Dear Ms. Lackey,
When I was a young teenager, I devoured your Valdemar novels. They were my favorite books and I was a very loyal reader. I eventually outgrew them, as it sometimes happens, but I still look back on them fondly. You write a special brand of animal companion fantasy about ostracized, misunderstood teens and the magical white horses that love and accept them that just speaks strongly to a certain audience. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained a healthy amount of respect for that power. There was a time when I couldn’t read a Valdemar book; when I outgrew them, I really outgrew them to the point of feeling elitist disdain. (I think we all have those stupid moments of reading snobbery.) But I like to think I’ve since moved past that, so I was cautiously optimistic when Jane mentioned she received a copy of your latest Valdemar novel for review.
I was pleasantly surprised. This book was a return to early Valdemar books. Part of the reason why I outgrew the Valdemar books was that later books took on a more epic, worldchanging tone, and if I’m honest, that wasn’t what I read them for. If I wanted epic, worldchanging fantasy, there was Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, not to mention the fact that this was around the time a little book called A Game of Thrones by a certain author named George R.R. Martin was first published. The strength of the Valdemar novels has always been the journey of a misunderstood, often neglected and abused, teen and how they grew up to be someone great and important, whether that be the greatest herald-mage in history or the monarch’s own herald. So I was very, very glad Foundation went back to its roots. I think the few years away from the Valdemar world did you get because it brings a certain liveliness that wasn’t there in the later books. I don’t think it’s unfair to say you may have gotten tired of the setting and simply wanted some time away. Maybe that’s not true, but that was my impression as a reader.
Foundation follows the story of Mags, an orphaned child of bandits who grew up working as glorified slave labor for a jewel mine. It’s a hard life but in the tradition of the Valdemar series, he’s Chosen by the Companion, Dallen, and taken to the Valdemar capital, Haven, to become a herald. It turns out Mags has an incredibly strong mindspeaking (telepathic) gift. (Heralds aren’t actually heralds as we know them. In this world, heralds are sort of like the servants of justice for Valdemar and have any number of psychic gifts, ranging from telepathy to telekinesis.)
But times are changing in Haven. The traditional way of training heralds was one of master and apprentice. Unfortunately, many heralds died in the wars and many, many more trainees are being Chosen in alarming numbers that the demand for teachers far outstrips the supply. It’s also just not practical. While a one-on-one master-apprentice may have worked in the past, a one-on-six ratio does not, especially when there’s a lot of unrest. Valdemar’s borders have been expanding because new lords are swearing fealty to Valdemar’s king in order to gain protection from neighboring, more hostile countries. As a result, there’s some unrest in Haven and among the heralds, between those who want to adhere to the old ways and those who want to try the new: build a collegium and train heralds in the classroom before sending them out into the field for on-hands experience under the guidance of a mentor.
While there are bigger plot threads being set up in the background — the foreign merchant’s unknown machinations, the aforementioned conflict between those who want the collegium and those who do not — the strength of this novel rests in Mags’s personal story as he goes to school, learning to be a herald. I liked the fact that while there is no question that he was abused, Mags was very matter of fact about it and doesn’t wallow in his brooding angst. This may seem like a coldhearted thing to say but I think anyone who’s read other Valdemar novels, especially from The Mage Winds trilogy on, knows that there sometimes is a tendency to overindulge in internal monologues that can be trying for a reader. I know I used to get annoyed with those chapters.
I thought Mags’s friendship with Lena and Bear were great contrasts. No one expects anything of Mags because he’s a half-illiterate, ignorant, country bumpkin. On the other hand, Lena is the daughter of one of the most famous bards in history and Bear comes from a family of gifted healers. The expectations upon them are huge. I also like the way Mags is being trained to be a spy by the King’s Own Herald. Not the flashy sort we sometimes encounter in fiction but the real sort: unremarkable, unmemorable, lurking in the background, just listening and filing information away for later.
I won’t lie and say Foundation is groundbreakingly original. It’s not. To be honest, I don’t think this book even has a plot as I usually define it in the context of fantasy novels. If anything, it’s set-up for things to come. Some readers will be annoyed that Mags is yet another abused protagonist but I’ve read enough of your work to realize that’s part of your formula when it comes to animal companion fantasy. That will be a dealbreaker for many readers, both old and new, but I also think this is probably one of the least angsty presentations of abusive backgrounds I’ve ever seen in your books.
While there are small references to things that have happened in other Valdemar books, there’s nothing that requires readers to have prior knowledge. Those references are more like winks to those who have read other books set in this world. The book also lacks those things that started to irritate me in later books. There are no all-consuming lifebonds. There are no unbelievable diplomatic agreements between grassland nomads and religious fanatics. There are no grand-sweeping conspiracies from a lurking, evil Eastern Empire, although there are hints of something larger to come in future books. At its heart, this is a very simple coming of age story about a boy who has his eyes opened to the world and learns that he has all the potential to change it. B