Closer to the Chest, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 4, 2016

Summary: Herald Mags, the King of Valdemar’s Herald-Spy, has been developing a clandestine network of young informants who operate not only on the streets of the capital city of Haven, but also in the Great Halls and kitchens of the wealthy and highborn. In his own established alternate personas, Mags observes the Court and the alleys alike, quietly gathering information to keep Haven and the Kingdom safe.

His wife Amily, is growing into her position as the King’s Own Herald, though she is irritated to encounter many who still consider her father, Herald Nikolas, to be the real King’s Own. Nonetheless, she finds it increasingly useful to be underestimated, for there are dark things stirring in the shadows of Haven and up on the Hill. Someone has discovered many secrets of the women of the Court and the Collegia—and is using those secrets to terrorize and bully them. Someone is targeting the religious houses of women, too, leaving behind destruction and obscene ravings.

But who? Someone at the Court? A disgruntled Palace servant? One of the members of the Collegia? Someone in the patriarchal sect of the god Sethor? Could the villain be a woman? And what is this person hoping to achieve? It isn’t blackmail, for the letters demand nothing; the aim seems to be the victims’ panic and despair. But why?

Mags and Amily take steps to minimize the damage while using both magic and wits to find the evildoer. But just as they appear to be on the verge of success, the letter-writer, tires of terror and is now out for blood.

Mags and Amily will have to track down someone who leaves few clues behind and thwart whatever plans have been set in motion, and quickly—before terror turns to murder.

Review: This is, I think, the eighth book to focus on Herald Mags. Which is a lot of books. Especially when you consider that a good amount of the first 5 consisted of him participating in entire chapters worth of sportsball Kirball. But compared to previous entries in the Herald-Spy series, at least, I think this one’s the best. It’s still not fantastic, it has quite a few issues, but the whole thing has a general feeling somewhat akin to that I got from Take a Thief. I feel like I’m actually reading about people dealing with complex issues and moral dilemmas and an uncertain situation, rather than feeling like I’m reading about an entirely foregone conclusion but am just waiting for the “twist” ending to occur.

In Closer to the Chest, we start the story with a new religious sect coming to Haven, one that focuses on a primary male deity and has definite ideas about the place of women in society. (Read: women are subservient to men.) Then women start getting letters from someone eventually nicknamed Poison Pen, letters which tell these women in no uncertain terms that they ought to stop stealing jobs and honour from the men who should rightfully have them, that they should die or have unspeakable things done to them to make them behave as proper women should, that they should under no circumstances ever make a man think he might get somewhere and then not put out. Religious orders run by women start to be attacked and vandalized.

I wonder if there’s a connection…

It’s not hard to see where Lackey took her inspiration for this story. You basically have to exist on the Internet these days to know that there’s that exact problem here, with men feeling like their place has been usurped by upstart women, that women need to be more compliant with male sexual desire, all that. Transplanting modern world issues into fantasy novels isn’t unheard of, or even rare, and sometimes that helps get the point across to people who are on the fence about something. Seeing the same thing play out without any real-world entanglements can clarify and condense an issue and help people understand what’s really going on. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

But I think success or failure depends largely on presentation, and the presentation of this is far from subtle. This is something I’ve noticed about some of Lackey’s more recent novels: the moral message is blatant and strong, with no shades of grey, and occasionally to the point where it makes no sense in the context of the book itself. Fortunately the events in Closer to the Chest do make sense, and I can’t fault Lackey for taking a standpoint on this issues at hand, but it’s very heavy-handed. It’s easy to connect the new patriarchal religion with the misogyny in the letters. That part of the story’s mystery was no mystery at all; the only interesting part about that was the clear and definite statement that plenty of people in Valdemar who aren’t Heralds, Healers, or Bards can have Gifts, and watching Mags try to wrap his head around this idea was amusing. But the revelation that the Sethorite temple is at the heart of things?

Let’s just say I don’t consider that a spoiler, since it’s obvious from the get-go.

To Lackey’s credit, there’s more than just a basic transplantation of real-world issues here. She takes care to show that incidents can and do escalate if someone is fanatical enough: someone getting angry letters now might find themselves in real physical danger later on. She shows the lengths that people will go to in order to convince others of their cause, talking circles and defying logic (for instance, women are destroying their own shops because said shops were secretly failing and the women want an easy way out and sympathy from their neighbours, never mind that those last two things are far from guaranteed, and multiple women doing the same thing in close succession, all to the same purpose, where none did so before, is suspicious and doesn’t track with that explanation). She talks at length about the potential danger of denying harassers their chance to harass, debating whether or not the person in question will get bored if they don’t see reactions from people, or whether they will escalate to bring the reactions back. Closer to the Chest may have its faults, but I’m very grateful that it presented the situation as being actually dangerous, and that the solution wasn’t, “Just ignore them and they’ll go away.”

So unlike the previous two Herald-Spy novels, where the situations dealt with were dangerous in the sense of, “Things are happening that may result in war but then don’t,” Closer to the Chest deals with something is very small in scope but ends up being very hard-hitting. I never felt any actual threat from the situations in the previous two books, nor any real tension. They were problems to be solved that had potentially large consequences, but I never actually felt anything in regard to them. The books felt like the author tried to do something with far-reaching consequences and just didn’t succeed. But here, possibly because of my own experience with harassment, I felt the potential consequences. Valdemar as a Kingdom wouldn’t be changed, but the story was more about the people than the Kingdom, as opposed to Closer to Home and Closer to the Heart, which were also about people but people whose doings could apparently have Kingdom-wide disasters follow in their wake. It’s been said in previous novels that Valdemar is the people, not the land, and here I really felt that in a way that’s been absent in more recent readings, and it was great to feel it once again.

It’s also here that the running theme of this series becomes apparent. I complained in my review of Closer to the Heart that it and the book before it just felt like standalones masquerading as a series, since they had nothing in common with each other besides the main characters. But here, the pattern emerges. All three books involve fanaticism and the dangerous lengths people will go to achieve their goals. Closer to Home had a young man ready and willing to kill two noble houses to avoid getting married. Closer to the Heart had a man attempting to start a war because he didn’t agree with another country’s politics. Closer to the Chest has someone trying to avenge the death of his pedophile brother by ruining the lives of any and all women. That doesn’t make me like the previous two books more, but it does make me actually curious to see what’s done in any future books in this series, rather than anticipate them with a feeling of vague dread and preemptive disappointment.

I don’t enjoy Lackey’s books as much as I used to. It’s difficult to tell whether the change is in me, her storytelling, or a bit of both. But I enjoyed Closer to the Chest more than I expected to, despite its moments of unsubtle moralizing, and it made me feel a renewed interest in the series as a whole. That alone is something to be grateful for, so far as I’m concerned. As I said in the beginning of this review, it’s not a fantastic book, and it does have its problems. But it was a decent book, enjoyable and relatable, and after some initial awkwardness, I was happy to keep reading it.

(received for review from the publisher.)

Closer to the Heart, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
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.

November Wrap-Up

See, I told you there’d still be updates to this place.

I’ve decided that the best way to do this is regular end-of-the-month posts with a list of what I’ve read during the past month, with appropriate mini-reviews of links to full reviews if what I’ve read has been a reread (or if I’ve written a full review because what I read was so amazing that I couldn’t not talk about it).

But first…

Other Stuff

So what have I been doing with my life since I stopped focusing so much on book reviews? Well, other than still reading some great books, I’ve been trying to put a little more focus on self-care, and allow myself time to do other relaxing things (like playing video games, for instance, or making things) without feeling guilty for doing so, like I was wasting time that could better be used for reading new books and writing reviews about them. So there’s that.

But my main purpose for cutting so far back on reviews was writing, and that’s been a big focus this past month. November is NaNoWriMo, and the challenge for me in recent years hasn’t been getting the wordcount (I wrote NaNo’s 50,000 words in 12 days once), but in sticking to a story and finishing something.

I…didn’t do either of those things this past month. I met the wordcount goal, but only through working on two different projects, both of which are half-finished.

But the second project I worked on was much more enjoyable than the first (which felt stale and boring very quickly), and come December I want to do the same challenge again. 50,000 words in a month. With luck, I ought to be able to get the rest of Project 2’s story out, and then spend some time in the editing phase, of things, trying to make it better and possibly maybe hopefully be of publishable quality in the end.

So that’s what November has been like for me. Now onto…

The Books

The Whitefire Crossing, by Courtney Schafer
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Summary: Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He”s in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it’s easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel – where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark – into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.

But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution – and he”ll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.

Yet the young mage is not the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other – or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel.

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Tainted City, by Courtney Schafer
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Summary: Dev is a desperate man. After narrowly surviving a smuggling job gone wrong, he’s now a prisoner of the Alathian Council, held hostage to ensure his friend Kiran — former apprentice to one of the most ruthless mages alive — does their bidding.

But Kiran isn’t Dev’s only concern. Back in his home city of Ninavel, the child he once swore to protect faces a terrible fate if he can’t reach her in time, and the days are fast slipping away. So when the Council offers Dev freedom in exchange for his and Kiran’s assistance in a clandestine mission to Ninavel, he can’t refuse, no matter how much he distrusts their motives.

Once in Ninavel the mission proves more treacherous than even Dev could have imagined. Betrayed by allies, forced to aid their enemies, he and Kiran must confront the darkest truths of their pasts if they hope to save those they love and survive their return to the Tainted City.

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Labyrinth of Flame, by Courtney Schafer
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Summary: Dev’s never been a man afraid of a challenge. Not only has he kept his vow to his dead mentor, rescuing a child in the face of impossible odds, but he’s freed his mage friend Kiran from both the sadistic master who seeks to enslave him and the foreign Council that wants to kill him.

But Kiran’s master Ruslan is planning a brutal revenge, one that will raze an entire country to blood and ashes. Kiran is the key to stopping Ruslan; yet Kiran is dying by inches, victim of the Alathian Council’s attempt to chain him. Worse yet, Dev and Kiran have drawn the attention of demons from the darkest of ancient legends. Demons whose power Dev knows is all too real, and that he has every reason to fear.

A fear that grows, as he and Kiran struggle to outmaneuver Ruslan and uncover the secrets locked in Kiran’s forgotten childhood. For the demons are playing their own deadly game–and the price of survival may be too terrible to bear.

Review: Full review to come. But in a nutshell, this is one of the best series I’ve read, with the most satisfying ending that I’ve encountered in a very long time, and also it holds the honour of being the first book to actually give me a book hangover. I don’t usually get those. This book gave me one. It was freaking amazing!

Arrows of the Queen, by Mercedes Lackey
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Summary: A KINGDOM IMPERILED!

Chosen by the Companion Rolan, a mystical horse-like being with powers beyond imagining, Talia, once a run-away, has now become a trainee Herald, destined to become one of the Queen’s own elite guard. For Talia has certain awakening talents of the mind that only a Companion like Rolan can truly sense.

But as Talia struggles to master her unique abilities, time is running out. For conspiracy is brewing in Valdemar, a deadly treason which could destroy Queen and kingdom. Opposed by unknown enemies capable of both diabolical magic and treacherous assassination, the Queen must turn to Talia and the Heralds for aid in protecting the realm and insuring the future of the Queen’s heir, a child already in danger of becoming bespelled by the Queen’s own foes!

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler
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Summary: Alice always thought fairy tales had happy endings. That–along with everything else–changed the day she met her first fairy

When Alice’s father goes down in a shipwreck, she is sent to live with her uncle Geryon–an uncle she’s never heard of and knows nothing about. He lives in an enormous manor with a massive library that is off-limits to Alice. But then she meets a talking cat. And even for a rule-follower, when a talking cat sneaks you into a forbidden library and introduces you to an arrogant boy who dares you to open a book, it’s hard to resist. Especially if you’re a reader to begin with. Soon Alice finds herself INSIDE the book, and the only way out is to defeat the creature imprisoned within.

It seems her uncle is more than he says he is. But then so is Alice.

Review: I don’t often read much mid-grade fiction, but Django Wexler really caught my attention with this book involving libraries, cats, and mystery. It follows the story of Alice, who has recently lost her father to a mysterious accident and now lives with her uncle, a strange and private old man who seems somewhat obsessed with books. Alice gets the opportunity to dig deeper into her father’s death and finds herself drawn into books and worlds that she never imagined, trying to stay alive while she unravels the multilayered mystery that keeps unfolding.

It has much of the sensible fantastical charm of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series, which I love, only with less of a fairy tale feel about it. Most of this comes from Ashes the cat, which, as a cat owner, fits so perfectly. The story moves along quickly, has good humour, and happily contains plenty of vocab-building for the age-range the book is intended for, which is something I love seeing in fiction targeted to younger people. I can easily imagine myself finding this when I was 10 or 11 and just devouring it, and even as an adult I found the mystery compelling and the pacing perfect to draw me along.

Alice is a great character, too, being neither the prim little girl who is the epitome of every early 1900s manners guide, nor the rebellious-for-the-sake-of-rebellion high-spirited troublemaker that often seems to be the counterpart to the former. She follows the rules and does what she’s told, but when push comes to shove she’ll make her own decisions and won’t just obey because someone older tells her what to do. I do dislike the whole, “She could be the most powerful Reader ever” bit, largely because “the most powerful anything ever” trope is quite stale at this point (can’t we just have someone who’s decently talented without needing to go over the top with it?), but it does help some that she doesn’t achieve things effortlessly, she often makes mistakes, and some things are learning experiences without having some great moral lesson attached to them.

So in a nutshell, this is a mid-grade historical fantasy series that’s fun, has an interesting plot, and the commentary on books makes me grin. Definitely a series I want to read the rest of, if I get the chance.

(Received in exchange for an honest review.)

Legacies, by Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill

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Lackey’s website | Edghill’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 6, 2010

Summary: Who—or what—is stalking the students at Oakhurst Academy?

In the wake of the accident that killed her family, Spirit White is spirited away to Oakhurst Academy, a combination school and orphanage in the middle of Montana. There she learns she is a legacy—not only to the school, which her parents also attended, but to magic.

All the students at Oakhurst have magical powers, and although Spirit’s hasn’t manifested itself yet, the administrators insist she has one. Spirit isn’t sure she cares. Devastated by the loss of her family, she finds comfort with a group of friends: Burke Hallows, Lachlann Spears, Muirin Shae, and Adelaide Lake.

But something strange is going on at Oakhurst. Students start disappearing under mysterious circumstances, and the school seems to be trying to cover it up. Spirit and her friends must find out what’s happening—before one of them becomes the next victim…

Thoughts: If you read the description and think this sounds like Harry Potter for teens, you’re not far off the mark. It’s hard to avoid comparisons to that series when part of your premise is, “Person goes to a school for magic-users.” Doubly so when your main character is an orphan. So that colours the interpretation of the book right from the get-go; it’s just impossible to avoid.

That being said, there are plenty of departures from that concept that make accusations of it being derivative pretty much pointless. I can think of a handful of books that share similar starting points. That doesn’t make them all Harry Potter clones.

(Speaking of being derivative, though, I do feel compelled to mention that characters using guns loaded with rock salt seemed lifted wholesale from Supernatural. A clever idea, and I’m sure it’s been done elsewhere as well, but given that I personally saw it done first on that show, it seemed like a bit of a stale idea.)

The story follows Spirit White, and if that name causes you to roll your eyes, just know that it does the same thing for Spirit herself. After her parents and younger sister died in a tragic car crash, she found herself to be a Legacy, someone with a place at Oakhurst Academy. At least one of her parents attended school there, and due to a not-at-all-creepy policy, the school keeps track of all their former students and makes arrangements for their children should anything similarly tragic happen. Oakhurst, as you could tell from previous comments, is a school specifically for children who can do magic, so yes, you have a boarding school full of magic orphans. But students keep disappearing from Oakhurst. Not often, just a few a year. Most of the students accept this as a fact of life. Some troubled kids run away, so find their fortunes elsewhere. Nobody thinks twice about it. They have enough to do. But a suspicious Spirit and her friends think there’s more to it, and so set out to find out what’s happening to the missing Oakhurst students.

The biggest problem with this book is that it feels like half a novel. Spirit and friends do get to the bottom of why the students disappeared, but that felt more like a single episode of a TV show rather than a complete story arc. There were hints dropped of a much larger plot, one that seemed far more interesting than what everyone else was dwelling on. Why the headmaster of the school has a split personality, going from yelling tyrant to kindly doddering old man depending on the scene. Why, after what seems like a fairly routine disappearance, everyone starts acting like a war is beginning A war may be beginning, but those disappearances were either related to the Wild Hunt plotline, or else that whole plotline (and thus over half the novel) was a diversion and just pure coincidence. Why Spirit’s magic doesn’t manifest.

Why nobody seems to have put together that for a parent to have gone to Oakhurst in the first place, all of their family must have died too, leaving this giant bloody trail across generations.

So while the story and the twists on lore were interesting, it felt unsatisfactory and incomplete. And that was quite a let-down. Likely it was done as sequel-bait, leaving some dangling plot-threads to be picked up later, and I’m sure this book will appeal to people looking for some supernatural adventure involving kids with tragic pasts in an elite boarding school. As fluff fiction goes, it really wasn’t that bad. But I did expect more from it, especially with the tantalizing hints that were being dropped.

Another thing I do want to point out is that this book suffered from some weird assumptions and editing mistakes. Assumption-wise, I’m referring largely to a throw-away scene in which a character talks about creating holy water, and how it’s easy to make because really it just involves water being blessed by a believer. And Spirit’s thoughts essentially go, “Huh, I didn’t know he was a Christian.” At no point was a specific religion brought into it, and blessed water exists as part of different practices in multiple non-Christian religions. So it was a weird assumption, and I’m not sure if it speaks more to character bias or author bias. Could go either way.

As for editing mistakes… Oakhurst was refered to as Oakdale at one point. Spirit’s little sister, Phoenix, was called by the nickname Fee once, at the very end of the book, and after Spirit has thought about her dozens of times through the novel. This is the sort of stuff I expect to be caught in the editing stage of a book, and here, it just slipped by. And before anyone asks, no, it wasn’t an ARC or an uncorrected proof that I read. It was a finished release copy. These errors made it to the final version. Small, and also easy to ignore because they don’t affect the story, but they speak of poor quality control.

So overall? A decent YA adventure. It had its problems, but it was still pretty fun to read, and I’ll probably continue with the rest of the series just to see how the larger story plays out. But after this introduction, I don’t expect great things from it. I expect some fun, some quick reads, and a story that entertains but it largely forgettable, a take-it-or-leave-it series that is neither meant to nor does it leave an impact. Good for passing the time, good for those looking for some comfort fiction, but not for those looking for a book to really wow them.

Closer to Home, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 24, 2014

Summary: Mags was once an enslaved orphan living a harsh life in the mines, until the King’s Own Herald discovered his talent and trained him as a spy. Now a Herald in his own right, at the newly established Heralds’ Collegium, Mags has found a supportive family, including his Companion Dallen.

Although normally a Herald in his first year of Whites would be sent off on circuit, Mags is needed close to home for his abilities as a spy and his powerful Mindspeech gift. There is a secret, treacherous plot within the royal court to destroy the Heralds. The situation becomes dire after the life of Mags’ mentor, King’s Own Nikolas, is imperiled. His daughter Amily is chosen as the new King’s Own, a complicated and dangerous job that is made more so by this perilous time. Can Mags and Amily save the court, the Heralds, and the Collegium itself?

Thoughts: Even though I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the last 5-book Valdemar set, figuring that it could have been cut down to 4 books if there weren’t as many long descriptions of sports games or copy-and-past flashbacks from previous books, I still knew that I was going to end up reading the latest book in the very large series, Closer to Home. It was still a Valdemar novel, and even if some of the stories haven’t impressed me, the world probably always will. As with the Collegium Chronicles books, Closer to Home still centres largely around Mags, with the addition of more chapters from Amily’s viewpoint, which was good to see as a bit of variation.

There’s a bit of a double meaning going on with the title. Closer to Home represents both how Mags and Amily are a step closer to settling into their lives and roles as adults and finding themselves at peace with the situation, and also incorporates the struggle of handling problems at your doorstep instead of the far-flung or nation-wide issues that were the focus of previous novels. ‘Potential’ is the name of the game, as this book deals very much with the role of women in Haven and through Valdemaran society in general, and whether or not their wants are determined by actual personal desire or by ignorance of anything else. It’s a complex issue, one that sometimes it seems Lackey is trying to present as complex while also trying to simplify it to an either-or debate. The argument came down to a lot of agreeing that much of it was determined by upbringing and awareness of potential, with also a lot of shrugging and saying, “You can’t win ’em all,” when it came to actually doing anything about those views. Given that it took the intervention of the King to stop one man from marrying off a daughter who didn’t want to marry and to make sure she got additional education that might awaken interest in other avenues, it’s clear that the society has a long way to go.

It does, to its benefit, ask some of the hard questions. Aside from asking why women can’t do things that men do, or why they’re only treated as marriage prospects, it also addresses class difference, asking why common workers don’t get the same benefits afforded highborns when it comes to rights and privilege. It was a question that ultimately had no answer, except to say that it was simply a matter of time and resources; there weren’t enough people with enough eyes on the comings and goings of everyday folk whereas the rich and titled had eyes on them all the time, so what they did was more visible and easier to address. It’s an unsatisfactory answer, but to its credit, it was realistic for the setting, and at least the question was asked, openly and boldly, instead of being hinted at vaguely and hoping that someone, somewhere, would pay attention to it.

Looking at this book on its own, out of context from the series whole, it could easily be taken that the book is trying to just handwave a serious issue by declaring, “Eh, we can save a few but not all, and that’s good enough for now.” And I suspect that a lot of people probably got annoyed at that. In context with the rest of the series, however, and keeping in mind that this book takes place far in the past of the main Valdemar stories, I’m tempted to forgive it this sin. As the world’s timeline advances, great societal changes get made. It would be like getting angry at a historical fiction novel for portraying history accurately. There’s a certain amount of allowance that I think can be made, even if the attitude and behaviour of many characters is difficult to swallow.

And by difficult to swallow, I do mean difficult. There’s a scene that can essentially come across as rape apology. A 14 year old girl sends a besotted love letter to a handsome man she’s only ever seen the once, and when it gets found out, she’s dressed dow quite fiercely by someone who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that the guy could have raped her and the law could do nothing if that letter was brought into play because clearly she threw herself at him. Despite the fact that Heralds can literally tell when somebody is lying, and despite the fact that in a previous book that appears chronologically before this one it was said that Heralds accept mental and emotional evidence in crimes, no no, the law could do nothing because a girl sent a letter saying she loved a guy from the moment she saw him, so that apparently means all sex is okay.

Yes, this scene raised my blood pressure. I can’t give that one a pass, because while it may be how people think a lot of the time, it grated against what has been established time and again in the Valdemar novels, which are largely about hope and improvement and how anyone can be something great and so long as justice can be done it will be done.

When it comes to the story, though, I can’t say that much about it. Most of it was a Romeo and Juliet retelling with a sick twist, though that sick twist doesn’t really get revealed until after a few eye-rolls at the way the story was mirroring Romeo and Juliet so closely. It’s a story that requires patience, given that it seems at first to be rather unoriginal and trite. And very little really develops outside of one mystery being solved and a few characters adjusting to their new roles in life. The story seems to be mostly a backdrop against which questions of social justice can be asked, the solid story being an unimportant prop for nebulous “what if”s. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but if you’re like me, who spent years reading Valdemar novels for tales of epic adventure, it would be a bit disappointing.

Lackey’s smooth writing style does make up for a lot of that, though, since I’ve always found her storytelling to be as welcoming as a hot bath on a cold night. You sink into it and you get so lost in it all that you don’t notice the passage of time. Her novels are 99% of the time such fun that the writing itself covers up a multitude of minor sins, and since I started reading her in my teen years, it always brings with it a sense of comfortable nostalgia that draws me back every time, not just to read whatever new story she’s written but also to experience the storytelling.

In the end, I have to say that while Closer to Home had its problems and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who hasn’t read previous Valdemar novels, I still enjoyed it and I’m curious to see how the rest of the books in this branch of the series will go. Some plot threads regarding Mags are still dangling (though I’m starting to suspect I may be the only one who’s noticed them…), and Amily’s new role as the King’s Own has the potential to give rise to some interesting stories. Hopefully they’ll just be a bit more exciting next time around.

GIVEAWAY: The House of the Four Winds, by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

Courtesy of Tor Books, I’m excited to announce that readers of my blog have a chance to win a copy of Mercedes Lackey’s and James Mallory’s upcoming fantasy novel, The House of the Four Winds. (Which I reviewed here, if anyone’s curious.)

What do you have to do to get your name into this draw? Just comment on this post telling me what you would do with your life if you could follow your passions. Realistic or not, it doesn’t matter. Assume that you have all the funds and access to training that you would need, and that the end result would happily keep you going for the rest of your life.

Rules
~ 1 (one) entry per person
~ Open to all residents of the US and Canada
~ Must comment to be entered
~ Must provide some way of being contacted in case you win
~ Winner’s address will only be used to give to the publisher for shipping, and will not be retained by me
~ Contest closes at 11:59 PM, PST, on Sunday July 13, 2014.

Many thanks to Tor Books for kindly providing a copy of this book to giveaway! (You folks are seriously awesome!)

The House of the Four Winds, by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

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Lackey’s website / Mallory’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 5, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The rulers of tiny, impoverished Swansgaard have twelve daughters and one son. While the prince’s future is assured, his twelve sisters must find their own fortunes.

Disguising herself as Clarence, a sailor, Princess Clarice intends to work her way to the New World. When the crew rebels, Clarice/Clarence, an expert with rapier and dagger, sides with the handsome navigator, Dominick, and kills the cruel captain.

Dominick leads the now-outlawed crew in search of treasure in the secret pirate haven known as The House of Four Winds. They encounter the sorceress Shamal, who claims Dominick for her own—but Clarice has fallen hard for Dominick and won’t give him up without a fight.

Thoughts: I’m pretty partial to just about anything written by Mercedes Lackey. If she’s written it, I’ll give it a chance, and more often than not I’ll enjoy it. I may encounter a problem here or there, but on the whole, whatever she writes is very likely to amuse me.

The House of the Four Winds, co-written by James Mallory, is no exception.

The story is a fairly simple one, drawing on old ideas and giving them a bit of a new twist. A king can’t afford to provide a dowry for each of his twelve daughters, so instead he helps them find their passions and get training, and then on their 18th birthday they will go out and make their own way in the world. The House of the Four Winds focuses on the eldest daughter, Clarice, who took to swordwork and wants to make her way to the New World. Disguising herself as a man and assuming the name Clarence, she finds herself a ship to take her there. The ship, though, is captained by a cruel man who has plans of his own, plans that don’t involve reaching his supposed destination, plans that involve piracy and magic and adventure on the high seas.

It’s a good combination when what you’re looking for is a fast-paced adventure with a solid dash of romance in the mix. You get an interesting story in the beginning, then it really ramps up once the captain has been killed and the piracy plot begins, since that’s when the crew comes across the House of the Four Winds, a deceptively nice island city ruled by pirates. Strong-armed into taking on a quest by the ruling pirate council, the crew of well-meaning mutineers once again heads off into danger, seeking a lot relic.

And here’s where the book largely falls apart. I’ll grant you, the first 75% of so is standard fantasy adventure, fun and light and it moves so quickly that you don’t notice the time passing, which is another thing I’ve come to expect from whatever Lackey has written or co-written (I haven’t read anything of Mallory’s that he’s written on his own, so I can’t say if that’s something he does as well). Aside from a couple of odd things that may have been editorial errors and will be ironed out in the final release (I read an ARC, so I’ll refrain from commenting until I see the final version), the story was great and just what I was looking for at the time.

But then I ran into problems.

The first problem was the issue of Clarice disguising herself as Clarence and falling in love with Dominick. No, actually, that isn’t a problem on its own. That was expected, and I actually enjoy seeing “disguised as a man” aspects to stories, for some reason. The problem for me came when Clarice’s actual gender was revealed. Specifically, Dominick’s reaction to it. Clarice was outed, did not choose herself to tell people that she was really a woman, nor that she had feelings for Dominick. It came as a surprise to everyone. And less than a day later, Dominick is by her side, confessing that he loves her too, but that when he thought she was a man he mistook those feelings for “mere friendship.” This rubbed me the wrong way. It was presented poorly. Had he said, “I convinced myself it was just friendship,” or had he admitted to struggling with what he thought were inappropriate feelings for another man once or twice, it would have come across to me much better. As it was, it seemed very much like Dominick was stating the only difference between being a friend and being in love with someone was what lies between that person’s legs. A friend is only a friend so long as they’re not the gender you’re attracted to. I’m certain it wasn’t intended that way, but it was, as I said, a poor presentation, and something that seemed so unrealistic is you take Dominick’s words at face value.

This was, however, a personal dislike about this scene, and it may not come across that way to others. A few other reviews I’ve read have praised it, in fact, for not having Dominick freak out and instead having him be very accepting of the situation. So your mileage may vary.

The second issue I had, and a much more troubling one, was the serious plot derailment at the end. The crew is sent after the lost artifact, find out how to get to it, almost get to it… and then in overthrowing the pirate-sorceress Shamal who forced them into it in the first place, end up elsewhere all of a sudden, away from the relic and with no resolution to the plot that drove the most of the last half of the novel, and the rest of the book is the crew fixing the ship, looting a ship graveyard, and heading back to land. To say that this was disappointing is an understatement. It felt sloppy, like the authors had written themselves into a corner and didn’t want to deal with what they had created, so they employed deus ex machina to solve the problem.

That being said, the rest of the book was fine. Better than fine. It was a great fantasy adventure on the high seas, set in a world that’s based upon (or was simply just meant to be) an alternate Earth, with a good narrative, detailed descriptions, and characters that feel bright and shiny and new, even if a good number of them lack depth or development. It’s the kind of fantasy you read when you want your world to have black-and-white morality, when you want a light adventure that’s easy on the mind but that will still provide you with hours of fun as you go along. Despite the problems I had with it, I still enjoyed reading it, and I’m already looking forward to seeing how the series will continue.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Why I will forever love the Valdemar novels.

I’ve finished reading all of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels. The only books in the series that I haven’t read all of are the collections of short stories, but given that they’re not core novels and much of them may or may not be canon, I think I can safely say that I’ve read the series from beginning to end. They weren’t always great books. Some I enjoyed more than others. Some I enjoyed largely due to nostalgia value, which, even when they were good on their own, bumped them up another notch in my mind. It can be hard to be objective with such books, but hey, I figure that even if they may be flawed, my enjoyment level is part of the experience and thus ought to be factored into any rating I give them.

Or so I tell myself.

Magic's Pawn, by Mercedes LackeyAnyway, I’ve loved this series since I was first exposed to it. From those days way back in high school when a friend handed me a copy of Magic’s Pawn and told me she thought I’d like it, to now when I’ve read all the novels that the series has to offer, I’ve been hooked. Not just on the books, but on the world itself. The very idea that Mercedes Lackey created. I’ve convinced others to read the books, then spent hours talking about them, leading to RP sessions in which we create characters and make up the plot as we go.

So, why? What is it about this series that pulled me in so strongly and won’t let me go even if I wanted to be free?

For one thing, the world that Lackey created is so relentlessly optimistic. Not in the over-the-top way where everyone’s always cheerful and nothing bad ever happens. Plenty of bad things happen. People get injured, sometimes fatally, and I’ve shed more than a few tears over a couple of scenes as I was reading my way through all the books. Poverty and crime exists, and the kingdom’s borders are often under attack by bandits and, through most of the series, religious zealots. But as far as fantasy worlds go, Valdemar seems like the opposite of the crapsack fantasy world that gets created by many authors. Law and justice are carried out by Heralds, who have their Companions to keep them on the proper side of fairness. They’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and they make mistakes, but Heralds are, by and large, good and trustworthy people who are responsible for the wellbeing of the kingdom. The ruling monarch must also be Chosen as a Herald in order to take the throne, ensuring that even if their rule isn’t flawless, they’re at least incorruptible. Disagree with a legal ruling that your crooked village headman gave? Just wait until a Herald riding circuit comes by and dispute the ruling with them, in order to get an impartial judgment.

Then there’s the hope that the books embody. That’s largely what the books mean to me. Aside from just being entertaining stories set in an interesting fantasy world, it’s hard for me to read them and not feel hopeful about things in my own life, like the hope of the book’s central themes spills over into the real world. And no small part of that comes from the idea that anyone can be Chosen to be a Herald.

Or more specifically, Heralds aren’t just Chosen from the rich and privileged. You could be the 8th child of a poor farming family and there’s still a chance that someday, that magical white horse will ride up to you and Choose you and you’ll be whisked away to a better life, a life in which you get to learn so many things, in which what you do can make a difference to so many, and you know that no matter what, you were Chosen for this life for a reason, that you life has a purpose and meaning to it and that there’s something you can do that nobody else can do. And through it all you’ll have a constant companion, your Companion, who will keep you steady and be your ally and friend and mentor and will be by your side through thick and thin, through any kind of danger.

But why would that give me hope? I know I’m not Herald material. Not by a long shot. But there are Healers and Bards, and if you’ve got the skill to be one of them, they’re not going to turn you away because you can’t pay tuition or some other ridiculous thing. Bards spend their lives composing and playing music and traveling to spread word of news and to bring back news picked up along their journeys. Healers, well, heal, both by a quasi-magical Healing Gift and also by herbs, surgery, general fantasy-style medicine. Their services are paid for by taxes, their respective Collegia train them up properly, and their work is as respected as that of Heralds, and they live good lives for it too.

Brightly Burning, by Mercedes LackeyIn the world of Valdemar, simply being myself, being true to my own talents, would actually get me respect, lead me down a road that could actually be considered a calling. I wouldn’t necessarily be held back by lack of finances, mistakes made in the past, not spending time making the right connections in life, not living in the right places. Transplant myself into Valdemar, make my way to Haven, and just being myself would give me a chance to really make something of myself, bring out my talents and polish them up and learn so many things that in reality, I don’t have the chance to learn.

Sure, not everyone in that world with those talents would get discovered, to be certain. But again, it comes down to hope, and the knowledge that it could happen. When I read those books, when I see characters go from nobodies to somebodies, from unknowns to people who live their lives for a purpose and who are appreciated even by the reigning monarch, it feels like I’m burying myself in the hope for improvement.

When someone has felt alone and frightened for most of their life, reading about someone discovering a partner who’ll never leave them is like soothing the pain of an old wound. When someone has gone for years having their talents belittled and ignored, falling into a world in which people would celebrate those talents makes some of the weight a bit easier to carry. The series is like a light in the darkness for me, getting to sink into the story and imagine, just for a little while, that I’m the person I’m reading about, whose life may have a buttload of responsibilities but who are also now living up to the potential they were born with or that they developed over the years.

Religion in that world? Officially polytheistic, with the proviso that there is no one true way. The monarch and their deities of choice do not hold any greater sway over politics and religion than anyone else’s in the kingdom, and I can really get behind that. It’s been established that there are 2 actual deities who intervene in mortal affairs now and again, one male and one female, and the myriad gods worshipped across the land are facets of them, or conceptual ideals, and that’s just fine and dandy and nobody can force you to bow down to a deity you don’t actually worship. Given that I spent a good chunk of my life trying to pin down my own beliefs on faith and religion, trying to be a good person and believe in what others wanted me to believe, this is another concept that brings me some comfort. My way is right for me, your way is right for you, and that’s the end of it.

The books may not be the best things ever written, but they’re more than good enough to let me leave my own problems behind and to find solutions in the lives of fictional others. You may hear me talk about how I disliked a certain book of the series, but I can’t foresee the day that I’ll put these books aside for the last time and declare that the world no longer holds an interest to me. They’ve been with me through hard times in my life, they’ve been my comfort when stuff really sucks and I need an escape from reality, and even when I cry at the ending of Magic’s Price or Exile’s Valor, I’m still happier for getting to spend some time in my favourite fictional world. Some people have Narnia. Some have Middle Earth. Me, I’ve got Valdemar.

It always welcomes me home.

Bastion, by Mercedes Lackey

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 1, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReadsMags returns to the Collegium, but there are mixed feelings–his included–about him actually remaining there. No one doubts that he is and should be a Herald, but he is afraid that his mere presence is going to incite more danger right in the heart of Valdemar. The heads of the Collegia are afraid that coming back to his known haunt is going to give him less protection than if he went into hiding. Everyone decides that going elsewhere is the solution for now. So since he is going elsewhere–why not return to the place he was found in the first place and look for clues? And those who are closest to him, and might provide secondary targets, are going along. With Herald Jadrek, Herald Kylan (the Weaponsmaster’s chosen successor), and his friends Bear, Lena, and Amily, they head for the Bastion, the hidden spot in the hills that had once been the headquarters of a powerful band of raiders that had held him and his parents prisoner. But what they find is not what anyone expected.

Thoughts: Bastion, the final book of Mercedes Lackey’s Collegium Chronicles (or at least what I’m presuming to be the final book, since I can’t see where else the series could really go after this), was more action-oriented than previous novels in the series and a mostly satisfying conclusion, though it did leave some questions not so much unanswered as completely unaddressed.

Here, Mags is being sent on circuit with the Herald who first rescued him from the mine, Herald Jakyr. The Jakyr in this book, however, has very little in common with the Herald who appeared in few-and-far-between scenes in the previous novels in the series, however. Where before he was distant, reticent, eager to avoid forming any connections for fear of being stifled and constrained, here he seems more than willing to dispense advice and conversation, no longer the reserved and intimidating figure he once was. No real reason is given for this change of heart, and if anything, the situation that Jakyr is in ought to have made him withdraw more than normal. Call it character development for the sake of the plot and move on, I suppose.

Joining Mags and Jakyr are Bear and Lena, now married and travelling to help Mags and also for their own respective careers, Bard Lita (accompanying Lena, for the most part), and Amily, healed leg and all, because of her relationship with Mags. They spend their time hiding out in a series of caves, ostensibly as a central base for their circuit but also to search for information about Mags’s parentage, who were last reported in that area. They end up, naturally, discovering more than they bargained for with Mags’s lineage gets the spotlight shone brightly upon it and all is not well with what he discovers, and how.

Much like the previous novel, Redoubt, Lackey indulges in some wholesale copy-and-pasting of older passages to serve as flashbacks, text unchanged in any way. It’s still lazy writing, but at least it isn’t done as often as last time, which was something to be happy about.

The book definitely had its ups and downs. The plot and pacing good, character development decent (at least for just about everyone but Amily and Lena, who often just disappeared from mention entirely when swords started slinging and arrows started flying), and some interesting information about Mags’s past was revealed that made the world of Velgarth a little bit more complete, more detailed and expansive, and that was a real treat to read. However, there were a few moments of author preaching, but nowhere as obviously as when Jakyr’s family was being discussed and utter distaste was expressed for the Quiverfull movement. And I single this out because the term “quiverfull” was used in the text itself, so there was no disguising it for something else, not even an attempt made to gloss it over and pretend that anything was being talked about but the real-world movement. It’s one thing to incorporate one’s own beliefs and morality into the fiction one writes, but it’s another to be so very blatant about the crossover into real-world politics. (Also, I might be able to safely assume that the author doesn’t entirely understand the Quiverfull movement, given that it was mentioned in the context of, “families believe they have to have all the babies they can, but don’t understand why and never bother to question it.” Quiverfull families know why they’re doing it. That’s the whole point.)

Sadly, Mags’s connection to Vkandis never seems to be brought up again after his escape from Karse, something that disappointed me because it could have taken the story in interesting directions and had major implications for the history of both countries. Instead, Mags ends up saying he’ll serve a god if said god gets him out of a sticky situation, the god agrees, and that service never gets called in. The fact that this doesn’t get revisited weakens the whole event for me, and makes it feel like a cheap ploy to avoid being written into a corner rather than something planned and purposeful.

Still, with few exceptions, this was a more than adequate ending to the Collegium Chronicles, an interesting expansion to the world and lore surrounding Valdemar, and while I wouldn’t say it’s one of the essential series on the Valdemar timeline, it is, by and large, a fun series that should hold plenty of fascination to fans all over.

(At least there were no overly long Kirball scenes this time!)

Redoubt, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 12, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Mags, a young Herald trainee in Haven, the capital city of the kingdom of Valdemar, has talents not commonly found in Herald trainees. Recognizing this, the King’s Own Herald decides to train Mags as a spy in order to uncover the secrets of a mysterious new enemy who has taken an interest in Mags himself. Why is the even deeper mystery. The answers can only be found in the most unexpected corners of Mags’ past…assuming he can live long enough to find them.

Thoughts: Following the events of Changes, this fourth book of Mercedes Lackey’s Collegium Chronicles series brings is back into Mags’s life after an unclear amount of time has passed. I say unclear because there are many hints that it takes place very shortly after Changes, only Mags has mysteriously lost the vast majority of his ‘uncultured’ accent, quicker than anything believable could account for. On one hand, it was nice to cease having to puzzle out everything that Mags was trying to say, since writing accents is a fine art that few can master. On the other hand, I can’t really think of a believable reason for it to have mostly vanished so quickly.

Anyway, moving on.

As a counter to the very slow plot development of the second and third books, Redoubt picks up the pace nicely. There’s still a lot of emphasis on Kirball, but at least there’s a greater emphasis now placed on Mags developing his skills as Nikolas’s second, agent and spy for the Crown of Valdemar. And the second half of the book ramps things up even further, by having Mags kidnapped by people working through Karse but for their own sinister purposes.

There are some very touching scenes later on about cross-cultural bonds and the importance of letting good will transcend borders on a map, which I admit, the softy in me enjoyed reading. Most interesting, though, were the dropped hints about Mags’s heritage (from a place that isn’t even on the maps, which wipes out most theories I initially had about his origins), and the way Mags has been made something of an emissary of Vkandis, patron deity of Karse. I wonder mostly how this is going to affect the Valdemaran timeline of events. I can’t see Mags being too successful in this endeavour, since Karse and Valdemar didn’t really open up to each other until the Storms trilogy (taking place hundreds of years after these books), but it will be interesting to see where that plot thread leads.

I do have a major nitpick with this book, though, that was probably meant as a simple refresher to readers but instead comes across as lazy writing and a desperate need to meet a wordcount quota. Mags experiencing a lot of flashbacks in this book, flashbacks to events that happened in previous Collegium Chronicles novels, and those flashbacks are wholesale liftings of entire passages from those books. Only minor editing when the memory is deliberate demonstrated to be a false one, but otherwise the text is utterly identical. Perhaps not so egregious if it’s been a while since one has read the rest of the series, but painful when one is reading them in quick succession. I was able to skip a dozen or more pages because they were the exact same text that I’d read a few days prior, with nothing new added, and it only served to tell me that Mags was remembering things.

Lackey rekindled my interest in the series with this book, which was a very pleasant surprise after the mess of the previous two books. It ends on enough of a cliffhanger to leave readers wondering and wanting to read the fifth book, Bastion, which I shall be doing soon so that I can see what resolutions are reached and what new information is revealed. Mags has been an interesting character to see grow and change as the story has gone on, he’s much more mature now than when he started, and I expect that the real action is soon to come.