Written over 20 years ago, this book withstood the passing of time amazingly well. It’s been one of my favorites since I first read it, and its allure hasn’t faded still. It remains one of my favorites even now, after countless re-reads and many new authors emerging into the genre of classic fantasy. I can’t find even one thing to complain about in this tale.
In Shkoder, bards can see kigh, elemental creatures of air, fire, water, and earth. With their music and their Songs, the bards of Shkoder can command the kigh to do their bidding: carry messages across the land, ignite or extinguish fires, infuse the soil with fertility, or remove water from a flooded path. It is an utterly original concept of magic, and the stronger the bard, the more powerful he or she is with their elements. Some bards can command two or more elements. Annice can command all four: she Sings the four quarters.
One of the most talented bards in the kingdom, she is also the most controversial: she was a princess before she became a bard, and in order to follow her bardic calling she was forced to renounce her rights to be part of the royal family. It all happened ten years ago, but the pain of her family’s rejection still smarts inside her. It still hurts.
Annice, the former princess, is one of the first lesbian fantasy protagonists in America. She is strong-willed and opinionated, she doesn’t suffer fools, and compromise doesn’t seem to belong in her vocabulary. She can’t forgive her brother, King Theron, for ordering her out of the family, but her loyalty to her friends and her country has no bounds.
Pjerin, Duc of Ohrid, is a simple man by comparison. An alpha male, stubborn and arrogant, he loves his distant, impoverished mountain principality and he adores his four-year-old son. He doesn’t have time nor inclination for a wife, neither he cares about money. His stone fortress guards the only pass through the mountains that separates the smaller Shkoder from the much larger and aggressive Cemandian empire, and Pjerin would give his life protecting the pass from any invader.
Ten years ago, when Theron banished Annice from the Palace, he declared that to become a bard she must forfeit all her princess’s rights, including the right to have children. If she did, it would be considered treason, punishable by death. As Annice was/is a lesbian (mostly), she accepted his conditions with lofty unconcern, but now, after a chance encounter with Duc of Ohrid, she realizes she is pregnant. Was her brother serious in his pronouncement ten years ago? Would he go through with his threats and execute her and her baby for treason? They haven’t met nor talked after that fateful day. She can’t really believe he would have her killed, especially because her pregnancy was an accident, but how could she risk her innocent baby’s life?
The Duc has troubles of his own. Framed by his enemies as a traitor, he must clear his name before it is too late.
Their two lives intersected only once, resulting in a baby, and now both are fugitives, dodging the king’s guards and trying to figure out how to clear Pjerin’s name and what will happen to their baby. And they don’t even like each other.
The story flows swiftly, like rapids of a mountain river, with unexpected plot twists at every turn, and the reader frets together with Annice: how can she keep her baby safe?
Funny that personality-wise, I liked neither Annice nor Pjerin. Both are too pigheaded for my taste, but I definitely respected them both, and my deep sympathy ran with them. I wanted them and their yet unborn baby safe. I wanted them to vanquish their enemies and triumph over all adversities. I was a silent partner in their madcap escapades, and I enjoyed every minute I spent in their company.
A wonderful story.