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Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer

Some Notes on the Virtues of Patience: Mercedes Lackey’s Closer to the Heart

When you read a series of books that feature psychic horses, you expect some variation in quality.

Sometimes there are great moments, like when Yfandes ditched Stefan in the snow to stand by Vanyel’s side as he gave his life to protect the kingdom. Sometimes there are stupid moments, like when Gwena blew the carefully constructed plan to have Elspeth properly educated because she couldn’t stop humming. You keep reading because you knew what you were getting in to when you picked up the first book, and there’s no reason to be cruel to the part of you that still wants to know what’s going on in Valdemar, or to waste the hours of thought you’ve devoted to the tax code and the hot water heaters. If you’ve been a Mercedes Lackey fan for a long time, you know that some of the books you need to own so you can read them over and over, and some of them you put on hold at the library.

[I can’t recommend that you pay off your library fines for this.]

Magic and Lyrics: Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On

I was excited to read Carry On because of how much I loved Rainbow Rowell’s previous book, Fangirl. The combination of tension and affection at the heart of the relationship between Fangirl’s protagonist, Cath and her sister, Wren, spoke to me, as did Cath’s emergency supply of “too anxious to eat in the dining hall” energy bars. Cath found relief from the drama of her personal life through her fanfiction about Simon Snow and his friends at Watford School of Magicks. Carry On is the book Cath was waiting for – the final volume in the (tragically non-existent) Simon Snow series. I love that this book now actually exists, and that it is simultaneously so magical and so real.

Cath’s fanfic made Simon Snow sound like a darker, sexier Harry Potter. It was difficult to tell whether that was a result of Cath’s interpretation, or an aspect of the fictional source material that was the focus of her work. Carry On quickly resolves this question. The simple profiles in Olga Grlic’s cover illustration convey a degree of interpersonal chemistry that didn’t appear in the Harry Potter books until Sirius and Lupin forgave each other in Prisoner of Azkaban. The cover blurb from Lev Grossman assures me that I’m not making this up.

[maybe don’t read the back of the book if you’re spoiler-sensitive.]

Mercedes Lackey’s Winds of Fury: Shiny!

When I started this reread, I did not consider myself a fan of the Winds trilogy.

The whole point of re-reading is that it is not the same experience as reading. I still feel that this installment of the series has some major problems. But on the whole, this trilogy, especially Winds of Fury, is kind of like a Christmas tree. There’s a side of it you want to turn towards the wall, but it’s covered in shiny things.

[Read more]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

Mercedes Lackey’s Winds of Change: Bring Me the Finest Cheese Plants in the Land!

Mercedes Lackey’s Winds of Change, book two in the Mage Winds trilogy, has a relatively simple plot. Darkwind and Elspeth work to train their powers and help fix K’Sheyna Vale’s fractured heartstone, while Falconsbane tries to stop them. K’Sheyna calls in Healer-Adept Firesong from K’Treva Vale to help. He chooses an unconventional approach, draining the heartstone of its power. K’Treva’s Mages are pushing that power towards a new heartstone when the power is grabbed and diverted to the Palace in Haven by a mysterious force located in the Forest of Sorrows.

But what I remember most about reading Winds of Change when I was a teenager is that it is the book where Darkwind makes over Elspeth’s wardrobe and the hertasi bring them tapas.

[The hertasi are winning the Velgarth edition of Top Chef]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

Mercedes Lackey’s Winds of Fate: Valdemar Needs A Mage

Winds of Fate follows on the heels of By the Sword by picking up at the point where Elspeth becomes the acknowledged protagonist. She has been protagonisting covertly since the day she put a knife in Orthallen, an event she never speaks about. Observant readers might have noticed that Elspeth did not appear in the Last Herald Mage trilogy. But whatever. We knew how that story was going to end years in advance. The narrative purpose of that trilogy was to make sure we all know that Vanyel is one of Elspeth’s ancestors. Elspeth also played a minimal role in By the Sword, the book that ensured that she got a magic sword. Winds of Fate is the first book to deal directly with Elspeth being a Mage.

The book opens with Elspeth fending off an assassination attempt in her pottery studio. Faithful followers of the Valdemar re-read will have noticed that I am deeply suspicious of Companions. At this point, I suspect them of taking out the hit on Elspeth themselves. It’s not that the Companions want Elspeth dead. She is the prettiest princess in the land, and absolutely their favorite. They want her (and Gwena, her top-secret Grove Born Companion) packed off to Rethwellan to train her Mage-gift.

[They’ve gone to great lengths to arrange this.]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

By the Sword: Companions

By the Sword ends with a series of battles. The Skybolts, in combination with the Heralds and Valdemar’s regular army take on Ancar’s troops. Kerowyn’s initial strategy is to lead Ancar’s troops into a series of traps and drag them up the border towards Iftel. Daren is expected to come up from the south with the Rethwellan regulars. Ancar’s army proves larger and more inexhaustible than anticipated, and Daren and his troops are nowhere in sight. The Heralds plan to extract Selenay to a place of safety while the Skybolts make a last stand. Then, miraculously, Daren’s troops flank the Hardornens.

These events are dramatic because they aren’t just propelling the characters—they’re reshaping the entire kingdom of Valdemar.

[Whee, plot!]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

By the Sword: The March

In last week’s blog post, Kerowyn committed to hauling herself and her mercenary company from Bolthaven (location unknown, but likely in or near Rethwellan), to Valdemar to fulfill Rethwellan’s promises, defend the realm from the evil sorcery of Ancar of Hardorn and his former nanny, answer the stirrings of Need, and possibly be reunited with her lover, the Herald Eldan.

It’s been a long time since Hulda appeared in the books, even though it’s only been a year or two since the characters on the page had to deal with her. When last we saw Hulda, she was all-but-humping Ancar’s leg while torturing Talia. The time before that, she was plotting evilly with parties unknown (but almost certainly Orthallen) to deprive Elspeth of the throne—she sort of graduated from a plot to ruin the life of an innocent child to a plan to arrange a marriage between that child and another kid who she had more successfully corrupted.

[All Roads Lead to Elspeth]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

By the Sword: The Pig

This section opens with a quiet little chapter in which Kerowyn’s cousins sell some horses to the Valdemaran military. A delegation from the Valdemaran Guard has come to the Bolthaven horse fair because they heard the horses were good, and because of Kerowyn’s reputation. Which they obviously learned about from Eldan, in case you thought he might have moved on.

This incident reveals that every concern I’ve ever raised about Valdemar’s military and its funding was totally true, plus a few extras. The military is critically short of resources with which to fight Hardorn, a country they thought was an ally until just a couple months ago. The war is expected to be difficult and costly. While negotiating over the horses, Selenay’s delegation reveals that the regular army doesn’t field light cavalry or horse archers, but some of the nobility have private armies that do. Given the fractiousness of Valdemar’s nobility, their involvement in a number of conspiracies to weaken or overthrow the monarchy in the past 20 years, and the recent death of Lord Orthallen at the hands of Lady Elspeth, I can think of few ideas worse than allowing the nobility to maintain private armies that have resources and capacities the regular army does not. Machiavelli would have recommended against this! Also, he would have suggested that perhaps the Heralds could get by with a slightly less generous program of tax rebates. And that maybe someone should look into the goals and political interests of the psychic horses.

[Machiavelli is gravely concerned about Valdemaran politics.]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

By the Sword: The Price of Command

Before I do anything else this week, I need to apologize. I suggested that this week’s blog post would feature a pig. And alas, it will not. I got overexcited and neglected to count chapters. It’s coming next week.

This week, the book starts a new section titled “The Price of Command.” The most obvious price Kerowyn is paying for command is her sex life.

Which is a huge relief. If the burden of command is loneliness, the burden of blogging a re-read is finding something interesting to say every time two characters hook up (and then again when their psychic horses comment on their hook up). That’s not hard when the scenes themselves are interesting. And there are some – I like the Kero/Daren scene, and there would be quite the hole in the Last Herald-Mage trilogy with no sex. To be really worthwhile, a sex scene has to be the most important thing happening in the story at the moment that it occurs. It has to tell us something about the characters, and it has to contribute to the plot. Most of the sex in the Valdemar books is pointless. I would rather these characters kept their pants on and had pleasant conversations about non-romantic topics. I would prefer that these conversations be related to the plot, but I keep a running list of acceptable alternatives. These include, but are not limited to; Weather, regional cuisine, the lyrics to “The Crafty Maid,” road maintenance, seasonal infectious disease outbreaks, and comparative politics.

[I am thrilled that Kerowyn is currently celibate.]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

By the Sword: Skybolts

Having crept away in the night, leaving Eldan with a pile of snacks and a note, Kerowyn returns to Menmellith to rejoin the Skybolts.

Menmellith is a small country sandwiched between Karse and Rethwellan. According to Kero’s correspondence with Daren, Menmellith was a fractious border area in Rethwellan until it was granted its independence. States don’t usually give up chunks of territory. Even lands that are not valuable in their own right are usually seen as worth keeping out of enemy hands. In this case, Rethwellan was hoping to realize some cost savings consequent to no longer being directly responsible for Menmellith’s defense. As a practical matter, however, it would be bad for Rethwellan if Menmellith were overrun by Karse. Rethwellan chose to deal with the strategic drawbacks of Menmellith’s independence by extending a loan to Menmellith’s ruling council so that it could hire mercenaries to secure its borders.

[Further information about Menmellith is not available at this time.]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

By the Sword: Kero and Eldan, Sittin’ in a Tree

Titling this blog post was a struggle.

Last week I used a location. Kerowyn’s location is kind of a big deal in these chapters, so I could have stuck with that theme and called this “Karse.” The week before that, I used a career milestone, so I could have returned to that theme and called it “Skybolts.” Or, I could be really honest about the central focus of what I’m about to write.

If you’ve gotten this far, you already know how that went.

[Let’s talk about how we got there!]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

By the Sword: The Tower

This section is a classic.

There are a lot of books where a character runs away from home and sells their sword. There are a lot of books where a teenage character finds a mentor. The world of fantasy is full of magical artifacts that compel characters into interesting and improbable situations. And people fall in love and then back out of it every day of the week.

And then there’s this section of By the Sword, which has all of those things in the best possible way.

[This is my favorite part.]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

By the Sword: The Ride

Mercedes Lackey doesn’t exactly play her cards close to her chest. Sure, sometimes you get an unexpected descendant of Vanyel or a series of events that seems like it must be Orthallen’s fault but which is never actually confirmed to be his doing, but major events are usually foreshadowed well in advance. If foreshadowed is the right word for “discussed in detail by multiple characters before the trilogy in which this event is the climax is even dreamt of by readers.”

And so it is with The Ride, which was featured in one of the songs that was included in the liner notes at the end of Arrow’s Fall.

[The action in the book goes down pretty much exactly as the song said it would, but with less meter and more context.]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

By the Sword: We’re not in Valdemar Anymore

Originally published in 1991, By the Sword expands on a song that was included in Heralds, Harpers, and Havoc. The song, “Kerowyn’s Ride,” featured a girl who rides to the rescue of her brother’s bride after her family is attacked by raiders. This story is not set in Valdemar, which is kind of a relief. I love Heralds and their political projects that somehow never seem to address the issue endemic poverty in Valdemar’s urban areas. But their focus on fairness and the way their relationships with their Companions accelerate their emotional maturity WHILE YET leaving them completely neurotic, does get a little repetitive.

The world building that went into Valdemar isn’t wasted though, because By the Sword is still set on Velgarth.

[That’s why there’s a Companion on the cover.]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

The Last Herald Mage: The End

We read about Vanyel’s death for the first time in the opening pages of Arrows of the Queen. We read about it again in Magic’s Promise when Vanyel got his ForeSight and started dreaming about it. We already know that Vanyel dies, that he dies for Valdemar, and that he dies alone. Chapter 19 offers no hope of escape or survival—Vanyel is a dead man walking.

First-time readers might have been waiting for a female Herald to take Stefan to safety. But that was Talia’s daydream, not the historical record. Otherwise, Vanyel’s final moments are exactly what we’ve been led to expect. Vanyel himself notes the similarities between the situation and his dreams, as if readers might fail to notice. We also know what happened to Vanyel after he died—the forest he guards almost killed Talia in Arrow’s Flight. There’s no point in re-reading for plot here.

[The last chunk of this book is all about the details.]

Series: The Valdemar Reread