Heralds of Valdemar Reviews: Storm Rising

Karal is cute

Storm Rising
Mercedes Lackey
The Mage Storms: Book 2

Reading Storm Rising is like reading How Not To Write A Novel 101. You can actually learn a lot from this book. This one should have been named Storm Warning, as in, Warning, This Is Not A Good Book.

Not to say there aren’t good ideas in the book. I care enough to go over this book in detail because stronger editing and several more revisions this could have been a good book! All the pieces of a novel are here, they’re just arranged badly. Also, it could have done with a lot of cutting. I won’t say this book could be shorter—au contraire, there could have been more expansion, more point-of-views and explored conflicts. But a good half of this book is unnecessary exposition. The rest of the book is… plot-motivated exposition. This book is about 95% exposition and as a result it’s a snoozefest.

The Mage Storms trilogy is supposed to be epic fantasy, or at least as epic as Mercedes Lackey—with her character-focussed narratives and down-to-earth sensibilities—can be. Just keep that in mind. There’s a solid plotline underneath the exposition.

Essentially the plotline is as follows: while the horror of the Mage Storms was effectively stalled in Storm Warning, the ‘solution’ is only temporary. Mages, priests and artificers from Valdemar, Karse, the Shin’a’in/Tayledras/Kaled’a’in (the Alliance) must learn to work with each other and also make a truce with Grand Duke Tremane’s Imperial forces to find the solution to the problem of the Mage Storms.

This is an excellent set-up for lots of character interaction. Unfortunately, as I’ve already mentioned, the exposition robs the text of the tension and momentum needed to make it interesting.
Part of the problem lies in the prose. It’s clunky. Mercedes Lackey’s prose is workaday but not poetic or slick. In many of her books the prose weighs down the action with unnecessary repetitions, awkward phrasing and passive language. For example, all italics mine:  “With the ease of what had become habit, he…” could easily become “With the ease of habit, he…”

“In the anxious concentration on what magic might do to save Valdemar and her allies from the same fate known of in Hardorn, the other projects the artificers and their students had been working on suffered the neglect of the masters” is simply not a good sentence. However it could be condensed into, “In the anxious concentration on how magic could save Valdemar and her allies from Hardorn’s fate, the other projects the artificer students had been working on suffered the neglect of the masters.”

Clunky, ungainly, slowed down prose drains tension and excitement from the narrative. This problem at the micro level of sentences also shows up in the macro structuring of scenes.

Frequently scenes begin with several pages of introspection. Only after slogging through often-unnecessary minutiae and excruciatingly detailed and explained thought processes do we finally get some conversation. Telling, not showing, is the cardinal sin committed here. We are told everything. We need puzzle nothing out for ourselves, because every character is incredibly self-reflective and … very similar in their thought processes. In fact all of the characters seem to think the same way, and nearly all the tension in the interaction comes from characters not talking to one another. When they finally do, there is little-to-no miscommunication, because everyone thinks in the same logical progression. Tremane I guess

Now, as an self-reflective person, I rarely have issues with introspection in fiction. It’s usually necessary at some stage. But it’s a weak way to write if nearly all the conflict in the story comes from blown-up thoughts and minimized interaction. Interaction should be the heart of the conflict. Especially in a story where people—lots and lots of people—need to come together and engineer a solution, there should be a multitude of interpersonal conflicts played out onscreen.

Worse, most of the introspection details either forced angst or interpersonal struggles that we never get to see happening.

BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS

The first major conflict is between Karal and the Shin’a’in envoy Jarim. Jarim mistrusts Karal because of his youth, and because Karal speaks of peace between the Alliance and the Eastern Empire, specifically Tremane’s forces in Hardorn. Jarim can’t comprehend this, because the Empire is responsible for Ulrich’s death (in Storm Warning). This makes sense, and it’s also nice to see some nuance in the characters…

Except nuance is thrown out the window. We never get an understanding of why Jarim acts the way he does. The way this conflict is solved is… alright, I’ll say it, utterly terrible.

An’desha, miraculously over his depression and astonishingly healthy (I’ll get into depression in a bit), spends some time introspecting about his past as Ma’ar. We are once again told all about his backstory. There are more tidbits about Ma’ar thrown in, which are great (I like Ma’ar as a villain). He talks to the Avatars of his Goddess (friends from the Mage Winds books) to get advice. They talk about his past some more. Then An’desha seeks Jarim out. He acts like a Shin’a’in shaman, telling a story to get Jarim to understand his past. And then he tells the story of his past.

Again.

This cover is really uglyAbout this point I nearly threw the book against the wall. An’desha does not have a conversation in his encounter with Jarim. He talks at Jarim. Then the scene changes and a couple pages later, Jarim starts acting fatherly towards Karal. This, after accusing Karal of treachery and causing Karal to have a stress-induced breakdown.

OH, did I mention the breakdown? This is one of several forced angst moments because Mercedes Lackey likes angst a lot. Karal, now the official Karsite envoy, finds his new job stressful. Talia—the super-strong Empath he sees every day at Council meetings—only steps in to help after he breaks down due to Jarim. Then there’s all this about how he almost had a bleeding stomach and he’s very ill and seriously nobody noticed? Altra, his kind wise Firecat, doesn’t seem to care about Karal’s work, and then he just vanishes and doesn’t come back until some plot convenient time.

Speaking of forced angst, let’s just saunter along to the next ‘conflict.’

With An’desha healed, Firesong gets into a funk because he’s upset and jealous that they’re drifting apart. He feels useless, especially after finding out that artificers CAN help with magic, and his intuition is deemed irrelevant. He becomes obsessed over finding a lifebonded partner, upset that An’desha doesn’t want him, temperamental, withdrawn, and then he eventually explodes. Reading his point-of-view is a frustrating annoying slog, because he’s all of a sudden this horribly spoiled unlikeable creature.

Turns out actually it’s all because he’s a Healing Adept (i.e. attuned to the magic of the land) and his emotional state is forced out of whack by the havoc of the Mage Storms.

You know what? That’s actually a really cool notion. It’s handled very poorly, but it’s a great idea. Imagine if we saw this change in Firesong gradually, not through introspection-exposition, but from the eyes of other characters, seeing him become surlier. Imagine seeing him struggle while using magic, or finding a Mage Storm-transformed patch of land and being affected by it… that would be awesome. Instead, as soon as Silverfox explains Firesong’s feelings, Firesong is miraculously cured.

Ah, depression. Once someone explains to you why you’re sad, you just pick yourself up and on you go! Am I right?

Yeah, this happens in Lackey’s works a lot. Look, depression is a serious illness that yes, may come down at once, but usually it’s a gradual thing and even with drugs and therapy it doesn’t let go easily. Oftentimes it never goes away, it just keeps coming back. In the Arrows books, Talia struggles with depression for years. It’s amplified by her Empathy abilities, and she overcomes it with her magic. Vanyel never recovers. He has good days but mostly he just struggles all the time… and that came across as authentic in his books. Here… there’s no need to even use the word depression, and the word gets tossed around so casually. Karal is grieving and stressed. Not depressed. Firesong has a magical illness that isn’t depression. An’desha… could easily be depressed or have PTSD. It’s confusing and unrealistic that he’s so incredibly happy and contented after how down in the dumps he was in the last book. This is something that really frustrates me in Lackey’s work.

Moving on, there’s Tremane. Less said, the better. I skimmed most of the sections, because they were so dull. If I wanted to read inventory lists and survival tips I’d read nonfiction. Fiction is about story, description and especially character. Not incessant listing.

That said, I liked Solaris’s curse. It’s a nifty idea. And you can’t even feel bad for him, since, well, he murdered Ulrich.

SolarisThe ending was hasty. There’s an accident which causes the artificers and mages to come to a solution, then all of a sudden our main characters, sans Tremane, are Gating to the Dhorisha plains. There are so many characters, artificers and mages, all from different backgrounds, it would have been fun to see them interact and study. We never do. We get some conversations, we get the ending, then it’s over.

In fact the entire book I felt like I was just waiting for something interesting, something to really sink my teeth into, and by the end of each scene and ultimately by the end of the book, I ended up confused and disappointed. That’s it? That’s all?

To sum it all up, it’s slow, the characters are handled poorly, and the end, while interesting because the pace picks up, is just a letdown. There is so much room in this book for interactions, for interpersonal conflicts, heck, even a variety of PoVs so that we never get bogged down in someone’s mind exclusively… ultimately, a missed opportunity.

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