Series: The Founding of Valdemar, #1
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Within the Eastern Empire, Duke Kordas Valdemar rules a tiny, bucolic Duchy that focuses mostly on horse breeding. Anticipating the day when the Empire’s exploitive and military leaders would not be content to leave them alone, Kordas’s father set out to gather magicians in the hopes of one day finding a way to escape and protest the people of the Duchy from tyranny.
Kordas has lived his life looking over his shoulder, heeding his father’s precautions, and grateful for his father’s forethought. The signs in the Empire are increasingly dire. Under the direction of the Emperor, mages have begun to harness the power of dark magics, including blood magic, the powers of the Abyssal Planes, and the binding and “milking” of Elemental creatures.
But then one of the Duchy’s mages has a breakthrough. There is a way to place a Gate at a distance so far from the Empire that it is unlikely the Emperor can find or follow them as they evacuate everyone who is willing to leave.
But time is running out, and Kordas has been summoned to the Emperor’s Court.
Can his reputation as a country bumpkin and his acting skill buy him and his people the time they need to flee? Or will the Emperor lose patience, invade to strip Valdemar of everything of worth, and send its conscripted people into the front lines of the Imperial wars?
The short version, is that I found the characters likable and enjoyable, but that I found the book deeply disappointing, and even repelling, in other ways.
I truly enjoyed the characters. Most of the prominent characters felt vivid and were quite enjoyable. Kordas, I had some trouble with. I enjoyed and liked him, and he can be very thoughtful at times, but there were times when he was just a bit too “heroic” in a rather desperate kind of way. There’s some sort of trauma in his past, something terrible he’s done, and this seems to be rather common – I can think of a handful of significant characters in Lackey’s other Valdemar books who have something that might be similar in their past. But I never found out what it was. We do eventually learn that he feels quite bad about his choice to personally execute someone and his reasons for wanting to do it himself instead of letting someone else, but that hardly seems like it could have been the extent of the terrible mistake in his past that haunts him and which he feels a need to never forget. Which makes him consider himself to be something of a bad human being, trying to be decent. But, between his reactions and everything else, he just didn’t feel as genuine as I’d have liked, more that was just the “type” of character he was going to be.
Delia is the other point-of-view character, and she felt quite genuine, and is more or less just what she seems: a young girl growing up in a changing world, rather happy with her life, but also struggling with some things. She’s infatuated with Kordas, half-believing herself in love with him, ever since he rode out of nowhere to rescue her in a quite romantic-tale sort of fashion after her family died. But he’s married to her older sister, Isla, who is incidentally his very best friend, but they are mutually not in love with each other, though they love each other. Meanwhile, Kordas treats Delia as a younger sister. I rather liked the relationship between Isla and Kordas and how that was handled. They do care about each deeply, and I think one can really feel their friendship in their interactions with one another.
Delia is sometimes annoying, but it is a very human, even endearing, kind of annoying. She deeply loves her foal. She can sometimes be rather whiny and short-sighted, as when their escape plan is finally put into motion it requires physical work from her of a sort she is not used to, as well as living in rather less luxurious conditions. There are times when she is terribly immature in her response and desire to somehow get out of it. She worries about having to spend her days in hard manual labor, meanwhile she has a powerful Gift of mind-magic, the ability to “Fetch” things to and from herself without being able to touch them. It’s obviously a very, very useful ability, and she is so good at it, so there will be plenty of ways for her to make herself far more useful with her Gift, without even having to work it too hard, than she could ever be with her muscles. But as most of her life has been spent in a sheltered environment, relatively far from the gritty details of building houses or livestock fencing or any other number of tasks involved in daily living, she doesn’t realize it. So she definitely spends some time moping and seeming quite silly. But she’s very good-hearted, kind, and even brave. I quite liked her.
Of relatively little importance to me, the world-building and the research that went into it seems quite flawed, and the author simply isn’t aware of some relatively basic things involving horses, foaling, and livestock breeding and care. Additionally, the world-building in other areas doesn’t really mesh with what has been established in other books – written before this one, though later in the time-line of Velgarth (the world).
But what was disturbing is that there is a sort of pessimism, or defeatism, to it, which is rather profoundly evidenced in a few situations (which are spoilers, so I shall not elaborate on the details in the first portion of the review). There have been hints of it in several other of the Valdemar books, as evil creatures appeared to have what was in my opinion a bit too much power to defeat goodness not only materially, but in a deeper, more spiritual sense as well. In this case, that is elevated to a world of its own, in an appallingly disturbing and despair-ful … occasion, where (to strip all the details) people holding to their ideals and values is directly used for evil, to inflict harm on other creatures. The appalling despair of the situation, where the only “solution” they would have to renounce their values – thereby becoming worse themselves – so their virtue can’t be used as a weapon against others, is a whole other level from anything I’ve seen in the previous Valdemar books.
Combined with this was an attitude towards Death that I find utterly alien to the earlier Valdemar books. What drew me so strongly to Valdemar was the rare attitude toward Death, so alien to modern culture and religion, in which it was not to be dreaded, and people knew that freedom or resolution or peace awaited them, so when they had to, they could face Death with that confidence and peace. Not at all like in modern Christianity with its focus on Heaven and Hell. But the attitude towards Death in this book is far more of a piece with most of modern western culture, seeing Death as dissolution and non-existence, and as something to be feared and avoided at all costs.
These two last combined to create a very dismal picture of the world. If this were the first book by the author that I had read, I might choose to continue the series, interested in where it might develop. As it is (especially because of something that happened in another somewhat-more-recent book, Burning Bright), I think I have a good enough idea of the direction things are currently taking, and I am not interested. I doubt I will read any more of the newer Valdemar novels.
The Review with a Few More Details:
Where things principally showed the new dismal worldview was with the vrondi. If you’re familiar with many of the earlier Valdemar novels, you will know that the vrondi are Air Elementals who have some sort of connection with truth, and are often used by mages (and Heralds) to tell if someone is telling the truth or lying. But in this book, the vrondi have been captured and made into Dolls for the service of the Emperor. I’m not sure that part even made a lot of sense, world-building wise, but that is somewhat beside the point. The world-building in the Valdemar novels has always been a bit all over the place if you pay attention or note details (there were a few moments when I wondered if there would be any way to figure out to get to read the books free and early, in return for helping to keep things consistent), but that’s not the biggest of deals to me, and used to be far outweighed by what I loved about Valdemar.
But where things went bad, is the servitude of the vrondi, how they are captured, and how they are enslaved, and respond to that. I read the book a bit out of order, and so I got to the part where how they are captured is explained pretty early. To put it shortly, the vrondi are attracted by truth. So honest political dissidents or rebels are captured and put in a chamber where their truthfulness attracts thousands of vrondi within range of a device for capturing them. There’s more to it, and I couldn’t share all the details out here, but I found it absolutely appalling.
Furthermore, the vrondi are apparently forced into their obedience in large measure by their fear of death, something that doesn’t seem to fit, and is not balanced in any way – at least in this book – by a counterbalancing approach to or knowledge of Death, implying for whatever reason (we’ve gotten used to rather scattered world-building by now) that the vrondi are ignorant or deceived or otherwise compelled in some way.
Equally disturbing, is the way these truth-spirits who cannot lie obfuscate and “interpret” their instructions, essentially and deliberately deceiving and acting in opposition to what they know is the intention of the commands given to them, and to which they have agreed in some form or other. One of the things I really hate is how much mind-control and other control is fought in novels by this sort of “interpretation” where someone takes something in what they know is not the way it’s intended to be taken, but one which can be made to fit the definitions of the words. It’s deception, plain and simple, and above all – how does a truth spirit like the vrondi ever employ deception? It’s entirely alien to their nature, both as implied in this book and explicitly presented in others.