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 Home, by Mercedes Lackey

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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.

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

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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.

Intrigues, and Changes, both by Mercedes Lackey

Today I’m doing a rare double review, 2 books at once. The reason for this isn’t because I don’t have much to say about either book. On the contrary. But I hope the reason for this choice will be pretty clear by the end.

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 5, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Mercedes Lackey continues her epic Valdemar series.

Magpie is a thirteen-year-old orphan chosen by one of the magical Companion horses of Valdemar and taken to the capital city, Haven, to be trained as a Herald. Like all Heralds, Magpie learns that he has a hidden Gift-the Gift of telepathy.

But life at the court is not without obstacles. When Mags is “recognized” by foreign secret operatives whose purpose is unknown, Mags himself comes under suspicion. Who are Magpie’s parents-who is he, really? Can Mags solve the riddle of his parentage and his connection with the mysterious spies-and prove his loyalty-before the king and court banish him as a traitor?

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Publication date – October 4, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Enter the thrilling third volume in the epic Collegium Chronicles.

In Mercedes Lackey’s classic coming-of-age story, the orphan Magpie pursues his quest for his parent’s identity with burning urgency-while also discovering another hidden talent and being trained by the King’s Own Herald as an undercover agent for Valdemar. Shy Bardic Trainee Lena has to face her famous but uncaring father, one of Valdemar’s most renowned Bards. And Healing Trainee Bear must struggle against his disapproving parents, who are pressuring Bear to quit the Healers’ Collegium because he lacks the magical Healing Gift.

Each of the three friends must face his or her demons and find their true strength as they seek to become the full Heralds, Bards, and Healers of Valdemar.

Thoughts: It took me a while to figure out how to review both of these books. They evoked such a strong reaction in me and I ranted about and debated the issue enough that in the end, I decided the best way to properly present my thoughts would be to review both of the books at once.

Intrigues and Changes are the second and third books of Mercedes Lackey’s Collegium Chronicles series, which started with Foundations. Here, we continue to follow Mags and his growth and development and training to be a Herald. We also see his friends, Bardic Trainee Lena, and Healer Trainee Bear. A new game called Kirball is being developed, partly as entertainment and partly as a war game for training Guards and Heralds, and Mags gets involved in the game and turns out to be a shining athlete. A heatwave has Haven in its grip. King’s Own Herald Nikolas is still training Mags as his protégé and eventual replacement as a spy and agent for the Crown. Meanwhile, foreign agents are trying to infiltrate Haven for reasons currently unclear, and they seem to have their sights set on Mags.

The reason I chose to review both of these books together is because on their own, they are largely lackluster, more filled with filler material than most Valdemar books tend to be, and are largely devoid of any real plot or point. The events could have (and in my opinion, should have) been condensed into one novel that would have been superb, but splitting it into 2 books just made it boring. At least 1/5 of both novels is taken up by descriptions of Mags playing Kirball, which is fun and fast-paced, but mostly takes up space, and I can’t even justify it by saying that it provides character development. It shows off how awesome Mags and Dallen are as a Trainee and Companion, but that could have been established in a much less verbose way, while actually advancing the plot.

So very little happens in these books. Book 2 involved Kirball, Mags trying to help Lena and Bear with their family issues, and a slight bit of development regarding the foreign infiltrators. Book 3 involves more Kirballs, Mags training with Nikolas, and some actual development regarding the foreign infiltrators as they make bold moves, some motives are revealed, and people try to get to the bottom of a mystery. Most of the important events of Book 2 could have been easily inserted into Book 3, and the only thing that would have really been lost would have been some long-winded arguments and some Kirball.

Aside from poor pacing issues, there is one section of Intrigues that bothers me on a very visceral level. In the midst of the heatwave, when tempers are running high and there’s a lot of emotional tension, Dallen and Mags end up in an accident and Dallen’s legs are broken. Mags is distraught. So Lena seeks him out and basically chews him out, calling him horrible and selfish and the kind of person who would kill the King (which is what Mags was suspected of due to the visions of Foreseers) if he would let something bad happen to Dallen. He snaps and shoots a couple of insults back at her. She runs off, and next Bear comes by, threatens to horsewhip Mags for upsetting Lena, again tells him that he must therefore be the kind of person who’d kill a King because he’s clearly so horrid. Mags takes this all to heart and runs away.

Now, the running away isn’t what bothered me. What bothered me was that when things cooled down and Mags returned and Dallen was recovering well, Mags apologizes for saying bad things to Lena… and Lena and Bear do not apologize to him. They basically handwave the whole thing by saying, “Yeah, well, tempers were frayed and you weren’t exactly wrong,” and then acting as though that was the extent of their obligations. No apologies for telling Mags he was a terrible person. No apologies for blaming Mags for Dallen’s accident. No apologies for saying, “I think everyone’s right and you’re plotting to murder our beloved monarch.” Not a thing. Which was tremendously out of character for both Lena and Bear, and at best came across like they were the kind of people who thought they didn’t need to apologize because Mags is a forgiving person anyway.

That part rankled, and seemed very poorly done.

As individual books, I could rate them 3 cups at best, since they contain so little of worth though they were admittedly somewhat entertaining. Put together, they complement each other nicely, if somewhat rambling. Had these books been trimmed and tightened and a lot of the extraneous scenes deleted, the finished product could easily have been one of my favourite Valdemar novels, and well worth the rating of 4 cups that I am generously giving right now. Lackey’s books often have a great deal of slow development that leads to one main action scene very near the end, but I can’t recall any other book of hers that spends so much time doing so very little, and I can only imagine how many people didn’t even continue on past the second book of the series for this reason. Honestly, most people could skip right past that one and move right to the third book without missing anything, and anything vital tends to get recapped in short order anyway.

Foundation, by Mercedes Lackey

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Publication date – October 7, 2008

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Mags had been working at the Pieters mine, slaving in the dark, cold seams, looking for sparklies, for as long as he could remember. The children who worked the mine were orphans, kids who had been abandoned, who had lost their parents, or were generally unwanted. But Mags was different. Mags was “Bad Blood,”  because his parents were bandits who had been killed in a raid by the Royal Guard. “Bad Blood” because he’d been found in a cradle in the bandits’ camp. Blood so bad that no one had wanted to take him in except Cole Pieters. When he was big enough to see over the sides of the sluices he had gone to work at the mine. Mags knew nothing of the world beyond the mine, and was unaware of how unusual his paltry existence was. Then some strangers on huge white horses forced their way past the Pieters family and carried him away to Haven to become a Herald Trainee. Suddenly the whole world opened up for him. He was warm and well fed for the first time in his life, and he had Dallen, his Companion, who seemed more miraculous than an angel. But the world of the Collegium was not all heavenly. There was political upheaval in Valdemar’s capital, for the court had been infiltrated by foreign “diplomats,” who seemed to be more interested in seeding discontent than in actual diplomacy… and Mags seemed to be the only one who’d noticed…

Thoughts: Mercedes Lackey’s break from Valdemar novels ended with the release of Foundation, the first book of the Collegium Chronicles series. We start off the story with Mags, a young slave in a gem mine, being rescued and Chosen by his new Companion, Dallen. Whisked off to Haven, Mags finds himself in the awkward position of being utterly ignorant of the vast amount of society works, at a time when the methods the Heralds use are changing and the Heraldic Collegium is being built under everyone’s feet.

This series takes place a few generations after the time of Herald-Mage Vanyel. Magic is gone from Valdemar. Old ways are fading out, the Kingdom is expanding, and new Heralds are being Chosen at an unprecedented pace. Hence the Collegium, which didn’t exist in Vanyel’s time in the way it exists in all other Valdemar novels. This sounds more interesting than it really is; it plays a notable part in a few scenes, but mostly is unimportant to Mags and so not dwelled upon very much. It’s most interesting to someone like me, who’s read the series practically from beginning to end at this point, and who has seen the old ways and the new and we can see a little more about the transitional period.

Like many of Lackey’s Valdemar novels, the book is more of a journey of self-discovery than an epic quest, this time with Mags coming to grips with his own sense of self-worth and understanding of the world around him. There is an overarching plot, but it comes more in hints and brief encounters than as a central component of the story. This isn’t a book to go into if you want something action-packed. It’s slow, with a heavy emphasis on character development and gradual discovery. This isn’t uncommon with a lot of the novels in this series, really, but it’s especially pronounced here.

However, for fans of the series of those who love in-depth character studies or who want to get a better handle on their Valdemaran history (ie, me, and possible Mieneke from A Fantastical Librarian), this is a good book for it. It’s an easy read, something to curl up with on a rainy afternoon and enjoy without being made to tax your brain much as you follow the story at a relaxed pace.

Not having currently read the rest of the books in the series, I can’t say for certain whether this is the start to an essential set of books on the Valdemar timeline, or whether it’s one that can be easily passed over without losing anything in doing so. There are definitely hints dropped that the story will lead to something much larger in the future, though what that is, I can’t say. I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve finished the series (5 books as of the time of this review), but for the moment, I’d say that it certainly feels more like a supplementary series than one that gives some essential understanding to the Valdemar books as a whole. Fun and fluffy, enjoyable without having much substance, despite the way it touches on dark subject matter in the beginning.

Exile’s Valor, by Mercedes Lackey

Exile's Valor, by Mercedes Lackey  Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website
Publication date – November 4, 2003

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) This stand-alone novel in the Valdemar series continues the story of prickly weapons-master Alberich. Once a heroic Captain in the army of Karse, a kingdom at war with Valdemar, Alberich becomes one of Valdemar’s Heralds. Despite prejudice against him, he becomes the personal protector of young Queen Selenay. But can he protect her from the dangers of her own heart?

Thoughts: Continuing the story started in Exile’s Honor, the Tedrel Wars are over, and we return to a somewhat subdued Valdemar. The King has been killed and the new Queen Selenay has yet to finish her year of mourning before people start to push potential husbands on her, in the belief that a woman cannot hold the throne alone. And Alberich is slowly working to uncover a plot that threatens Selenay, and perhaps all of Valdemar itself.

Whereas a good half of the previous novel featuring Alberich as a main character was action-oriented, taking place in the middle of a war, the sequel takes things back and lets intrigue and a puzzle carry the story along instead. And while many of Lackey’s Valdemar novels contain bits of romance, Exile’s Valor has it in spades! Between the courtship and marriage of Selenay and Karath, and the growing relationship between Alberich and Myste, it’s hard to get away from the romance and emphasis on relationships. If this sort of thing isn’t your cup of tea, you might find yourself disappointed.

On the other hand, I usually avoid romance-heavy books, and I still enjoyed this once a lot, so your mileage may vary. In spite of there being a lot of romance, it was woven into the story well enough that it didn’t feel cloying and like the story was just a flimsy excuse for romance, a tenuous scaffolding around which romance is supposed to provide the bulk of the whole piece. It was, happily, the other way around, and that was what made it bearable for me.

While this is a very good follow-up to Exile’s Honor, it works best when contained within its own duology. Put into context with what has been established about Valdemar in previous novels, a good deal of time timeline falls apart, and events don’t fall when they’re supposed to. The same could be said about the previous novel and its telling of when the Tedrel Wars took place, but it becomes very obvious here. In Take a Thief, Bazie tells Skif that the Tedrel Wars were about thirty years prior. In Arrow’s Flight, Skif is still a trainee, alongside Talia, and Selenay’s daughter Elspeth is around 8 years old at most. In Exile’s Valor, Selenay gives birth to Elspeth less than 2 years after the end of the Tedrel Wars. The only way to reconcile this discrepancy is to assume that Bazie has absolutely no concept of time, and when he says that the wars were 30 years ago, it was really more like 5. Only there’s no reason to make this assumption. This is sadly little more than the author losing control of her own timeline, starting the whole chain reaction off with an innocuous comment made by a minor character.

But if you ignore the whole and instead concentrate on its separate parts, in spite of the inconsistancies the book still remains an interesting story filled with interesting characters. Alberich’s character especially is developed quite well, shedding light on aspects of him that wouldn’t have been thought of had Lackey not decided to do this exploration, and even with the problems it has, I’m certainly glad she did. It’s a quick read with enough intrigue and good dialogue to carry a reader along for hours, and while I can’t guarantee that those who liked Exile’s Honor will also enjoy this one (the tones of both books are quite different), I definitely recommend at least giving it a try.

Exile’s Honor, by Mercedes Lackey

Exile's Honor, by Mercedes Lackey  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – October 1, 2002

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) This stand-alone novel in the best-selling Valdemar series tells the story of Alberich…

When Alberich took a stand for what he believed in-and defected-he was chosen by one of the magical Companion horses…to serve the queen of Valdemar.

Thoughts: Lackey continues her foray into character studies with one of the most interesting characters she ever wrote (at least in my opinion): Alberich. He’s seen in bits and pieces through other novels along the Valdemar timeline, the Collegium’s Weaponsmaster and resident talks-like-Yoda guy, but before this exploration, little was known about him beyond the fact that he’s a hard taskmaster and that he was originally from Karse, Valdemar’s ancient enemy.

The story starts with Alberich still in Karse, prior to being Chosen, where he’s in a good position in the army and struggling to hide Gifts which could get him killed if revealed. And naturally, he’s discovered, and put to death by purifying fire. He is rescued, of course, by his Companion Kantor, and whisked across the border to Valdemar, where he is met with a less-than-friendly reception.

The first part of this book is largely a coming-of-age type of story, in which Alberich is not only trying to recover from the burns and injuries sustained at the hands of the people he once fought for, but also coming to grips with the fact that Valdemar and Heralds are not evil as he had been taught all his life. Trying to reconcile that the world is not as he thought, as well as discovering just who and what that makes him, takes up a great deal of the first half of the book. Those who enjoy a good bit of introspection and character development will love this, as it goes into great detail about a man we have only seen glimpses of previously.

The second half of the book has far more action in it. Karse has hired the Tedrel mercenaries, enough soldiers-for-hire to populate a nation, and has sent them after Valdemar. And Alberich is stuck in Haven, unable to fight on the front lines due to accusations of divided loyalty between his new life as a Herald and his old life in Karse. But when push comes to shove, he’s sent into battle, along with every other available Herald (including the monarch and heir to the throne) to fight for their lives and freedom. Much of the instrospection is left behind in favour of the grim realities of war.

Though true to Lackey’s typical style, things don’t get too grim, and while there’s a well-deserved sense of tension and urgency, it’s still easy enough to step back and understand that what you’re reading is almost an idealized version of war. People die, and messily, but it’s still somewhat sanitized. The good guys will win because the good guys win. Definitely something to read if you want your spirits bolstered, but to be avoided if what you’re looking for is a realistic portrayal of a battlefield.

Like Brightly Burning and Take a Thief, this character study novel is a fascinating one, very fun and swift to read, whether or not you’re reading the action of fighting or the circular thoughts of a very confused man. And unlike both of those novels, this one plays a very central role in understanding vital pieces of Valdemaran history. What Brightly Burning did to reveal more details about passing mentions of events, Exile’s Honor did better, and it shows in the way that this book grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Of all the character study novels that Lackey has written in this world, I wholeheartedly recommend this (and it’s sequel, Exile’s Valor) to just about anyone. It stands on its own and also provides great detail into a fictional country I have come to know and love so much.

Brightly Burning, by Mercedes Lackey

Brightly Burning, by Mercedes Lackey  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – June 1, 2001

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Sixteen-year-old Laven Chitward’s world is turned upside down when his mother is selected as a textile guild representative in the small rural community where he was raised. Moving to the capital city of Haven rips him away from his friends and boyhood pleasures, and nothing in Haven seems to fill that void. Unable to fit into the nouveau riche society, and unwilling to follow his parents into the textile guild, he finds himself adrift and depressed. His father enrolls him in a special school that will allow him to choose a trade that interests him, rather than be apprenticed against his will. There he finds himself terrorized and tortured by the boys in the sixth form until, with an awful roar, the gift of fire awakens deep within him and extracts revenge for his sadistic treatment.
With the help of a unique herald, an empathetic healer and a special companion, Laven soon learns to keep his gift under control and eventually, to direct his awful firestorm as far as he can see. When the kingdom of Karse attacks, Laven is hurried to the border to assist his king and country by repelling the invasion. During the final battle Laven earns the name Firestorm and becomes one of the most famous heralds in the history of Valdemar.

Thoughts: This one’s a reread for me (as were most of the Valdemar books, to be honest), and I mention that so that I can give one of my very first impressions of the protagonist: This is Vanyel 2.  Both Lavan and Vanyel were very similar characters, not just in circumstance but also in execution. Both came from families where their parents pushed them in unsuitable directions and didn’t listen to them regarding multiple instances of bullying and abuse, both became Heralds after a traumatic event, and both sacrifice their lives to save Valdemar from invasion. They have quite similar personalities. They both have extremely powerful Gifts. It seemed to me, even when I first read this book over a decade ago, that Lackey wanted to revisit the same sort of feeling that she’d established with Vanyel in the Last Herald-Mage trilogy (particularly the first book), and that went into the creation of Lavan.

Lavan himself was mentioned briefly in other Valdemar novels, known as Lavan Firestorm, so much like what Lackey did with Skif in Take a Thief, this book was by and large a character study. However, unlike in Take a Thief, Lavan is a far more central figure to Valdemaran history, so there is a great deal more action and tension shown here. Once we get past Lavan’s initial trauma and Choosing, the plot quickly focuses on the growing war with Karse, and Lavan and his Gift become essential elements in the plans to end said war. So we have growing tension over a looming war, character death, violent battles, many of the things that create excitement and provide a real ability to make a book into a page-turner, they’re all here where they were largely absent in Lackey’s previous character study.

This book is also notable for containing one of my favourite passages on the subject of bullying:

“Here. He’s been unconscious since they were dragged out,” the Healer replied, mouth set in a hard line. “Look, Herald Pol, I’m not trying to cause trouble, but I don’t like some of the things we’ve uncovered, or the way those other boys are acting; it seems to me that they want desperately to hide something, and it has to do with that younger boy. It’s hard to tell, under the burns, but we think there’s a lot of bruising all over him that doesn’t look accidental, and it definitely looks as if he’s been caned.”
Pol hadn’t been around the Court as long as he had without gathering a fair understanding of how “ordinary” children sometimes acted. “You think he’s being bullied, knocked around—”
“I think he was being tortured,” the Healer interrupted, icily. “That’s what we’d call it in an adult, and I see no reason to call it by a lesser name in children.”

This passage always, always, makes my chest lurch, because I’ve experienced not only this kind of bullying, but also the way adults turn a blind eye and downplay the events and effects, and to see even a fictional character acknowledge that if it’s wrong in adults then it’s just as wrong in children is incredibly heartening. It was only a small section, but it was a powerful moment. Lan’s experiences of bullying were, to be blunt, torture. Abuses of power, physical beatings, neglect by those in charge and those he ought to be able to trust (his parents)… It resonated strongly with me, and reading this for the first time, when my own experiences were closer at hand, definitely brought tears to my eyes. I’m not ashamed to admit that.

An interesting element that Lackey also plays with in this novel is the ever-popular Lifebond, only this time applied to Lavan and his Companion. It was a controversial choice, having a person be soul-bonded to their intelligent horse, but I think it worked. Given that it’s been established that Companions are basically Heralds reborn, this sort of thing was bound to happen sooner or later, and it was interesting to see the dynamic. There was no sexual element involved at all, and it wasn’t even entirely portrayed as a positive thing. In times of crisis Lavan had someone he could utterly rely on, but it was established that “the two must never be out of each others’ heads;” the implication being that the weaker personality could easily be subsumed by the stronger one, and that it could be hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Like I said, a controversial bit of subject matter, but I think it was handled deftly.

Again comparing this book to Lackey’s previous character study novel, I think this was carried off far more successfully. People who found Take a Thief lacking in action and purpose will no doubt enjoy this one far more. Between the typical coming-of-age story and the war with Karse, there’s more here that can appeal to a wider audience. While again not required reading for the Valdemar series (it’s not essential to understanding the more central set of trilogies), it does add more detail to the world and the history of it, and even if it can be skipped without losing anything, I don’t recommend it. As a standalone Valdemar novel, Brightly Burning is definitely one of the best!