Reading Valdemar: Foundation

Mags has had a rough life. The son of bandits who were killed in a skirmish when he was a baby, Mags was “adopted” by a cruel mine owner and put to work as soon as he could accomplish minor tasks. Now at thirteen, Mags lives and works in the mine, gathering sparklies, and helping the other children survive the work, the weather, and the starvation rations they’re begrudgingly given. Then one day, a white horse appears and takes Mags away from all that. The horse isn’t just any horse. He is one of the mystical Companions who bond with people who have mystical Gifts, and together the Companions and their Chosen work to defend the kingdom of Valdemar from threats within and without.

Just because Mags has been whisked away to an amazing new school where he has his own room (albeit in a stable, for lack of space), comfortable clothing, and good food, that doesn’t mean life is smooth sailing for him. He’s still traumatized by his enslavement, there are people who actively oppose the new Heraldic Collegium being built because it’s not the way things have always been done, and there’s a strange group of foreign nobles who are wandering about and causing trouble. But Mags is determined to make the best of things in his new life with his Companion, Dallen, and when danger rears its ugly head, he’s ready to face it.

Jackie from Death by Tsundoku and Mel from Grab the Lapels have been working their way through Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books since 2019, and while I didn’t participate in the readalong last year, I decided to take part for 2021, the final year of the project. Why’s that, you ask? Because this collection of books are the ones I hadn’t already read, and I figured that, with twenty years of experience as a published writer, Lackey would be at her prime.

Was I correct? Well, we’ll find that out as the year progresses, but so far, so meh.

Lackey loves the ‘mystic waif’ trope. So many of her books– Valdemar or otherwise– open with a young person who is beaten down in some way. Children who are abused by their parents or guardians; orphans growing up in poverty; children who are enslaved; kids who are utterly unsuited to the life their uncaring parents demand of them. And then, because of a magical companion whisking them away, or because their own pluckishness drives them away from the awful life, they make good and find a life where they can use their skills and gifts to help themselves and those around them.

Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with an uplifting story about the local kid who rises above their circumstances. But when you’ve seen the same thing from the same author a dozen times or so, it does start to feel like ground that’s been over-trodden. The grass is gone. There’s just mud left.

But Lackey’s redeeming grace is (usually) in her characters. They’re usually so darned likeable that you want to keep reading about them, and Mags is no exception. He’s a battered but plucky boy who wants to help people, even at his own expense. He’s grateful for the little he has, and he’s loyal to the handful of friends he makes along the way. Likeable.

Overall, though, Foundation lives up to its name. Ostensibly, it’s meant to be about the foundation of the Heraldic Collegium. For years, young Heralds have received one-on-one training with older, experienced Heralds, but thanks to Valdemar’s expansion and the uptick in newly-Chosen Heralds, there simply aren’t enough Heralds to train the kids. And there isn’t enough space to house them all. It’s a good idea, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t those who loudly object to it. But the founding of the collegium isn’t what this book is about. It’s about Mags’s entry into the world of the Heralds, and it follows him as he’s learning what’s what.

Which, fine. I’m okay with that, but I spent the entire book– and I do mean the entire thing– looking for a plot. Because what we get in Foundation is a series of often random-seeming events that this thirteen year-old boy is experiencing, and it’s very much through the lens of a thirteen year-old. Adults seem to act erratically because Mags doesn’t understand their perspectives. Events seem to come out of the blue because Mags doesn’t have context for the socio-political events that have been going on in the capitol city of Haven for years or decades. He’s just a kid who winds up in the middle of some major events by virtue of his Gifts and some major coincidences, and because he’s an inexperienced kid in the middle of big events, the book lacks focus.

Ultimately, Foundation is just that. A book that’s setting up a collection of characters and events for the next ten Valdemar books. I really hope Lackey develops plotlines for these next ten books, because even thought I want to read more about Mags, it’s going to be a long readalong if all we’re going to get is Mags stumbling into one event after another. But I do like Mags, and I have a feeling that the books will be more focused as he grows up.

12 thoughts on “Reading Valdemar: Foundation

  1. Pingback: Foundation by Mercedes Lackey #ReadingValdemar – Grab the Lapels

  2. I get rather frustrated with being told that a child is abused and then they’re thrown into the life as a Herald, so I appreciated the slow development of Mags here. However, I know that’s not really fantasy’s style, so it can be frustrating. I always also a big fan of Take a Thief, which had loads of character development, often under the guise of Skif finding his mentor’s murderer. He wasn’t doing much, but we got to know him. I’m with Jackie; as soon as I finished this book, I was excited to pick up the next one! I hope you felt that way, too.

    Also, did you notice that secondary characters talk about how great their families are, but we never follow those types of families. Dirk’s family in particular is one I would have loved to get to know more of. What if he had his own book instead of sad Talia?

  3. I don’t think it would be a series you’d enjoy, Lashaan. There are so many flaws to it. It’s weird, though. I recognized the many, many flaws of Lackey’s books, but I still enjoy reading it. Her characters, overall, are engaging even when they’re annoying.

  4. Yeah, I noticed the formula showing up straightaway. Makes me wonder if Lackey has ever considered not using the Mystic Waif trope. I suppose Karal from the Mage Storms trilogy isn’t, but is he the only one? Maybe Elspeth? I don’t get particularly frustrated with it showing up all the time in Lackey’s books. I read them so fast, it all just flies by, so I’m not with it long enough to be completely irritated by it. And while the lack of plot did annoy me, I wanted to pick the next one up straightaway, so that’s good.

    I’ve never really thought about the side characters’ families being wealthy or noble. I’ve always just left their stories up to headcanon territory, when I’ve considered them at all.

  5. Hi Kim, I’m a loyal Grab the Lapels follower and followed her link to this post. I like the image of well-trodden ground, till it’s just mud. And of how things are seen/understood through the eyes of a boy who doesn’t have enough context to understand what he is seeing. I often distrust child’s eye views simply because I as a child had no idea or interest in what adults around me were doing (when they weren’t driving or feeding me).

  6. When we were reading these books in 2019, Jackie and I kept wondering why we don’t follow the story of a bard through the whole novel. We’ve had Healers, such as the young woman in the Owl, books, but then there is the main character of those books, who is also a mage.

  7. Lackey does have a whole series of books starring bards, it’s just not in the Valdemar universe. The Bardic Voiced series. I remember enjoying them in high school and college, but I haven’t read them in years. I wonder how they would seem now

  8. Oh! So weird that they’re not in the same universe! I think Jackie and I DID discover that at one point, but we did not want to get into a whole other project. Three years for one project is time enough!

  9. This line: “I really hope Lackey develops plotlines for these next ten books, because even though I want to read more about Mags, it’s going to be a long readalong if all we’re going to get is Mags stumbling into one event after another.”

    On one hand, I appreciate that Lackey sorta throws Mags into this new world and he doesn’t understand it. Sure, this makes a lot of events seem super random and out of context, but that’s appropriate for Mags. I think this shows great growth on Lackey’s part, actually. In older books, her characters would all understand or already know the socio-political context of such events. I always took that for granted. But this makes so much more sense.

    On the other hand – it made for a book where I, too, was constantly seeking out the plot. In fact, I kept turning pages and saying, “Ah! This must be the plot!” alas. They were all breadcrumbs for future books.

    Speaking of: I think Mags will grow up and start to understand more of what’s going on around him. Part of the reason he doesn’t get it now is certainly due to his lack of education and his upbringing, but it’s also because the adults aren’t explaining things to him. In retrospect, this annoys me. Are they just assuming he understands all this? Or are they intentionally keeping him in the dark? It’s quite unfair to ask Mags to conspire with them and not explain what they are conspiring about fully. It’s also a bit ignorant of Mags to assume this is just to get back at the mercenaries or whatever.

    Anyway. I’m glad you’re joining us on this journey. It’s nice to have another person to chat about these books with and get another opinion. 🙂

  10. I’m looking forward to his growing up at understanding things more. All this “yeah, things are happening, but who knows why?” stuff gets old, even if I do enjoy seeing things through Mags’s eyes. I don’t know why, but I want to understand Jakyr more. And get a better understanding of why certain Heralds don’t want the Collegium.

  11. I’m with you! There is a lot of Heraldic drama. I’d love to get to know some of the other Heralds a bit more. If Lackey has her druthers about her, she won’t make those opposed to the new Collegium the “bad guys”, but instead make the Heralds quite grey. I want to sympathize with the dissenters – after all, Heralds are all supposed to be these literal White Knight Pure-of-Heart people. We can’t have cruel/mean Heralds. That would contradict her whole universe!

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