Archive for October, 2011

George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance With Dragons” — Back on His Game

A Dance With Dragons US.jpgGeorge R.R. Martin’s A DANCE WITH DRAGONS is the fifth book in his “Song of Ice and Fire” saga and it’s a huge improvement over his last book in this series, A FEAST FOR CROWS.  But before I get into this review, I’d like to give you a few words of warning: if you haven’t read my reviews for books one (A GAME OF THRONES), two (A CLASH OF KINGS), three (A STORM OF SWORDS) and four (A FEAST FOR CROWS), you will be completely lost.  (This is your last warning.)

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS starts off with all the stuff that was missing from book four, A FEAST FOR CROWS.  Here, we find out what happened to Tyrion Lannister after he killed his father (for good reason; Tywin Lannister, though gifted as a military strategist, was a bad piece of business); we find out what is going on at the Wall with Lord Jon Snow (he’s now the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch despite his tender age — he’s under twenty); what’s going on with Bran and his psychic talents; what’s going on with Theon Greyjoy (can he ever be redeemed?); and finally, we find out what’s going on with Daenerys Targaryen for good measure (hence the reference to dragons in the title, as she has three).  Once we’re caught up with them, we get to read a little more about the people the last book, A FEAST FOR CROWS, featured — namely, Queen Cersei Lannister, King Tommen Lannister, Queen Margaery Tyrell-Lannister (she’s married into the Lannisters twice now and has yet to consummate any marriage; Tommen is far too young at age eight to attempt the marital bed, and Margaery is around fifteen or sixteen), and a little bit more about Jaime Lannister.

First, I’ll start with my favorite character: Tyrion.  In A STORM OF SWORDS, Tyrion killed his father because he found out that much of his life was made unnecessarily horrific due to something his father did when he had just hit puberty.   Not to put too fine a point on it, Tyrion married, then the marriage was annulled; that wouldn’t be so bad except Tywin Lannister, Tyrion’s father, told everyone that Tyrion’s wife was a prostitute, and convinced his elder son, Jaime Lannister, to go along with the deception as that was the only way Tyrion would’ve believed it.  Tyrion’s wife was named Tysha, and we don’t have any idea what happened to her; there have been zero hints.

Note that Tysha was the one person who’s loved Tyrion for who he is; she had no problems with him being a dwarf, with being somewhat funny looking (unlike Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion on HBO’s series “Game of Thrones,” the book-Tyrion is described as being odd-looking from the start), with having mismatched eyes, etc.  So if Tywin Lannister would’ve left well enough alone, Tyrion would’ve enjoyed at least ten years of wedded bliss by this point with the only person he’s ever clicked with, and wouldn’t have ever had anything to do with other prostitutes.

At any rate, Tyrion’s on the run, and he goes through a series of adventures, most of which don’t get him anywhere.  He’s trying to get to Daenerys Targaryen, but the saying “the best laid plans often fail” would pretty much cover that; that Tyrion runs across someone else who has a claim to the throne of Westeros along the way is sheer happenstance.  (Even though other reviewers have discussed this, I’m going to leave this alone.)

The thing that struck me most about Tyrion’s plight is this: he is nearly suicidal.  He killed his father for what I believe were excellent reasons, but he’s away from the only person who’s ever cared about him besides Tysha — his brother, Jaime.  And to find that Jaime was complicit in Tysha being driven off and treated as a prostitute nearly slayed Tyrion.  So Tyrion’s mental state isn’t too good.

Plus, Tyrion’s been sheltered much of his life up until now, to a degree; he’s been wealthy and his caprices had to be tolerated.  Now, he’s a dwarf who has to trade on how strange he looks to make a living, or at least get by some of the time; this is a demonstration of how George R.R. Martin believes life goes.  Sometimes the good people win (Tyrion’s among the best people in the whole SOIAF series), sometimes they don’t, and “into every life a little rain must fall.”  (Proverb intentionally misquoted.)

Next, there’s Daenerys Targaryen herself, who’s in a very odd position now as Queen of Meereen.  She became the Queen because she freed a whole bunch of slaves at Slaver’s Bay; those freed slaves refused to be led by anyone else.   This is akin to Daenerys’s “practice run” as a ruler before she returns to Westeros; she feels responsible for these freed slaves, and as her dragons aren’t fully mature anyway, she figures she’d better stay in place.

Of course, despite Daenerys’s gifts for ruling, she’s also a young woman.  This means she has a lot of sex.  With more than one partner, though most of it is with one, particular individual she seems to care for deeply.  Daenerys also has to deal with all sorts of things rulers must handle, including an arranged marriage, taxation, trade, reparations, and other important and influential things; despite that, though, Daenerys does seem to enjoy herself in the bedroom a little bit more than I’d expected out of a woman who was widowed early from her “sun and stars” back in book one, A GAME OF THRONES, Khal Drogo.

Anyway, back to Westeros, where the next person dealt with is Jon Snow.  He’s now called “Lord Snow” because he’s the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, those who watch for invaders of either the human or non-human sort at the very northernmost part of Westeros.  (If you think of a huge wall, like the Great Wall of China, juxtaposed with Siberia, you’re probably fairly close as far as what Martin’s talking about, geographically.)

Lord Snow has an unexpected ally, this being King Stannis Baratheon, the legitimate heir to King Robert Baratheon (as all three of Cersei Lannister’s children were sired by her own brother, Jaime, none of them are legitimate heirs to the throne; King Joffrey was illegitimate and extremely cruel, then the throne passed over his sister, Princess Myrcella, to King Tommen due to the law of primogeniture).  King Stannis is the only powerful man who understands how important the Wall is; Stannis has been convinced by a mysterious mystic named Melisandre, who has uncounted psychic powers and follows the Red God, R’hllor.  I’m not sure what visions Melisandre has actually had, but she knows that the Wall’s important, she knows Jon Snow in particular is important, and as King Stannis’s chief advisor, she’s managed to get Stannis to the Wall in order to help reinforce it.

Now, this doesn’t make King Stannis any more likeable than he was before; he’s still someone who tolerates no nonsense, has an exaggerated view of his own importance, and often behaves very badly even for a seated king (rather than what he is, a pretender to the throne, though his claim on it is much stronger than Tommen Lannister’s).

That being said, there are a number of adventures at the Wall, some of which have to do with why Samwell Tarly was sent off in the last book, A FEAST FOR CROWS, to become a Maester (a scientist and a scholar, more or less).  (Good thing it was finally covered here, eh?)  Some others have to do with the remnants of Mance Rayder’s  people who have elected to camp at the Wall alongside the Night’s Watch and King Stannis’s men (Rayder was called “the King Beyond the Wall” and was more or less elected to speak for his people because of his proven ability to lead men), and a little bit has to do with what’s going on at Winterfell (more about that in a bit).

Next, we deal with Bran Stark; he’s a greensinger-in-training, and he needs help.  His psychic visions are so strong that they could easily overwhelm him and do harm rather than good, so he must be trained.  Half the narrative here is getting Bran to the personage who can help him; the other half is how Bran learns to deal with his newfound abilities.

Now, we’re at Winterfell — where we see the odious Ramsey Bolton (actually a bastard and originally surnamed “Snow”) as he takes “Arya Stark” in marriage.  This isn’t Arya, who’s actually still in the House of Black and White over in Braavos being trained to become an assassin; instead, this is Jeyne Poole, the steward’s daughter, who must pretend to be Arya or she’ll be killed outright.  Bolton wants Winterfell even though it’s been sacked (by him, mostly, but attributed to Theon Greyjoy) and this marriage is what will get it for him.

But Bolton is so nasty that it’s hard for anyone to deal with him.  He is cruel, ruthless, a torturer and murderer who gets off on both things, and has tormented Theon Greyjoy beyond all measure.  Greyjoy is only barely sane now; he’s being called “Reek” because of Bolton’s nastiness in not letting Theon ever take a bath (part of it has to do with a childhood friend of Bolton’s, too, and Bolton’s own insanity), he’s lost fingers, toes, and possibly his manhood itself to Bolton’s torturers, and doesn’t seem to have much of a future, if any at all.  Bolton amuses himself by continuing to hurt Theon in various ways, and also enjoys causing as much trouble for poor Jeyne Poole as he can; no one can stop him, and no one has the will to gainsay him due to his own abilities to terrify and cow people, not even his own father, Lord Roose Bolton (who isn’t a good person, either, but isn’t insane like his son).

How can this situation possibly be redeemed?  And if it can be, what will happen to Theon?  (That Martin actually made me care about what happened there was a masterful piece of storytelling.  Theon was a puffed-up, arrogant little wart before, but no one deserved what’s happened to him since A STORM OF SWORDS.)

After all this, we’re finally up to what’s going on in King’s Landing these days; we see Jaime Lannister trying his best to hold the kingdom together with his uncle Kevan’s help (Kevan has been named the King’s Hand as he’s the most-able man in the kingdom).  We see Cersei Lannister, who has a “walk of shame” in her future, and the way this is described is appalling.  And finally, we see a little teensy bit of King Tommen Lannister — he’s really not ready to rule, though at least he’s of good heart, unlike his unlamented late brother, King Joffrey.

Even though much of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS is set-up for the next book, THE WINDS OF WINTER (goodness knows when that’ll be forthcoming, as A DANCE WITH DRAGONS was only released this past July and there were six years between books four and five in this series), I enjoyed reading it.  I found it strangely moving, how Tyrion was looking for any remnants of whatever happened to Tysha on his quest to stay one step ahead of the bounty hunters (sent by his sister, Queen Cersei, before she ended up deposed by the Faith Militant — my term, not Martin’s — that she’d raised so high in the first place).  I found it poignant to see Melisandre admit, at least in private, to having some sort of human feelings for Jon Snow (I’m not sure they’re romantic feelings; they seem closer to agape than anything else.  But feelings are feelings in this case, from a woman I thought didn’t have any.), and I found it moving the way Theon Greyjoy did his best to reclaim his humanity amidst the extremes of depravity.

This is why I say that Martin is back on his game (pun intended); this is a very good novel, one that is far closer to the first three books in the SOIAF epic cycle than the last book, A FEAST FOR CROWS.  Of course, you still need to read the previous novels or you’re unlikely to understand this one (a neat marketing trick that happens to be the truth in this case), which is why it’s so frustrating that this book ends with several cliffhangers and no idea when the next book is coming.

The only drawback here is this: this is a book that’s almost all set-up.  Some readers have come out, in force, at places like to say they don’t like this and wonder why the plot didn’t move forward overmuch.  And there are some static elements — why Daenerys doesn’t seem to learn much as Meereen’s Queen and why Tyrion doesn’t quite manage to achieve any of his objectives no matter how hard he tries, just for two examples.

Still.  This is much better writing and much better storytelling than A FEAST FOR CROWS, almost up to the level of A STORM OF SWORDS in those two areas, and I was very glad to see it. 

Grade: B-plus

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George R.R. Martin’s “A Feast for Crows” — Good, but not Great

George R. R. Martin’s fourth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series is A FEAST FOR CROWS, which is about what’s going on in Westeros now that the “War of the Five Kings” is over.  (As always, if you haven’t read the reviews for the previous three books, A GAME OF THRONES, A CLASH OF KINGS, and A STORM OF SWORDS, you’re going to be completely lost; this is epic fantasy with a vengeance, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up midstream.)

At the end of A STORM OF SWORDS, several of the warring kings were dead, including Robb Stark (killed at his uncle’s wedding), Joffrey Baratheon (killed at his own wedding by poison), and Balon Greyjoy.  (Renly Baratheon was killed earlier, so he’s also a non-factor.)  This has left a void in Westeros, one that’s been made worse by the murder of Tywin Lannister by his own son, Tyrion, as Tywin Lannister was probably the only person who could’ve held Westeros together.

Now, the young Tommen Baratheon is on the Iron Throne.  But like Joffrey before him, Tommen is actually the son of siblings Jaime and Cersei Lannister and has no Baratheon blood at all, so he’s not a legitimate ruler and many know it.  Even were he legitimate, King Tommen is only eight and the odds would be against him living to adulthood.  Worse yet, he has few strong advisors, so many people are taking whatever advantage they can, including Tommen’s own mother, Queen Cersei, who has been officially named the Queen Regent.

Most of A FEAST FOR CROWS revolves around Cersei Lannister and the bad decisions she keeps making to try to keep her son safely on the throne.  One of the decisions that comes back to haunt her is that of Tommen marrying Margaery Tyrell, who’d been previously married to both Renly Baratheon and Joffrey Baratheon though neither of the previous marriages were able to be consummated.  Margaery has been thrice wed and twice-widowed, and though she’s adjudged a beauty by most and comes from a powerful family, the Tyrells of Highgarden, marrying her was more to keep the Tyrells from outright revolt than anything else as Tommen’s at least four years too young to even attempt the marital bed.

But that’s not all Cersei does.  Cersei re-arms the Church militant, something no one else had wished to do in a few hundred years because they’ve been so difficult and fractious to rule in the past, in order to give herself some very minor temporal (and temporary) power.  She also, to be blunt, has a whole lot of sex with anyone she pleases — male, female, it makes no never-mind, because apparently Cersei is an insatiable vortex.

All of this, of course, would be forgivable if Cersei had any ruling skills at all, but she doesn’t; this keeps things profoundly unstable and prone to change at any notice.  But she’s too blind to see it, as she’s apparently lost in her own navel-gazing now that she’s obtained the post of Queen Regent.

As if that’s not enough, Princess Myrcella is in Dorne, the one area of Westeros that has no aversion to females who rule in their own right.  Myrcella has a powerful benefactress in the Heir to Dorne, Arianne Martell, who wants Myrcella to rule in her own right; however, Myrcella is still young (perhaps as young as ten) and has no idea of all the intrigue going on all around her, nor does she wish to raise her standard in rebellion against her own brother.  (And, like her brothers Joffrey and Tommen, she, too, is not legitimately the daughter of King Robert Baratheon, so she truthfully has no claim to the throne.)

So there’s unrest in Dorne; there’s unrest in King’s Landing as Cersei is unable to rule effectively; there’s unrest in the North as the Starks are all scattered (more on them in a bit), and the only really stable area is, oddly enough, the Wall as King Stannis Baratheon has removed to there in an effort to shore up the rest of the kingdom.  This is an important plot point that’s given short shrift as Martin ended up having to roughly “divide” his original conception of A FEAST FOR CROWS, and most of Stannis’s story ended up in the fifth (and most recent) book, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS rather than here where it really would’ve helped balance the narrative.

At any rate, other than the Wall itself, the North is in uproar due to Robb Stark’s death and there are many lords and lordlings attempting to take advantage.  But once again, this is merely hinted at in A FEAST FOR CROWS; the meat of the story ended up in A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, which overall weakened the over-arching structure of the whole Song of Ice and Fire series.

As for the Starks, we only really follow two of them this time around, Sansa and Arya.  Arya is now in Braavos over the sea, and has been taken in by a bunch of religious assassins in what’s called “the House of Black and White.”  She’s a competent fighter already, so what the people in Braavos mostly are teaching her is how to judge men even though when it comes right down to it, the House of Black and White will kill whomever they’re told to kill regardless of whether a person is good or bad as “death is a blessing to all, regardless of how it comes.”  (This is my best paraphrase of the House of Black and White’s attitude toward death and assassination.)  But can Arya trust these people?  And if she does, what will happen to her?

Then, there’s Sansa, who’s been spirited away from King’s Landing by Petyr Baelish.  Baelish is a complicated man who’s closer to a villain than not, and he’s been the same way since the very first book, A GAME OF THRONES.  We know that Baelish was in love with Sansa’s mother, Catelyn (or “Cat,” as Baelish calls her), and Sansa looks very much like Catelyn did.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that Baelish is attracted to Sansa and, if he felt the need, would ravish her in a heartbeat.

However, Baelish does feel some loyalty, or at least good manners, toward Catelyn’s memory (as she’s presumed dead by now), which is why he got Sansa away from King’s Landing and brought her to the Vale of the Arryn’s.  Sansa is now called “Alayne Storm” as she’s presumed to be Baelish’s natural (bastard) daughter, so she’s more or less hiding in plain sight.  Baelish’s overall plans are to restore Sansa to her heritage (as he doesn’t know that her younger brothers Bran and Rickon are still alive, he believes Sansa is the rightful Heir to Winterfell) but at a time and place of his choosing — most likely when it’ll cause the most unrest as Baelish seems to relish that.  Baelish is untrustworthy and he definitely has “lust in his heart” when it comes to Sansa, so her situation is not all that stable.

As for the Lannisters, Tyrion is not present in this book, as he’s presumably on the run and out of Westeros.  (His story picks back up in book five, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS.  All I’ll say now is that I completely sympathized with Tyrion’s decision to kill his father, Tywin, in A STORM OF SWORDS.)  As previously stated, Queen Cersei is royally screwing things up (sometimes quite literally) in King’s Landing.  Which leaves Jaime Lannister’s story — the most complex and fascinating one in A FEAST FOR CROWS — for last.

Jaime’s story almost makes up for all of the stuff that’s missing in A FEAST FOR CROWS (including the complete absence of Daenerys Targaryen’s story, which also picks up in book five, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS) because it’s now time for Jaime to redeem himself.   He’s been told by his Aunt Gemma Lannister that Tyrion is the dangerous one no matter what it looks like — and Jaime, deep in his heart, knows that’s the truth as Tyrion has to be one of the smartest people around.  Jaime is extremely upset with Cersei over all of Cersei’s whoring and bad rulership, but Jaime doesn’t have too many people to lean on as mostly, his best friend is his brother, Tyrion.  So he starts a rigorous bout of self-examination — for a fighting man, this is as introspective as he’s ever likely to get — as he continues to learn how to fight left-handed (his right was cut off in A STORM OF SWORDS) and take up his duties with the Kingsguard.

Jaime’s friendship with the female fighter, Brienne, is once again in evidence, but as Brienne is far from him, she can’t factor into anything Jaime does.  Still, the fact that Jaime has been able to form a stable friendship with a woman — a female fighter, no less — is a source of consolation to him, along with the fact that now that he’s forced to become more scholarly, he has found he actually seems to have a gift in that area.

So in this one way — getting down to the bottom of Jaime Lannister’s story — A FEAST FOR CROWS succeeded on every level.  But in every other respect, this novel feels incomplete, or worse, unbalanced; it definitely does not stand up to the standard Martin himself set with the previous three books.

Because of that, the best grade I can give A FEAST FOR CROWS is a B-minus, even though I wanted to give it a tad more due to how well I felt Jaime Lannister’s story was told.  And I’d definitely buy this one in paperback, for some of the same reasons I gave for the last book, A STORM OF SWORDS — there’s a lot of violence here, some of it gory and deeply disturbing — and if you buy it in paperback, you won’t feel bad after you throw it across the room.

Grade: B-minus

— reviewed by Barb

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Dead Six and Monster Hunter Alpha — Two For One

Tonight is a strange review night. I won’t be reviewing a single book, oh no. Tonight I’m reviewing two books in one review.

How is this possible, you may ask. How have I not lost the last shred of my sanity doing this?

It’s easy. I get to read awesome stuff, and today I’m going to talk about one of my newest favorite authors, Larry Correia.

Okay, so Larry isn’t exactly new. I’ve interviewed him in the past here, and reviewed one of his books here. Still, he’s new in the sense that three years ago nobody had heard of him outside of some self-defense forums, so I’m sticking him with the “new” moniker until one of his books is old enough to shave more than once a week.

If his books are similar in the way he grows facial hair, that’ll be tomorrow.

Cover by Kurt Miller. Freakin' sweet, right? Right?

Anyways, I’m starting first today with his collaboration project, and his most recent book, Dead Six. Written with Mike Kupari, Dead Six tells the tale two very distinct men written from two different perspectives: Valentine, a former mercenary working for a secret government agency in a war-torn country, and Lorenzo, a world class thief, assassin, and all-around bad guy.

The story starts off in a small Arabian country called Zubara. Much like Somalia, it seems to be a country that has very little central government and is on the verge of civil war. Valentine, offered a job by a secret government agency to take the “fight to the bad guys”, and he proves that he is just the man for the job as he and the rest of the men and women on his team perform admirably while trying to eliminate terrorist threats. He is good, his team is good, and at first everything seems to be going as planned.

Meanwhile, master thief Lorenzo has been contacted by an old employee named “Big Eddie”, a man with little moral scruples who wants Lorenzo to accomplish a very difficult and dangerous job. In order to due this, however, Lorenzo must fool everyone as he travels to Zubara, or the “Zoob”, in order to begin the first part of his plan.

His path, and Valentine’s, spiral perilously close to one another as they unwittingly seek to undermine the other in their fight to achieve their goals. Written individually from the perspective of each author (one wrote from Valentine’s POV, one from Lorenzo’s… yes I know who wrote what, and no I’m not telling), the story is very fun, fast and dedicated to over-the-top action. Reminiscent of the best “pulp” action stories from the sixties and seventies (Longarm and the Destroyer both come to mind), Dead Six is a lot of fun action with enough tense situations to make you wonder just who is the good guy and who isn’t, and just how thick that grey area in the middle is.

I highly recommend Dead Six, and I hope to see more from this series. If you enjoy a good, rousing Mack Bolan story, then you’ll love Dead Six.

Next on the list is… well, it’s the story of a werewolf. He doesn’t have unrequited love fests with the child of a vampire, nor does he have fleas. He is not a good guy, but he fights on the side of light. His name sends shivers down the spines of creatures that go bump in the night. He gives the boogeyman nightmares.

Big Old Ones minions. This usually ends badly for someone not involved with MHI

Monster Hunter Alpha starts off slowly as Earl Harbinger, head of the infamous Monster Hunter International, is called to the barren and cold north to talk to an old acquaintance. The acquaintance gives Harbinger some news: an old enemy, Stalin’s pet werewolf, has reappeared and is currently roaming around in upper Michigan. Harbinger wastes no time and travels further north, to the land of perpetual blizzard, to finish off the Russian werewolf once and for all.

Not all is as it seems, though, as Harbinger realizes very quickly that something more is at stake. A werewolf outbreak in the small town has left it isolated and cut off, at the mercy of a mysterious werewolf called the “Alpha”. Naturally Harbinger suspects the Russian, but soon comes to realize that they were both lured there by this new Alpha and Harbinger is soon attacked and nearly destroyed.

Other good (read: BAD) news for Harbinger is that a rival monster hunting agency, Briarwood Eradication Services, are in town as well and looking to score a hit on the PUFFs on werewolves. They are tipped off by a “helpful” Monster Control Bureau officer who has had previous run-ins with other members of MHI, the plot is thick enough to beat someone over the head with it like rebar.

Part biography, part action story, Monster Hunter Alpha is a good, fun read in which the continuing saga of the Monster Hunter series continues to play out. The best parts of the book are the bits and pieces of Harbinger’s journal, which regales the reader about the trials and tribulations that the king of the werewolves has had to go through during his 100 year existence. They made for an entire book by themselves, and could easily have been titled “The Monster Hunter”.

The story is good, the pacing is better, and Correia shows his maturing writing style throughout as Harbinger struggles to fight for the life of this small town in the middle of nowhere. A definite must-buy for me, this one is not necessarily needed for the overall “Monster Hunter” series continuation arc (caveat: so far), but still a worthwhile pickup for anyone looking to read something fun and fresh.

–Reviewed by Jason

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“Changes” by Mercedes Lackey — Decent, but not her best

Changes coverMercedes Lackey’s newest novel in her long-running Valdemar series is CHANGES, which stars Herald-trainee Mags, his Companion, Dallen, his love-interest, Amily, and his good friends, Healer-trainee Bear and Bard-trainee Lena.   Because this is a long-running series (with the very first Valdemar book being ARROWS OF THE QUEEN, way back in 1987), most people who read this novel are likely to have a deep familiarity with the country of Valdemar (its motto being “There’s no one, true way”) and the Companions who take the form of horses in order to guide the Heralds they Choose, with the pair (human/Herald and spirit/Companion) going out to dispense the laws of Valdemar and/or to keep Valdemar safe.   Heralds are picked carefully, and only rarely do any of them become corrupted due to the spirit-nature of the Companions.

Mags becomes a Herald-trainee, but his route toward that end is not easy as he is an orphan, rescued from a difficult and dangerous life in a mine; the previous two books in this trilogy, FOUNDATION and INTRIGUES, discuss his life, how he found friendship all unlooked-for in Valdemar (which has always been friendly to refugees and orphans), and what he’s going to do for the Heralds considering his unusual background.  This trilogy also discusses the founding of the Heraldic Collegium (where the Heralds, who mostly have strong psychic powers of one sort or another, are trained).  While you don’t need to have read the previous books in this particular trilogy to understand the story of Mags and the rest, I would definitely advise you to read the first three books in this series (in order: ARROWS OF THE QUEEN, ARROW’S FLIGHT, and ARROW’S FALL) to most fully appreciate what’s going on.

Lackey is one of the biggest stars in fantasy, and has been for many years, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that these books seem to follow a strict formula.  First, the problem is stated — in Mags’s case, it’s that he’s an orphan struggling to accept his new role in Valdemar.  He’s being trained by the King’s Own Herald, Nikolas (the first-ranked Herald of Valdemar as he’s the primary advisor to the monarch), to become a spy due to Mags coming from a bad background and being able to mimic lower-class ways with ease.  Nikolas is a powerful man who is, himself, a spy, and had despaired of leaving behind a successor as spymaster; when Mags was Chosen, Nikolas saw Mags as a Godsend.  So the main reason Mags has struggled to “fit in” is because if he fits in too much, he’ll be worthless as a spy; Mags must maintain his objectivity far more than most other Heralds, and this can’t help but set him apart.

Fortunately, there are three others in his age group (mid-to-late teens) who also are set apart for various reasons.  First, there’s Healer-trainee Bear, who has no Healing Gift — meaning, he’s not an empath, he can’t heal by mind-magic (psychically), and he must use drug therapy and surgery and other non-magical methods to heal.  His family is comprised of many psychically gifted Healers, so they’ve cast him out despite how medically gifted Bear is in every other respect.  The Healing Collegium in Haven, the capital city of Valdemar, feels differently and believes Bear is an asset, but Bear isn’t always sure.

Next, there’s Lena, who is a Bard-trainee.  Lena is the daughter of a very famous Bard, Marchant, and has all three major Gifts that Bards need — the craft of music (being able to play and sing), the skill to compose music, and the Bardic Gift (making people feel music viscerally) — but her father has never really been happy with her as Lena suffers from stage fright.  Lena and Bear are obviously meant to pair off, as their famous families (or family members) not understanding or appreciating them seems to be the major thing that binds them together.

Finally, there’s the daughter of Nikolas, Amily, who is physically limited due to an accident that permanently lamed and crippled her when she was very young.   Amily cares about others and is scholarly as she’s learned to use her mind to compensate for her flawed body, but she feels guilty because she is crippled.  And she’s become friendly with Bear, Lena, and especially Mags, because like them, she feels like an outcast as she has not been Chosen despite all the Companions in Valdemar loving her and treating her like one of their own.

Mags is drawn to Amily, mostly because of Amily’s goodness, and partly because he feels crippled inside due to not knowing who his parents were (he grew up in a mine).  Mags feels that, aside from the Heralds, he has no place in the world worth bothering about.   But their relationship is fraught with problems, partly because of her physical limitations, partly because they are adolescents struggling with the whole idea of love for the first time; all of this is well-done and helps give CHANGES its emotional center.

So, the problem’s been stated, the friends are all there (plus a love interest), there’s political and ethical intrigue (what Mags does, sometimes, is not very nice, in order to keep things from getting much worse in a hurry), and there’s a very strong relationship between Mags and Dallen to help anchor things down a little more.  Which goes along with every other book in the entire “Heralds of Valdemar” series (all twenty-nine of them, to my count, not including the short-story anthologies); they all have Heralds, Companions, ethical dilemmas, some romance, and they draw you in because of Lackey’s fine writing skills, no matter how many times you’ve seen this all before.

The best books in the “Heralds of Valdemar” series are those where a unique perspective was utilized, such as EXILE’S HONOR (dealing with Herald and Weaponsmaster Alberich, originally from Karse, one of Valdemar’s hereditary enemies) or BY THE SWORD, about a female mercenary, Kerowyn, who falls in love with one of the Heralds but believes her relationship is impossible.  Or they have immense richness and emotional depth (the “Last Herald-Mage” trilogy, or the original “Arrows Trilogy”) and don’t feel quite so formulaic even though many of the same elements I’ve discussed here are there (and were always there).

But this book, CHANGES, does not stand with the best of the Valdemar novels; it may not even stand in the top half of Valdemar novels even though I enjoyed reading it while it lasted, because there’s nothing there to draw me back for a second read.  The strong emotions of some of the other books, evoked through characterization and situations, are not present, mostly due to the way Mags looks at the world (analytically and critically, even though Mags speaks like a backwoods hick on purpose to make people believe he’s far less smart than he actually is).  And when there is a fight, it feels forced — like Lackey realized she needed to show these characters weren’t perfect people (something I approve of, by the way; I don’t like reading about saints) — and doesn’t flow out naturally.

So that’s where it stands; this book reads quickly, has well-drawn characters and some interesting situations, but doesn’t have any sort of resolution at all as the main bad guys are never explained.  (We know they’re there.  But we never find out why they’re there.  This is a major problem, and while it may be true to life, the axiom “life just is; fiction has to convince” needs to be invoked.)

This is why I say that CHANGES is decent, but not Lackey’s best; there’s no real change here, as the ethical problems have been done better in EXILE’S HONOR and the follow-up, EXILE’S VALOR, much less in BY THE SWORD.   And while I liked Mags, Amily, Lena and Bear, the sense of finality and purpose, that a trilogy had actually been completed, was not there at all and that weakened the book as it stood.

The upshot here is this: if you like Lackey’s Valdemar series, this will divert you for a few hours, but it won’t change your life and it’s unlikely to bring you back for a re-read.  Because of that, I recommend you wait to buy this in paperback or get it from the local library, as that way it will feel like far less of a disappointment.

Grade: C-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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