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Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer

Birds Do It, Bees Do It: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Victorian Britons were deeply culturally invested in the idea of mothers as “Angels In The Home,” providing a gentle moral example to their husbands and children. This fantasy proposed that women could act as agents of reform in the British Empire both despite and because of not having the right to own property or vote. Being deprived of legal and political rights excluded women from effective participation in the public sphere, the realm of all politics and business. But these public matters intruded into the private sphere of the household, and women’s concerns extended out of it. Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan would be appalled by Victorian Britain, and it would be in awe of her. In her career in Barrayar’s empire, Cordelia is intimately familiar with the darkest depths of the overlapping portions of the Venn diagram of public and private.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s announcement of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen gave rise to both excitement and trepidation, the last coming from readers who wanted more space opera from their Vorkosigans and less romance than other recent volumes in the series have offered. With due respect to readers who prefer public stories to private ones, or space battles to smooching, for Vorkosigans the categories are inextricably intertwined. In space opera, our heroes go to war. In romance, we get to see them come home. In Cordelia’s case, the space opera has had dramatic personal impacts, and the idea of coming home raises complicated questions. Where is home? What does it mean to go there?

[This is pretty romantic, though.]

The Hero Haven Deserves: Take A Thief

The Valdemar Reread has had a lot to say about Skif. I loved him when he was Talia’s fearless wall-climbing friend, and when he showed Elspeth how to throw a knife. I wasn’t so sure about his darker, whinier side in the Winds trilogy. Skif’s story has some mysterious gaps. Take a Thief offers the missing pieces to the Skif puzzle by laying out the parts of Skif’s childhood that had, until this point, been shrouded in mystery.

Skif had two songs in the collection that appeared at the end of Arrow’s Fall – “Philosophy” and “Laws.” The first of these explains Skif’s irreverent approach to life, and the second implies a dark contrast between life for impoverished urchins in Valdemar and Heraldic idealism. While Lackey preserves the veracity of both songs, Skif’s trajectory in Take a Thief bends toward “Laws.” The Skif we see here isn’t averse to crossing thin ice in a dance, but he’s wrestling with some pretty heavy stuff.

[Trigger warnings for sexual abuse]

Series: The Valdemar Reread

The Multi-Purpose Library of the Future: Memory Prime by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

I picked up Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ 1988 book, Memory Prime, because the cover is amazing. I’m a sucker for action-packed book covers, and this particular juxtaposition of Spock’s head and electrical current suggested a compelling combination of mystery and peril.

Memory Prime was the Reeves-Stevenses’ first published collaboration. Atypically for Star Trek novels, Memory Prime treats the novels that came before it as canon. The Reeves-Stevenses refer to Kirk’s extensive landholdings on Centaurus (described in detail in Brad Ferguson’s Crisis on Centaurus!), and allude to Diane Duane’s Ensign Naraht. Their Klingons speak John M. Ford’s Klingonaase. There is plenty of mystery and peril. [Kai the novelists!]

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