Summary: Mags, Herald Spy of Valdemar, and his wife, Amily, the King’s Own Herald, are happily married with three kids. The oldest, Peregrine, has the Gift of Animal Mindspeech — he can talk to animals and persuade them to act as he wishes. Perry’s dream is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Herald Spy, but he has yet to be Chosen by a Companion.
Mags is more than happy to teach Perry all he knows. He regularly trains his children, including Perry, with tests and exercises, preparing them for the complicated and dangerous lives they will likely lead. Perry has already held positions in the Royal Palace as a runner and in the kitchen, useful places where he can learn to listen and collect information.
But there is growing rural unrest in a community on the border of Valdemar. A report filled with tales of strange disappearances and missing peddlers is sent to Haven by a Herald from the Pelagirs. To let Perry experience life away from home and out in the world, Mags proposes that his son accompany him on an expedition to discover what is really going on.
During their travels, Perry’s Animal Mindspeech allows him to communicate with the local wildlife of the Pelagirs, whose connection to the land aids in their investigation. But the details he gleans from the creatures only deepen the mystery. As Perry, Mags, and their animal companions draw closer to the heart of the danger, they must discover the truth behind the disappearances at the border—before those disappearances turn deadly.
Thoughts: I’ll get this out of the way right from the get-go: I’m getting a little bit tired of the books about Mags. It’s not that he’s a bad character, or uninteresting, or anything like that. He’s fine, as characters go. But as I started to read the first book of the Family Spies series, I began to realize that of all the characters who appear in all the Valdemar novels, I think Mags appears in more than any other single character. Closely followed by Elspeth, who, for those who might not know, is a Herald (as is Mags), is of royal blood, and who was instrumental to bringing true magic back to Valdemar, and whose very birth was part of an international plot to strike at the heart of the kingdom. Mags is a spy and so gets wrapped up in many political affairs, but no more than most Heralds who are the stars of their own books. Lackey’s continued focus on Mags is starting to make me feel like she’s running out of ideas to get readers interested, and so is just sticking to one guy and his family because they’re familiar and don’t require figuring out other sections of the timeline (which, let’s be honest, she’s not that great at keeping straight). She can write stories about a character that readers already know, and so we don’t have to ask ourselves why we’re supposed to care, why this new person and their story is important enough to learn about.
But I am a sucker for this world, and so read I do, even when I consider the latest books to not really be a patch on some of the more classic Valdemar novels, even when I wish she’d start telling more stories about people who aren’t Mags.
The Hills Have Spies involves not just Mags, at least, but also his son Perry, who is training in his father’s footsteps to be a damn good spy and agent for the crown. Perry isn’t a Herald, but he doesn’t let that stop him from doing what he can to be useful. He does have a Gift, though, in the form of particularly strong Animal Mindspeech, so he can communicate with and influence animals around him. When Mags gets word that people on the very borders of Valdemar keep disappearing, he sees an opportunity to test his son’s skills and usefulness, and the two set out to try and unravel the mystery. They’re joined by Herald Arville, Arville’s kyree friend Ryu, along with another kyree who bonds to Perry, named Larral.
I… have extremely mixed feelings about how kyree are handled in this book, and that can be traced back to the short story in which Arville and Ryu are introduced. Lackey decided, at one point, to write a short story about a group of four Heralds encountering a kyree who could use human verbal speech rather than just Mindspeech, and did so, albeit with far more R’s at the beginning of words, and if this is already reminding you of Scooby Doo, that’s intentional. I found that concept pretty ridiculous when I first read the story, and I still find it ridiculous now. Only it’s more annoying, because where most of the short stories have questionable canon value, The Hills Have Spies puts it very firmly as canon. It can’t be ignored.
It turns out Larral can do the same thing. Which surprises nobody in the story, even people who’ve never encountered kyree before. Perry is more surprised that Larral has Mindspeech than he is over Larral’s ability to speak out loud, despite Perry only having just learned about kyree, and presumably nothing in the single book he read on the subject mentioned they could speak. Ryu goes from being an oddity to, “Oh yeah, some kyree can do that now, I guess.”
Two problems with this. One, you’d think this would have been mentioned in one of the other Valdemar novels that take place later on the timeline, because we most certainly encounter kyree in many of those books. None of them ever mention this apparently not-uncommon ability. The downside of writing books that take place in the past after you’ve written books that take place in the future. Heck, there’s no real indication even in this particular book whether Ryu and Larral’s ability is common, uncommon, nothing. No context. Context only comes from having read other books, which has the unfortunate effect of leaving readers wondering what’s even going on, why these kyree are so different from literally every other kyree mentioned elsewhere.
The second problem is that… Well, imagine reading a transcript of a Scooby Doo episode. With all of Scooby’s lines written out exactly as he speaks. Now try to wrap your head around what he might be actually saying, because just replacing initial consonants with R doesn’t always get the point across. Larral’s first words are, “Ry Roose Rerry,” which took me for-freaking-ever to understand as, “I Choose Perry,” and not something else that could equally fit there given those sounds, like, “My goose berry.” Larral doesn’t do this often, thankfully, but the few times he does, it’s ridiculous and rather pointless, and so I cant help but feel it was done for comedic effect.
Which, well, failed. I wasn’t laughing.
The Hills Have Spies is one of those novels that isn’t bad, per se. The story is solid, I was invested in Perry’s adventures and misadventures and I wanted to know just how it was all going to resolve in the end. Knowing this was the first book in a new series, I wanted to see whether this was more of a one-shot story (it was) or whether it was the set-up for some new epic threat to Valdemar (it wasn’t). The Valdemar novels, for all their flaws, are still often novels that I can sink into like a hot bath, and I can enjoy being in the world even if I have issues with some things.
But it was admittedly spoiled by things that are in some ways pretty small, but in other ways reflect what I see as a bit of a come-down from where this whole expansive series used to stand. The general refusal to not write stories that don’t involve Mags in some way, the inconsistencies when comparing them to things established in previous novels, her odd insistence on bringing in more real-world elements in order to make commentary that doesn’t always fit but is clearly something she wants to say something about… While I am going to read the rest of the books, I’ve started viewing them with more trepidation than excitement, and most of the reasons why can be seen in The Hills Have Spies.
And so I’m left in the awkward position of not knowing whether or not to recommend this book. I’d say that fans of the other Valdemar novels will probably want to read it, but I can’t really say that I recommend they do so. Not unless they feel that they absolutely have to read all of the series novels, like I do. While it can absolutely be a fun story in places and there is definitely suspense and intrigue and writing that’s easy enough to engage with, it also adds nothing to Valdemar’s history, and neither does it really expand on Mags’s story all that much. I can’t pretend I’m not disappointed, but I also can’t pretend that I expected this book, or even this series, to make up for the disappointments I saw in other Valdemar novels that Lackey has written over the past decade. In the end, mostly what this book made me want to do is go back and read the earlier novels, the ones that made me fall in love with the world in the first place.