Closer to the Heart, by Mercedes Lackey

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Publication date – October 6, 2015

Summary: Herald Mags, Valdemar’s first official Herald Spy, is well on his way to establishing a coterie of young informants, not only on the streets of Haven, but in the kitchens and Great Halls of the highborn and wealthy as well.

The newly appointed King’s Own Herald, Amily, although still unsure of her own capability in that office, is doing fine work to support the efforts of Mags, her betrothed. She has even found a way to build an army of informants herself, a group of highly trained but impoverished young noblewomen groomed to serve the highborn ladies who live at Court, to be called “The Queens’s Handmaidens.”

And King Kyril has come up with the grand plan of turning Mags and Amily’s wedding into a low-key diplomatic event that will simultaneously entertain everyone on the Hill and allow him to negotiate behind the scenes with all the attending ambassadors―something which had not been possible at his son Prince Sedric’s wedding.

What could possibly go wrong?

The answer, of course, is “everything.”

For all is not well in the neighboring Kingdom of Menmellith. The new king is a child, and a pretender to the throne has raised a rebel army. And this army is―purportedly―being supplied with arms by Valdemar. The Menmellith Regency Council threatens war. With the help of a ragtag band of their unlikely associates, Mags and Amily will have to determine the real culprit, amass the evidence to convince the Council, and prevent a war nobody wants―

―and, somewhere along the way, get married.

Review: Stories about Mags seem to be Mercedes Lackey’s current passion when it comes to Valdemar, as there are currently two series involving this character in a central role. I don’t think any other character of hers can claim an equal amount of time in the spotlight, and previously, starting a new series in the Valdemar timeline, even if familiar characters were involved, typically switched to a new primary character or characters. I think the only other character who could come close to claiming that would be  The Herald Spy series in general offers a bit of a break from that tradition.

Which is fine enough, since Mags finds himself tangled up in numerous kingdom-changing issues. But for my part, I find Mags one of the least interesting Heralds to read about. Much of what he does seems small in comparison to things done by other characters in other novels. Vanyel was the most powerful and last Herald-Mage for a long time in Valdemar. Elspeth was central in bringing magic back to Valdemar. Even Karal, who mostly got caught up in events bigger than himself, was instrumental in saving the world from the backlash of a historical magical apocalypse. Mags? I think so far his biggest claim to fame is all in the title of the series: he’s a spy. He works in secret to uncover events and does his job in stopping enemies to the Crown.

Maybe this is what Lackey meant all those years ago when she said she’d someday write stories about a more typical Herald, one less involved with giant world-changing things.

Closer to the Heart is told from both Mags’s and Amily’s viewpoints. Amily, being King’s Own, is heavily involved with court intrigue, whereas Mags does his part to don disguises and ferret out wrongdoing in other parts of Haven. When word reaches them that a rebel force in a neighbouring kingdom is acquiring and stockpiling Valdemaran weapons somehow, it’s up to them to uncover the truth behind the plot. And that involves confronting some painful memories for Mags, as the mystery takes him back to the heart of mining country, where he was once enslaved.

That’s the meat of the plot. There are definitely side plots, as are typical in Valdemar stories, and mostly they consist of the little ways that Amily and Mags seek to make initiatives that can improve lives for people. Mags has his group of messengers that report anything odd to him, and makes connections with a neuroatypical man who has the uncanny ability to make anything. Amily gets involved in a program to train overlooked and underappreciated women as handmaidens, so that they’re offered opportunity for advancement and are also well-placed to be eyes-and-ears for additional wrongdoings amongst the nobility. Little steps toward social improvement, which are great, though I can only assume that at least whatever Amily set up with her handmaiden project doesn’t pan out in the long-run, because this is something that’s never mentioned in any form during books that take place further along on the Valdemar timeline.

All of this sounds like an interesting story with plenty of social commentary and the notion of small ideas that, with proper support, can change lives for the better. And on its own, this would be a pretty good book. Nothing amazing, but still enjoyable, the kind of book that makes for good comfort reading.

But this is the second book in the series that feels like a one-shot rather than a piece of something larger. In the first book, Amily and Mags foil a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque plot that could have resulted in noble families warring or else being utterly destroyed. In this book, they foil a plot that might have seen Valdemar and Menmellith go to war over someone’s dislike of a political situation. And that’s it. Unlike the first series starring Mags, where each book generally told a contained story and yet contained hints of a larger overarching story to come, the Herald Spy series has so far just been a couple of self-contained stories with no connection to each other beyond characters and linear sequence. There’s nothing to tie them together. There’s no hint that Amily and Mags are part of anything larger than any other Herald, which begs the question of why are we reading about them? Yes, Heralds do wonderful things and, for many readers, have an element of wish fulfillment (I’m sure most Valdemar fans have contemplated being Heralds at some point), but there’s nothing here that’s made me go, “Ah, yes, this is why we’re reading about these two instead of, say, Jakyr or Lena or even Dia.” Who are all doing their own important things too.

I’ll be honest; while I enjoyed this book as I was reading it, and felt the usual comfort I get from diving back into Valdemar, a mere two weeks after finishing it, I couldn’t remember what happened. I had no touchpoint. I couldn’t think of what happened in Closer to Home and remind myself that the story established there continued on. And that’s its biggest downfall. Closer to the Heart is adrift, with no plot connections to tie it to anything else that’s happened previously. It doesn’t feel like part of an actual series. On its own, taken as a one-shot that happens after the Collegium Chronicles, it would be a pretty good and enjoyable story, because you don’t expect it to tie into anything else. But in context, knowing that it’s part of a series, it comes across poorly, with no central plot arc to bring it all together, and I’m left mostly with the impression that Mags’s story would probably have been best ended after the final book in the Collegium Chronicles.

I hate to have such a mixed opinion of a Valdemar novel. They’ve brought me so much comfort and enjoyment through my life, and even now I’ll still reread trilogies I’ve already read a dozen times over, because I enjoy them that much. I like many of the themes the books address, like social justice, optimism, the ideal that those who have authority over us are held to higher standards. Those things will always appeal to me, even in my darkest times, because they give me hope that great things can arise from the darkness and then thrive. But I’m starting to feel burned out on Valdemar, because the past few books have offered me very little in that regard. The elements are still there, but it feels more superficial, like there isn’t really a story that needs to be told anymore. I’m not going to say it’s just a cash-grab, because maybe the sequel to this book will surprise me by being a masterful showpiece of how disparate story elements can come together if you’re patient, but even so, a multi-book slow burn is a lot to ask of readers, and the books about Mags have held none of the excitement I came to expect from the Valdemar novels over the years. Not since Foundation, anyway.

You can argue that this series is all about personal growth, but really, other characters in other series manage personal growth just fine, and they do so while being part of a larger story. Also, you don’t see much personal growth from them. You see social development and the implementation of ideas more than you see any development in either Mags or Amily’s characters.

In the end, I’m of the opinion that Closer to the Heart is okay, but don’t expect much from it. It’s got a message of hope to it, and it’s interesting to see Mags confront the idea that a mining community can be anything but what he experienced of it, but it’s a story best appreciated for its surface elements and not for what you may hope lies underneath. And also best taken out of context and respected for being the one-shot it really is, rather than part of a series.

2 comments on “Closer to the Heart, by Mercedes Lackey

  1. Ria, this line in the review chilled me as a writer: “. . . a mere two weeks after finishing it, I couldn’t remember what happened. I had no touchpoint.”

    No touchpoint. For all the blah, blah, blah in many writing books and posts re theme and resonance (and more blah, blah, blah!) in a few words, you motivate any writer worth the name to bring it home. To rattle the reader’s bones. A cautionary tale (which this review is) motivates with a vengeance. Brava!

  2. Pingback: Fantasy & Sci-Fi: Highlights of the Week #5 - J.A. Alexsoo

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