Heralds of Valdemar Reviews: Owlknight

Owlknight

Owlknight
Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon
Darian’s Tale: Book 3

And so it ends. Remember how, despite its many, many flaws, I enjoyed Owlsight? Not so with Owlknight. Not even a little. Nothing about this book really stands out to me. It had more plot than Owlsight, but it wasn’t terribly interesting, given that the characterizations of … everyone really … was so poor.

Basically, everyone lost their personality and gained forced problems in place of personality. Never a good way to keep a reader’s attention. A good way to break a reader’s trust. Darian never really had much in the way of personality, but Keisha felt downright unlikeable in this book, as did Shandi, and their sibling relationship had no dynamics, no nuance, no subtlety. This happens time and again in later Lackey books, but a character will psychoanalyze another and chide them for behaviour—for example, this happens when Shandi berates Keisha for fearing Darian might leave her for another, and when Keisha berates Shandi for repressing her fear and taking it out on everyone later in the story—and then the chided character will suddenly straighten their spine, set back their shoulders and agree.

Uh, no? Have you ever observed human behaviour? That’s not how people work. You can’t just point out their problems and expect them to salute and go, “I’ll straighten those out-of-line emotions. Right away!” Changing emotions have to be learned and earned, and this process is preferably shown to the viewer. I think we all know by now that showing is not Lackey’s strong suit.

So this happens… often.

Which manages to wrench all the interest out of what little interpersonal drama there is.

After a very slow beginning where Darian is given a bunch of titles and put through a bunch of ceremonies that also don’t feel earned (except, perhaps, his trial to gain Mastery of magic), the plot finally revs up. Darian wants to know what becomes of his parents, so he enlists his friend Wintersky, Snowfire’s brother),to help him track them down.

BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS

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Heralds of Valdemar Reviews: Owlsight

Owlsight

Owlsight
Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon
Darian’s Tale: Book 2

Right, so, upfront, this is… not a good book.

But I freakin’ loved (almost) every moment of it.

I don’t know why. I guess this is why I consider Mercedes Lackey a guilty pleasure. Actually, no, scratch that, I know exactly why I like this. It’s a low tension, detail-focussed day-to-day of life in the rebuilt Errold’s Grove and in the k’Vala, and later k’Valdemar, Vale. Our new character, Keisha, (I knew I remembered a girl!) struggles to be the responsible Healer Errold’s Grove needs. She has to deal with her mundane, yet human, reactions and feelings: her mother is overbearing, her beloved sister is newly Chosen and gone to the capital, she doesn’t have enough training to shield herself from other people’s emotions. Meanwhile, Darian explored the k’Vala vale, learns from new teachers, has a casual fling with a pretty girl, and otherwise just sort of putters around being Darian.

But I get ahead of myself.

Owlsight picks up the story four years after the events of Owlflight. We start with Keisha, a practical down-to-earth Healer with limited training and some family issues. Eventually we learn more about Darian, and near the middle of the book the the two finally meet up and things start happening very quickly when nothing had happened previously.

Yes, like Owlflight, Owlsight is a short story padded with plot-irrelevant detail. It almost succeeds as a character-driven drama. It fails as the novel its climax wants us to believe it is: something more epic. The usual Lackey pitfalls of too much narrative summary in place of scenes, clunky structure, poor pacing, and overly-psychoanalyzed characters prevent the nuance and focus needed for a character-driven drama. The detail padding and poor structure absolutely bar this book from ‘epicness.’

But let’s talk about how it almost succeeds. Our primary conflicts are all interpersonal. Keisha struggles with her feelings towards the Choosing of her sister Shandi, with her overprotective mother who cannot understand that her children have grown up, with her relationship to the Errold’s Grove as a village. Nowhere is anyone vilified; it’s simply a struggle because that’s the way people are. Keisha is easily the best written character in the book, because she’s human, she has troubles, but they’re so easy to relate to. She’s not angsty or depressed, like many of Misty’s protagonists. She gets shit done. She’s assertive and coming into her own, but it’s still a struggle. This is great, fertile stuff for a book. It’s a shame this wasn’t the focus.

Owlsight does what I really wish more fantasy books did: focus on the day-to-day interpersonal dramas of people living in a fantasy land. Errold’s Grove is nothing like a medieval village, really. The people rely on a magical Healer. A Herald, absolutely good at heart, comes through to adjudicate every so often. A magical telepathic white horse can come and Choose someone. There are wild beasts that are created by the Changecircles caused by the mage storms. The village is hurting because they need a village wizard. This is cool! The worldbuilding provides both a different aesthetic and different problems for the protagonists to face. In a stronger author, it would add layers of metaphor as well.Owlsight

I find this kind of story very refreshing. The truth is, I don’t like fantasy because of epic quests and battles, because of its black and white morality. These are things I tire of in fantasy. I like fantasy because I love the aesthetic, because I love the potential. Technically, anything can happen in a fantasy novel. In practice, authors usually copy The Lord of the Rings. The Epic Grand scale is far too often the focus—even Misty can be guilty of this, though one of the reasons I like her books despite their flaws is that she does write about practical things. However, it’s rare that Misty focusses on the mundane quite like this, since she usually has more plot, and her characters are usually fantasy stock: warriors (Tarma, Kero, Skandranon) or mages (Vanyel, Kethry). Talia was an excellent exception; Keisha is in a similar mode.

My main (silly?) beef with the story is that we really don’t see much of Kuari. At the end of Owlflight, I expected the next story to be full of Darian bonding with Kuari and it would be super cute. This book does not have enough cute Bondbird moments. I feel cheated of a forming relationship just as I did with Karal and Florian in Storm Warning.

BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS

To be honest, I don’t have much more to say. The plot kicks up at the end, as a different clan of northern barbarians come with a terrifying illness that Keisha must heal. It’s resolved very quickly.

Firesong is back, too, as Darian’s mysterious teacher. Firesong has clearly matured since Need exploded over him, and it’s a nice change. Also, plot twist! Starfall is Firesong’s father! I find that pretty adorable.

Like I said, this is not really a good book. It’s mind candy. It almost succeeds, and I rather wish it had, because then I could recommend it unconditionally. I really like the worldbuilding and the conflicts presented, but I long for more nuance and subtlety, and while we’re wishing, a stronger prose style. Ultimately I’d rate this as enjoyable fluff. If you want a light read, go for it.

Heralds of Valdemar Reviews: Owlflight

Accuratish cover

Owlflight
Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon
Darian’s Tale: Book 1

I… remember nearly zilch about these books. Under the spoiler cut I’ll say what I do remember, but by and large, this book seemed very fresh and new (insofar as a Mercedes Lackey book can be new, considering how many of her books I’ve read, which is nearly all of them). For once I’m almost as unprepared as Mark of Mark Reads.

Owlflight is about Darian, an 13 year old orphan who his village insists must be grateful to them, because they have—against his wishes—apprenticed him to the elderly wizard Justyn. His village is Errold’s Grove, on the far northwest border of Valdemar, on the edge of the Pelagiris Forest. Darian’s trapper parents were viewed with suspicion by the villagers, so as a result they speak ill of them often, which makes it hard for young Darian to grieve properly, as you might imagine. However, his troubles soon escalate when a marauding band of barbarians, the Bear Clan, come attacking Errold’s Grove.

Many issues the Storms books had are not present in Owlflight. We’re tightly focussed on Darian, and later, his Hawkbrother mentor Snowfire. That’s all, apart from a brief section in Justyn’s head. Tight characters, and they actually do things. There’s actually action!

That being said, this novel felt much more like a very padded short story to me. Much of the action’s tension was drained away not so much by endless exposition, as in the Storms books, but by telling the action in two point of views in separate sections. This overlapping largely occurs near the beginning. Still, this book doesn’t really plod. It’s not long enough to plod.

Pretty!

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Heralds of Valdemar Reviews: Storm Breaking

Karal is cute

Storm Breaking
Mercedes Lackey
The Mage Storms: Book 3

Right. The torture ends. We come to Storm Breaking. I finally get to stop reading the Mage Storm books! This took a bit longer than I expected to read, because, well, the prose annoyed me. Frequent breaks were necessary. That being said, I found it marginally better than Storm Rising.

See, at the beginning, we actually have… conversations! And banter! And because this is the (not-so-)grand finale, there were more scenes and the speed picked up. From a crawl to a walk. Progress!

Plot is as follows: the Storms have returned again. From their analysis, our protagonists know that biggest Storm is yet to come, one which will bring a second Cataclysm and warp the face of the earth—unless they can stop it. Also we find out what the deal is with Iftel, the mysterious country with the impassable border.

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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
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Heralds of Valdemar Reviews: Storm Warning

Really love this art

Storm Warning
Mercedes Lackey
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.

Actually quite pretty.
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Heralds of Valdemar Reviews: By the Sword

Ooh. Tacky.
By the Sword
Mercedes Lackey
Standalone

By the Sword is an example of Lackey at her thematic best. Not so much structure-wise, but that’s ok. I can forgive that (others may disagree). By the Sword is really three short stories, roughly tied together into a novel by our heroine Kerowyn (it rhymes!).

The filk song came first, the book after. I like the song and I like the story, and I enjoy how other Valdemar books make reference to the song. (Kerowyn, in the tradition of her grandmother Kethry and Tarma, hates the song.)

Have I ever mentioned how much I love filk?

This book is almost like a fourth Oath book. Kethry had a brood, and one of her daughter’s offspring is Kero: wannabe hero.

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