We’re two books in to the 2021 installment of Reading Valdemar, which I’m doing along with Jackie at Death by Tsundoku and Mel at Grab the Lapels. The first book of this set of Valdemar books, the Collegium Chronicles was Foundation, which introduced us to the series’s main character, Mags. Mags was apparently the child of bandits who were killed in a battle. Baby Mags was left in the care of nearby villagers, who ended up sending him (or selling him) to the owner of a mine, where even as a small child, he was a slave. By the age of thirteen, Mags had spent the majority of his life working in the mines, where he was subjected to dangerous working conditions, extreme weather, insufficient food, and no health care. Until one day, a mystical Companion (magical sentient horses) showed up and Chose him to be one of the storied Heralds of Valdemar. Mags’s life was turned upside down forever.
Intrigues (The Collegium Chronicles #2)
by Mercedes Lackey
First published in 2010
Now that Mags has been at the Heraldic Collegium for several months, we don’t have to spend so much time wandering about the grounds while he gets accustomed to where the kitchens, classrooms, and stables are. Hooray. I’ve been reading the Valdemar books on and off again for more than twenty years, so I’m well familiar with the setup of Haven, no matter the time period. And now that Mags has met to the people who will become his friends (and likely family) across the next ten or so books, we don’t have to spend so much time on introductions. Hooray. Now that that’s out of the way, the story can move forward.
Intrigues picks up some of the loose threads from Foundation and moves the story forward, so while there are still plenty of slice-of-life goings on, we’re presented with a book that has 47.3% more plot. The mysterious foreigners from the first book become more of a threat, rather than being a group of vaguely ominous guys wandering around Haven. We understand more about Lena and Bear’s lousy families. Mags finds out more about his background. There’s angst, adventure, and ambiguously-aged teenagers being uncommonly clever. Basically, it’s like most of the rest of Lackey’s books but without the romance-based angst and the bad guys’ creepy sexual proclivities that often showed up in her earlier books. Another hooray.
So what do we have? A plot that seems to be stretching out across all five of the Collegium Chronicles, more action than we get in the first book, and a lot more intrigue, all of which is just fine by me. Poor Mags is just trying to get through his classes and combing the archives looking for information about his family. The only thing he’s been able to discover is that he’s ‘foreign-born’, which he discovers at an inopportune time, given that several Foreseers (who can see glimpses of the future) see a vision of a ‘foreign-born attacker’ with the bloodied Valdemaran king. Naturally, people suspect Mags thanks to his background. The stress gets to him and his friends, and their friendly relations grow frayed and start to unravel.
What else do we have? Kirball. A lot of Kirball. What is Kirball? It’s a made-up sport meant to mimic combat situations, and that catches on like wildfire among the students of the various colleges. It reads like a cross between soccer and polo, and involves people running around on foot, riders on regular horses, and Herald Trainees on Companions. It’s exciting, I guess. I’m not perfectly sure about that, because I skimmed most of the Kirball passages because I just didn’t care about it (I mean, did you think that Mags and Dallen weren’t going to be the heroes of the game?). I spent most of the Kirball scenes wondering– and hoping– that it would be relevant to the plot, the way the game of Hurlee was in Exile’s Honor. So far, no dice. Kirball is more of a distraction than anything (because Lackey loves her minor subplots and tangents). Sure, there’s an important plot point about three-quarters of the way through that involves the Kirball field, but really, that could have happened just about anywhere on the Collegium grounds. Will Kirball make a more serious (read: useful) appearance in the next book? I don’t know. I hope not. I’m holding out hope for more plot and less sports.
Another part I found frustrating? Bear’s subplot with his family. He comes from a family that is blessed with the Healing gift– except Bear doesn’t share that Gift. He’s “merely” incredibly intelligent and able to develop medicines based on herbs and whatnot. His family doesn’t take this seriously, though, because Valdemar apparently hasn’t figured out herbcraft, despite there being a few thousand years of history behind them (because people did exist before the kingdom of Valdemar). So sure, this incredibly gifted family doesn’t recognize the slightly different gifts of one of their own, but I’m still baffled by the notion that no one in the meritocracy of Valdemar has ever realized that rural areas aren’t necessarily blessed with an abundance of people with the Healing Gift, and that training ordinary people in healing crafts might be a good idea….
And there’s the issue of Bear’s ambiguous age. You see, Bear’s big brother is intent on bringing Bear home and marrying him off to the neighbor girl so he’ll have children who will presumably be blessed with the Healing Gift. But…Just how old is Bear? In Foundation, Lackey made it seem like he was about Mags’s age, so thirteen or fourteen. Which seems rather young for a kid to get married. And while you might say, “But Kim, people got married very young back in the Middle Ages”, I will say, “Why yes, they did, but just because they could be betrothed and/or married as children, it didn’t mean they were having sex and then children by age twelve”. Because while people in the Middle Ages didn’t have our fantastic modern medical capabilities, they weren’t entirely stupid. They realized that young people– particularly girls– weren’t exactly physically ready for children by their early teens, so they would wait until the (especially girls) were older. Given that Lackey has an admirable grasp of pre-modern economic and cultural structures, I would expect her to know this little tidbit about pre-modern marriages, too. So given Bear’s family’s emphasis on his breeding capability, it really makes me wonder how old he is meant to be. Thirteen? Eighteen? Who knows?
Given these little rants, you might be wondering why I keep reading Mercedes Lackey’s, given my issues with them (lack of plot, weird pacing, weird ambiguities of a pre-modern societal structures, weirder villains’ sexual proclivities…). And there’s really one reason for it: the characters are super fun to follow. I like Mags and Dallen and Bear and Amily. I enjoy their banter, and the books are easy to read over a weekend. They’re literary cotton candy– entertaining, enjoyable, and they go by quickly. Which is great! Not every book I read has to be serious and filled with Important Thoughts About Humanity. Sometimes you just want a fun book with competent characters doing their best, where the bad guys get what’s coming to them, and the good guys always win in the end. Which is what you get with Lackey’s books, even when she decides to go on a tangent about made-up sports.
I enjoyed reading Intrigues, and consider it to be a big step up from Foundation. Mags and his friends are more developed as characters, and we’re a little deeper into the overarching plot. I’m looking forward to reading the next book, Changes, to see what sorts of changes are in store for Mags, his friends, and for Valdemar.