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Literature / Quarters

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The Quarters series is a quartet of fantasy novels written by Tanya Huff in the mid-1990s.

The series takes place in a world inhabited by elemental spirits called the kigh, creatures whose power can be harnessed by bardsong. The greatest bards can Sing the kigh of all four Quarters, and walk the world to carry news and messages to and fro.

The series takes place in three unconnected installments, with books one and four being standalone stories while two and three form a separate duology.

  • Sing the Four Quarters (1994): The Princess-Bard Annice, the younger sister of the King of Shkoder who relinquished her claim to the throne to follow the path of the bard, turns up illegally pregnant and becomes entangled in the Frame-Up of the border duc who fathered her child.
  • Fifth Quarter (book one of two, 1995): Brother-and-sister assassin team Bannon and Vree wind up with more than they bargained for when their latest target for the Havalkeen Empire pulls a Grand Theft Me on Bannon, forcing the two of them to share Vree's body.
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  • No Quarter (book two of two, 1996): With Bannon now back in his own body and Gyhard doubling up with Vree, the two leave the Empire for neighboring Shkoder in hopes of getting Gyhard back into a body of his own.
  • The Quartered Sea (1999): Benedikt, the finest Singer of water in Shkoder but who can't Sing any other Quarter at all, is asked by Queen Jelena of Shkoder to take ship on an exploration voyage.
  • Three Quarters: A Quarters Collection (2016): A compendium of three short stories set in the same universe. These are Death Rites, Exactly and Quartered, following characters established in the main books. They were printed in other anthologies previously.

The original novels are out of print, but are regularly available on the used books circuit and have been re-released in a pair of omnibus editions. E-book versions are also now available.


These books provide examples of the following tropes:

  • Affectionate Nickname: Annice and Stasya are same-sex partners. They usually call each other "Nees" and "Stas".
  • Altar Diplomacy: In Sing the Four Quarters:
    • In the Backstory, then-Crown Prince Theron wanted to marry off his younger sister Princess Annice to the heir of neighboring Cemandia, but she managed to get their father King Maric to let her join the Magic Music bards on his deathbed instead. Theron reacted by ordering Annice to relinquish any claim to the succession and banning her on pain of death from having children. This is the source of their current estrangement. We learn later that Annice's gift for bardic Singing would have been fatal in Cemandia, which considers the kigh to be unholy.
    • One of Annice's sisters is in a Perfectly Arranged Marriage with a Shkoder duc. Their nuptials were intended to bind the duc's line closer to the royal family, but it ended up as a love match.
  • Anti-Magical Faction: The people in Cemandia, the hostile neighboring country of Shkoder, believe that the kigh are demons. Bards, who Sing to the kigh and do magic this way) are banned in Cemandia since they deem them "demon-kin" as a result. All who live there are hunted down if found out. Most people with bardic gifts hide it there as a result, which often causes them poor mental health at the least, if not using the gifts in a covert and criminal way, only stoking Cemandian prejudice against them. Any they catch are tortured to "exorcise" such demons (this naturally does not help) or killed assuming they already have control over the bardic gifts.
  • The Bard: The bards of Shkoder are a group with the power to do magic through song, calling on elemental beings called the kigh for many different purposes, divided into four "quarters"-fire, water, earth and air. They are also capable of commanding people by speaking with a certain tone, used for trials to insure defendants and witnesses give truthful testimony.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Pjerin's evil aunt Olina chooses to thrust herself onto his sword rather than be beheaded for treason.
  • Blind Musician: Tadeus, one of the bards, is blind. It's downplayed however as the other bards are entirely sighted.
  • Compelling Voice: A bard can issue a Command with a certain tone of voice that cannot be disobeyed. This is generally used for making people speak truthfully during interrogation.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: If it comes to kigh of water, Benedikt has it covered, but he can't Sing any other Quarter at all. This severely hampered his career prior to The Quartered Sea.
  • Elemental Embodiment: The kigh are somewhat mischievous beings associated with earth, fire, water and wind whom bards can coax into doing their bidding through Singing (while this does have limitations). Kigh are also described as having a humanoid look and shape but otherwise ethereal.
  • False Confession: Shkoder's justice system makes use of bards' Commands ordering people to tell the truth during their trials so only the guilty will be convicted. However, Pjerin is framed by being made to falsely confess with a post-hypnotic suggestion so he's convicted of treason.
  • Fantastic Naming Convention: In Shkoder people are named by given name, then a matronymic, then a patronymic. E.g. Annice and Pjerin's daughter Magda i'Annice a'Pjerin.
  • Fantasy Contraception: Annice was given some contraceptive teas, but gave them away for a woman who had seven children already. Thus she got pregnant by Pjerin after this when they had sex.
  • Gender Misdirection: The series often refers to minor or background characters by their occupation — "two guards," "a secretary" — a few lines before the gendered pronoun is used. The reader then realizes that the guard or secretary to which s/he had unthinkingly assigned the "conventional" gender is, in fact, just the opposite.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted, as the idea of abortion is floated early on when Annice gets pregnant without meaning to. Though she wants to go through with her pregnancy, abortion's treated as perfectly acceptable if that was her wish.
  • The Good King: Theron, though you wouldn't believe it with the way he's initially introduced trying to use his sister Annice in a marriage alliance to Cemandia and then banning her from having children on pain of death when she defies him to join the bards. In fairness, he was barely out of his teens when he inherited the throne, and in the interim between that flashback and the present day he's risen to the challenge and cares deeply about the welfare of his subjects and his kingdom. He also deeply regrets behaving that way to Annice, and after he finally catches up with her and Pjerin he lifts the death sentence on her.
  • Hegemonic Empire: Havalkeen is apparently one of these. There's a mention early in No Quarter that the reason the Army plans to use Bannon and Vree to assassinate a rebellious governor is to avoid the casualties, both friendly and civilian, that would be incurred via The Siege or by Storming the Castle. The Empire's Marshal states that the Empire gives "a promise of peace, order, and good government."
  • Living Lie Detector: A trained bard can tell from the tone of a person's voice whether they're lying or not. Due to this, along with an ability to compel truthful testimony, bards supervise court trials.
  • Magic Music: Bards must be born with the gift to Sing the kigh and have to train for years to master the art. Among the more common uses of the kigh is Singing them to speed riverboats along and to carry messages between bards.
  • Mystical Pregnancy: During her pregnancy Annice discovers that she's losing the ability to Sing any kigh but earth. This is indicated to be a normal thing for a pregnant bard, but it proves a stumbling block.
  • Non-Heteronormative Society:
    • Shkoder doesn't seem to have any taboos against same-sex relationships, e.g. nobody bats an eyelash at Annice being in a long-term relationship with another female bard and many minor LGBT characters appear as well (this is quite a common trope in Tanya Huff's novels-she's an open lesbian who's been married to fellow fantasy writer Fiona Patton for many years).
    • Later on Havalkeen is shown to have similar mores, as no one bats an eye at expressions of same-sex love and Vree acts quite casual about being bisexual.
  • One-Night-Stand Pregnancy: Annice got pregnant by Pjerin from a single time having sex with him, specifically saying that at the time she wasn't interested in anything more.
  • The Order: In Shkoder the bards are a select group with their own living spaces named halls and use their Magic Music power to various ends on the realm's behalf.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Or Sibling Childbearing Veto in this case. Annice is the younger sister of the King of Shkoder but relinquished her title and claim to the succession in order to become a bard, defying her brother King Theron who wanted to put her in an Arranged Marriage to the heir of Cemandia. She also swore never to bear a child on pain of death lest it threaten the succession. Theron actually deeply regretted doing this to her later but both of them were too darn headstrong to speak on friendly terms for many years afterwards, and Annice decides to carry her baby with Pjerin to term just to spite him. Once he catches up with a very pregnant Annice, Theron apologizes and forgives her.
  • Polyamory: Annice is with Stasya in a happy long-term committed relationship, but still also had sex with Pjerin, becoming pregnant by doing so. Stasya isn't surprised or acts betrayed by this, indicating Annice and she have an open relationship, commenting simply that this is what you get from sex with men (she's a lesbian, unlike Annice who's bisexual).
  • Poor Communication Kills: When she initially learns she's pregnant, Annice is terrified that King Theron is going to have her killed. Unbeknownst to her, Theron actually wants to rescind his earlier death threat, but the two of them haven't been able to speak civilly in years.
  • Professional Killers: Bannon and Vree are assassins attached to the Havalkeen Army, making them something like commandos in modern terminology.
  • Surprise Pregnancy: Annice got unexpectedly pregnant from her tryst with Pjerin. It sets the plot in motion, since she's been forbidden to have children by her brother on pain of death.
  • Truth Serum: A major plot point of Sing the Four Quarters is that nobody can lie to a bard under interrogation: they have the ability to magically compel the speaker to tell the truth regardless of their preference. Except nobody really quite believes it when Pjerin, Duc Ohrid, is revealed by this compulsion as a traitor, because it just plain seems out-of-character. Turns out part of the Frame-Up involved planting what amounts to a post-hypnotic suggestion that forced Pjerin to respond in a self-incriminating manner to the Bard Captain's legally prescribed question.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: The books generally take the attitude that Rousseau Was Right, and conflicts between people are much more likely to be the result of misunderstandings than malice.

Alternative Title(s): Sing The Four Quarters, Fifth Quarter