Read again? yes.
After nearly three years of not reading any Valdemar books, I finally dove in. This is the 21st in the set, with 5 to go, not that I'm really bothering to make fun with the countdown anymore. But she is STILL writing them.
I will never be finished. This is the "Hotel California" of reading. And all those new books are going to screw up my book count. This one could be number 43 by the time I'm done writing this sentence--or number 90 by the time you're done reading the review. STOP HER!
This one and its two companions (Companions, get it? Valdemar joke! hahaha) weren't as hard a slog as I'd been expecting. They went by pretty quickly over the last 4 weeks. Reading them and the fat fifth "A Song of Ice and Fire" novel over the last 8 weeks marks the first time since 2010 that I've even felt like reading again since all the medical crap started.
We begin far to the east of Valdemar, with Emperor Charliss of the vast Eastern Empire. I don't know who had it first--Lackey or George R. R. Martin--but Charliss sits upon an Iron Throne made up of the weapons of vanquished kings and emperors, same as in "A Song of Ice and Fire"/"Game of Thrones." I'd forgotten this detail, but remember it seeming confusingly familiar when I was reading "Thrones" a decade ago.
Anyhow, Emperor, Iron Throne, bad guy. He's been ruling since he was 30. One hundred and fifty years, his life sustained by magic. But his clock is winding down, the center cannot hold, and he's got maybe 20 years left in him. Time to pick an Heir and get ready to retire.
He has selected Grand Duke Tremane, a boring man of about 30, only a Master mage to Charliss' Adept-class. To prove his worth, all Tremane must do is take what is left of the nation of Hardorn, subdue it, and bring it into the Empire.
Hardorn has had a rough several years. All the way back in Book #16, "Arrow's Fall," Prince Ancar staged a coup in which he murdered the king and most of his Court. He used evil blood magic to enslave any man who could hold a weapon, then used them as arrow-fodder to take control of Hardorn. Then he made war on Hardorn's peaceful neighbor, Valdemar. His campaign drained his country of able-bodied men and mage energy. By the time the Valdemarans and their allies finally got people in place at the end of the 20th book (Winds of Fury) and destroyed Ancar, poor Hardorn had been ravaged past any ability to resist when Charliss had his men invade from the Empire.
They took half of Hardorn without any real opposition...at first. There were enough Hardornen loyalists to stop them from taking any more than that. Now all Duke Tremane must do is take command of the Imperial forces, subdue the resistance, and take the rest of the country.
There's a snag, though.
The same group of Valdemarans who killed Ancar also left a knife in the Imperial "envoy" to Hardorn (a spy, actually). Charliss takes this as a message from them. A warning? A threat? He doesn't know, but once he has Hardorn, he will be able to put troops on the Valdemar border to find out.
Valdemar itself is overrun with refugees. Though their own military strength has been reduced by long years of war with Hardorn, they could still offer Hardorn material aid, making Imperial assimilation that much more difficult.
Meanwhile, on the Valdemaran border with Karse, we meet our next point-of-view character, Karal. He's a novice, a priest-in-training in the Karsite religion/government. He has been sent north with his master Priest Ulrich, who is to be the Envoy to Valdemar, the first such in centuries.
Until only recently, the two nations had been fighting a war that stretched back several centuries and several novels, all the way back to #5, "Magic's Promise." Everyone on both sides of the border will have to get used to being friends now. To the Karsites, the Heralds of Valdemar and their horsey Companions were White Demons, the baby-eating epitome of evil. To the Valdemarans, the Karsites were murderous land-grabbing demon-summoning child-burners, which is actually what they were thanks to a string of evil religious zealots who turned the Karsite religion into centuries of Inquisition where being a mage got you taken for the Priesthood and having mind-magic got you toasted. The difference between those should be a separate post, I think.
The Karsites suddenly stopped fighting Valdemar when a woman, Solaris, took over as High Priest, Son of the Sun, and the Karsite god Vkandis legitimized it. Vkandis declared the burnings and demon-summoning and all the other evil stuff anathema and He smote and toasted several power-hungry Priests to make His point clear: only Solaris spoke for Him, Stop This Shit Right Now.
Shit stopped and Karse joined Valdemar in their war against Ancar and Hardorn.
Karal and Ulrich are sent north to work out the details of peace and friendship.
Our next point-of-view character is An'desha, whose body was the secondary bad guy in the previous three novels--Winds of Fate, Change, and Fury. His spirit was pushed aside as that of an evil mage moved in and took over to become Mornelithe Falconsbane. This seemingly-immortal spirit dates back to the very first book, some 2,000 years (both in the series timeline and how long it's taken to read them), as the original Big Bad, Ma'ar.
The same little group of Heroic Cast Members who took out Ancar also took out Falconsbane. An'desha was given his body back, but now he's terrified that the evil Falconsbane still lurks within him. He's also troubled by sudden spells in which all sensation vanishes--no light, no sound, all existence put on hold for an eternity that lasts only moments. Thanks to his possession by the Evil One, An'desha has memories that stretch back to the first novel (wish I could remember that far back) and he knows that the spells are nothing of his doing. Something bad is coming and it will take three novels to deal with it.
It takes two-thirds of the novel to get all the main players and relationships ready to go and make things happen.
Tremane arrives in Hardorn to find the occupation going even more badly than expected. He is forced to pull his men back to the town of Shonor. Almost as soon as he gives the orders to do so, Tremane is hit with the same "spell" as those An'desha has been experiencing--no light, no sound, all existence on hold for an eternity. He soon learns that the "spell" has affected all the mages and all the magic. The Empire uses magic for everything: transportation, cooking, heating, lighting, building. It has all failed, disrupted by this "mage-storm."
Tremane's advisors tell him that the wave swept out of the northeast, headed southwest and leaving strange circles of disrupted land in its wake.
Imperials are suspicious by nature; it's a given that the man standing next to you is a spy for at least one of your enemies. Your own wife could be on the Emperor's payroll, telling him all your secrets. It's also a given that there are daggers everywhere, always ready should the unwary turn his back. Did the Emperor send this "storm"? Or was it one of Tremane's rivals? Was this a test, an assassination attempt?
Or maybe it was sent by the Valdemarans to further hamper Tremane's mission in Hardorn. He's already convinced that they've been giving aid to the Opposition.
Beset by unseen enemies, Tremane sets some retaliatory plans in motion.
Meanwhile, back in Valdemar, the same wave of disruptive mage energy has rolled past, flattening all the mages, disrupting their spells, and leaving strange circles of disrupted land in its wake. Since Valdemarans don't use the same class of magic as the Imperials do, though, they're back on their feet pretty quickly. Search parties are sent out to inspect those circles. Each one looks like someone dug out of plug of earth several feet across and replaced the plug with something different--a circle of black sand; one of tough, wiry grass in red clay; one of fused black glass that looks blasted by enormous power. There are also transformed or dead animals, but no people...so far. These circles stretch for miles in all directions.
An'desha offers an answer based on those ancient memories of his: this wave was just a small one, a tiny ripple that will build into a repeat of the great Cataclysm that ended the war between Urtho and Ma'ar some two thousand
Typically for a Lackey novel (when it's not one of the suck ones), the story moves well. She makes an effort to make people "feel" real, but maybe spends too much time on that. The "mage storm" subplot builds slowly; two-thirds of several hundred pages is a long time for the action to kick in. Not that it drags, but there is an awful lot of getting to know Karal and getting him around to meet everyone who will be instrumental in the next two books.
This first one is mostly about him.
I didn't like the "just so" jumping to conclusions that led Tremane to unleash the assassin/agent in Valdemar. I really didn't like the bad-guy-who-looks-like-a-weasel character who plays the assassin. Beady eyes, obsequious, nervous, and all intended to scream in 90-foot-high neon that HEY!!! THIS IS THE BAD GUY YOU GUYS!! SEE HOW HE LOOKS LIKE ONE?!?!
There's some hammy overacting and Heroic Speeching that are played straight, as if the character is rallying her troops, but it feels clumsy and out-of-character.
This wouldn't be a Mercedes Lackey book without the Big Emotional Hit in the assassination that leaves Ulrich and a supporting character dead and several others injured. Karal becomes the new envoy from Karse. It's telegraphed several pages in advance, with Ulrich telling the young man how proud he is, and how like a son Karal has been to him. At least it wasn't held until later as a death bed declaration, complete with Karal closing his master's eyes and screaming at the sky as the camera looks down upon him. As it is, Ulrich is rendered unconscious in the attack and never wakes up. This keeps our focus on Karal as he first keeps his vigil and subsequently goes looking to get away from the Palace.
The confrontation with the assassin was another bit of just-so convenience, with the bad guy spilling the whole plot in an insane rant designed to let the Valdemarans know that Grand Duke Tremane of the Evil Eastern Empire Sends His Greetings. Crap.