It’s been a year and a half since our last new Valdemar novel, and fans of Valdemar rejoice! The Hills Have Spies continues the series that began in the Collegium Chronicles and continued in the Herald Spy series. The first eight books made Mags Lackey’s longest-running protagonist. Since being dramatically rescued from forced labor in a mine, Mags has been trained as a Herald, been trained as a spy, become an elite athlete in the newly-created Valdemaran sport of Kirball, fallen in love with Amily who became King’s Own when her father the previous King’s Own died for a few minutes (he was saved by CPR, just like Buffy the Vampire Slayer!), discovered his personal roots as the son of a couple fleeing their clan of assassins, met his assassin-prince cousin, and gotten kidnapped, like, a TON of times. It’s been a wild ride.
The Hills Have Spies is the first in the Family Spies series, which will focus on Mags and Amily’s children. They have three children, and their friends, King Sedric and Queen Lydia, have five—we could be doing this for a long time. (Side note: Sedric’s father, King Kiril, abdicated in favor of his son. Apparently nobody dies anymore.)
The Hills Have Spies is a classic Valdemaran coming-of-age story. Young Perry has tremendous talents: he has inherited a more powerful version of his mother’s Animal Mindspeech. Now aged thirteen, he has become his father’s protege in intelligence gathering despite not having been Chosen by a Companion. Mags decides to take him on a mission to the Pelagirs as part of his education. Lackey has been writing about Valdemar’s perennial problems with human trafficking for thirty years now, and it’s SHOCKINGLY TIMELY. People are disappearing near Valdemar’s border, and Perry defies his king, his country, and his dad to find a way to help.
Like other books in the series, this one is full of Practical Guidance for the Young Person: Caves are uncomfortable to sleep in! Arrange your bed like a sundial so you wake up an hour after sunrise in the morning! (I can tell Lackey lives in Oklahoma—in New England, that’s, like, noon for half the year.) Plan what you would do if you’re ever kidnapped! Mushrooms are good if you eat them the day they’re picked! That last is a blatant lie; mushrooms are gross and some of them are toxic.
The book opens with Perry tied to a chair for a practice kidnapping in Haven’s sail-making district. There’s a full-page description of the sail-making practices employed by Haven’s all-male sail-making cult! I wouldn’t have thought that there would be a lot of demand for sails around Haven, because the Terilee River is not navigable through the area due to dramatic falls. Either Haven has a bustling port district I’ve never heard of, or someone from the fishing communities on Lake Evendim is making a long overland trek for sailcloth. Or maybe Valdemar has Vikings? Anyway, the Bannerites are retting flax! They make a heavy twill that’s also good for durable clothing! Wikipedia has information on a variety of retting methods! Practice untying knots!
I love Lackey’s detailed descriptions of infrastructure precisely because of how noticeable it is when they are missing. We know every detail of the challenges of raising dogs in Valdemar’s urban areas. Also, this one time, a city basically built itself out of nothing in the woods with plumbing and everything. That’s all the details we need, right? Yeah, that’s probably fine. I mean, DOES THAT HAPPEN A LOT? ARE THERE MORE OF THOSE? As a reader with thirty years of experience in Valdemar, these half-explained moments are treasures for me. There are still new, weird, random things that we can try to explain. The Hills Have Spies is also full of tiny Easter eggs that will keep seasoned Valdemar fans turning the pages: King Kiril’s oldest son, Trey, has a Companion named Lyspeth! We don’t see much of Trey because most of the book is set in lands that were recently controlled by the Tayledras in Valdemar’s far west. Fingers crossed for next time!
It’s best to come to this book without a lot of preconceived notions. For example, if you read the plot synopsis that’s been up on Amazon for the last few months, you might come to this book with the preconceived notion that its main character is a kid named Justyn. No one in this book is named Justyn. And if you look at the cover, you might think that the Pelagirs are now full of floating jellyfish. They aren’t. No jellyfish anywhere. My heart goes out to the jellyfish fans. I didn’t spot any squirrel-tailed platypi either. There are eight distinct animal species on the book cover, and the four that go on to appear in the book’s pages are the ones we have already met.
The other thing that’s not in this book is Tuck, who long-time readers of the series may recall as the neurodivergent guy who made a lot of the weapons that Mags and Amily hid in their wedding gear (innovations that did not keep them from getting kidnapped, but I think we have to attribute that to lax palace security—remember when Talia was attacked in the palace gardens and nearly drowned, and a few months later she found Princess Elspeth, heir apparent to the throne, then aged eight, wandering unattended in the palace gardens after her nanny fled arrest for treason? I remember). Not having a minor character like Tuck show up in a book would generally not be that big a deal, but credit for his work has been reassigned to another character. I am very upset about Tuck’s erasure. He was a good person, and an interesting character, even though I didn’t like the way Lackey described his disability. He liked strawberry shortcake. He doesn’t deserve to have someone else take credit for his work.
Newcomers to Valdemar might be confused by the complex political and ecological history in the background, but the story itself is a welcoming one. Longtime Valdemar fans will enjoy this new installment and will, I hope, fill in some of the gaps with fanfiction.
The Hills Have Spies is available now from DAW.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.