Once more into the way back machine, Sherman!! And yes, I'm still offering a free copy of Rebirth for whoever can tell me what I'm referencing.
Fifth Quarter by Tanya Huff
Summary: I was going to write down the book blurb but it is stupid so you get my version instead. The first thing you should know is that this is the second in a series. The end is definitely a set up for No Quarter, but the first book need not be read in order to read this one. I thought about starting with Sing the Four Quarters, which was a good enough book on the caliber of take it on vacation and read it when the day is rainy. A good enough book so that I thought, eh. I'll get the sequel. The sequel blew the first book out of the water. Besides the fact that having just read a series religiously, and I don't feel like doing that again, I am focusing on Fifth Quarter and perhaps No Quarter because especially Fifth Quarter is what makes Tanya Huff so very Tanya Huff. More importantly, Fifth Quarter is a beautiful fusion fantasy book of fantasy and horror with Huff's trademark complications in romance and attraction. However, even though I believe you can skip the first book, I'll give a few pointers you learn in the first book.
In Shkoder, Bards hold powerful positions, either stationed or wandering. They sing the kigh--approximately the souls or the spirits--of the four quarters, or elements. When doing so they can ask the kigh to perform certain ways--rising up or settling down. While they live by a strict code, they may also sing to perform tasks like becoming invisible or compelling truth. Magic, yes. Good at math, no, as when they discover that humans have kigh--a soul or spirit--that they may be able to learn to sing to--they call this the "fifth quarter." In Sing the Four Quarters, the fifth quarter is theory, and not much discussed.
Now, Fifth Quarter, as the title suggests, is all about the fifth quarter. Vree, 21, and Bannon, 20, are sister and brother born and raised in the Havalkeen Imperial Army. Vree has always cared for Bannon. When their soldier mother died when she was seven, it was her job to tell Bannon. As orphans, they had the chance to become assassins--the best of the best. They become the best of the best assassins, trained as a team. Two bodies, one single purpose, they work in a complicated couples choreography for each kill. Once back in the army camp, Vree's life still revolves around Bannon in every possible way. Including eroticism. Bannon, however, a charismatic golden boy, lives his life surrounded by people and revolving around himsef.
On a mission only they could pull off, Vree catches up to Bannon to discover someone has stolen Bannon's body, and the only way to save his life is to take his kigh into her body. Not just a body swapping book, but a body double. Desperate to get Bannon's body back, they desert--a death sentence for an assassin. What they find is Gyhard in Bannon, a man whose kigh has been around the block plenty of times in plenty of bodies. They strike a deal. Vree, with her assassin abilities, will help Gyhard into an Imperial Prince the assassins have sworn to protect. Only the siblings plan on forcing Gyhard out before they have to turn to treason and Gyhard plans on having them killed once he can make it so.
Before the trio/duo make it to the prince, the real villain of the piece shows and steals the prince. Khars is rather sweet, and kind, ancient. If only in his insanity didn't choose his friends by raising the dead--Singing the Fifth to force a dead body's kigh back inside. He cares for his rotting, impaired children with gentleness and sorrow. Then he sees the prince. By those deep lashed, dark eyes, Khars knows he has finally found what he has been looking for--his heart. Now Gyhard knew Khars a few bodies back, and is torn up to find him alive and still torturing souls back into bodies. Gyhard needs to stop Khars. Vree and Bannon both follow Bannon's body and need to save the prince.
The characters are well drawn. Bannon and Vree, at the beginning of the book, only have each other--especially Vree. A study of their relationship if rife with nuance even before he ends up in her head and the distinction between the two begins to shred and blend. I'm wracking my brain, but I can't remember anyone take on incestuous feelings and reliances between equal siblings in Huff's honest way. Being Tanya Huff, yeah. That's sticky sweet hot with a twist up against a wall.
Gyhard and Vree's growing warmth relies on the fact neither one of them has had someone to be truly open with their entire lives(ssss). Meeting in raw honesty produces a heady attraction. I've said that I hate I-hate-you-so-I-love-you-so-I-hate-you relationships, but that isn't the way Vree and Gyhard are relating. Both of them want something. The something will cause the other's death. They are both business people on the concept of death. As they travel together, get to talk to each other like they haven't to anyone, and slowly merge to a goal, their affection, though awkward, feels natural.
One thing I absolutely love about Huff and it is in this series more than any other: her honest and absent use of same sex relationships. There is no stigma attached, and many appear to move back and forth between the sexes based on the individual relationship. The fact that it is such a NON issue makes it a) not feel like she's cramming an issue down our throats while b) being able to cram an issue down our throats. And I applaud her on this one.
Her army is also lovely in it's non sexist status. If she writes "the corporal", don't assume any gender until she writes the pronoun to go with it because that corporal is just as likely to be female as male.
The book could be honestly called a nonlinear. And we do know how much I love a nonlinear. She moves into sections of her characters' pasts not in past perfect or swimmy flashbacks and italics, but by ending a scene, and starting the next scene (she has really short scenes) in the past. The following scene will most likely be in someone's present, but not always.
A book in which two people in one body think to each other, especially as they slowly become more aware of each other's thoughts and dreams and emotions, able to take over movement of the body from each other till their selves shred--it is not an easy thing to do. She uses *thought* for when they are purposefully thinking to each other. Italics when Vree is just thinking to herself. It is quite clean and easy to follow, even as they descend into being each other.
I will complain that I felt her third omniscient view on top of all the thought dancing got awkward. I'm never a fan of jumping pov mid scene, and she jumped it all over the place. As much as I was engrossed in the material, I found this distracting and it sometimes pulled me out of the story. Especially in a story where within one character the pov may be switching, I felt as if I really didn't need any more switching around per scene.
I also accuse her of having a desperate "seems" problem. She uses the damn dumb word in what feels like every sentence. I will note I am nitpicking here, however, as I have read other books with as big seems problems and never mentioned it because I had way bigger things to talk about.
I did like the army. And I never say that. Armies bore me. I've never met an assassin that felt remotely realistic. Until now. I liked the highlights of how Vree and Bannon worked. I loved the detail they immediately knew. I liked the images of the army as a family to Vree and Bannon--all they had ever known. A great creature that their tiny selves made up a part of.
Now for the horror: Khars. He was meant to be a bard. He was tortured. His slim hold on reality slipped at some point and now death is his best friend. His zombies didn't lurch around with their arms out. Their brains appear intact. They knew they were dead. They could speak until their mouths or tongues rotted. I had to appreciate that. Not just the walking dead, but the way they slowly rotted around him--the woman holding her desiccated baby. The leg that snaps when the foot has worn away. Finally the guts rupture. This stuff is grotesque but made creepy because Khars truly loves his little family, and he descends the prince to near madness.
The horror and the fantasy blend seamlessly. They are both born out of the same basic concept which drives the entire book: the fifth quarter. The book has an apt name and a guiding concept which both allows her characters to be directed exactly where they need to go without breaking character, and gives the book a cohesive drive.