on Oct. 6, 2015
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Also in this series: Closer to Home, Closer to the Chest
Mags was a Herald of Valdemar. But he had once lived the brutal life of a child slave. When he was Chosen by his Companion Dallen, his young life was saved, and he slowly adjusted to being well fed, educated, and treasured as a trainee in the Herald's Collegium at Haven. Singled out by the King's Own Herald, Mags would thrive in his secret training as a spy. His unusually strong Gift—an ability to Mindspeak and Mindhear anyone, not just others who were Gifted—made him a perfect undercover agent for the king.
Sequel to Mercedes Lackey's Closer to Home, this adventure continues Mags's journey as Valdemar's herald spy.
Lackey’s latest Valdemar novel is better than the last, if not quite a return to her top form.
Instead of a pair of feuding highborn families, the problem facing Mags and Amily is more serious this time around. A rebel force in Menmellith is apparently being supplied with Valdemaran arms, and Menmellith’s regent is on the verge of declaring war. But neither King Kyril nor the Council–nor indeed the Treasury–are aware of any arms shipments. So where are the arms and the funds to pay for them coming from?
Mags goes undercover, traveling back to his old “home”–Valdemar’s mining region–to search for answers, while Amily pursues both information and diplomacy at Court. Two side stories are somewhat integrated into the main plot; one deals with an autistic man with a genius for making and improving things, and the other with a school for handmaidens (lady’s companions) which doubles as a spy school to provide Amily with her own set of “irregulars.” Mags’s irregulars play a role as well, particularly young Coot.
The story is well told, the side characters interesting–particularly the young autistic man. I am not an expert on nonverbal autism, but from my untutored perspective, Lackey’s portrayal is caring and respectful. I enjoyed getting to know Lady Dia and her much older husband better; there’s more to both of them than meets the eye. Other highlights include Mags’s visit to a mineowner’s holdings, where he’s pleasantly surprised with what he finds. (Readers familiar with utopian socialism and 19th-century villages like New Lanark and Cadbury’s Bournville will recognize the inspiration.) Those chapters offered a happy and inspiring contrast to the horrors of Mags’s childhood (Foundation.) Kirball also makes an appearance, having made its way into the countryside. All these and more serve to flesh out the story and lend immediacy; the central danger, while real, seems rather nebulous and far-off through most of the book.
I’m still waiting to see if Lackey plans to introduce an overall arc to the series. I didn’t see one, but I can imagine ways in which a story arc could be built on what happens in this book.
The only other complaint I have, and it’s a minor one, is that neither Mags nor Amily experiences much personal growth. There is some: Amily gains experience and confidence as King’s Own, while Mags is growing into his role as agent and spymaster. Their relationship is strong (thank you, Ms. Lackey, for not manufacturing any romantic problems just for the sake of dramatic tension!) All that is fine, but it means that the book lacks the impact and intensity of Lackey’s best works. In other words, the book is capably written and certainly enjoyable; it’s no Magic’s Pawn or Exile’s Honor, but Closer to the Heart came closer to my heart than several of its predecessors. . . and for that, I’m grateful.