Do you ever read a book and wonder how it got published? Or read an established author and think, "Don’t they understand basic story-telling?"
The House of the Four Winds, by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, starts innocently enough. Princess Clarice of the Duchy of Swansgaarde must go out and seek her fortune because she has eleven sisters and a brother, and the Duchy cannot support twelve royal dowries. Clarice is a master sword fighter and intends to make her living as an instructor. First, however, she seeks adventure on a merchant ship, disguised as a man named Clarence. The ship is captained by an evil lout, Captain Sprunt, but Clarice/Clarence falls in love with one of the ship's officers, Dominick. After the crew mutinies against the wicked Sprunt, they set sail for an unknown destination whose coordinates are provided by a magical amulet that Sprunt carried with him at all times. The amulet directs them to the House of the Four Winds, a pirate haven. The witch queen of the pirates, Shamal, enchants Dominick, bringing him under her will and forcing him to seek the Heart of Light, a source of unlimited magic in a dangerous location on the sea. Clarice struggles with her secret identity while trying to help Dominick get out from under Shamal's control and save the crew.
The premise of the novel has some basic flaws, like the fact that the King and Queen of Swansgaarde can't support their twelve daughters just because they have a son. That's some Jane Austen shit right there. It makes you want to suggest that, perhaps, there is a middle ground between providing twelve royal dowries and just giving your daughters a moderate sum to live on just in case, let's say, they don't feel like exiling themselves from their home country/castle and disguising their identity and seeking employment in a field that could feature on an episode of World's Most Dangerous Jobs. I mean, how about just providing a regular dowry, since Clarice is going to marry a sailor anyways? Also, Lackey and Mallory use adverbs like they're going out of style. Nearly every dialogue attribution was paired with a "crisply," "mildly," "kindly," "moodily," and "quellingly." (Yes, quellingly.) But I was willing to overlook these in favor of what I hoped would be a fun fantasy/romance.
And The House of the Four Winds did have some neat elements. I am always a fan of women-in-disguise stories, pining-after-your-pal stories, and stories that occur on ships in general. I liked that Swansgaarde was set in a sort of alternate Europe, complete with clear counterparts to Russia, Africa, Spain, and England. In this world, London is called Albion and the river that runs through it is the Temese. This provokes some interesting questions. Is the House of the Four Winds, impossible to locate unless you have a magical amulet, located in their version of the Bermuda Triangle? I wanted to find out more about the people that live in the various lands mentioned. What are the differences and similarities to our world? And how has magic shaped the history of this alternate world? Unfortunately, these ideas aren't given any traction and the story continues as if the world Lackey and Mallory have created is just any other fantasy world.
The main characters--Clarice and Dominick--are likeable enough, if stereotypical. They are noble and chaste. Good for them. The villains, however, are comically bad. Sprunt picks on everyone on the ship, including his cabin boy whom he has savagely beaten. He drinks too much, is dirty and smelly, and eventually turns out to be a pirate. Also, his name is Sprunt, which sounds like it came from a Charles Dickens novel. Likewise, Shamal is vain and power-hungry. She doesn't really care who sees her displays of magical force or her bosoms, which she displays to Dominick. We, the readers, are supposed to hate her for this, especially since Clarice, in her disguise as a man, has no means of seducing Dominick with her bosoms.
The biggest drawback of The House of the Four Winds that I take issue with is the undeveloped plot. It seems like it was put together on a wing and a prayer, with the authors deciding at random what events should take place. For instance, in the chapter when Dominick and Clarice visit the House of the Four Winds, the pirate council can't seem to decide how to treat their visitors. They greet them kindly, proceed to bait and threaten them, and then decide to let them go if Dominick will agree to seek the Heart of Light. When he chooses not to, Shamal bullies him into it with magic. Every line of dialogue is confusing and unmotivated, and I continually felt as though I was being spun around. Perhaps that is the effect Lackey and Mallory wanted the scene to have on their characters, but I expect a light read like this to be relatively straightforward from a reader's perspective.
Other moments of dialogue also seemed needlessly opaque. When Dominick anguishes about whether or not to tell the crew that he is under Shamal's control: "'Is it you who keeps the secret, Dominick?" Clarice asked boldly. "And not . . . another?" Another what? Another person keeping the secret that Dominick is ensorcelled? That’d be you, Clarice—the only other person who knows. Or are you suggesting that there’s another secret, such as the fact that you are a woman? Clearly (as the ellipses indicate) this is meant to be a pithy, suspenseful moment--you know, the kind that would appear in the movie trailer accompanied by significant glances. But it doesn't make any sense!
The final conflict itself is disappointing. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] First Shamal's faithful manservant, Gregale, turns into a giant sea serpent, saving the day by eating his former mistress and protecting the ship and its crew from the other sea serpents, of whom he is the king, because why not? ("Why not?" could be the subtitle for this book). This would have been cool if it had been foreshadowed earlier in the book. Shamal could have easily gone into more detail when describing the dangers of seeking the Heart of Light, such as, I don't know, the fact that it is surrounded by sea-serpent infested waters. This would have heightened the tension of their journey and would have been an easy solution, even at the editing and revision stage. But instead the existence of the sea serpents, and Gregale's position as their king, came out of nowhere--very deus ex serpenta.
The most annoying part of the climax is that we NEVER SEE the Heart of Light. The store of mystical energy which Shamal seeks--we don't get a glimpse of it. The sea-serpent fight is over, the sailors find a bunch of unrelated treasure, yippee, everyone’s rich, and the Heart of Light remains the elusive mystery it always was. Even Clarice recognizes the ridiculousness of this: "I wonder what the Heart of Light was. I wonder what Shamal would have done with it if she'd been able to gain it." She goes on to speculate more, but it only draws attention to the fact that . . . hello, we've been hearing about the Heart of Light this whole time, and warned of its dangers, and wondering about Shamal's powers, and in return we get nothing.
And I really mean nothing. Because the primary reason I read this was for the romance. I can read good fantasy any old time, but I read this because it was a pirate romance. I need me some swashbuckling, sea monsters, and sexual tension. We got the first two, but the sexual tension was lacking to the point where, when the couple finally gets together, I was angry. "What? That was it? He didn't even say he loved her!" I wanted Dominick to have some confusing urges towards “Clarence”—some heated glances, or lingering hand-clasps—but in absence of that, I wanted the revelatory moment to include a kiss, a declaration of love, sweeping violins. Instead, he basically said, "I thought you were a boy, so I didn't expect anything more than friendship with you." Words to melt a woman’s heart, no doubt. It's certainly no "You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you ... etc."
Actually, can someone just write Pride and Prejudice again, but set it on a ship? ‘Cause I would read the heck out of that.
*This review originally appeared at FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave the book 1 star.