Peril vs. Ponies: Mercedes Lackey’s Closer to Home

Mercedes Lackey published her first novel in 1987. Since then, she has been incredibly prolific, producing over a hundred books. Her new novel, Closer to Home, is the thirty-first in her Valdemar series.

Given her speed of production, it’ s not surprising that her work tends to be kind of pulp-y. There is a fine and long-standing tradition of trading craft for volumes in Science Fiction and Fantasy (as in other genres), and a number of writers who have made this particular deal with the devil are much-beloved. Lackey’s work has sometimes been ground breaking and it’s a mistake to not take her seriously, but it’s also a mistake to take her too seriously. Her work is head-trippingly fun.

For those who may not have been following the series since before the turn of the century, Valdemar is by far the best country on the planet Velgarth. If you are a very, very good child in Valdemar—perhaps a kind-but-brooding loner who spends a lot of time thinking about treating people fairly—and you have at least a little psychic ability, then a shiny, blue-eyed, white horse (they’re called Companions) will choose you to be a Herald—one of the political elites who advises the reigning monarch and travels the kingdom dispensing justice. Valdemaran law requires the monarch to be a Herald as well. The telepathic bond between Heralds and their Companions helps ensure that Heralds remain lawful good. A magic horse is a powerful plot device, but Lackey has earned her readers’ trust by transcending, or at least significantly complicating, peril vs. ponies storytelling for the last 27 years.

Closer to Home is the first book in a new series of Valdemar stories, following directly on the heels of the Collegium Chronicles, a five-book series featuring Mags, a young Herald whose Companion rescued him from a childhood of forced labor in a gem mine. The Collegium Chronicles followed Mags from his rescue, through his education at the newly created Heralds’ Collegium (prior to this, Herald trainees did long apprenticeships), to the end of his fieldwork internship. A highlight of this series was the delightfully unhinged plotting. In the thrilling series conclusion, Mags met his identical cousin Bey, a prince of the Shadao tribe of ninja assassins, who was hiding in a cave whilst on ninja assassin Rumspringa. Taking some personal time before truly committing to the ninja assassin prince thing helped Bey see his way clear to faking Mags’ death, thus freeing Mags from the abduction and assassination attempts that plagued his adolescence.

Another of Lackey’s trademarks is world-building in the form the multi-paragraph pedantic interjections. The Collegium Chronicles was a treasure trove of these. Visiting a fair? Let’s examine the sanitary arrangements in its cattle market! Court intrigues in progress? Heralds recycle paper and you should too! Enjoying a thrilling game of the Collegium’s cool new sport (it’s a cross between Quidditch and polo)? Then you’ll love the explanation of precautions taken to reduce the frequency and severity of fall injuries among competitors! Readers who don’t want to feel like they are visiting Valdemar on the Magic School Bus should skim this stuff. But I enjoy being a Valdemaran public health and policy wonk.

Anyway, Closer to Home continues Mags’ story. Freed from the stress of dodging assassins, Mags has a chance to take a longer look at the aspects of Valdemaran society he has previously ignored. Closer to Home examines the largely pointless lives of the almost completely powerless Valdemaran nobility. The plot is basically Romeo and Juliet as told through the eyes of the prince’s staff, with disapproving asides from Mary Wollstonecraft. Lackey reveals much more about life among Valdemar’s non-Heralds, and the ways that Valdemar’s rulers address (and fail to address) their needs. The new characters hold out a tantalizing hope for an increasingly complex examination of Valdemaran society and culture, with bonus folk ballads if we get REALLY lucky.

Detractors may complain about Lackey’s less-than-nuanced critique of gender roles, and about excessive use of the Magic Pony Phone as an emergency dispatch service. As is typical for the first book in a new Valdemar series, Closer to Home mainly exists to put some new pieces on the chessboard. There are some interesting new characters here, and I look forward to seeing how they reform Valdemar’s socio-cultural double standards and lack of social services (or whatever else they choose to deal with) as the series progresses.

Closer to Home is available now from DAW.

 


Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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