Making Valdemar Work: Mercedes Lackey’s Eye Spy

Mercedes Lackey and I go way back. I started reading her Valdemar series when I was twelve and I kept on because I love it unconditionally. For those of you new to Lackey’s work, Valdemar has a very unique form of government. People have to be Chosen by Companions—magical white horses who bond telepathically with specific humans—in order to have access to political power. Individuals who have been Chosen become Heralds. They ride around the kingdom conducting government business. Heralds have Gifts—some of them are telepathic, others can see or move things that are far away, and a few have really quirky talents like the ability to light fires or talk with animals. However, Valdemar is not a magical kingdom at this point in the series. REAL magic—both the ability to sense and manipulate magical energy and the people who can do it (unless they are Chosen by Companions)—is currently excluded from the kingdom by an ad hoc deal between the vrondi, Valdemar’s indigenous air elementals, and a very influential ghost.

Loving something unconditionally is not the same thing as being an uncritical consumer. I am the author of a Valdemar reread on this very website that can be roughly summarized, “this tax code was written by magic horses, and also Kris is a Mage who should not have sex with Talia.” I once described one of the books as “a series of coded messages from the interns Lackey keeps chained in her basement.” I have no regrets about any of that. And Lackey has no reason to like me. I don’t know if she does or doesn’t. I don’t know if she knows I exist. If she spends alternate Saturdays cursing my name, it would surprise me, but I could understand why. AND YET, SOMEHOW, the latest book in the Family Spies series, Eye Spy, feels like a present written especially for me.

You’re gonna want to read it. This one’s a firecracker.

Eye Spy is the second book in the Family Spies series, a collection of coming-of-age stories featuring Mags and Amily’s children. For those of you who haven’t kept up, Mags spent his childhood enslaved in a mine and was rescued by his Companion, Dallen. He’s also the prince of an obscure clan of assassins he mostly doesn’t keep in touch with. Amily was the King’s Own’s daughter and couldn’t walk for several years due to a severe leg injury. She had surgery to fix her leg, made a rapid and brilliant physical recovery, and never mentioned it ever again. She’s King’s Own herself now, because her father died and Rolan Chose her, and then Mags saved her dad with CPR. After a romance that spanned multiple novels and a series of abductions, they are married. They live in a bizarre, windowless apartment in the Palace at Haven with an indeterminate number of children. I think there are three of them, but it’s hard to tell which ones are theirs and which ones are Valdemar’s royal family. In my defense, they’ve worked to make it deliberately confusing.

Eye Spy is about Mags and Amily’s second-oldest child. Abi doesn’t fit the traditional Herald mold, and seems unlikely to ever be Chosen. Her special, not-quite-magical Gift is the ability to sense instability in physical structures. After she saves her friend, the princess Kat, from a collapsing bridge, Abi’s parents enroll her in the very selective engineering program at the Collegium at Haven. Abi throws herself into a demanding program of studies, learns a ton of math, and has a series of adventures that take advantage of her STEMpathy.

Lackey’s stories for young adults have often read like advice manuals for highly improbable situations. The previous volume, The Hills Have Spies, which featured Abi’s older brother, offered some useful thoughts on sleeping rough and foraging in forests, as well as an earnest exhortation to practice tying and untying knots for your inevitable kidnapping. Eye Spy explains how to read a room, why you shouldn’t be in a hurry to explain yourself until someone you trust is present to advocate for you, and what to do if someone tries to grab you by the pussy.

OK, it actually says “booby”—the book is a little Middle Grade in some of its sensibilities. But a character with unusually small hands recites the Access Hollywood transcript, so it’s not skirting the issue by far.

For those of you who are wondering, what you should do is “break his wrist.” Lackey does not provide a diagram, but practical instruction is available at a number of reputable establishments worldwide. For young people who may have found themselves in such a situation and done something different, I should like to point out that if you’re safe now, you did things right, and if you’re not, it’s not because you did things wrong. There are other options. There are situations that are very difficult. However, while fighting back isn’t the only answer, it can be a good answer in a number of circumstances.

The clear message of this book is that Mercedes Lackey isn’t going to take any of this shit, and she doesn’t see why her readers should either.

Isn’t that sort of political for a YA/MG adventure story? Maybe some of them, possibly, I guess, but Lackey has spent thirty years building a world in which people who are psychically bonded with telepathic horses dispense justice and defend their kingdom, and that’s an inherently political project. The audience for stories where magic horses are both the cure for childhood trauma and symbols of an ethical humanist approach to governance is kind of a political audience. And if you don’t want politics in your YA fantasy, I don’t know what there is for you to read.

Eye Spy asks big questions. For years, Valdemar has put itself forward as the best not-quite-magical kingdom that could ever be. But Abi’s adventure makes it clear that Valdemar isn’t a good place for everyone. We’re very much in the middle of Valdemaran history as we know it—after Vanyel’s story, but hundreds of years before Talia’s—so Abi’s revelation is about Mages and the people who work with them, not about Valdemar’s inevitable socialist revolution. That’s frustrating for me—a blogger who feels compelled to point out that Valdemar’s system of pro-Herald tax credits has created a chronic funding crisis for its government that undermines critical social programs and contributes to a pattern of poverty and child trafficking that is the most consistent institution in the kingdom’s history—but I’m excited by the possibility that this story contains within it the first seeds of the idea that Valdemar might evolve.

While that’s both exciting and challenging, this story is inherently comforting. This is a story where good people try their best to do good things. If that’s not soothing enough for you, the characters eat a snack roughly once every four pages. Snacks are either “food” or “pie” so no one needs to worry about detailed descriptions of textures and flavors they don’t like—THAT’S A LEGIT NEED, OK? Screw the incest, rapes, zombies, animal abuse and child defenestration—I personally had to stop reading A Song of Ice and Fire because I shuddered every time someone ate something described as “pigeon.” Ew.

I can take issue with some parts of this book. Having spent years struggling with her maimed leg and feeling like a burden, Amily is curiously reticent about this experience when her children deal with disabled people. I’d really love to get her thoughts on ableism in Valdemaran society. Still, Lackey has repaired some of the problems I had with previous volumes. Tuck has been restored to existence! Abi doesn’t know who he is, but she knows her parents have a guy somewhere in Haven who makes easy-to-conceal weapons for them.

AND—oh frabjous day—Lackey finally gives us a detailed description of Haven’s sewage system. I think this was probably a reaction to J. K. Rowling’s announcement that wizards used to just soil themselves and then magic their poo elsewhere until they were won over by the comparative ease and convenience of building Muggle-style sewage and septic systems. Haven has a waste treatment plant! This is the kind of world-building detail I love and have spent years yearning for. I eagerly await the book in which someone wants to extend a building beyond its original foundations and has to get permits from a planning committee that has a magic horse on it. There’s at least one more book in this series, so that day may yet come.

Eye Spy by Mercedes Lackey is available from DAW on July 9th.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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