Posts Tagged Mercedes Lackey

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

, , , , , , , ,


Romance Saturday Returns with Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill’s “Victories”

It’s Romance Saturday at SBR! So what could be better than a little YA romance coupled with suspense and neo-Arthurian myth?

VICTORIES, the fourth and final book of the Shadow Grail series by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill, again takes up where book three, SACRIFICES, left off. (Books one and two were reviewed here.) Muirin is dead, but her friends Spirit White (pictured on the cover), Spirit’s boyfriend Burke Hallows, and their BFFs Addie Lake and Lachlann “Loch” Spears are on the run from the evil Shadow Knights. They now know for certain that the head of Oakhurst Academy, Doctor Ambrosius, is not just evil, but is actually Mordred . . . and he’s been around since the fall of Camelot.

Why is this important? Well, Mordred was imprisoned in an oak tree for millenia, and only “woke up” as himself in the 1970s, only to then “borrow” a body from a biker for his own, personal use. Ever since, has been using his magic to recreate the conditions of Camelot — but on his terms.

And Ambrosius/Mordred knows very little about the modern world, despite the technology he and his school have been using throughout. Which is much more of a problem than it seems — but I’ll get back to that momentarily.

Anyway, Spirit and her friends end up being guided by the mysterious QUERCUS to a deserted missile silo out in the middle of nowhere. A strange woman, who seems to know them somehow, helps them get down into the silo, where food and rest awaits. Then, after they sleep the sleep of the truly exhausted (or maybe the just, I don’t know), they find out from this woman that QUERCUS wants to talk . . . via the very old computer equipment in the silo, which uses extremely old technology that has to warm up for quite some time to be used — but is still operational.

So far, so good. The story is told with breathless abandon, and the technology is explained enough that it passes and sounds logical, as it’s conceivable that this silo would be both abandoned and discounted by Mordred.

But QUERCUS gives Spirit some very bad news. He is the Merlin — yes, that Merlin — and he now exists solely as a computer program. Because of this, he’s been able to warn her and her friends . . . but because he no longer has corporeal form, nor any way to regain it (as he won’t do what Mordred did as it’s the blackest of black magic — possession), he cannot fight the Shadow Knights or Mordred directly. All he can do at this point is advise.

Making matters worse yet, Spirit finds out for certain that she and all of her friends — including the departed Muirin — are “Reincarnates” — that is, people who lived during the time of Camelot and have reincarnated at this time in place in order to fight Mordred one, last time.

In fact, Spirit was once Guinevere — the sword Spirit is carrying is actually Guin’s, in fact — and Burke was King Arthur. Addie was once the Lady of the Lake, famed for her healing abilities, and Loch — well, he was Lancelot. (I had hoped he’d be Sir Gawain, personally. Ah, well.)

And all of that is important, too, because these four must find something called “the Four Hallows” — four talismans of great power — in order to invoke their prior memories as these fabled people. Because they cannot beat Mordred if they stay the way they are, even with their magic . . . and they must beat Mordred, as Mordred’s idea of “winning” starts with all-out war and goes downhill from there.

Worst of all, because Mordred didn’t live through the Cold War (much; one assumes he wasn’t paying much attention after he “borrowed” the biker’s body he’s been using), Mordred has no fear of a nuclear holocaust. But his own Shadow Knights — those who fought on Mordred’s side back in the day, who have been reincarnated in our time and were awakened by Mordred — definitely do.

Which may give Spirit and the others an opening . . . (further reviewer sayeth about the plot — at least not yet).

There’s a lot to like about VICTORIES. It’s a rip-roaring action-adventure with some mild romance, a good amount of mystery and magic, and a believable fight against the darkest evil magician ever created for the highest of stakes — life itself. I loved the good characters, hated the evil ones, and wanted good to win out — all fine and dandy.

That said, because the book went by so fast, I missed some of the characterization I’d so adored in the previous three books. I like Spirit, Burke, Addie, and Loch, you see — but I wasn’t overly fond of Guinevere, King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake and Sir Lancelot. And while I liked how they faded in and out of focus — that is a very tough trick to pull off, having one soul with two full sets of memories in one body, and I give Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill full “props” for doing so — I mostly got annoyed whenever Guin, Arthur, etc., showed up to talk in “High Forsoothly” (what Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill called the more formal Renaissance-sounding English constructions, something that amused me very much).

Another thing that frustrated me a tad was the nature of Spirit and Burke”s romance. These two love each other in a somewhat chaste teenage way, which is sensible considering the context. (Who wants to make out in front of your two best friends in such close quarters?) But finding out these two had been married, and had many remembrances of being with each other as full adults, was a little tough for me to handle. I kept thinking that if I were Queen Guinevere and King Arthur, I’d want to steal away to some little grotto somewhere and just get it on — using proper safe-sex practices, of course — as these two supposedly had a legendary romance. And as Spirit and Burke were sometimes also Guin and Arthur, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why they didn’t do that.

Maybe it’s a good thing that this element didn’t come into play, mind. This is a series meant for tweens and teens. Too much sexual activity would’ve perhaps taken the focus away from all of that action-adventure. But finding out some information through pillow-talk between Guin and Arthur would’ve been extremely interesting; having Burke and Spirit have to deal with the aftermath of that also would’ve been quite riveting.

The reason this is only a minor quibble, though, is because Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill clearly set it up that Guin and Arthur’s marriage was more one of state than one of love. (Which would be accurate for the times they lived in, granted. Damned few people married for love back then.) They were great friends, yes. And they cared about each other deeply. But there was actually more romance between Spirit and Burke in this time than there seems to have been between Guin and Arthur.

The other teensy issue I had with VICTORIES is that the ending goes by too fast. (Spoiler alert! Turn away now. You have been warned.) I wanted to see Mordred suffer, and I wanted to see our four heroes be able to luxuriate in the victory while thinking about how terrible it is that Muirin didn’t live to see the day — and while I got a little of the latter, I just didn’t get anywhere near enough of the former to suit me.

Bottom line? This is a nice evocation of the Arthurian mythos for the 21st Century Millenial crowd, and I enjoyed it very much. But it doesn’t stand alone — please read LEGACIES, CONSPIRACIES, and SACRIFICES first.



Shadow Grail series — A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

, , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Lackey and Edghill’s “Sacrifices” a Rousing neo-Arthurian Yarn

SACRIFICES, book three in Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill’s novels of the Shadow Grail, starts off exactly where book two left off: There are alumni of Oakhurst Academy actively “helping” the students, but students Spirit White and her four friends Loch, Addie, Muirin and Burke think something is desperately wrong.  (Please see the reviews for books one and two here.)  Somehow, the legend of King Arthur is involved, as the mysterious QUERCUS has hinted via computer message, and Spirit in particular is starting to wonder if many of these alumni are truly evil rather than merely obnoxious.

Making things even tougher, at least some of the other students at Oakhurst have been taken in by the alumni, all of whom work for a large computer company called Breakthrough Systems.  (Allusions to the terrible world economy, which apparently even magicians can be affected by, firmly anchor this story to our present-day reality.)  But as Spirit finds out early on in SACRIFICES, these alumni are evil . . . worse than that, they’re actually Shadow Knights, reincarnated from the days of King Arthur (which apparently weren’t legend after all, but history misrecorded as myth).  And they are bound on the world’s destruction . . . .

Everyone’s paranoid in SACRIFICES to a degree that may shock readers if they haven’t re-read LEGACIES and CONSPIRACIES recently (books one and two of this series, respectively).   But there’s a reason for that, which is enumerated very early on (right after the deft “what has gone before” summation in the first few pages to get everyone back up to speed): Students are getting “challenged” by the evil alumni.  If they come back at all, they wear the pin of Breakthrough Systems — are, in effect, Shadow Knights in training — while those who decline, presumably, are killed outright.

And long-time teachers at the Academy are not exempt from such things, either, especially if they try to help the remaining students outwait or outlast the Shadow Knights.  (This is one reason the book’s title Sacrifices has so much meaning.)  The fact that some teachers put their lives in danger — and that some may end up laying their lives down — helps to up the danger and complexity of the problem Spirit and her friends must face.

Finally, Muirin’s still playing a double-game as she’s dating one of the guys from Breakthrough Systems (one of the worst of the Shadow Knights).  Can she hold out long enough to get the needed information to Spirit and her other friends?  Or will she break under the pressure?  (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

Because, you see, the pressure is real.  The Shadow Knights wish to annihilate the world, and have the magic to do so.  And their only concern is to pick what they believe is the “right moment” — a moment before any of the magical forces of good, which must be somewhere even if Spirit and her friends can’t seem to find them (save QUERCUS, of course, and a few of the teachers at the Academy), catch on to their evil — to blow the world up out of spite.

How can five teens face off against these fully adult, fully evil people?  Well, that’s for you to read, but I highly encourage you to do so.  This is a really fast read with palpable menace, great historical references and truly heart-rending decisions that made me wish book four was out right now.   (I’ll be looking for book four in 2014, to be sure.  With avid anticipation, even.)

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

, , , ,


Lackey and Mallory’s “Crown of Vengeance” — One Compelling Epic Fantasy

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s newest novel is CROWN OF VENGEANCE, book one of a new trilogy about the great Elven Queen Vieliessar Farcarinon.  Previous readers of Lackey and Mallory’s work will recognize Vieliessar from a short snippet in a previous novel, WHEN DARKNESS FALLS (book three of the “Obsidian Mountain” trilogy).  She was described as the best queen the Elves ever had.  She was also the best mage, the wisest ruler, skilled with both sword and magery alike.  And of course the legends about her mostly speak of her benevolence, as she’s the one who drove the nasty, vicious Endarkened out of Jer-a-Kaliel.

(A quick note about the Endarkened: They do not see themselves as evil.  They are servants of a God known as He Who Is.  They also are blood mages who enjoy causing pain and death to maximize their own power, and especially enjoy killing Elves.  But the Elves, at first, do not know about the Endarkened.  Thus ends the history lesson.)

If you’ve read the other six books Lackey and Mallory have written about this world, you already know that Vieliessar’s story isn’t going to go exactly the way history has remembered it.  Because of this, you can safely assume that Vieliessar is both more and less than what history gives her credit for.

So yes, she will turn out to be a triumphant Queen.  And a brilliant military tactician.  And a great mage, oh yes.

But she’s also a flawed person, someone the reader can empathize with.  Because her power sets her apart.  And it’s hard for her to find anyone who can relate to her, due to her own amazingly strong abilities.

Having a sympathetic heroine is absolutely essential in a book where most of the character names are at least four syllables in length.  And when a character has hundreds of years to become what she needs to be, for that matter — because Vieliessar isn’t human.  She’s an Elf.  And at this time in Jer-a-Kaliel’s history, because we’re so far back in the past, humans aren’t even in the picture because they haven’t yet evolved enough to matter.

We pick up Vieliessar’s story literally at birth.  Her noble mother, Nataranweiya, has fled to the Sanctuary of the Star — clerics and mages, the equivalent of a nunnery or monastery — as her husband has been slain, along with nearly all of her retainers.  (Those few she had left were the reason she was able to reach the Sanctuary at all.)  Nataranweiya gets there, gives birth, and promptly dies . . . but because Vieliessar’s birth was seen centuries ago by an ancient and possibly mad King, and because Vieliessar is, after all, in a holy Sanctuary, the enemies that brought down the House of Farcarinon are not able to kill Vieliessar outright.

Instead, she’s fostered out.

We pick up the story again when Vieliessar is twelve.  Renamed “Varuthir,” all she wants to do is to become an Elven knight.  She knows nothing of being the last of Farcarinon; she knows nothing of her birth, her mother, her status as “Child of the Prophecy” or anything else.  So when she’s shipped off to the Sanctuary of the Star to become a perpetual servant, she is outraged.

That one of the nobles cruelly tells Vieliessar exactly who she’s supposed to be (minus the Child of the Prophecy part, as the Sanctuary didn’t let on about any of that) before she leaves just adds salt to the wound.

So, Vieliessar goes to the Sanctuary, and becomes a servant.  She’s there for perhaps as many as ten years, learning that servants are people like any other — that the “Landbonds,” who’ve been held as serfs, tied to the land, are perhaps more noble than anyone who’s inherited a title — and that magic has its limits.

Then, one day, she calls fire.

A wise servant tells Vieliessar to hide her new abilities, as if she’s chosen to become a Lightsister (mage and cleric, both), she’ll lose her protected status.  (Only if she stays in the Sanctuary or on its grounds is she safe.  And perhaps not on the grounds, depending on how the other noble houses feel about it.)  But of course Vieliessar isn’t able to do that.

If she had been, it would’ve been a much shorter, and far less interesting, book.  But I digress.

The remainder of the novel deals with how Vieliessar first becomes a mage, then an Elven knight, and finally reclaims her birthright as a noble.  In so doing, she realizes she must unite the Hundred Houses behind her banner, as she firmly believes that evil is approaching, just as that mad King said centuries ago.

But her quest is not an easy one.  Before she’s done, she may alienate every friend she has, all to keep at least some semblance of Elven society alive.  And because she knows this — and knows how rare it is to find a true meeting of the minds, besides — her fate and fame become that much more compelling.

There’s some really good characterization here.  The problems of the Landbonds and servants are well-drawn.  The nobles — Higher and Lesser — are also well-drawn, though their petty politicking grows tiring even to those Highborns willing to partake in such.  And despite her immense powers in a wide variety of spheres, Vieliessar is a likable, winning heroine that most readers will be willing to cheer for — even as they wish the Endarkened would just go away and leave her alone already.

Because this is book one of a new trilogy, you may safely assume that the scenes with the Endarkened are more like an appetizer than an actual main course.  This is fine, as far as it goes, especially if you’ve read the previous six books.

But even if you haven’t, there’s more than enough here to show that the Endarkened are nasty pieces of work that you definitely wouldn’t want to invite to dinner.  (Or anywhere else, either.  Because they’d probably have you as the main course, and smile while they killed you, as slowly and painfully as they possibly could.)

Bottom line?  This is a fine epic fantasy, a quest story with heart, and a compelling read from beginning to end.

If you love epic fantasy, loved any of Lackey and Mallory’s previous six books in this world, or have enjoyed any of the two authors’ solo efforts, you will enjoy this book.

And if you love all of the above, plus appreciate seeing that legends aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be (they might be more, might be less, but are assuredly different), you will adore CROWN OF VENGEANCE.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

, , , ,

1 Comment

“Arcanum 101: Welcome New Students” — Winning YA Urban Fantasy from Lackey and Edghill

Arcanum 101: Welcome New Students by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill is about Tomas Torres, a fifteen-year-old from the barrio.  Tomas saves himself and his younger sister, Rosalita, from a nasty encounter due to his previously unknown talent for pyrokinesis — fire-starting, but with the additional ability of being able to move the fires he calls about.  But in doing so, he calls attention to himself and ends up working for the local padrone — a very dangerous man — until he quickly ends up behind bars.

Fortunately for Tomas, he’s sent away to St. Rhiannon’s School for Gifted and Exceptional Students (“St. Rhia’s” for short) in upstate New York for three years of probation rather than hard time for arson.  St. Rhia’s is a place where psionics like Tomas, or magicians, like his friend and love interest Valeria Victrix Langenfeld (always called “VeeVee”), get trained.  Because they’re in the middle of nowhere, that limits the damage these untrained kids can do; it also allows these kids to fight against some really noxious magical things without anyone in authority getting wind of it.

Of course, Torres doesn’t believe in magic, much.  Nor does he believe in anything beyond what he can do himself.  This is something that needs to get knocked out of him, fast.  And as Tomas has adventure after adventure (some with VeeVee, some not), he starts to realize that the world as he knew it is a whole lot bigger — and a whole lot deadlier — than he’d ever imagined.

Fortunately for Tomas, he has experienced help at the ready, as Arcanum 101 is an offshoot of the “Bedlam’s Bard” universe.  That means such well-known characters as Eric Banyon, Kayla Smith, and Hosea Songmaker either teach at St. Rhia’s, or are counselors, and can help as needed.  The reason for these characters to help at a school like this is simple; none of them want these kids to have the types of growing pains they did.  And while none of the teachers overtly state this, the point still came across.  (Loudly and clearly, too.)

So there’s a rationale for the school.  And there’s a rationale for why these kids are better off at this school than they would be if they were simply left on their own.  Which is why Tomas, once he settles into it, decides he rather likes St. Rhia’s, even if it is rather far from civilization.  And his liking is not simply due to “get on the bandwagon” psychology, either — instead, it’s actual fellowship, which is hard to write well.  (Lackey and Edghill not only wrote it well, but got me to believe that Tomas indeed wanted this sense of fellowship, even when he didn’t know what it was.  And writing inchoate longing is even harder than writing about the sense of fellowship without it turning to treacle.  Full marks for the pair of them!)

At any rate, Tomas’s and VeeVee are good characters and I enjoyed reading about their adventures.  Better yet, I believed in their nascent romance, complete with ups and downs — some of which will be familiar to every teen whether they have Gifts or not — and believed it added greatly to the book as a whole.

Bottom line:  Arcanum 101 has magic, teens, a boarding school that’s nothing like the “Harry Potter” series, adventure, a believable, PG-rated romance . . . in other words, this is a winning effort, Young Adult-style, from the gifted duo of Lackey and Edghill.

The only minor drawback is that this is a short novel, somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 words.  But as it’s obviously meant to be the start of a whole new crop of adventurers in the “Bedlam’s Bard” universe — complete with Elves, Guardians, and bad guys galore — it works out just fine.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab the e-book today!  (Then do as I did, and devour it in a few hours, cold.  Then enjoy the re-reads.)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

, , , ,


“Dead Reckoning:” A Zombie Steampunk Western Thrill-ride

Dead ReckoningMercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill’s new cross-genre novel is DEAD RECKONING.  It’s a zombie steampunk Western set in 1867 that features a trio of intriguing characters, Jett Gallatin (a seventeen-year-old “male” gunslinger), Honoria Gibbons (called “Gibbons” — she’s an inventor, a genius, and is slightly older than Jett), and White Fox (male, about the same age as the other two, raised from birth with the Sac and Fox tribe but most likely 100% Anglo by blood; he’s a scout).  All three are intelligent and spirited misfits, which gives them a quick way to bond while keeping the plotline from getting complacent.

DEAD RECKONING opens with Jett stopping off at a saloon in what seems like the middle of nowhere (but is actually west Texas).  She’s looking for information about her brother, Phillip, who enlisted in the Confederate Army years ago and hasn’t been seen since.  But instead of finding anything out about her brother, she ends up running for her life after zombies — yes, zombies! — attack.

Jett’s a skeptic, so this attack deeply unsettles her worldview.  But more unsettling things are on the way once she meets up with Gibbons and Fox, as these two know from the start that Jett is female (a closely-guarded secret) due to Jett needing immediate medical attention.  More to the point, due to Gibbons’ skill as an inventor (she has a steam coach she calls an “Auto-Tachypode” that usually cruises at a steady 10 mph), Jett realizes she’s not the only non-traditional female out there.

Gibbons, being if anything even more skeptical than Jett, is leery of the zombie explanation, which is why all three youngsters end up going back to the little hole-in-the-wall town Jett started in to look for clues.  Once there, Gibbons attempts several experiments, which lead her to believe that Jett was, indeed, telling the truth.  (Which is lucky for us, or there’d be no story.)

Worse yet, Gibbons and the others quickly realize there’s a corrupt “Man of God” involved, a man known as “Brother Shepherd.”  Shepherd has a way to “bring the dead back to life,” but it’s not a resurrection — instead, he’s actually bringing these people back as undead zombies.  Due to this seemingly miraculous power, a cult of rather gullible people have formed around Shepherd (many of them women); the few men “in the know” are with Shepherd because Shepherd pays very, very well.  (Which admittedly isn’t hard to do if you’re able to loot towns with impunity due to a semi-controlled horde of zombies.)

When Jett is captured while attempting to gain information from the enemy, Gibbons and Fox quickly decide to rescue her.  But will the zombies manage to get to Jett first, especially as Shepherd does seem to have some sort of weird control over them?  And even if the zombies don’t get to Jett right off, will Gibbons figure out how to undo whatever it is Shepherd’s done, as that’s the only long-term way to save Jett or anyone else?

All of this action-adventure is stimulating, interesting, and very fun to read.  But perhaps the best reason to read DEAD RECKONING is how faithful Lackey and Edghill are to the Western milieu, yet how easily they manage to fit both steampunk and zombies into the story without missing a beat.

Bottom line?  DEAD RECKONING is an excellent stand-alone, action-adventure novel.  So if you like Westerns, zombies, steampunk, or better yet, all three, go grab a copy of DEAD RECKONING once it becomes available on June 5, 2012.  You’ll be glad you did.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

, , , , , ,


SBR 2-for-1 Special: Lackey and Edghill’s “Shadow Grail” Series off to a Rousing Start

Tonight’s reviews are for the first two books in Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill’s new “Shadow Grail” series, those being Legacies and Conspiracies.  These are urban fantasies and feature as their main character Spirit White, an ordinary teen from Indiana. 

Legacies coverLegacies starts off with a terrible accident, as Spirit’s whole family has been killed in a car accident.  That same accident landed Spirit in the hospital; she endures extensive rehabilitation in order to be able to walk around.  When she starts feeling a little better, at least physically, she finds that her parents had apparently left a will saying that Spirit should be sent to Oakhurst Academy in the event of their deaths — and as she’s never heard of Oakhurst Academy before, she doesn’t really like this.  Spirit’s parents weren’t wealthy, and she wonders, once she sees the lavish school (which is in the middle of Montana, far from the maddening crowd), how she ended up there of all places.   It turns out that Spirit is a Legacy — that Spirit’s parents had attended Oakhurst themselves, and never discussed it with her — and apparently there are many other Legacies out there in similar situations to Spirit’s own.

Despite these other folks in similar situations, Spirit immediately starts to flounder because Oakhurst isn’t just a preparatory school with an outstanding record; oh, no.  It’s a magical school, and everyone who attends must have magic — so even though Spirit hasn’t any more magic than a flea as far as she knows, she’s quickly ensconced in the school.  And she becomes friends with four others, all of whom have evinced magical talents Spirit herself doesn’t have: Muirin Shae (a chocoholic and caffeine addict; she’s wealthy and her stepmother doesn’t like her), Adelaide (“Addie”) Lake (a sweet girl who rarely raises her voice), Lachlann (“Loch”) Spears (he’s wealthy, he’s gay, and he quickly becomes Spirit’s BFF), and Burke Hallows (a jock, and Spirit’s eventual love interest).  These disparate teens all know that something about Oakhurst Academy has set them off, and they aren’t buying what the director of the Academy, Doctor Ambrosius, is selling, which is the main reason they take to Spirit right away.

But of course there are other reasons, the primary one being that Spirit is grieving.  She misses her parents.  She misses her sister.  She’s been thrown into demanding educational coursework, and even though Spirit herself doesn’t have a clue what her magical talent is (if she even has one), she knows magic is real by the talents her friends have — and accepts it rather placidly at first, as Spirit obviously has only so much energy and she’s using it all just to live.

But then, terrible things start happening; some students go missing.  And in doing some research, Spirit and her friends find out this has been going on for many years — the Wild Hunt seems to be involved (this, by the way, is the only “typical” arcane referent here, and the only sidewise reference to the Court of King Arthur), and yet the teachers aren’t doing anything about it.

So Spirit and her friends decide to mix in . . . while I’ll stop my review for Legacies right there, know that the action-adventure was crisp and believable, and the “teen speak” makes sense.  All the conventional trappings are there: this is present-day, so we have IPods, computers, instant messaging (IMs), e-books, you name it.  And we have a believable, workable system of magic, plus some authority figures that don’t ring true and some real bad juju going on.

In other words, as book one was a success, next is book two, CONSPIRACIES.conspiracies cover  Here, Spirit White and her friends continue to fight against the Wild Hunt as more kids — and even some teachers — have been taken.  No one is helping Spirit and her friends out openly, though there may be a teacher or two who is willing to help covertly as Spirit gets help from an unlikely and unusual source, one that is not named.  And now, Doctor Ambrosius has asked the alumni to come back to Oakhurst Academy in order to help the students “fight the evil,” yet these alumni don’t necessarily seem all that much on the side of the “good and the right,” either . . . so what’s to do?

Once again, Spirit and her friends are able to keep themselves alive, and they learn a few more things.  It turns out that at least some of them are Knights of the Grail — that is, they’ve been reincarnated, even though neither Spirit nor any of her friends know which person they might’ve been in the past.  And there also are Shadow Knights out there — those who originally backed Mordred (Arthur’s son) against him — and this conflict has escalated because of a number of factors (all of which I’d have to blow the plot out of the water to explain, so apologies for stopping with that).

Here’s what’s going on with Spirit’s friends:

Muirin is courted by one of the alumni assiduously, to the point that it sets Spirit’s “antennae” off because Muirin is only sixteen, at most, and this guy courting Muirin has to be at least twenty-one.  Spirit and Muirin become closer due to this and Muirin starts teaching Spirit about fashion (one of Muirin’s passions).

Loch is nearly outed by one of the alumni, which really worries Spirit as she’s not sure what to do about this.  (Loch doesn’t seem overly concerned, except they are in Montana and Montana isn’t exactly known to be gay-friendly.)  Loch had already determined that most of the alumni called in by Doctor Ambrosius were up to no good; that someone would be willing to “out” him for no reason just confirms his belief that these alumni must be fought.

Burke and Spirit become much closer, and their romantic relationship starts to deepen; unfortunately, his foster family (with whom he was very close) has been killed and he’s very upset.  (This might be one reason he takes to Spirit, though, even though it’s more subtextual than out in the open.  Spirit lost her whole family; Burke’s family was already dead, but he had a vibrant foster family he loved very much.  Then they, too, were killed, reasons unknown, but signs definitely point to one of the returning alums.)

Addie realizes she has a Destiny — soon after, the other three of Spirit’s friends also realize this (though Spirit, herself, doesn’t seem to have one) — and that means either something very good is in her future, or very bad.  In either sense, though, Addie won’t be able to avoid it, as a Destiny is something that absolutely must come to be even if you’re not exactly sure what it is.  (This seems akin to clairvoyance without actually needing a clairvoyant around to muddy up the works.)  Addie helps hold the disparate group together, as she definitely seems the most maternal; she’s gifted at organization, planning, and compassion.

So that’s where the Shadow Grail series stands thus far; we have five people who know they must fight against magical evil.  They know reincarnation has something to do with it.  They know that the Morte d’Arthur has more than a little to do with it, no matter how odd it seems.  And yet, they’re teens, with typical teen problems and angst, with the additive problems of these chaotic alumni and the fact that two of the five are seriously grieving at the moment.

I definitely recommend this series; it is a must-buy, mostly because it gets the issues right that teens have to deal with, and partly because it gets the grief issues absolutely right.  I’m looking forward to reading books three and four, and will be very interested to find out what Spirit’s magical talent is (as it’s still not been revealed), whether she and Burke will stay together, whether Loch will be “outed,” and whether the alumni truly are as evil as they seem.


B-plus, Legacies, only because of a slow start.  (I honestly don’t know of a better way to get all the information in there than what Lackey and Edghill did, mind you; they didn’t “info-dump,” for which I thank them.)  Nice action, intrigue, and hints of menace, along with getting the major “teen stuff” right.

A, Conspiracies.  Great action is shown here, and many more hints of menace, with the ante being upped by the additional attacks on teachers at Oakhurst.  When the alumni show up to “save the day,” but don’t end up saving much of anything, the plot deepens . . . excellent all the way ’round.  (Hurry up and write the sequels, please!)

, , , , ,


Mercedes Lackey’s “Beauty and the Werewolf” — Believable Characters Make for Realistic Romance

Mercedes Lackey’s newest entry in her long-running “Tales of the 500 Kingdoms” series is BEAUTY AND THE WEREWOLF.  The 500 Kingdoms series is all about “the Tradition,” always capitalized, and how the stories that constitute the Tradition can either help or hinder any given person.

In this case, the heroine is Isabella (called “Bella”) Beauchamps; she has two step-sisters and a step-mama, and while her father loves her very much, he seems to take a rather hands-off approach to parenting.  This might be because Bella is of legal age — she’s a young adult, maybe nineteen or twenty, and she’s used to running her father’s household as she feels her step-mama can’t be bothered to do anything.

Now, what the Tradition would normally do with someone in Bella’s situation isn’t pretty, which might be why the first time Bella is exposed to any magic, she’s bitten by a werewolf.  However, this turns out to be a blessing in disguise because the werewolf is none other than Duke Sebastian, a young, eligible man who’s also a wizard.  Because Sebastian, while in wolf form, bit Bella, she’s confined along with him at his rather reclusive estate.  And as Sebastian is a magician and a scholar — and isn’t the type to take advantage of the situation, either — this actually works out well.

However, there’s a rogue agent in this romantic fantasy, and that’s Eric, Sebastian’s Gamekeeper.  Eric is one of the old Duke’s by-blows, and while he’s not quite an acknowledged bastard (as if he were, he’d have probably been given some land or a house or something else of his own), everyone knows who Eric’s father was because Eric looks quite a bit like the old Duke.

Yet Bella doesn’t have any idea what Eric’s about; she just knows she doesn’t care for Eric, and researches ways within the Tradition to keep him away from her.  (Eric has an eye for the ladies, isn’t chaste, and is the “love ’em and leave ’em” type, though he doesn’t seem to be overly abusive or violent — just not very discerning.)  And because she, too, has a gift for magic, she’s able to assist Sebastian with his researches — and all that proximity pays big dividends, in the end.

As with any of the other Tales of the 500 Kingdoms (some others include THE FAIRY GODMOTHER, ONE GOOD KNIGHT, and FORTUNE’S FOOL), the romance here is never in doubt.  But watching it develop is part of the fun, as it’s particularly well-drawn here; the romance emerges out of the characterization, a nifty touch that I appreciated.

The only question I had about three-quarters of the way through the book was, “When will Eric’s perfidy finally be exposed?  And why is he so nasty, anyway?”  And while I’m not going to reveal these answers (it just wouldn’t be fair), I will say that I enjoyed the answers when all was finally revealed.

This is a good story with believable, well-drawn characters, and contains a realistic romance.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, and believe that if you’re in the mood for a light romance — one that enjoys gently tweaking and twisting traditional fairy tales into something a bit more modern — you’ll enjoy it, too.

Grade: A-.

— reviewed by Barb

, ,

1 Comment

“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

, ,