The House of the Four Winds: Shoddy plot and no romance

The House of the Four Winds by Mercedes Lackey & James MalloryThe House of the Four Winds by Mercedes Lackey & James Mallory

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDo you ever read a book and wonder how it got published? Or read an established author and think, “Don’t they understand basic storytelling?”

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, the kind that would appear in the movie trailer. But it doesn’t make any sense!

The final conflict itself is disappointing. [BEGIN SPOILER. Highlight if you want to read it.] 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 handclasps — 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. It’s certainly no “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you… etc.” [END SPOILER]

Actually, can someone just write Pride and Prejudice again, but set it on a ship? ‘Cause I would read that.

Publication Date: August 5, 2014. Mercedes Lackey is the New York Times bestselling author of the Valdemar series and romantic fantasies like Beauty and the Werewolf and The Fairy Godmother. JAMES MALLORY and Lackey have collaborated on six novels. Now. these New York Times and USA Today bestselling collaborators bring romance to the fore with The House of Four Winds. The rulers of tiny, impoverished Swansgaard have twelve daughters and one son. While the prince’s future is assured, his twelve sisters must find their own fortunes. Disguising herself as Clarence, a sailor, Princess Clarice intends to work her way to the New World. When the crew rebels, Clarice/Clarence, an expert with rapier and dagger, sides with the handsome navigator, Dominick, and kills the cruel captain. Dominick leads the now-outlawed crew in search of treasure in the secret pirate haven known as The House of Four Winds. They encounter the sorceress Shamal, who claims Dominick for her own—but Clarice has fallen hard for Dominick and won’t give him up without a fight. Full of swashbuckling adventure, buoyant magic, and irrepressible charm, The House of the Four Winds is a lighthearted fantasy romp by a pair of bestselling writers.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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11 comments

  1. I’ve been unfortunately disappointed with a lot of Lackey’s stuff lately–for series I actually liked! Collegium Chronicles were terrible, I couldn’t read the last few Elemental Masters, I couldn’t read her sequel to the Obsidian trilogy. I’m almost scared to pick up the Heirs of Alexandria sequel, but I’m hoping Flint & Freer kept the series on track. I know she can write great stuff, but where is it???

  2. I read the sequel to the Obsidian trilogy (also written with Mallory) and it was just awful. I mentioned the adverbs in my review, too. Must be a Mallory thing.

    • And I think a lot of these “Famous Author and Less Famous Author” collabs are mainly written by the latter, with the former adding her name to promote the book. So it may reflect his writing more than hers, though I’ve had trouble with hers sometimes as well. (But different trouble.)

      • Good to know. I’ve often wondered how that works. Maybe that’s why I struggle so much with the Pratchett/Baxter books.

  3. April /

    Hm. I liked this one. I didn’t think it was great literature but it read to me like a fairy tale and I had fun. I found it light-hearted and sweet.

  4. McGuffin letdowns annoy me so much. I mean, I know the object is kist kind of an excuse to have a plot, but it drives me nuts when not enough use is made of it. At a certain point you might as well have the characters toting around an empty box labeled Plot Device.

  5. We were discussing this at the bookstore this afternoon. We think the collaborations are hurting her; I think the sheer number of projects she is working on are hurting her because none of them get enough quality attention.

    Kelly, now I want to write a short story a la *The Maltese Falcon* where people chase after a strange box with an inscription no one can translate, and when they finally do it reads,”Plot Device.”

  6. Ouch! Though I rated this one considerably higher, I have to admit that I can’t disagree with your main points. I kind of handwaved the whole daughter/son issue since the story said outright that the problem wasn’t so much supporting them, it was providing dowries for them (though it could be argued that the amount it would have cost to train them in their respective fields of interest could have cost the same as a dowrie anyway).

    I was disappointed by two main things. One, the way the ending was a complete let-down, with a climax that leads up to… nothing happening and everyone finding themselves in another location. That felt a lot like the authors wrote themselves into a corner and couldn’t figure out how to resolve some things, so just decided to do away with the problem entirely. And two, the way the romance was handled. I’m sorry, but I’m of the opinion that anyone who can say, “I totally love you. I mistook it for friendship when I thought you were a dude, but now that I know you have ladyparts, I’m really in love with you and attracted to you,” ISN’T actually in love. Infatuation, maybe, or friendship plus sudden physical attraction, but that whole gender reveal was handled so painfully that I could not get behind it.

    I gave the book a pass because, for me, it was entiertaining and fluffy and light and exactly what I wanted to read at the time. Had I been in the mood for something darker and heavier… Well, I probably wouldn’t have picked up a Mercedes Lackey novel, then, really, because I read her books for lighter fare anyway. :p

  7. I’m glad I saw this review. It looked interesting and I hadn’t read much of anything by Lackey. So I was curious. The only reason I hadn’t bought it already is I was worried it would be too much of a romance novel.
    But it appears that I’m not missing much by not having read a lot of Lackey’s books.

  8. Kate, Mary Robinette-Kowal has pirates in her last book about the Glamourists. It isn’t Pride and Prejudice, but still…

  9. Mary Anderson /

    After the first trilogy by Lackey and Mallory, I gave up even trying to read anything else by this pair. Although I love her Valdemar series, Lackey seems to be spread too thin in tackling other novels. Perhaps she ought to stick to writing her own novels. The later books seem like they were written under her supervision, not actually by her.

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