Musical magic seems to have been a Thing in the 80s and early 90s, with examples by such giants of the genre as Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey. I’ve picked a slightly less well known book by Tanya Huff, that’s a pretty much perfect high fantasy example.
His tone picked up an edge. “I’d have to say you act exactly like a princess: high-handed, always wanting your own way, always assuming you’re right and everyone else is wrong.”
“I don’t always assume I’m right,” Annice protested. “It just usually turns out that I am, and oh, center it, I knew it was going to rain.”
Annice is a bard, and her job is to walk the length and breadth of the kingdom, hearing and delivering news, and to Sing one or all of the four quarters (air, earth, fire and water) — using the magic of the music to affect the world around her. But she wasn’t always a bard — Annice gave up a life of luxury as a princess to join the bard community, angering her brother the King, who disinherited her and declared that if she ever married or had children, it would be an act of treason. And now Annice is accidentally pregnant.
From this controversial setup, things just get worse for Annice and the people around her: the other bards are implicated by failing to disclose her pregnancy to the King, the father of her unborn child is falsely accused of treason and sentenced to death, and behind everything there’s a dastardly plot that puts the whole kingdom in danger. At each part of the story, many characters are labouring under misapprehensions about the others’ actions and motivations, but the book is so well plotted that this is never confusing or overwhelming.
The magic comes from the Kigh, elemental spirits that respond to the bards’ singing. Their presence in the world is natural, and they behave like little fickle ghosts, mostly helpful but sometimes uncooperative, which makes the magic system, and the bards who practise it, more realistic.
Annice spends most of the book pregnant, which is unusual in a fantasy novel. I was relieved to discover that she doesn’t merely swan around in a healthy maternal glow: she gets stretch marks, her ankles swell and she has awful morning sickness, but tries to power through it, and gets frustrated when her body won’t let her do the things that she wants.
And we soon discover that Annice isn’t used to not doing the things she wants! One of the most satisfying parts of the story was watching her relationships with other people slowly change from her railroading them into her schemes, to more equal partnerships of compromise and reconciliation. And even when she’s being extremely difficult, it’s usually for a good reason, so that you’re always rooting for her (even though you sympathise with her friends’ frustration). Not only are the characters really well imagined, but their relationships and reactions to each other are beautifully thought out: complex and often difficult, but always completely believable.
I loved every aspect of this book, and it’s one of the strongest high fantasy books I’ve read for a while.