Sunday, 16 December 2012

Book Review – Foundation: The Collegium Chronicles Book I and Intrigues: The Collegium Chronicles Book II

By Mercedes Lackey

I like to think that I’m fairly well read, or at least read enough about the areas I’m interested to have some knowledge of a wide variety of different genre-related materials, so it’s slightly embarrassing to admit that, before reading these books, I had never heard of Mercedes Lackey, despite the fact that she is a best-selling author of dozens of books. I never said I was omniscient …

The majority of Lackey’s stories are set in the country of Valdemar on the planet Velgarth, where she has created an engrossing society and populated with a variety of character types tinged with elements of magic and psychic powers. However, you wouldn’t know this from the thirty pages of the first book: we are introduced to Mags (short for his nickname, Magpie), an orphan working in a gemstone mine with other orphans, all treated appallingly by the mine owner. We are shown his horrible day-to-day existence, which feels pretty gruelling to read and makes you wonder why you are bothering to continue. Then the whole book changes: Mags is freed from the mine by a Herald and is Chosen by a Companion, an intelligent magical creature that looks like a white horse with silver hooves and blue eyes, with whom Mags is now bonded and taken to Haven, the capital of Valdemar, to be inducted as a Trainee Herald at the Collegium and introduced to a world that he never knew existed outside the mine (and also to introduce us to this world as well).

Knowing nothing about the Valdemar stories helped me to enjoy this introduction to Lackey’s world. I was pleasantly surprised by the shift from the misery of the mine to the society filled with Healers and Bards and the Heralds (who act as arbiters and soldiers and peace-keepers in Valdemar, under the leadership of the King of Valdemar, who is also a Herald) and the psychic gifts such as Mindspeech and the ability to heal and the concept of the Companion (which is similar to the concept of the Dragons of Pern, with the special bond between dragon and rider, as well as the ability to psychically communicate). It was a great reveal, something that might not be the same for long-term fans of the Valdemar novels. Another factor that was enjoyable was the love of storytelling in the prose: there is a quote on the back from Stephen King – ‘She’ll keep you up long past your bedtime’ – which is quite true because I found I couldn’t stop once I started. The story keeps drawing you through, as you get to know the characters and this new world and the fantastical elements involved. Lackey has also done a great job of world-building; I particularly liked the details of the Midwinter Festival and the ceremony of Midwinter Eve, which was quite touching. A more personal reaction occurred in a passage where Mags has a discussion about his belief in doing what is right and his moral centre, despite being treated so badly his entire life (he had been effectively a slave since he was born), which resonated very strongly, something I wasn’t expecting.

The plots of the two books don’t have well-defined plots driving the narrative – the novels are more about the introduction of Mags to this world and the characters he meets, with a background element about sinister foreigners which comes to fruition at the end of each book in a relatively small way. This is not to the detriment of the books, which I found absorbing and entertaining, but more to do with the strange parallels I found with the Harry Potter novels (each of which has a main plot device driving each book). Both feature an orphan who is rescued from a life of misery, taken to a special school where they find that, in addition to the magical elements that makes them special, they have a gift for some element of that world (for Harry it was Quidditch and riding a broom; for Mags, it’s riding despite never having ridden a horse before); both have no previous knowledge of the world into which they are thrust, and both characters become friends with a girl and a boy (Mags befriends Lena, a Bardic Trainee, and Bear, a Healer Trainee) who become part of their adventures and who seem to be on the path to a romantic relationship; both have a senior figure take a special interest in their development (Mags is taken under the wing of Herald Nikolas, a King’s Own Herald, who teaches him extracurricular lessons to do with spying). The second book sees even more bizarre parallels: Mags becomes a team member for the new sport in the Collegium, called Kirball, which involves strange rules (although perhaps not as strange as Quidditch), and becomes a star player in his first game; like Harry being seen as a danger because he speaks Parseltongue in The Chamber Of Secrets, Mags is seen as a danger because he discovers that his parents were foreigners (FarSeers, sort of more accurate fortune tellers, have seen the King with blood on his hands in the presence of a ‘foreigner’), which sees him isolated from his support network of friends. I know these are not deliberate, and similarities between stories can be seen anywhere if you look hard enough; it’s probably because I’m a big fan of Harry Potter that I noticed these when reading. However, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment from these two novels and the character of Mags. I want to know what happens in the next books and I want to read more about the world of Valdemar – which is going to be a task in itself, considering how many books Lackey has written …

Disclosure: these books were provided for review purposes.

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