The Duke's Ballad by Andre Norton
Series: Witch World #31: The Estcarp Cycle #10
Published by Tor/Forge on January 1, 2005
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Born into a family with magical powers, Aisling is a young witch who fights to protect her homeland of Kars. Unfortunately, the biggest threat to Kars is her older brother, Kirion, who has chosen to use his powers for evil, and years ago forced Aisling into exile.
Since Aisling’s departure, Kirion has tightened his hold on Shastro, the Duke of Kars. Through Shastro, Kirion’s dark influence works to subjugate the entire realm.
With her younger brother Keelan helping her, Aisling returns, in disguise, to undermine Kirion’s power and defeat the evil duke. But as Aisling gets closer to Shastro, the Duke takes a liking to her, and she finds herself questioning her mission. But when a neighboring clan lays siege to Kars, Aisling and Keelan realize they must act, lest Kirion bring even more death and suffering to Kars’ loyal subjects than he has already caused.
Using all the magic, persistence and ingenuity she can summon, Aisling must somehow find a way to avoid the attention of her dangerous older brother, save the people from his murderous sorcery, and return to their Dukedom the peace and prosperity it once knew.
*Note* This review has spoilers for Ciara’s Song. I suggest you read Ciara’s Song before reading this review.
It’s no secret: I’m a huge Andre Norton fan. I’ve really enjoyed all of her works that I’ve read but my biggest Andre Norton obsession is her Witch World series. I have been reading and collecting this series for decades.
The Duke’s Ballad is set about five (5) years after the final events in Ciara’s Song.
Ciara’s Song ended with Aisling and her cat Wind Dancer fleeing from her blood-magic sorcerer brother, Kirion. Kirion wants to drain Aisling of her magic – he feels this will allow him to achieve great power. In order to escape, Aisling became an exile over mountain in Escore. While in Escore Aisling makes friends and is taught how to use her power but her heart years for Karsten and her home, Aiskeep.
During the years of Aisling’s absence, Kirion has consolidated his power greatly. Kirion is now the only advisor to the Duke of Kars, Shastro. He has wealth and power but he wants more. Kirion wants to become the greatest sorcerer the world has known – and to do this he wants to drain the life and power from his hated sister, Aisling. Kirion has been killing and draining people with the most minor of power in their blood for years but he’s been unable to put his hands on someone with true power. Like his sister. Kirion has also been using his power to slowly encourage the Duke, Shastro, into believing that the witches of Estcarp were plotting against him. This allows Kirion to kill even more people “looking for witches” and allows Kirion to make small forays into Estcarp looking for victims.
But Estcarp is not alone. Escore is full of people displaced from Karsten during the Three Times Horning. If a war were to break out between Karsten and Estcarp, Escore would get involved – crushing Karsten. So the power places Aisling under a geas: sister against brother for the soul of their land. Aisling must destroy Kirion and Shastro before the pair cause a war that will destroy all that Aisling holds dear.
Aisling and Wind Dancer return to Karsten to put a stop to Kirion and Shastro. They in joined in this quest by Aisling’s brother Keelan and Hadrann, the son and heir of another trusted keep, Aranskeep.
In order to stop Kirion and Shastro, Aisling is magically disguised so that she, Keelan and Hadrann are able to enter the Kars court. The four conspirators infiltrate the court, learning that Kirion and Shastro are worse than previously expected. Kirion has been magically coercing different women of the court into having [unwanted] sexual relationships with Duke Shastro. Shastro has also been torturing people – “witches” from Estcarp come to spy on him – and he enjoys this. The pair has also been causing the deaths of the leaders of other keeps across Karsten. Shastro and Kirion think to weaken these keeps in order to continue to reign unchecked and to eventually take the keeps’ land and wealth. A lot of these deaths are shrilly demanded by Shastro as his paranoia (induced by Kirion) makes him believe that all are after him and his power.
The Duke’s Ballad is a simple and yet complicated book. With the exception of Kirion, even the the bad guys garner some sympathy. Kirion, of course, is the “big bad” who’s only motivation is a lust for death, destruction and power.
The Duke’s Ballad is not an action filled book – and though things are urgent, the pacing is slow. Although the outcome of the events in The Duke’s Ballad technically place The Duke’s Ballad into “epic fantasy” territory, I feel the pacing really disguises that epic-ness. Unlike most books in the Witch World series, The Duke’s Ballad has a lot more political machinations instead of Norton’s typically more action-based plot-lines. I would categorize The Duke’s Ballad as more of a “slice of life” story. Norton’s careful writing makes the book feel very intimate and the pacing of the story de-emphasizes the magnitude of the book’s quest. This combination allows for a very comforting but yet exciting read (for me).
I do recommend this book (and all books written by Andre Norton)!