I always liked this novel; Needham was getting into her stride much more, and the characterisation, particularly of Anastasia, the heroine, is much more believable. In some ways it is a continuation of Needham’s earlier Ruritanian novels featuring the Empire and Flavonia, but the two main characters are new although old friends do appear.
It is set in a landscape that when I went on a trip to the Danube delta, I recognised instantly. All of the action takes place in this watery maze of reed beds and willows, although I never saw a building like the House of the Paladin.
The story opens when Hugh Vallance, a distant scion of the house of Valens, the ruling family of Flavonia, arrives at the small town of Mairola on the border between Flavonia and the feudal duchy of Ornowitza. Hugh is an ordinary English boy – at Eton of course, living with his poverty stricken family in a country house in Sussex. Rather than travel to Vienna with his unpleasant travelling companion, he remains at Mairola and soon finds adventure in the form of a plot against the life of the young Duchess of Ornowitza.
Eleven-year-old Anastasia has recently been orphaned and is at the mercy of her sinister uncle the Marquis of Miglione, himself determined to be Duke. It is the characterisation of Anastasia – a child brought up in an environment of appalling brutality, all the worse by the vagueness of its description by Needham – that renders the novel of interest. She is proud, intelligent and exceptionally controlled, but her gradual breakdown in the face of her growing awareness of her perilous situation and essential powerlessness is extremely well written. She is not without allies however – Hugh does his best, but until he meets up with Dick Fauconbois (The Black Riders), he’s pretty much floundering. There is also Miss Tufton, Anastasia’s ex governess, fired by the Marquis for being too honest, an archetypal spinster devoted to her former charge.
Hugh, Dick and Anastasia make a number of plans to get Anastasia away from the island the House of the Paladin in built on, but something always intervenes to prevent them working. It is only with the aid of a deus ex machina in the form of Alexander, the young king of Flavonia (The Emerald Crown) that they achieve success.
The Marquis heads a trio of bad guys, who are much less well written. No one in their right mind would trust the Marquis as far as they could throw him, and the sadistic German governess who replaces Miss Tufton is almost comical in her awfulness. Dr Bastianovitch, the doctor who comes up with the scheme to poison Anastasia, is slightly more interesting in that he seems to consider letting her live and doing away with the Marquis instead, primarily because he finds her fascinating.
Still for her young readers, Needham wrote a stirring tale with a real degree of tension in it, and it was one that always left me wanting more.