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.
Closer to the Heart reads like a series of coded messages from the interns Lackey keeps chained in her basement. Why are the people of Valdemar suddenly eating so much strawberry shortcake? Why does a kingdom with a primarily agrarian economy now have an issue with conflict minerals? How does playing Kirball help resolve that? Mags is kidnapped again, and it’s so sudden that I check the page numbers to make sure my copy isn’t missing a section AGAIN. When this happened back in the Collegium Chronicles, I thought it was a dirty trick. This time, I wonder if it’s a cry for help.
For whatever reason, this is not a coherent story. As a consequence, I don’t feel obligated to write a coherent review. Instead, I’m taking it by the numbers:
Games of Kirball: 2. I still can’t believe it’s not Quidditch.
Number of conflicts Heralds resolve for the people of Valdemar: 1. More are implied, but we only get to hear about one. Mags gets the credit. Amily is King’s Own now, so she’s way too busy for that kind of thing.
Number of times Amily uses her Animal MindSpeech to acquire useful information from an animal: 1. Apparently, Valdemar’s enemies have been warned off revealing their plans to their household pets.
Number of times Amily then uses her Animal MindSpeech to persuade another animal to eat the first one: Also 1.
In my opinion, she should have let the homing pigeons live until she found out who the bad guy’s allies were. Having the owls eat them instead is a lost opportunity on par with Henry III’s guards killing his assassin before interrogating him to find out whether or not he was working for Spain. Worse, probably, because Henry’s guards made that decision in the heat of the moment, and pigeons were all sleeping when Amily decided they had to die.
Most offensive use of Animal MindSpeech: Mags’s court case introduces us to Tuck, who is a genius at making things, but has difficulty communicating. He seems autistic. I was initially excited to see an autistic character in a Valdemar story. It was, potentially, a nice opportunity to reflect on the common assumption that pre-industrial societies are uniformly neurotypical, and to talk about what people’s lives were, and are, really like and what strategies they adapt in order to communicate and survive.
And then Amily discovered that she can read Tuck’s mind because his thoughts are so animal-like. I wish someone had thought about that one a little more.
Number of times Mags and Amily’s Wedding is rescheduled: 1. It’s been just a short while since Prince Sedric married Guild-master Soren’s granddaughter, Lydia, and already Valdemar is desperate for a large state occasion they can invite a lot of diplomats to. Mags and Amily qualify for an enormous state wedding, the sooner the better. Lady Dia, such an important part of this series that she needs to be assigned two or more bizarre and contrived tasks per volume, is put in charge of the planning. Which is interrupted when Mags and Nikolas, Amily’s dad, both leave town on secret missions of indeterminate length, requiring that all the diplomats and dignitaries on the guest list be informed that the wedding is being rescheduled for no reason at all.
Number of times Mags and Amily get married: 2. The state wedding is such a circus, and Mags and Amily’s lives so uncertain, that they sneak off and get married early in the book. This is such a sane and rational decision that I did it too. It made my wedding much less stressful. Also, it completely eliminates romance as a potential source of dramatic tension.
Number of pages elapsed before the plot showed up: 301.
Number of pages it took to get rid of it again: 27.
To be fair, Amily learns parkour and Princess Lydia establishes a school for Lady’s Maids who are also royal spies. Turns out you can have a lot of subplot before the plot shows up, and the fact that some of those subplots have a relationship with the plot once it appears does not mean that they were the plot when we first laid eyes on them.
The bad guys had a pretty ingenious scheme here. They posed as Valdemaran regulars and persuaded some nobles to pay for weapons that were then smuggled into Menmellith. I’ve been intrigued by Menmellith (the Serbia of Velgarth) since By the Sword, so I was on the edge of my seat when their ambassador showed up in Haven. But the rest of the cast spends so much time training each other in new skills, eating strawberry shortcake, and getting married, that there’s no space for the intricacies of either Menmellith’s internal affairs or Valdemar’s problems. The bad guy spills his guts under truth spell, and you don’t get to read about it. The timeless questions about what would motivate a person to rebel against so just and excellent a form of government as Valdemar’s Magic-Horse-ocracy will forever go unanswered.
Also, please note that Closer to the Heart is a story in which a character who couldn’t walk just a few books ago learns parkour. This is a very impressive accomplishment, and parkour is the single activity most easily incorporated into any story. But neither the awesomeness of Amily’s dramatically improved personal mobility nor the awesomeness of parkour plays any role here. If it warms your heart to know that the organized activities undertaken by Haven’s street urchins include making a burned-out temple appear to be haunted so that they can practice parkour in it, I hope you know you’re not alone.
Valdemar contains great stories. I’ve loved these stories for many years, and I will continue to love many of them. I don’t love this one. At this point, Valdemar’s thousand-year history is just a device to keep all the stories from happening at once. Nothing changes—the kingdom doesn’t reform, its technology doesn’t advance, it doesn’t learn and grow. I will keep reading these books as often as they are published, and I will keep finding something in them to love. But the truth is that we don’t need a new Valdemar story every year. Maybe waiting two or three years would give us something better, richer, and more satisfying.
I’m willing to wait.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.