Tanya Huff,
Sing the Four Quarters
(DAW, 1994)

In Tanya Huff's Sing the Four Quarters, the bards of Shkodar undertake a number of responsibilities. Not only do they travel the land, on what they call Walks, bringing news and observing events, but they also serve as adjudicators and mediators, trained to exercise on individuals a Command to speak truthfully. They also communicate with and influence elemental spirits -- called kigh -- with their songs. Some Bards have ability only to Sing one or two elements, but those who can sing Earth, Air, Fire and Water are said to Sing the four quarters.

Annice is such a bard, although she feels closest to Air. She is on her way back to the Bardic Hall from a Walk when she becomes ill. But Annice isn't sick. She's pregnant.

Having a child is not a problem for any other bard in this society which welcomes children regardless of circumstances. Annice's problem is that she is a princess -- well, a former princess whose brother Theron, upon becoming the new King of Shkodar years before, cast her out of the family. Hardly a hostile man, and in fact very devoted to his youngest sister, Theron's pride was injured when Annice outsmarted him in her bid to become a bard rather than acquiesce to an arranged marriage. On top of disowning her from her royal claim, the king declared that for Annice, bearing a child would be an act of treason.

Annice decides to have the baby regardless, since she feels she can stay out of Theron's way. But then a new problem arises when the baby's father, Pjerin, Duc of Ohrid, is imprisoned for treason. Now the stakes are higher than ever for her and for her child, but Annice is convinced that Pjerin did not commit treason, and she cannot allow an innocent man to die.

The plot is intricate and well-paced, with lively dialogue and realistic, appealing characters. Huff does not neatly divide characters into "good" and "bad"; rather, she gives each a complex nature and a history which often explains the underpinning motives. Best of all, Huff writes with a refreshing sense of humor. Too often, high fantasies (and their authors) take themselves way too seriously and wallow in weighty dialogue and ponderous description. Huff's take seems to be that human beings have human responses which are not rarified by virtue of appearing in a high fantasy novel.

Sing the Four Quarters is the first of several novels set in this world. If you're bored with what typical high fantasy has to offer, give Tanya Huff's foray into fantasy a try.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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