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I'm trying to remember the title of a series of books that I read in High School (in English) in the early 1990's. They were in my school library, so they were likely young adult, although I don't specifically remember them being YA, I also don't think that the books had much or any explicit swearing or sex in them.

This was a short series of four books, I think (although it might have been five).

The title of the series might have been something like “The Masters of the Seven Keys”, although I don’t think that’s quite right. In it, the main character has some reason to go on a quest to find seven wizards and persuade or steal from them their keys, literally the keys to their immortality. One of the wizards had long ago destroyed by traps in an ancient ruined city, and his bodiless spirit haunted the city. Another wizard is a woman who rules a country where gender roles are reversed.

Generally the kid had to perform some sort of task to get the key from a wizard.

There’s also a scene in a swamp or something where they are stealing flowers (or drugs? Maybe honey?) and the ship is swaddled in thick nets – there are giant poisonous deadly hornets flying around that you have to hurry to avoid. I think their name might have been something like “The Zzzumm”, because of the sound that they made once you awoke their nests.

I also vaguely feel that the ending was bittersweet, although that's more of a general feeling rather than any specific memory of the plot.

That's about all that I remember, I don't recall why the young male hero was questing for the keys, or why it took four books to collect the seven keys, but something about the series has stuck with me and I'd really like to rediscover it.

  • I rather doubt it is the answer, but interestingly Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age; Or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer has a story-within-a-story that fits this description very well overall, though not exactly right on some details. – dmckee Jul 26 '17 at 19:27
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The Seven Citadels, 1987, by Geraldine Harris (TVTropes page). A pretty decent review can be found here.

Foreign armies and royal feuds threaten the Empire of Galkis. Darkness and destruction lie ahead unless the Galkians rescue their savior, who, according to ancient myths, is trapped somewhere behind seven locked gates. Prince Kerish-lo-Taan, the Emperor's favorite son, makes a big decision: to leave the safety of Galkis and take his half-brother Forollkin on a dangerous quest for the legendary savior. First, Kerish and Forollkin must find the Seven Sorcerers who guard the keys to the gates. Can Kerish's Godborn powers help him avoid peril, and capture the golden keys?

TVTropes mentions the Bittersweet Ending under that trope:

More like "bitter with a tiny tinge of sweetness". Galkis falls to the invaders, Forollkin and the surviving members of the imperial house flee into exile across the sea, and Kerish himself dies of exhaustion and thirst just as he reaches his goal. The only silver lining is that Kerish chooses to be reborn and become the saviour of Galkis, rather than to ascend to eternal happiness in the afterlife. Incidentally, Harris wrote an epilogue that gives a more hopeful view of the future, but it was not published in the book.

The insects are named "zzaga" and show up in the second book, The Children of the Wind, which is set in the marshes of Lan-Pin-Fria:

Where there were gauza orchids there were zzaga: brilliant black and green insects, each the size of a man's fist, and with a deadly sting.

The gender-reversed land is Seld, "which is ruled by women, while men are expected to be pretty, made-up concubines."

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    I found this near the bottom of the first page searching for book series "seven wizards" keys. – FuzzyBoots Jul 26 '17 at 19:03
  • In retrospect, maybe I should have known this immediately due to scifi.stackexchange.com/a/45080/23243 – FuzzyBoots Jul 26 '17 at 19:07
  • YES! That must be it!!! Thank you very much @FuzzyBoots!! – Alex Bates Jul 26 '17 at 19:30

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