After the manifold frustrations of Mirror of Destiny, this sequel is, as the saying goes, a breath of fresh air. It’s the work of a mature and confident author who has mastered her personal formula and still managed to keep it from getting stale.
The third of the magical senses in this series is the sense of smell, and magic here is contained in a full range of scents both good and bad. Our main protagonist is the traditional Norton orphan, in this case a survivor of plague, Willadene, who has a most remarkable nose—it’s very nearly as keen as a hound’s. Willadene has a hard life at the beginning of the novel, indentured to her horrid relative Jacoba, who runs a dirtbag tavern frequented by thieves and scoundrels.
Willadene’s goal in life is to escape the tavern and apprentice with the Herbmistress Halwice, a mysterious, possibly aristocratic woman who has mastered the magic of scent. Many of Willadene’s early adventures are directed toward this end, particularly after Jacoba tries to sell her off to the worst of the scoundrels.
While Willadene is resisting forced marriage and suffering mental and occasional physical abuse, another young woman in the city is undergoing similar experiences. Mahart is the duke’s daughter, and has been kept like a princess in a tower, isolated from the world. Now, as she nears her eighteenth birthday, her father finally brings her out in public and sets her up for a royal marriage.
The ducal family has a complicated history. The plague killed the heroic former duke and his male heirs. His daughter, being female, cannot inherit. Therefore the title has gone to a distant relative, a cranky little mouse of a man who hates ceremony and has little use for his daughter except as a means to gain political advantage.
The former duke’s daughter, Saylana, is not accepting her lot in any tame or peaceful fashion. She intrigues constantly on behalf of herself and her lout of a son. But the current duke is a canny politician, and the duke’s Chancellor is considerably more than that.
Meanwhile, the duke is dealing with an outlaw band that has been raiding merchant caravans, a king with a fairly useless heir but a plethora of younger sons including the warrior Prince Lorien, and various conspiracies inside the city itself. It’s all terribly convoluted, and that’s even before the revelation that evil has laired inside the ducal palace.
Willadene finally succeeds in freeing herself from Jacoba and her nasty plans, but in true Norton fashion, there’s hardly any time to relax and enjoy Halwice’s teaching before she’s thrust into the conflict between the duke and Saylana. The Chancellor has a master spy called the Bat (whom in my head I see more as the Dread Pirate Roberts), who has been spying out all the different plots in the city and beyond. Willadene first encounters him as a near-corpse in Halwice’s shop (seriously: Westley who is only mostly dead), cast under an evil spell along with Halwice. She has to break the spell and help revive Nicolas, who almost immediately gets himself hurt again, this time physically.
As I said, it’s convoluted. Willadene and Halwice spend a great deal of time ducking Saylana’s spies, discovering and navigating secret passages, patching up Nicolas, and fighting off magical attacks on the duke, the Chancellor, and Mahart. Saylana’s awful son lumbers in and out, snarling and sneering and threatening various forms of violence. Saylana herself is more into slinking, though she has an epic sneer of her own. And she’s a master of the evil arts of seduction.
Amid all this, Willadene discovers that her magical talents are exceptional and that she can smell evil wherever it lurks. She can also, in houndlike fashion, track individual humans by scent. And she can use various scents and fragrances to both attack and protect.
While Willadene is discovering her powers, Mahart is coming into her own awareness of who and what she is. She understands that she has a duty to marry advantageously, and she accepts the ways in which she’s expected to make that happen. She has her own lesser gift of scent magic, and she has dreams of an enchanted garden. She even learns to ride a horse in scenes that are pretty accurate in their portrayal of a complete beginner’s introduction to these large and highly mobile animals.
(Though really, all those saddle horns—historic saddles did not have horns. That’s a development of the American West, for roping cattle. It’s the handle you snub the rope around. Medieval saddles rose high fore and aft, the better to keep the rider in place, but nobody was roping cattle, especially not noble ladies riding in processions or being abducted into the wilds by wicked scoundrels. So. No horns. Nope.)
It all comes to a head when Prince Lorien defeats the bandit leader and the duke arranges a victory celebration in which Mahart will do her best to capture a royal husband. Saylana of course is not about to let this happen. She throws herself at Lorien and arranges to have Mahart kidnapped by magic, right out of her bed.
It’s up to Nicolas the master spy and equally master tracker, and Willadene the human scent hound, to track Mahart down. While they rush off down the trail, Lorien arranges a more suitably military rescue. Mahart herself, who has come through her sheltered childhood with a remarkable degree of courage and autonomy, manages to escape her captors and find refuge in an enchanted garden—the same one she’s been dreaming of all her life.
This garden is a sanctuary in the heart of a ruined city once dominated by a wicked sorceress. Here the plot swerves away from political intrigue and personal struggle with an occasional flare of magic, to straight-up magical conflict. Suddenly everybody is talking about this place called Ishbi, Ishbi this, Ishbi that. My editorial hat kept falling off its hook onto my head and making me want to beg the author to introduce this concept earlier, please.
It is pretty decent fantasy good-versus-evil, and there’s setup for it earlier, with Willadene repeatedly stumbling across zones of reeking evil during her many perambulations of the back ways of the city and the palace. Saylana has bound herself to the ancient and undead sorceress, who is looking to come back into the world. It’s up to Willadene and Mahart and their respective young men to make sure this doesn’t happen.
The magical plot eventually ties back into the political plot, somewhat abruptly as always in Norton novels. The double romances are not as tacked-on as they often are, though the depiction of Mahart and Lorien dancing at the ball isn’t anything like what both of them claim to remember later. Continuity blip there.
Willadene and Nicolas have a genuine if shallow arc, and come to esteem each other as they work together. I do particularly like the way Willadene uses Nicolas’ instruction in trailcraft as she harvests some cress for dinner, and Nicolas says approvingly, “Welcome to the trail.” That’s kind of romantic.
What’s interesting to me is that the characters are not all cardboard cutouts. The villains tend to be, especially the loutish males with their thick lips (bit of ingrained racism there) and Saylana with her dragon-lady looks (there too). But the Chancellor has a degree of moral ambiguity to him, and the duke is rather lovely in his utter mundanity. He even starts to care about his daughter, once he’s taken the time to notice her.
I found myself quite liking Mahart. Willadene is a standard Norton protagonist, a little dull really, but Mahart has layers to her. She’s smart, she notices things, and she doesn’t let herself be pushed around any more than she strictly has to. She knows her job and does her best to do it competently. Once she’s abducted, she does what she can to think her way out of it. She does not succumb to hysteria. There is nothing silly or flighty about Mahart.
She is moved around by mysterious powers, but that’s another Norton staple. This novel is particularly full of “somehow she knew” and “something motivated her” and “she didn’t know why but.” It didn’t quite send me around the bend, thanks to the above-average quality of the characters.
Best of all for me was the Chancellor’s animal companion. Ssssaaa is some sort of weasel/ferret/mink creature, highly intelligent and able to communicate more or less clearly with her human associates. She’s a scout and spy without compare, she has infallible sense for whether a human is trustworthy or otherwise, and she takes very good care of Willadene and Mahart. We never find out exactly what she is or where she comes from, but there’s a suggestion at the end that she’s going to have babies (parthenogenically?) and they’ll be protecting the duchy and its human protectors for a good long time to come.
I like that.
Next up is the sense of hearing, in Wind in the Stone. See you there!
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.