on Oct. 7, 2014
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Also in this series: Closer to the Heart, Closer to the Chest
Mags was once an enslaved orphan living a harsh life in the mines, until the King's Own Herald discovered his talent and trained him as a spy. Now a Herald in his own right, at the newly established Heralds' Collegium, Mags has found a supportive family, including his Companion Dallen.
Although normally a Herald in his first year of Whites would be sent off on circuit, Mags is needed close to home for his abilities as a spy and his powerful Mindspeech gift. There is a secret, treacherous plot within the royal court to destroy the Heralds. The situation becomes dire after the life of Mags' mentor, King's Own Nikolas, is imperiled. His daughter Amily is chosen as the new King's Own, a complicated and dangerous job that is made more so by this perilous time. Can Mags and Amily save the court, the Heralds, and the Collegium itself?
Closer to Home begins a new series, The Herald Spy, which follows closely on the heels of the Collegium Chronicles. The storytelling here is middling, but the book provides a chance to return the characters we came to know in the 5 Collegium novels. Mags steps into Nicholas’s role as chief spy and starts setting up his own intelligence service. Amily must adjust to being a Herald and King’s Own all at once, and handles it with less trepidation than I expected – but her response is completely in character; she’s a remarkable young lady. She comes into her own as a co-protagonist in Closer to Home, and it appears the series will follow both Mags and Amily – although given the series title, the emphasis will probably still be tilted toward Mags.
The main plot borrows unabashedly from Romeo and Juliet and to a lesser degree from Jane Austen, but adds several unexpected twists. (Amily-Mags shippers needn’t worry — while they are the protagonists, they aren’t the star-crossed lovers in this tale.) Lackey uses the opportunities afforded by the plot and subplots to offer strong social commentary, which some readers, including myself, may find too heavy-handed. There is an interesting contrast between the opportunities open to women and girls in the lower and middle reaches of Valdemaran society vs. their options among the nobility, but somehow, the whole marriage mart concept doesn’t feel “right” for Valdemar. I did have to reminding myself that this takes place centuries before most of the other Valdemar books, with the exception of the previous series and The Last Herald-Mage trilogy. But even in the books about Vanyel, I didn’t see women’s lives being this restricted. I found it annoying and more than a little preachy.
On the other hand, one of the most interesting episodes in the book is Nicholas’s near-death and Amily’s being Chosen as King’s Own. It’s a logical extension of what fans know about Companions, the Monarch’s Own’s Companion, and the Companion-Herald bond, but the whole thing proves somewhat startling and unsettling to the characters themselves. Mags’s common sense is very much to the fore throughout the book, and his actions in relation to this incident show how very far he has come from the frightened, abused child in Foundation. I also enjoyed watching Mags begin to set up his spy network, with his typical compassion overlaid with practicality.
Overall, I was relieved to see Mags and Amily stepping into their adult roles. While I love YA fantasy, I also enjoy fantasy that focuses on adults dealing with a more complex world – like younger people, without knowing all the answers — and growing and changing as a result of their situation and their decisions. It remains to be seen whether The Herald Spy series will go that route, and whether it can develop the depth, complexity, and strength of the Mage Winds and Mage Storms trilogies. I hope so – I’d dearly love to see Lackey return to writing on that level.
That said, this entire book, while moderately entertaining, felt like set-up for a story arc that hasn’t actually appeared yet. The feuding-families plot and Mag’s little spy network intersected only toward the end, and Mags, at least, didn’t really develop or grow. And if the seeds of a larger plot were there, I couldn’t see them. It’s possible that the Herald Spy series will stay episodic, but I’m hoping not. The story arc of the Collegium Chronicles came into focus slowly; the first few books had hints, but in Foundation they were really only visible in retrospect. My fingers are crossed that the same will prove true of this series. Book two, Closer to the Heart, has just been released, and I’m looking forward to reading it with mixed feelings – pleasure at returning to Valdemar, and mingled hope and apprehension at whether it will live up to Lackey’s better books.