I think it’s fair to say this book is a rehash of The Last Herald-Mage. The plot is quite similar: misunderstood boy is caught in a tragic incident, which leads to his being Chosen, and then he dies protecting Valdemar in/from a war.
However, the specifics are quite different. And to my surprise, I really enjoyed reading Brightly Burning this time around, although it’s never been my favourite.
Lavan Chitward, our Firestarting hero, doesn’t want to follow his family’s trade. He wants to be a Guard, but knows his family would never support him. They send him to a school, where he is wretchedly bullied by older youths. As his anger and shame rise, an unusually strong power manifests itself…
BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS
This time around, I found the bullying scenes tedious. They felt fast, to me. Also I wanted Lan to bond more with Owyn and that girl, for nuance. I thought, however, that the build-up of Lan’s Firestarting Gift was really well done. Manifesting itself first as terrible headaches and fevers, Lan doesn’t set anything on fire until he is being flogged by those monsters, and then he burns his bullies up.
Because the end is traumatizing, the middle is full of domestic details. Lan adjusting to the Herald’s Collegium. The Healer with the crush on him who steadfastly disbelieves that Lan can be lifebonded to his Companion. Going home to Tuck’s farmer family and milking cows. While the domesticity made the story flag a bit in the middle, I think it does a great job showing Lavan blossom, and setting the contrast that makes his death much more affecting than it might be otherwise. And it is for the most part interesting: the day-to-day side of the Heralds. Lots of delicious details. You really get the feeling that you live Lan’s life too.
Lan’s death was built up well. Unless you already knew Lavan Firestorm was a great tragic hero of Valdemar, you wouldn’t necessarily realize he was going to die at the end. It just sort of comes out of nowhere, the one minute he’s worrying about what he will do after the war, the next he’s up in his own conflagration. Kalira is set up well in this regard—Lan is utterly dependant on her not only because they are lifebonded but because she’s the only one who can control his curse of a Gift. With her gone, there is no possible way Lan could live. And this story entirely avoids the predestination pitfall The Last Herald-Mage had. Every event makes sense. Lan’s story doesn’t need Foresight to guide it. I suppose there’s that little kid at the beginning with a Foresight dream of burning, but honestly I felt that was sensible foreshadowing, because while the book suggests what the kid sees is Lan’s firestorm, the truth is, it could have been Lan burning down the school, the Karsite priests burning their victims, or even any of Lan’s actions pre-climactic firestorm.
Brightly Burning‘s actual ending disappointed me. I was sad when they shot Kalira, quite torn up by the instant change, how finally the malevalent fire-dragon broke free of the constraints and took Lan with it. But that bit at the end with the growing tree—really? That seemed awfully sappy. A clumsy move to pull our heartstrings. In comparison to Magic’s Price’s ending, it was like being shaken by a big person shouting, “BE SAD! BE SAD!” No subtlety at all. No poetic lute enwrapped in roots, quiet and taking up only. one. paragraph. No, this is several paragraphs of our main secondary characters standing around talking about how adversity bred this firecone, and how there’s life in this wretched place, and Valdemar is like the firecone, blah blah. Look, the firecone was a nice image, but it didn’t need its metaphor explained by suddenly wooden mouthpieces. Just end on the image.
It’s interesting, though, that Lan’s story is more tragic than Vanyel’s in some respects. Vanyel lives until his what, mid-thirties, and manages to make peace with his family. He’s fathered four children. He creates the Web, securing Valdemar for generations. He was the hero of a war, and years after that, completely obliterates an army before there’s any chance of war. He accomplished so much—and keeps accomplishing after death.
Lavan isn’t even eighteen when he dies. He’s estranged from his family except Macy. He never learnt to control his power. He never had a chance to build a legacy. It’s possible that he chooses to come back as a Companion or whatever after he dies, but we don’t know that. The Karsites (sensibly, from their point of view) kill his Companion which then kills him, and that’s the end of that. Tragic.
Overall, I think this is a solid Valdemar book. I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already a Valdemar fan, although it would make a good teen book.