Archive for November, 2014

SBR 2-for-1 Special: Mercedes Lackey’s Most Recent Herald Spy Novels

Mercedes Lackey has been reviewed many times here at SBR, and for good reason. Her books are the ultimate page-turners; some are better than others, but nearly all of them hold my interest until the final page.

Tonight it’s time to review BASTION, book five in Lackey’s Collegium Chronicles, and the follow-up to that, CLOSER TO HOME, billed as the first in her new Herald Spy series. Both feature Herald-trainee Mags, his love interest Amily (partially disabled — she has a lame leg — and daughter of the King’s Own Herald, Nikolas), and Companions galore, but both stories are markedly different otherwise.

Bastion coverBASTION starts off with Mags, Amily, their best friends Healer Bear and Bard Lena (recently married), Herald Jakyr and various Companions (bonded souls in the form of white horses) trying to figure out what is their next move. Everyone knows that Mags is in trouble (see the reviews for both CHANGES and REDOUBT if you don’t believe me), they know he’s being hunted…and they also know that if Mags himself is unavailable, the hunters will take revenge on his nearest and dearest.

So the decision is made that they will all go to ground in a place that’s easily defensible, or a bastion. Provisions are bought, traveling is done, a few minor skirmishes are encountered, and then, finally, we find out who’s hunting Mags and why.

(No, I’m not going to tell you. You have to read the book for that.)

Because I’ve read every book set on the world of Velgarth known to man, I’ve seen most of this before. The only new stuff here is the interplay between Mags and Amily — new lovers, just trying to find their footing with each other — and a rekindling of love between Herald Jakyr and another member of the party.

Mind, I enjoyed those things. I appreciated finding out, finally, about why Mags has been hunted. I also relished the journeys they had to get there, as there were some deft moments of humor that cut the tension nicely. And the fight scenes were clever, the mind-magic was well-done…all good.

But there was something here that didn’t quite meet my expectations, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the fact that Ms. Lackey has written at least thirty novels in this particular setting — Velgarth — full of Heralds, Companions, derring-do, villainy that must be thwarted, and much more. And amid those thirty novels are some true gems, including her first-ever trilogy, ARROWS OF THE QUEEN, ARROW’S FLIGHT, and ARROW’S FALL.

I mean, this lady started off with a bang, OK? And over time, she’s had other winners like MAGIC’S PAWN and MAGIC’S PRICE, EXILE’S HONOR, BY THE SWORD, OATHBREAKERS…these are all compelling stories with richness, freshness, compassion, energy, and all of them make you want to read them and re-read them until your eyes get tired. Then re-read them again.

BASTION is not up to that standard, I’m afraid. It’s a decent, hard-working novel with a nice protagonist, a nifty heroine, and a better-than-average antagonist (whose relation to Mags must be read to be believed, but makes sense in context). It made me laugh several times, it made me cry at least once, and I enjoyed it…but I cannot imagine re-reading it.

CLOSER TO HOME is the first book in Lackey’s new Herald Spy series, featuring Mags, now a full Herald, and Amily, who’s still involved with him. Amily has a job of her own now — she’s a scholar, and a good one — and both Mags and Amily are stationed in Haven and are taking their first steps into adulthood, albeit under the guidance of Mags’ mentor and Amily’s father Nikolas, the King’s Own Herald.

Then tragedy strikes, as Nikolas is involved in an accident. The Death Bell rings for him, but Mags remembers some of his lessons from his friend Healer Bear (not otherwise invoked during this novel), and manages to re-start Nikolas’s heart…but before he can do that, Nikolas’s Companion has Chosen Amily to become the next King’s Own Herald. (Don’t worry, though; Nikolas is re-Chosen by a new Companion, Evory.)

All of a sudden, Amily must become the King’s Own. She’s a smart young woman, and took many of the same classes Mags did — including self-defense, equitation, mathematics, and more — but the King is not pleased that Nikolas is no longer the King’s Own. And that creates many new problems, some that are resolved easily…and some that aren’t.

This was a welcome addition to the Valdemar canon, and I appreciated it very much.

However, amid Amily and Mags getting more used to their new roles (hers being very new, while he’s more or less taken up his prior role in recruiting unlikely spies and messengers, albeit with less oversight as Nikolas is recovering from his near-death experience), there’s a blood feud going on between two noble families. And one of the families has a young girl, who’s fallen in love with a slightly older boy…shades of Romeo and Juliet, except of course it can’t be that easy. (Not that Romeo and Juliet had an easy resolution, either, but…as always, I digress.)

For the most part, I enjoyed CLOSER TO HOME quite a bit. It’s a nice start to a new series, a fast, page-turning read with some interesting things going on that I didn’t expect. I didn’t necessarily like all of them (that Romeo and Juliet subplot being a case in point), but I give Ms. Lackey big “props” for doing something new and fresh with her long-running Valdemar series.

Bottom line: While both BASTION and CLOSER TO HOME kept me turning the pages, I was left ever-so-slightly dissatisfied. And while CLOSER TO HOME was by far the better of the two books, it’s still not up there on the “Keeper” shelf with Lackey’s best.




–reviewed by Barb

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E. Ayers’ “A Skeleton at her Door” — A Quick, Fun Halloween Read

Who’s up for a little Halloween-themed romance?

Tonight’s review is for E. Ayers‘ novella A Skeleton at her Door, an American contemporary romance featuring a winning heroine, Angie Robertson, and a likable hero, Tom Meyers. Both are divorced thirtysomethings, both are lonely, but because of some past relationship distress, they’ve become quite wary of romance.

A Skeleton at her Door opens with Angie literally opening the door to Tom in a skin-tight skeleton costume. Normally, Angie wouldn’t do this, but it’s Halloween, and she’s expecting her friend Matt, who lives two doors down, to come over in costume. So since the man’s build is close to Matt’s, and the height is close also — and because Angie cannot tell under the black and white makeup who is wearing that skin-tight costume — Angie mistakes Tom for Matt.

It takes Lissy, Angie’s young daughter, to point out that Matt has blue eyes, while the man in the skeleton costume at the door has brown ones. This causes Angie some embarrassment until she realizes that the man at the door (who she doesn’t yet know is Tom) is looking for Matt’s apartment, not hers.

So, of course, Angie sends the man on his way. And we’d not have a story, except that Tom sends Angie flowers the next day . . . plus Matt, of all people, vouches for Tom.

See, Tom is a good guy. He has two teenaged children, he works hard and has a nice house, and he normally doesn’t try this hard. But there’s something in Angie that calls to him, so he’s willing to perhaps make a fool out of himself to get to know her.

Also — and I’m not sure how he figured this out — he realizes very quickly indeed that Angie is gun-shy. Because of that, he’s careful in how he woos her, and makes sure to include her daughter at every turn.

All fine and dandy, yes?

But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Angie, you see, is dealing with some serious relationship trauma — much more serious than we were initially led to believe — and has a hard time saying “no” to men. And Tom nearly oversteps his bounds four or five times, all to get Angie to react rather than simply withdraw into submission.

Note that the submission I’m discussing here has nothing to do with BDSM. (If it did, I’d not be reviewing it, methinks.) Instead, it’s all about this wounded woman, Angie, and how she has a hard time actually having conversations that include the words “no” or “not right now” with men. Even men she deeply cares about . . .

Perhaps especially the man she cares about most, Tom.

Of course, once she realizes she can trust Tom, how long do you think it’s going to take these two to make a commitment to one another? (Further reviewer sayeth not . . . at least, not about this.)

The biggest plus here is Ms. Ayers’ strong sense of craftsmanship. The set up of A Skeleton at her Door is masterful. We know right away there’s something lurking in Angie’s background that’s made her distrustful of men, but we also know that the skeleton (Tom) is going to be different…and not just because Angie cheerfully leered at him when she thought he was her neighbor, Matt (safely in a relationship with someone else).

However, the biggest minus is a lack of internal monologue, especially on the part of Angie. I would’ve liked a great deal more depth in two places in this novella, one right before Angie decides to sleep with Tom, and the other right before Angie decides to marry him. The second is a much bigger problem than the first, because I didn’t once get the sense that Angie had any trepidation about Tom at all once she’d slept with him (and confronted him, gently, over his four-five attempts at getting her to say “no” to him, sometimes about the most innocuous of things).

Mitigating this lack of internal monologue to a degree, though, was some very nice character development between Tom and Angie. Tom, you see, is into Angie in every way, even to the point where things she sees as flaws are seen as badges of honor by him. And because Tom sees Angie in this way, she can drop some of her body consciousness and just get down and dirty with him…especially as he’s made it clear that they will not have sex in front of any of their children before they are married. (Instead, they find somewhere else to have sex while making sure the kids are taken care of, a sensible and smart precaution.)

Bottom line: While I would’ve liked to see a bit less emphasis on the physical perfection of Tom (as that gets old, fast), I enjoyed A Skeleton at her Door quite a bit. It’s a quick, fun, Halloween-inspired read that any romantic will enjoy…and I look forward to reading more of Ms. Ayers’ work in the future.

Grade: B-plus.

Reviewed by Barb

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