We’re heading into a new trilogy in the Reading Valdemar project. Mel (Grab the Lapels), Jackie (Death by Tsundoku), and I had mixed feelings about Mercedes Lackey’s rather uneven Collegium Chronicles (Where was the plot? How old are these kids? How do we feel about Kirball? Are we thoroughly upset about the treatment of Amily and her disability?). But now we’ve moved onto the next phase of Mags’s story with the Herald Spy trilogy (Closer to Home, Closer to the Heart, Closer to the Chest). Will there be a marked improvement now that Mags and Co. have grown up?
There’s only one way to find out.
Closer to Home (The Herald Spy #1)
by Mercedes Lackey
Published in 2014
Now that Mags’s conflict with the legendary Sleepgivers is at an end and he’s completed his year of riding the circuit in the Valdemaran countryside, it’s time to come home. Mags is now a full Herald and is ready to get back to his duties as a spy in the poor areas of the capitol city of Haven. After being pursued by mysterious enemies for so long, dealing with known criminals seems like it will be easy in comparison. And now that they’re both of age, he and Amily can start thinking about getting married. But a tragic accident upends all their plans and puts both Mags and Amily squarely in the middle of political machinations of the highest level. And because problems never come at our heroes one at a time, two feuding families are coming to Haven to attend the endless parties and formal events of the winter season in order to arrange marriages for their elder children. With all of their new responsibilities, will Mags and Amily be able to head off trouble in time, or will a scheming noble’s plans end with a tragic conclusion?
I didn’t have terribly high hopes when I downloaded Closer to Home via my Libby app and started reading. The Collegium Chronicles gave us a cast of lovable characters and plenty of banter, but the pacing was uneven and the plot was often forgotten about in favor of long descriptions of Kirball games and slice of life events. Also, teen angst. And a lousy handling of a disabled character’s abilities. Really. Basically everything Amily did after her damaged leg was ‘fixed’ she could have done beforehand, too, so it was immensely frustrating to see Lackey putting basically no effort into giving Amily agency until after Bear figured out how to straighten her leg again. Then *poof!* Amily can do All The Things! And this in a kingdom that, through so many other books, has been presented as a meritocracy where everyone has a place and something to add, no matter what their skills and abilities are.
But I digress.
I was a little worried that there would be more of the same in Closer to Home, but thankfully, Lackey found her focus in this one. While there are plenty of slice of life events, they blend with a solid plot that doesn’t involve mysterious foreigners doing mysterious deeds in a mysterious fashion. Everything is, as the title suggests, close to home. The story focuses on Mags and Amily as they settle into their new– and unexpected– roles high up in Valdemar’s power structure (though I could have done without Mags just marching into a high-level and chaotic meeting, giving the King and his advisors what-for, and then casually wandering off, having solved the problem all by himself…). The two of them are adults now; capable people who can make rational decisions and then act on them without agonizing over it all. It’s a refreshing change.
What else is refreshing is Amily’s point of view. Thanks to being so close to Mags and his powerful Gift of mind magic (aka telepathy), her latent Gift has finally awakened. She can see the world through the eyes of animals, which is both unique and useful. I enjoyed seeing how she figured out how to put it to use (though giving animals as gifts for the purpose of using them to spy on people did make me raise an eyebrow…). Given Lackey’s tendencies to give her protagonists splashy, powerful Gifts, this ‘minor’ one with all its subtleties was fascinating. And I enjoyed seeing the world through Amily’s eyes in general. As an adult, she is a sensible person who genuinely wants to help people in whatever way she can.
What I did not expect was to see a third point of view show up: that of Violetta, the youngest daughter of one of the feuding noble families who is brought along to all the parties because her older sisters are ready to be married off to whoever will make the most profitable match. These elder sisters are realistic, even cynical, about their roles and prospects, but Violetta (who is about fifteen) is a romantic who daydreams about meeting a handsome young man who will be the love of her life. She is castigated by her family for these notions, but no one bothers to sit down with her and show her how the world is not the fairytale she imagines it to be. Thanks to her family not bothering to teach her sense, Violetta launches herself headfirst into potential scandal when she writes a passionate letter to the first pretty noble face she sees at a party. This pretty face happens to belong to the only son of her family’s bitterest enemy.
Mags and Amily try to head off disaster after Violetta’s unwise declaration, and for a while they think they have. But when the young nobleman begins to secretly pursue Violetta’s affections, the girl believes that her most romantic dreams have come true– that this handsome young man is her one true love.
There are clear parallels between Closer to Home and Romeo and Juliet, to the point where I thought I knew where the story was going to go. Happily, I was proved wrong. The story went in a different and far more interesting direction. I could almost see it coming, but I wasn’t quite sure until the climactic events actually happened.
And what’s more, Lackey didn’t suddenly end the book at the end of those climactic events! There were consequences for those involved, and I genuinely want to see if those characters will be in the next book, or if Lackey will just move onto the next thing and forget all about them.
So overall, I was satisfied with Closer to Home. Sure, I’m a bit miffed that Bear and Lena found a posting outside of Haven and so they weren’t there at all (I’d like to see them now that they’ve grown up), and I’m still frustrated that Lackey was so intent on ‘fixing’ Amily’s disability, when basically everything she does in this book could have been done while sitting down or from horseback. But there’s nothing for it at this point. That said, I hope we’ll get more from Amily’s point of view in the next two books. She’s so sensible and clever that I wish she had a whole book to herself. We’ll see in Closer to the Heart if we get more of Amily’s perspective.
I really hope we do.