Spy, Spy Again, by Mercedes Lackey

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Publication date – June 9, 2020

Summary: Thirteen year old Prince Kyril and Mags and Amily’s fourteen-year-old son Tory “share” the Gift of Farsight–although neither of them are Chosen. They are self-trained, though currently, their shared Gift only allows them to see what is happening with their immediate family members.

After much debate, the Herald’s Collegium has decided to test and train them anyway. That’s when the surprises start. They do not share a single Gift; they have two complementary Gifts working together in a way that the Heralds have never seen before. Tory is the Farseer–Kee’s Gift is to extend his range beyond a few dozen feet.

Their Gifts become crucial when Mags gets a desperate message from his cousin Bey, the head of the enigmatic assassin-tribe, the Sleepgivers. Bey’s eldest daughter has been kidnapped, but he doesn’t know why or by whom. He’s calling in the debt Mags owes him to find his daughter before it’s too late.

Tory is certain that if anyone can find her, he can. But that will mean traveling out of Valdemar into an unknown, dangerous country.

And it will mean taking a Royal Prince with him.

Thoughts: I assume this is the final novel in the Family Spies series, since each one focused on one of Mags’s children and with this, all of his children have had a novel to themselves, or at least mostly so. I hope it will at least be the end of titles that are strange puns on phrases with words that rhyme with “spy;” thus far, none of the titles really seem to match up with what happens in the novel, except for having a spy in them. The Hills Have Spies didn’t involve hilly regions that needed spying on or had spies hiding out, Eye Spy was just.. I mean, the pun is obvious but it really doesn’t have much to do with the content, and Spy, Spy Again sounds like it could be a story about a spy getting incorrect information and having to ferret out the truth, but that isn’t actually the case.

Spy, Spy Again focuses its attention on Tory, and Prince Kyril, better known as Kee. The two have a strange Gift that works best when they’re together, and it allows them to Farsee anybody they’re related to. They know who they have to keep an eye on, until one day they received a frightened distress call from an unknown person, in an unknown place. Given their joint Gift, this call could only be from someone on Mags’s side of the family, from the Sleepgiver Nation. Kee feels extremely compelled to rush to the aid of this stranger, dragging Tory along with him, and sending them both on an adventure outside Valdemar’s borders that’s unlike any other.

I have to say, this was probably the most interesting novel in the Family Spies series, largely because it did feel very similar to Valdemar stories I’d read in the past. The grand adventure into the unknown, the discovery of seeing new lands and meeting new peoples, and watching the lives of young people get shaped by what they see outside of their comfort zone. But more than that, readers get to see far more of the assassin nation that Mags descended from, a plot point that starred in a previous novel, got a couple of passing mentions in other novels, but never really had the chance to be explored. What sort of people were they? How did they live, when they weren’t killing people for money? Spy, Spy Again doesn’t just keep the spotlight on Kee and Tory, but also shifts to that of Sira, one of the Nation’s people, and the distant relative of Tory’s who sent out the distress call that prompted Kee and Tory into action. Through her actions and observations, readers get to see life inside the Nation, and this adds a fair bit to what was previously a rather flimsy aspect to Velgarth’s world-building.

Like many of the more recent Valdemar novels, however, this one leaves me with questions. Not the sort of questions that could lead to other novels getting written, but just dangling threads that don’t tie up well. Why does Mags speak normally in The Hills Have Spies and for the first little bit of Eye Spy but then switch back to his “country” accent and continue to speak that way right up to this book? If the border around Valdemar that keeps true magic out also prevents thinking about magic in any practical sense, is Tory going to be able to remember much of what he saw of magic when he was outside Valdemar?

We also see the usual spate of internal contradictions that unfortunately seem to plague Valdemar novels. This isn’t a new thing (I found one as far back as the Last Herald-Mage trilogy), but it is frustrating when what gets established in one book gets contradicted in another. The biggest one I can think of here is declaring that when Vanyel set up the barrier to keep Mages out of Valdemar in the first place, he deliberately made it so that people had a hard time even thinking of magic. It was established many many novels ago that for one, Vanyel established that long-lasting spell not to keep Mages out but to make the vrondi (air spirits that Vanyel used in said spell) alert Herald-Mages whenever magic was used within the borders, and with no Herald-Mages to alert, now the vrondi just watch. Endlessly. Driving mages mad, so they either so insane and die, or flee the country. The unintended effect was mages going mad, since Vanyel didn’t really anticipate a lack of Herald-Mages in Valdemar’s future until after he cast that spell. That people couldn’t even really think about magic as anything other than some legendary storytime ability was a very unintended consequence. Not intentional.

It’s things like that which have turned me excitement over new Valdemar novels to trepidation. I still love the world, I really do, but it seems like with every new book, something new is written into the lore that directly goes again something that was previously written. And it boggles my mind that nobody seems to catch this stuff and point it out to her before, you know, letting the books get published. Sometimes the errors are small, like calling Karse’s god Vkanda instead of Vkandis. Other times, the contradictions are large, or result in a timeline in which the timeline gets horribly muddied and makes no sense anymore.

But as I said, that’s not a problem specific to this novel. That’s been a problem for a while. It’s just that as the contradictions add up over time, I start to feel more cautious about reading new novels in the series, because I know in advance that I’m dealing with the works of an author who can’t keep her world-building straight.

At least when it comes to the assassin Nation, nothing really gets contradicted, so there is that. I guess that’s a benefit to writing about a Nation in a state of change. They’re assassins now, Sleepgivers, dealers in death, but change is being worked slowly, through generations, so that they will no longer be assassins for hire, but bodyguards. Given that they also operate out of a country that Valdemar hasn’t had much call to deal with in previous novels, it’s easy to handwave why no Sleepgivers ever popped up again, especially when foreign assassins did show up in other Valdemar novels. It’s a good way to get around that, as well as to add some additional richness to the world.

As I mentioned previously, a lot of Spy, Spy Again felt a lot like earlier novels in the Valdemar series, with their exciting adventures that ave consequences beyond the moment. It was a fun read, and while I still approached with caution, I found myself turning the pages voraciously, eager to keep reading and to find out what happens next. If you have to pick one single book in the Family Spies series to read, make it this one; it’s the best of the bunch, and makes for a comforting yet entertaining fantasy adventure in a much-beloved world.

(And now maybe we can have some stories that have absolutely nothing to do with Mags…)

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Eye Spy, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 9, 2019

Summary: Mags, Herald Spy of Valdemar, and his wife, Amily, the King’s Own Herald, are happily married with three kids. Their daughter, Abidela, dreams of building on her parents’ legacy by joining her father’s network of spies, hoping to offset her seeming lack of a Gift.

But when Abi senses the imminent collapse of a bridge only moments before it happens, she saves countless lives, including that of her best friend, Princess Katiana. The experience, though harrowing, uncovers her unique Gift—an ability to sense the physical strains in objects.

Intrigued by the potential of her Gift, the Artificers seek to claim her as their own—but only the Healers can train her. Through training with both of them, Abi discovers unique facets of her Gift, including a synesthetic connection to objects that allows her to “see” as well as feel the strains.

Her Gift may also grant her a distinct advantage as a spy—there won’t be a building in the entire kingdom of Valdemar with a secret room that she doesn’t know about. With the help of her mentors, she must hone her gift to uncover the hidden secrets in the depths of Valdemar.

Thoughts: It’s nice to read stories about people with Gifts who aren’t Heralds. For the longest time, it seemed like any character that had a Gift in Valdemar was going to be chosen, and for all the author talked in interviews or extra materials about Valdemar that it was most common for Heralds to have no Gifts, we really didn’t get to see much of that actually in the novels themselves. Here, we may not have a Herald with no Gifts, but we do have another characters with Gifts who isn’t a Herald.

Once again we return to Mags’s family, only instead of focusing on Perry, this time the novel focuses on Abi, Mags’s daughter and middle child. Abi is revealed to have a rather unusual Gift, one that allows her to sense, and eventually see, weak points and stresses on constructs, such as buildings or bridges. Not exactly the most useful Gift… unless your job happens to be designing and constructing such things, as Artificers in Valdemar do. Abi studies to become an Artificer, surprising herself with how happy she is with the idea that she’ll be making things that will keep people safe for decades, possibly even centuries. But her story becomes more complex when she’s chosen to travel between a series of villages that are petitioning for entry into Valdemar, and a plot to weaken Valdemar’s reputation is uncovered.

I enjoyed Eye Spy more than I enjoyed The Hills Have Spies. There was far less tension and adventure, but also more insight into how certain under-explored aspects of Valdemaran society worked. Abi’s life may be comfortable but it will never be glamourous, and much of what she did in Eye Spy was almost secondary to her Gift. Her Gift may have gotten her a place to study as an Artificer, but she really only used it a few times through the novel, replying instead on common sense and what she learned about engineering and construction in the tasks placed before her. It was kind of nice to see somebody who had the ability to just say, “No, my magic power says this won’t work,” but who, if she did so, would back that up with the math and science to prove it. Abi’s story could well have been told without her Gift, if she just happened to have a natural aptitude for building and math, and honestly, that’s rather nice to see in a fantasy novel.

Allow me a moment to explain. Sometimes it feels very much like there are two kind of fantasy protagonist. The first is someone who has a particular gift or talent, like magic, or telepathy, or weaponswork, or something of the sort, and they go out and do a job that only they can do. Not necessarily in the sense of being a Chosen One, but in the sense of, “This big thing is happening and it would be great if we had someone who could be there but also quickly relay information back to us, oh hey, look at this guy with strong telepathy!”

The second kind of character is the one who has absolutely nothing extraordinary about them whatsoever, and yet who ends up embroiled in all sorts of adventures because for some reason nobody will leave them alone, or they stumble and fall into something weird.

With Abi, she has a particular talent, but in a practical sense, she needed to back up everything that talent told her with calculations, which required her to learn all the same calculations someone without that talent would learn. She could do a few things more easily than others might, such as finding secret passages built into walls, but most of what she did in Eye Spy wasn’t of that bent. But neither was she a Farm Boy type of character, because she was born to knowledge and privilege and deliberately sought out ways to use what she could do to help people. Her life wasn’t one filled with adventure, or a great calling, but it was useful and full of hard mundane work that was no less important than any other Artificer in the kingdom.

I mentioned in my review of The Hills Have Spies that Lackey has developed this habit of inserting real-world issues into Valdemar novels, not just in ways that are allegories for broader issues, but more in the sense of specific groups or people that she’s sort of porting into Valdemar so that she can have characters comment on them. In one of her previous novels, she had a thing or two to say about the Quiverfull movement. Here, she inserts a character who is described as:

He had a perfectly square face, a shock of blond hair, small eyes, a pouty mouth, and oddly small hands.

Oddly small hands? I… seriously? Is this going where I think it’s going?

He’s later quoted as saying:

“When you’re rich, you can do anything, and they just let you.”

The character’s name is Dudley Remp.

That’s not even close to a subtle way to insert Trump into your fantasy novel.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t disapprove of taking verbal potshots at a certain president. But this presentation isn’t the sort to make much impact. It’s there for a bit of, “Holy crap, did she really write that?!”, and less there to have readers reflecting on, say, what happens when a person like that comes to power. Remp does try for a power grab toward the end of the novel, by working a plot to destabilize foreign trust in Valdemar’s governance, but that’s as far as his threat goes. He’s thrown out of Haven, his father is jailed for crimes, and he later tries to get revenge by… making people in a few border villages think twice about joining Valdemar?

Which those villages didn’t do anyway, because that would mean kicking out the Mages they’ve grown accustomed to. (True magic doesn’t work within Valdemar’s borders.)

Remp isn’t remotely a threat to Valdemar, not the way his real-world analogue is here. And there the allegory fails, because the two just can’t be compared. There’s part of me that wonders if this entire novel was written around the idea of having Remp as an antagonist, and I very much hope I’m wrong, because he’s not much of one. I was far more interested in Abi’s journey of self-improvement than I was about how somebody might work against a country in a way that couldn’t possibly succeed.

Long-time readers of the Valdemar novels will understand what I mean when I say that Lord Orthallen was a much better antagonist, if destabilizing Valdemar was the intent. He was subtle, he had connections, and he had the mind to work things so that everything he did seemed perfectly normal and above-board. Remp couldn’t hold a candle to the threat that was Orthallen, which again, downplays the threat that his real-world counterpart actually embodies.

I do want to take a moment to comment on Abi’s sexuality. I’m going to assume she’s asexual, since that seems to be what things were leading toward, but again, it was never just outright stated. Just sort of danced around. Establishing that neither men nor women have ever made her particular interested is fine, but similar to the issues I had with Felicity in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, asexuality is a legitimate orientation in its own right, and it would be kind of nice for people to acknowledge it in ways beyond, “Oh, I guess I just never really thought about it.” That sort of presentation connects asexuality with a kind of naiveté that doesn’t do ace folk any favours.

Though I will give Lackey credit where it’s due, because unlike Lee’s writing of Felicity in The Lady’s Guide, at least Abi wasn’t presented as being “too busy” for relationships and that’s why she wasn’t attracted to people. Abi had her passions and interests, but no more than any other character, regardless of sexuality.

Though there were some sticking points for me in this book, on the whole, I still feel like Eye Spy was a decent Valdemar novel. Far from essential reading if you’re a fan of the series, but it scratched an itch for stories that weren’t just about Heralds. Abi was surprisingly interesting for a character who was so entrenched in many mundane aspects of life, and I was more compelled to read about her than I was about Perry in The Hills Have Spies, despite the comparative lack of action here. Hopefully the final (?) book of the Family Spies novels will be just as interesting.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Hills Have Spies, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 5, 2018

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.

Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2015

Summary: They came after the Diseray. Some were terrors ripped from our collective imaginations, remnants of every mythology across the world. And some were like nothing anyone had ever dreamed up, even in their worst nightmares.

Monsters.

Long ago, the barriers between our world and the Otherworld were ripped open, and it’s taken centuries to bring back civilization in the wake of the catastrophe. Now, the luckiest Cits live in enclosed communities,behind walls that keep them safe from the hideous creatures fighting to break through. Others are not so lucky.

To Joyeaux Charmand, who has been a Hunter in her tight-knit mountain community since she was a child, every Cit without magic deserves her protection from dangerous Othersiders. Then she is called to Apex City, where the best Hunters are kept to protect the most important people.

Joy soon realizes that the city’s powerful leaders care more about luring Cits into a false sense of security than protecting them. More and more monsters are getting through the barriers,and the close calls are becoming too frequent to ignore. Yet the Cits have no sense of how much danger they’re in-to them, Joy and her corp of fellow Hunters are just action stars they watch on TV.

When an act of sabotage against Joy takes an unbearable toll, Joy uncovers a terrifying conspiracy in the city. There is something much worse than the usual monsters infiltrating Apex. And it may be too late to stop them?

Thoughts: It’s been a while since I first read this book, and I admit, I wasn’t too fond of it the first time around. Knowing that I can get this way with Mercedes Lackey’s more recent books, though, I deliberately let it lie for a while, then picked it up again recently to reread it, to see if my opinions had changes any with the passage of time.

I did enjoy it more the second time around, which I’m happy to say. However, the problems I had with it the first time remained for my second reading.

Hunter was written during the YA dystopia boom and it really shows. Now, Lackey has shown no problem is the past with writing books in popular genres primarily to pay the bills, and in general I have no problem with that, because writing is art and art is work and work deserves to be paid for. I think perhaps it was published a bit too late to really capitalize on that boom, but it hit enough of the tail end of it to still do decently, as both of its sequels have been published between then and now.

A few hundred years in the future, the apocalypse (known as the Diseray, a corruption of Dies Irae) happened, and now the world contains all sorts of malevolent and destructive beasties from the depths of worldwide mythologies. Protecting the remains of humanity from these creatures are the Hunters, people with not only magical talents but also the ability to summon guardian beasts known as Hounds, a pack to guide and fight alongside in the war against Othersiders. In North America, Hunters are required to go to the city of Apex to do their jobs, and that’s where the story begins with Joy, on her way to Apex for the first time.

Once in Apex, Joy finds that not only does she have to protect the citizens there from incursions of Othersiders, but she also has to do so while essentially being a streaming celebrity. Watching Hunters fight monsters is entertainment to the citizens of Apex, and Hunters gain improvements to their lives by rising in the rankings of the entertainment industry. Joy rises quickly through the ranks, but it seems that somebody objects to what she’s doing or how she’s doing it, because she quickly finds herself a target, and whoever has their sights set on her doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.

It’s not difficult to see the real-world inspirations for certain aspects of Hunter. People today stream aspects of their lives through sites like Twitch and YouTube, and become celebrities for it, giving people a way to live vicariously through others, and also providing comfort and inspiration to viewers. “Those celebrities started off with no more advantages than I have; I could be just like them one of these days.” It’s a sentiment I know well. It was employed in an interesting way in Hunter, since drone-cameras follow Hunters nearly everywhere to catch the exciting aspects of their lives, but also the broadcasts are on a delay, allowing editors to change or remove footage that doesn’t play into an established narrative. The governing body of Apex doesn’t want people to know that Othersiders are getting closer and closer to the city’s barriers every day, and so alter footage to make it look like Hunters are further away than they really are. Here we have the “circus” aspect of “bread and circuses;” keep people entertained so that they never wonder about broader complications; make them think they see everything, so they never question what’s happening behind the scenes. The way Lackey handled the discourse on whether stream celebrities are authentic or not was heavy-handed in places, but not entirely unwarranted.

I think my biggest problem with Hunter is its main character, Joy. She’s one of those exceptional can-do-no-wrong characters, and that much is made clear very quickly. She has a larger-than-average pack of Hounds, he’s proficient with multiple weapon types, she’s encountered things that Hunters in Apex haven’t and so gives advice to people who have been doing the job as long as or longer than she herself, right from the get-go. She ascends to near the top of the ratings ranks within a few days of arriving at Apex, she makes friends with powerful people, and she does things that have never been done before, such as acquiring someone else’s Hounds after that person dies, because she’s just that special. She’s no-nonsense and has little time for frivolities, she’s earnest about wanting to protect people when many Hunters want the perks that come with the job, and of course this makes her at least one enemy, especially when she decides she wants to push for Elite ranking after having been in Apex for, what, less than a month?

Frankly, this kind of character gets extremely tiring to read about, because they aren’t remotely believable outside of myth, and for an experienced author like Lackey to write somebody this way feels incredibly amateurish. There’s the oft-repeated advice that characters ought to have flaws, believable and relevant flaws, and no, a character who is beautiful and popular and talented at nearly everything but who, for instance, can’t sing, isn’t a believably flawed character. It doesn’t matter that she can’t sing. That’s not really a flaw. That’s just the lack of a talent. The two aren’t the same. The worst flaw I think Joy has is that she doesn’t suffer nonsense, but it’s handled in such a way that even then, she comes off as somehow the winner. If somebody got in Joy’s face and accused her of not knowing something, she’d just tightly point out that she knows how to figure it out and name off all the resources she’d use, and then people would be impressed by how well she handled the situation. She is (and I hate to use the term) the very image of the Mary Sue that is endemic in so many bad fanfiction pieces, the sort of character aspiring authors are cautioned to avoid writing.

Dislike of character types is a highly personal thing, so I admit that Joy’s presentation won’t bother everybody, but it definitely bothered me. I felt less like I was reading about a real person and more like I was reading about somebody attempting to humanize a hypothetical future fictional hero, and that’s is far more complicated than it needs to be.

For as much as I found the presentation problematic, I am, at least, interested in how the rest of the story plays out in later books. I don’t think they’re books I’ll go out of my way to track down, but if I come across them, I’ll probably give them a try, to see if Joy becomes a more interesting character or if any interesting story elements override my annoyance with her. The city of Apex, as a character, is of more interest to me, because it seems to have many layers to it, most of which depend on keeping citizens ignorant and entertained in equal measure, as well as keeping those who know better either in appalling living conditions and scrabbling to eke out a living, or in plush comfort in exchange for their silence. This riding on the coattails of the dystopian wave, I want to know what’s in store for the city, its ruling body, the systems that keep it running, and I’m more interested in that than I am in Joy McSpecial over here.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

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!)