The Mage Storms: Book 1
This book opens with a description of the Iron Throne, made of the weapons of the fallen countries the Eastern Empire has consumed. Sounds familiar? Storm Warning (1994) was published two years before A Game of Thrones (1996), so I wonder what it was about the mid-90’s that iron chairs were so fashionable.
When I first read these books at 13, I thought they were the worst, most boring Valdemar books yet. Reading them again, I’ve refined my opinion, but I still think they’re not exactly edge-of-your-seat excitement. The pacing is horrible, to start with. There’s a lot of interesting elements, but they’re often brushed aside.
Mercedes Lackey should not write from her antagonist’s point-of-view. It drains the tension right out of the story. Emperor Charliss tells us what he is going to do, and he sends his pick for heir of the emperor, Tremane, to Hardorn. The problem here is that there’s no real antagonism. Charliss is set up like a terrifying emperor, but while we’re safe in his head, there’s no tension. We know he likes Tremane and is testing him. There’s no immediate action, just pages of exposition and ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue. Why should the reader care about the Eastern Empire? Why are they threatening? It’s all well and good that there is a big Empire who wants to eventually conquer Valdemar, but could we please see it, and with some urgency? If this intro had been written from Tremane’s point-of-view, we might have fear and anticipation of what the emperor wants, worry of failing, puzzlement…
From the get-go, I can tell this is going to be a yawner of a book.
An’desha, who, in the Mage Winds trilogy, was freed from Falconsbane’s control, is depressed. His story-arc is quite frustrating, because it’s just pages of being in his head while he’s depressed and scared and withdrawing from other characters. Now, sometimes that works. For the most part, I think the Vanyel books pull off the social isolation of depression. Vanyel is a unique character. He had lots of things going on in his life all at once. Subsequent angsty mages in Valdemar all come across as Vanyel knock-offs. Because An’desha is only one of a whole heap of relevant characters in Storm Warning, he’s not given the same focus as Vanyel. We’re supposed to Feel his Pain, but his emoting isn’t anchored to anything he does and it’s hard to care about him. His struggle is to learn magecraft, but he’s terrified he’ll wake up or turn into Falconsbane. Meanwhile he has vague premonitions of doom. Way too many pages are spent on An’desha’s internal monologue, and with little ultimate payoff.
Karal, a Karsite priest-in-training, is travelling with his wise old master Ulrich to Valdemar as emissaries from the Son of the Sun, Solaris, who has made a truce with Valdemar and become their ally. (This happened off-screen during the Mage Winds books, when Talia became a priest of the Sunlord.) They spend forever traipsing around the Valdemaran countryside with Karal gradually realizing Heralds aren’t evil, yadah yadah, and while Karal is a likeable character, this part of the book is dull.
There’s a lot of moping in this book. Karal and An’desha are lonely and only really meet each other fairly late in the book, and Talia has to bring it up first. The fun characters that I really want to see interacting with Karal and the rest of the cast, namely the Firecat Altra, Florian, and even the engineers, weren’t there as often as the omnipresent moping. Florian especially felt like a missed opportunity. I wondered where a relationship between a Companion and a priest-envoy would go, but it never really gets explored. Florian says he’ll help Karal learn and understand Valdemar, but then that all happens off-stage. A lot of the internal work could have been explared entertaining dialogue and interaction between Karal and Florian. Likewise Altra, the sassy Firecat, dips in and out of the text and really doesn’t seem to do much but be vague, and then lonely and angsty.
So. Much. Unwarranted. Angst.
The Mage Storms that are ravishing the land and causing pockets of bizarre flora and fauna to appear are cool. The magic is interesting. But we don’t see them in action. We only hear reports, and then see the results when Karal flies out with gryphons to map and analyze the affected regions. Which is cool, don’t get me wrong, but again, it’s very exposition-heavy and very light on the actual action, which insulates us from tension and prevents the stakes from ever feeling like they actually matter.
The scenes with Tremane in Hardorn are so dull I can barely remember what happens. The whole subplot with the artist-mole-assassin feels wedged into the narrative and largely forgettable. It’s sad when Ulrich dies but it also feels quite unnecessary: shoe-horned so that Karal can take the larger role of ambassador instead of novice/clerk. Fridged, you might say.
The subplot I really enjoyed was the struggle between Firesong and the Blues/engineers. Firesong believes magic works in the way of art and intuition. He’s appalled by the suggestion that it follows rules and patterns that could be understood by applied logic and scientific reasoning. The fact that both approaches could be sound and integrated was a fitting resolution, and the academic/emotional struggle felt true and real to me.
Another thing I liked was An’desha’s explanation towards the end of how Ma’ar’s mind worked. The idea that once he served his people and did so very well, but became warped through a lack of self-reflection, empathy, and too many reincarnations makes sense. An’desha’s struggles could have been written so well, if the angst had been condensed and if more struggle could have been shown in scenes.
I was also amused by Karal’s reaction to Kerowyn, because she’s Hot. Since Kero never sees herself from the point-of-view of a straight teenage male, I never really gave much thought to how attractive she might be. I actually think that’s a strength of Lackey’s writing: when we’re in Kero’s head in By The Sword, she’s confidant with herself and her sexuality. In Karal’s head, she’s very attractive but he also respects her as a subject instead of an object.
Ultimately Storm Warning is boring not because of its plot—which has so much going for it—but because of a lack of heavy red pen. There’s simply too much exposition. It feels like narrative summary instead of a novel. The exposition cheapens the action, it cheapens the inner turmoil, and turns what could be a very deep, tense, insightful and imaginative book into a frustrating sludge of missed opportunity.