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!