“Annice had been fourteen when she left the palace for Bardic Hall in Elbasan and while she never regretted the decision, she did occasionally wish that some things could’ve been different.”
Travelling to every corner of the kingdom of Shkoder, it is a bard’s calling to carry news, gather intelligence for the crown, and help administer justice by binding witnesses to speak only the truth at trial. Bards are also magicians, Singing to the Elements to call the kigh of Earth, Air, Fire, or Water to their service. Most bards have a strength, but some rare talents such as Annice, can Sing all four. Or at least, Annice could until she discovered she was pregnant. As the child grows, so does her affinity for Earth, until soon the other Elementals will have nothing to do with her. But losing her talent isn’t Annice’s only problem; ten years ago her brother, King Theron, disowned her and forbid her from bearing any children that might muddy the line of succession. Worse, the father of Annice’s child, Pjerin, Duc of Ohrid has just been accused of treason as well. Now Annice must not only find a way to mend the break from her family, she must also convince the King that the father of her child has been framed.
As becomes evident early in the novel, Annice is pregnant, although it takes her much longer than the reader to realize it. I wasn’t sure how I felt initially about Tanya Huff’s choice to hamstring Annice’s abilities simply because she was pregnant. However, it did add some interesting conflicts and limitations to the story while helped me reconcile to the decision. For instance, eliminating her ability to call the Air kigh is the fantasy equivalent of taking away Annice’s cellphone; she can no longer send or receive messages from other bards while she is out on the road. The positive trade-off is that the King’s Guard cannot command the other bards to use the Air kigh to locate Annice when she goes on the lam with Pjerin at seven months pregnant.
Although the book is primarily about Annice’s estranged relationship with her family, and the looming war with the neighbouring kingdom of Cemandia, she also has two romantic interests, Pjerin and Stasya. Pjerin is the father of her child, and the two bicker like an old married couple once the plot finally gets them in the same place, but it quickly becomes evident that they don’t actually like each other that much, at least not romantically. Back home at Bardic Hall in Elbasan, Annice also has a longstanding liaison with Stasya, a fellow bard who seems partly bemused and partly annoyed by Annice’s interest in men. In general, I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry or pull towards either love interest, but fortunately this is not the focus of the story, and in many ways actually adds to rather than detracts from the novel.
As is common in Tanya Huff’s fantasy novels, same sex relationships are common and unremarkable. In Sing the Four Quarters, this is true not just in Shkoder, but in other kingdoms as well, as evidenced by the early off-hand comment that one of Theron and Annice’s brothers made a marriage alliance with a distant nobleman. Homophobia is simply not a factor here. Instead, prejudice is attached to the ability to command the elements. In the neighbouring kingdom of Cemandia, this ability is viewed as unnatural, leading to tensions between the two countries. Annice also has an open relationship with Stasya; though the two go out separately to Walk the roads of Shkoder, they always come home to Bardic Hall and one another. Both their open relationship and Annice’s bisexuality are treated as entirely unremarkable, so if this is something you find enjoyable and refreshing in your fantasy, I can recommend this book in particular, but also Tanya Huff’s work more generally. Although this is the first in a series of books set in this world, each of the subsequent books follows different characters, so that Sing the Four Quarters can easily be read as a standalone.
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