Jun 27 2012 3:30pm

Pleasant Can’t Be Everything. Home from the Sea by Mercedes Lackey

A review of Mercedes Lackey’s book Home From The SeaMercedes Lackey’s “Elemental Masters” series uses a straightforward system and framework of elemental magic to engage with and rework fairytale material. There’s typically a strong element of romance in the bargain, as you might expect due to the fairytale source content. Home From The Sea, the eighth book, involves characters and organizations from the rest of the series. It can be read on its own without much confusion or loss of meaning, though familiarity with and fondness for the returning characters might deepen your enjoyment of seeing them again here.

Home From The Sea follows a young Welsh girl named Mari Protehero, living in the Edwardian era. Unbeknownst to Mari, for countless generations her family has been committed to a bargain with the Selch, which involves marrying a member of their clan and producing children to swell the Selch’s dwindling ranks. The novel also follows Nan and Sarah, two supernatural adepts and recent graduates of a secret training school for young people with unique gifts. The two girls are sent by a patron of the school and senior wizard to investigate Mari, whose strength as a Water Master (and the danger that strength might pose, if misused) has come to his attention.

Lackey’s been mind-blowingly prolific for decades now. Her prose and characters show a craftswoman’s fundamental skill, born of plenty of practice. Home From The Sea is easy to engage with and pleasant, both to read and in most of its subject matter. The novel is touching at unexpected points. The ghosts Sarah encounters well-drawn, and provoke emotion in excess of their limited page space. The episode with the dark Mari Lwyd, a sinister hobby horse at the core of a local tradition, is uncanny. Yet some things that could easily bulk up the novel’s emotional substance are mysteriously overlooked. Mari’s mother and brother, gone to live with the Selch clan, never show up, not even when the plot arc and Mari’s increasing familiarity with the Selch would seem to demand such an important encounter. The possibility of their meeting again, or the desire to do so, never seems to occur to anyone.

But while the book feels confidently written, it also sometimes feels rushed, or paint-by-numbers. This novel’s an easy read, but it’s not Lackey’s best, and in general I think it might greatly benefit from more ambition and attention. Excepting the core premise, which is entirely unfolded early-on, and the last forty five or so pages, the plot’s almost non-existent. Problems which could have advanced the plot are surmounted very easily, often with the help of Nan and Sarah’s overpowered magical bestie.

Instead we loiter, unhurried, to watch Meri’s Magical Bildungsroman, even as Nan and Sarah loiter in Wales. Lingering in the story for the sheer pleasure of doing so is all well and good. But nice as all these descriptions of tasty seafood and the processes of learning to do magic are, it’s as unclear to me why we need to be here for the bulk of the story as it is why Nan and Sarah haven’t been called back from their endless summer vacation to do some real work somewhere else once they figure out Mari’s not a magical axe murderer. It’s valid to have a Training Montage book if you’re going somewhere with that, but I’m not sure the series intends to go further with Mari in a meaningful way. And even within the Training Montage book itself, I expect more in the way of other plot events and movement towards a larger meaning (as with the first Harry Potter book, for example) than Home From The Sea gave me.

What the novel offers instead of a strong plot is a strong sense of place. This is established through the persistent interweaving of quotidian details. I particularly appreciate the detail put into descriptions of Mari’s regular tasks, and the realistic skill with which she executes them. This is the sort of woman’s work that keeps rural communities afloat, and which is typically undervalued and glossed over in genre texts set in the past or fantastic versions thereof.

While the novel’s progressive values sometimes feel a bit heavy-handed, I appreciate that they’re there, expressed in ways that don’t feel tremendously anachronistic or out of character. The novel is unexpectedly interested in the relativity of privilege and the uneven progress of advancement. Books that discuss of the great and glorious British Empire and the noble orders of benevolent, wise, super-privileged men running it that don’t flag any of this up are self-indulgent and limited. Sarah has a conversation with a male supernatural adept about her inability to take a formal degree at Cambridge, and people mention (perhaps too often) that while the patron who sent them on this mission is a nice person and their friend, he still has some classism and sexism blind-spots that annoy the crap out of them and limit his ability to perceive and deal with problems.

Lackey similarly does a good job dealing with the center-periphery and ethnic tensions that have defined England’s relationship with Wales. Home From The Sea avoids collapsing the Welsh into a monolithic happy or downtrodden simple peasant folk with quaint and quirky ways. The local Squire and his family are viewed as quasi-English despite having lived in the area for generations. There’s a nasty Welsh constable with pretensions of belonging to the larger colonial infrastructure of power. Such variation within the community shows a realistically complicated colonial dynamic.

I really like the novel’s inclusion of period “church or chapel” debates, which enrich this sense of heterogeneity. People in the past cared passionately about the nuances and practicalities of debates and social systems we no longer really connect with. It’s excellent when a historical novel doesn’t overly rely on the big events everyone recognizes, and instead invokes the underlying differences in worldview that gave the past its altered social texture.

Despite these deft touches, if you’re looking for more than quite light entertainment, you won’t find it here. The novel uses its fairytale material more as a backdrop than a source of material to explore in challenging, compelling ways. Not everything has to be a Great Work, and not everything has to say something huge and important about tough issues, but Home From The Sea isn’t quite good enough at being the kind of book it is. It’s not especially fun. Barring a handful of good moments, it’s not very emotionally involving. It’s readable and pleasant, but it should be better, and perhaps if more time were spent on it, it could be. I remember really liking Lackey’s work when I was younger, but now I find I can’t tell whether earlier books worked harder, or whether I just expected less at that age.

Erin Horáková is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.

Devin Singer
1. DevinSinger
I have not been totally thrilled with much of Lackey's recent work, but I think the Elemental Masters series is particularly weak. The core problem seems to be that the fairy tale structure dictates the plot, and Lackey is not all that interested in pushing the bounds of that structure to inject any urgency. So we get books that are utterly predictable, because the plot arc is driven by whichever fairy tale is the basis, and the plucky orphan characters and whatnot are straight out of Lackey's particular incarnation of Central Casting. I assume they are paying the bills, because she keeps writing them, but I really wish she'd move back to original work. Between these, her Luna imprint fairy tale series, and her City of Heroes-knockoff superhero books, she really hasn't been stretching her wings much lately that I've seen.
Erin Horakova
2. ErinHoráková
@jpreacher That feels like a really good assement of how a framework that could be a great jumping-off platform becomes a force for innertia with this series. And the from-a-set-of-molds characters are fine-ish, but never particularly great, and what makes it *worse* is that they're not very capable of driving plots, because there's not really enough to them to make that work. Also, I don't know much about Lackey as a person, but how much can she really need the money? She's been popular for a bajillion years. Surely it's time for some 'for the love' high-investment projects.
3. BKWilson
I'm less a fan of the Elemental Masters series for her fairy tale rewrites, but a huge fan of the Thousand Kingdoms arch. Same idea, different execution. Lackey, like many of my favorite childhood fantasy writers (~coughTamoraPiercecough~), still heavily pushes the romance angle, even while writing strong female characters. It gets to the point where you go, "this chick was just kicking someone's face and now she's weak-kneed over some dude? Wtf?"

I'll likely pick up this book when it finally shows up at the library, but I don't think I'll seek it out.

Off topic(?): Lackey is also one of the first writers that I ever read to include homosexual characters in her stories and, honestly, I would LOVE to see that angle in the fairy tale rewrites more than anything else.
4. Lsana
I'll admit that I really liked the Elemental Masters series when it first started, but I haven't cared for the more recent ones. It think there are a couple reasons for my feelings. First of all, I thought that the early ones were better at integrating the fairy tales into the world. They felt like fantasy novels set in Victorian/Edwardian times, and the fairy tale elements were so seemlessly integrated into them that it was possible to miss the fact that you were reading Beauty and the Beast or Snow White. Later, though, it seemed more like elements of the world were being created on the spot because the fairy tales required them.

Second, so many of the elements that were interesting in early books just aren't interesting the eighth time you read them. Maya's training montage was interesting, because I was learning about how the magic worked right along with her. By the fourth book, however, it was more along the lines of "Again? I've done this already."

Overall, I just feel this series ought to be finished. It produced some good books, but it seems to be tapped out.
5. ces
Lackey's books have always been romance books - I knew that after reading my very first Lackey book, Arrows of the Queen. I've read all of her books over the past 32 years, and although the first book in each of her different series usually starts out strong, each successive book is weaker and weaker. And so it is with this series - Compass of the Rose was good, but from there it's all been downhill.
Erin Horakova
6. ErinHoráková
@BKWilson Oh, maybe I should check out Thousand Kingdoms then (also much much love for Pierce--though I like the Alanna and Daine series far more than the other books). DITTO re: homosexual elements.
Erin Horakova
7. ErinHoráková
@Lsana: That's a really interesting point re: how the series works with the world, and makes me want to maybe make time for the earlier books.

Yeah, I really see what you mean, re: repition of the Training Sequence--that's actually something my editor also pointed out, which we cut for space/flow.
Erin Horakova
8. ErinHoráková
@ces: Yeah, I hadn't quite thought of her in that light, but I think you're right.
Shelly wb
9. shellywb
I just wanted to say that I thought this was a very well thought out and presented review. Thanks!
Erin Horakova
10. ErinHoráková
@shellywb Awh, thanks, that's very kind of you!

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