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.