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.
- 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.
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.
These books provide examples of the following tropes:
- 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.
- Charm Person/Living Lie Detector: 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.
- 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.
- Eternal Sexual Freedom: There is a form of marriage, called Joining, but Shkoder at least doesn't seem to have any taboos against premarital sex or homosexual relations. E.g. nobody bats an eyelash at Annice being in a long-term relationship with another female bard, and the only reason her being pregnant is important is that she was specifically forbidden from having any children by King Theron, which she agreed to as a condition of being allowed to join the bards. (This is a common trope in Huff's novels.)
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.