“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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  1. #1 by J on November 20, 2011 - 3:37 pm

    Could not agree more. This was a bit of a slump and just didn’t feel fresh.

    In fact, with the complete lack of resolution at the end of the book, it really just felt like a watered down re-tread of the immediate previous books in the series. Quidditch (er, Kirball), mysterious strangers, spy work in Haven…

    • #2 by Barb Caffrey on November 22, 2011 - 9:50 am

      Thanks for reading my review, J.

      Yes, that’s exactly what I found wrong here. There wasn’t enough life to the storytelling. This seemed like “instant Valdemar, thaw and serve.” And because Lackey has so much craft and is such a good writer, she can get away with writing a book that’s entertaining while you read it — but then you set it aside and go, ‘Hm. I’ve seen this all before.”

      The one aspect here I liked was the nature of the Monarch’s Own. He’s a spy. That’s unusual. And he’s training Mags, overtly, in spying — which is also somewhat unusual. Granted, we saw this before in the previous two books, but the development of this seemed to be one of the few things that flowed from characterization rather than were imposed from without by the author. (This is always a tricky balance.)

      And I really hope a fourth book is forthcoming here because there’s _no_ resolution at all to this one. None.

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