Series: Bardic Voices #1
Published by Baen Books on 1993
Source: my personal collection
Also by this author: The Serpent's Shadow, The Gates of Sleep, Phoenix and Ashes, Home from the Sea, Steadfast, Elemental Magic:, Blood Red, House of Four Winds, The Fairy Godmother, Owlflight, From a High Tower, Owlsight, Owlknight, Closer to Home, Hunter, Closer to the Heart, Take a Thief, A Study in Sable
If Rune could get the proper training, she could become one of the finest bards her world has ever seen. But her advantages are few, so when she decides to play her fiddle for the Ghost of Skull Hill, he agrees to a bargain--an arrangement that could mean silver for her future quest . . . or her death at the hands of the ghost.
The Lark and the Wren is the first in the Bardic Voices series, but it reads like a standalone, in that it basically completes the main character’s story. In fact, it’s more like two books in one. The first half deals with Rune leaving her village (where she is unappreciated and unwanted) to find a music teacher who can prepare her for the Bardic Guild trials; it covers both her adaptation to life in a small city and her musical and nonmusical education. The second half deals with what happens after the trials, and her life (romantic, musical, and magical) within the Free Bards – a group in opposition to the stodgy, hidebound Bardic Guild. (Don’t be fooled by the synopsis blurb – the enounter with the ghost is only the first of Rune’s many adventures.)
Lackey’s strengths really shine in this novel. The worldbuilding is excellent, she has created an interesting and relatable main character, and her ability to weave a story carries you along even when the action is relatively mundane – and definitely when it isn’t!
As a musician, I can easily identify with Rune, though she’s far more skilled and driven than I will ever be. Lackey has a gift for writing strong, smart, independent female characters, though their personalities, their flaws, and the ways in which they are strong vary from character to character. In Rune’s case, she’s practical, logical, passionate about her music, ambitious in the musical sense, and aware of her vulnerability as a girl on her own. Fortunately, she’s tall and slender enough to pass as a boy, and smart enough to do so when it offers more safety – when traveling or busking on the streets, for instance.
Lackey knows music, being something of a folk musician and lyicist herself, so the tunes she describes, and her depictions of Rune’s playing and her lessons, are all pitch-perfect. If you’re familiar with Irish and Scottish fiddle music and English folksongs, you can practically hear the music in the book. The details of the fantasy world are equally well-written; you can see, hear, smell, and touch it.
There is magic in this book, though (with the exception of the Skull Hill Ghost) not very much until the second half. The magic system here isn’t as well-defined as in the Valdemar, Five Hundred Kingdoms, or Elemental Magic series, but that’s not really a drawback. What we do learn of magic is intriguing, particularly in the way Rune and her teacher/partner Talaysen begin to explore it – through music. The subsequent books flesh the magic system out a little more, but the way it’s handled in this book works because the main character is so new to her magic.
One thing that bothers me is the largely negative portrayal of the Church – a church clearly modeled on the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. Lackey’s portrait here, while admittedly of a fictional rather than a historical institution, lacks nuance; she offers only a very few “good” individuals within a corrupt and power-hungry institution, while the rest are small-minded or indifferent to the common folk at best, and exploitative and bigoted at worst. I know enough of both history and Church history to know that in the real world, while widespread corruption, greed, and abuse of power certainly existed, there were also ways in which society and individuals benefited from the existence and more benevolent actions of the Church. As someone with an interest in medieval and Renaissance history, I wish Lackey had been a little more evenhanded in her portrayal. (And yes, I know it’s a fantasy world – but it’s one based very strongly on Europe at the dawn of the Renaissance, which means it evokes and invites historical comparisons.)
Despite this flaw, The Lark and the Wren remains one of my favorites among Lackey’s books. Its strengths – Rune and some of the other characters, notably Talaysen; a world familiar enough to be comfortable but different enough to be appealing and interesting; the music that weaves through the entire tale; and above all the storytelling and attention to detail which make that tale come alive – all of these far outweigh any flaws. It’s a story I happily return to every few years.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- 2015 Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge