Intrigues, and Changes, both by Mercedes Lackey

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

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Publication date – October 5, 2013

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

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

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

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Publication date – October 4, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That part rankled, and seemed very poorly done.

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

Brightly Burning, by Mercedes Lackey

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

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Publication date – June 1, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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