(2014) Mercedes Lackey & James Mallory, Tor, £16.99, hrdbk, 300pp, ISBN 978-0-765-33565-4
Not to be confused with the John Buchan book of the same name that featured I kid you not a retired grocer as its hero, this The House of the Four Winds is by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, and is book one of his 'One Dozen Daughters' sequence, so expect another eleven titles to follow, and maybe even, the dreaded book thirteen, which wraps everything up. The prolific Lackey is possible better known as the creator of 'The Valdemar Universe' and the many trilogies, odd quintet and sometimes stand alone novel that comprises that oeuvre; as well as the SERRAted Edge series, although she is better known to me for the Diane Tregarde trilogy of the early 1990s, that chronicled the occult adventures of witch Tregarde and was probably slightly before its time and suffered accordingly in terms of sales, compared to the recent and current market which is saturated with all sorts of heroines (alive and dead and sometimes in between) who walk the dark side. As mentioned, Lackey is very prolific, which is an understatement, apart from short story collections and contributing to anthologies, my reckoning is that she has written (so far) 120 novels, although several series have been in partnership with other writers, most notably, her husband, Larry Dixon, as well as many leading female writers including Holly Lisle, Ellen Guon, C. J. Cherryh, Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley along the way. Not surprisingly, she has some previous form with Mallory, writing the 'Obsidian Trilogy' and 'The Enduring Flame' trilogy, as well as the first two novels of 'The Dragon Prophecy' trilogy with him.
Which brings us to The House of the Four Winds, a twelve chapter novel that starts with a three-page scene-setting prologue entitled 'The Parliament of Cats', which is direct, straight-forward and almost fairytale-like in its delivery, telling us, the reader, the circumstances surrounding the Royal Family of the Duchy of Swansgaarde which lies in a valley in the Borogny and borders on Turkey, Poland and the mighty Russian Empire, as well as the, possibly even mightier, Cisleithanian Empire, a precarious place to be for such a tiny state, and matters are not helped by the fact Duke Rupert and Duchess Yetive have produced twelve daughters then unexpectedly one son, who according to the laws of inheritance will take the throne, which is all very well for number one son, but what to do about all these princesses and do you really want twelve daughters stomping around the castle or hidden in their chambers with the court musicians turned up to eleven? Fortunately the Duke and Duchess have had the foresight to allow their daughters, since the age of ten, to choose whatever trade they wanted to study, and Princess Clarice Eugenie Victoria Amalthea Meulsine, the eldest of the daughters and soon to turn eighteen, picked the sword as her trade, and now after a family gathering it has been decided that each princess when they reach the age of eighteen will go forth into the world and seek their fortune and Clarice as the eldest gets to go first on this grand adventure to make a new life for herself.
It is a shame then with such a conceit and series set-up that this first book does not exactly set the heather on fire, reading like a Shakespearian cross-dressing romance meets Pirates of the Caribbean. Thanks to a special corset, Clarice disguises herself as a man Clarence Swann with the intention of working her passage on the Asesino, which is sailing for the New World, but things are complicated by her burgeoning bromance with ship's navigator, Dominick, and further complicated when he leads a mutiny against the cruel Captain Sprunt and after Sprunt's death, the crew are now branded as outlaws and pirates and have no choice but to head for the secret pirate haven known as The House of the Four Winds, and then the fun starts in a tale that involves ghosts ships, sea monsters and magic, with Clarice quickly going from a wide-eyed innocent to someone who views everything and everyone through narrowed eyes in a fast-moving, light-hearted romp, apart from the odd flogging, that is.
Given that the Duchy has another eleven daughters still to seek their fame and fortune, it will be interesting to see what other occupations and adventures they embrace. Unlike young ladies that populate Jane Austen novels with accomplishments such as singing, playing the piano, embroidery and going for long walks, I imagine greater things await these princesses depending on the trades they have adopted, but I suspect the only way I will find out about them in future is by reading the announcements posted on the castle gates.
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