Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Just reviewed Mercedes Lackey’s “Changes” at SBR

with 4 comments

Folks, I just finished up a book review for Mercedes Lackey’s CHANGES at Shiny Book Review, so here’s the link:

As Lackey is one of my favorite authors, writing a review like this, where I stated she’s “done this all before” and talked about the formulaic nature of the Valdemar series at this point was difficult for me to write.  Note that saying something has a formula to it doesn’t mean it’s bad; in this case, Lackey has so much skill that you can’t help but read any of her novels, even one of her weaker efforts, until the end.  Lackey is a very good writer for a reason, and she’s sold a great many books for a reason also, because her formula works.

In the Valdemar novels (also called the “Heralds of Valdemar” series), there are a number of things that are generally seen.  These are:

1) A likeable hero or heroine (in this case, Herald-trainee Mags).

2) The likeable hero feels like an outcast, as he’s come from someplace that doesn’t know much about the Heralds of Valdemar and struggles to fit in.

3) He finds friends who, like him, feel like outcasts for various reasons, so he’s not entirely alone.

4) He solves some problems due to his unique set of challenges and gifts; the way the hero looks at the world is vital to the safety and security of Valdemar, and thus everything the hero does (even the stuff that isn’t so nice) makes sense in context.

Those four things all have to be in a Valdemar novel, and they all were present with abundance in CHANGES.

So why, then, did I give this novel a C-plus when I really like Lackey’s writing?  Because while I sympathize with her in trying to come up with a unique angle for writing the Valdemar stories after all this time (after twenty-nine novels, the first one being published in 1987), this angle didn’t work for me.  Mags is analytical and intelligent, yes, but the way he speaks (in heavy dialect) is there so the reader will be constantly reminded that Mags really is intelligent and analytical because he doesn’t sound like either one of these things most of the time.  As a reader, I don’t like being “force-fed” like this, even from someone who writes as well as Lackey.

Second, as I said in my review, I’ve seen this done before and done better by Lackey, most notably in EXILE’S HONOR, BY THE SWORD, and the allied novel OATHBREAKERS (the latter being a view of Heralds from outside Valdemar, and through the lenses of two diversely gifted women).  

Third, even though there was a very nice emotional center to the book (I said this in my review, too), some of the emotional lows were not really there.  Mags doesn’t doubt himself so much as think that he should doubt himself, if that makes sense; also, when there were fights between the major characters, it felt forced and unnatural, as if Lackey figured there’d better be a fight so she put one in there even though it didn’t flow out naturally from the characterization.  And since I know Lackey can and usually does do better than this, that was the primary reason why CHANGES only garnered a C-plus from me, with the other reasons being that this book seemed more like an appetizer to whet my palate rather than a full, rich, satisfying meal.

Anyway, no writer is going to hit 100% with every reader on every book, so Lackey only hitting about 75% of what I’d hoped for with regards to her newest Valdemar novel, CHANGES, isn’t that big of a surprise.

Still, if you want to read Lackey (and I hope you do), you’d be better served to start with these books instead (along with the ones I’ve already mentioned):

ARROWS OF THE QUEEN (the very-first written Valdemar novel), ARROW’S FLIGHT, and ARROW’S FALL — These star Talia, an unwanted child from the puritanical Holderkin who live on the far outskirts of Valdemar.  She is Chosen to become the Queen’s Own Herald, struggles mightily in the role as her primary gift is empathy (not usually seen outside of Bards or Healers, and most especially not seen alone), and eventually finds her soul mate, Herald Dirk, after a great many trials and tribulations.

MAGIC’S PAWN, MAGIC’S PROMISE, MAGIC’S PRICE — this is the “Last Herald-Mage” trilogy, and it stars Vanyel Ashkevron, who is gay.  Vanyel’s family doesn’t like this fact overmuch and causes great troubles for him; when Vanyel’s first (and best) love, Tylendel, dies through misadventure, Vanyel tries to commit suicide.  Instead, he is Chosen and must come to terms with his new-found, prodigious abilities while his lover is still dead.  Very real emotions are evoked here, and the storytelling is as strong as I’ve ever seen it in any of Lackey’s novels.  Lackey won the Lambda Award for the final book in this trilogy, MAGIC’S PRICE, due to her sensitivity and understanding of Vanyel’s problems.

Try one of these trilogies, or better yet, try both as they’re uniformly excellent.  Then read the newest novel, CHANGES; if you do so, I’m sure you’ll see some of the same things I did with regards to this newest novel (the lack of freshness and emotional depth compared to “what has come before”).

Written by Barb Caffrey

October 8, 2011 at 8:56 pm

4 Responses

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  1. My main gripe with the Mags stories is not that they are formulaic. (Mercedes, while I love her writing, does this in many of her books.) In this particular group of stories I feel she really borrowed heavily from Harry Potter. I loved that series so I see many strong parallels. I guess any time you put kids in a fantasy school setting there will be commonalities that strike you but here it really felt like she phoned it in and that is not her usual style.

    Paul Emerson Leicht

    August 10, 2013 at 1:41 am

    • Thanks, Paul, for your comment.

      I know there are parallels to the Harry Potter books here. But Mags’ own story is unusual.

      Book 3 underwhelmed me, while I liked book 4. Now I guess I’ll wait and see what happens with book 5.

      Barb Caffrey

      August 10, 2013 at 10:16 pm

      • I just picked up Redoubt from NYPL so I will begin reading it before bed tonight. I expect it will be better, not merely because of your review, but because I feel that Mercedes rarely writes a poor book. When it happens then I expect the next will patch the problems in the last. I realize as a writer that coming up with fresh prose and content for each new part of a series is no small task (though my own forté is lyricism). Thus I give her a little slack for that. I chose to mostly ignore the HP influence (perhaps it was a subconscious tribute to Rowling?) because Mags is a unique character but that was one thing that irked me. I am hoping it becomes less pronounced in book 4.

        Paul Emerson Leicht

        August 11, 2013 at 12:02 am

      • I think it was less pronounced in book 4. Some of what happens in this book reminded me of other Valdemar books, most particularly the three Lackey wrote with her husband, Larry Dixon. But that’s not necessarily bad or wrong.

        As you say, it can be hard to come up with new content in a very long-running series. I think Lackey did a good job with this book, and will be very interested to see whether book 5 is indeed the end of Mags’ journey.

        Barb Caffrey

        August 14, 2013 at 12:13 am

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