Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bardic Voices I: The Lark and the Wren (Mercedes Lackey)

Rating: 3
Year: 1992
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Maybe, when I forget...

I decided to pop out of the Valdemar stuff again, but I didn't wander far. Mercedes Lackey is crazy prolific in her scribbles.

Rune is a little tavern girl. The 14-year old hates her life. She's stuck working the backwater tavern in a backwater village with her backwater mother, whose only ambition is to lure the tavern owner into marriage so she'll have a cushy (if backwater) life.

Rune wants to be a musician. A Guild Bard, player to queens, singer to kings, writer of songs that make the whole world sing. The villagers come to the tavern to listen to her scratching on her fiddle while they drink beer, but no one thinks much of her or her scratching. To the others in the tavern her music is a distraction from her proper place: doing chores, waiting on the customers, and little more. To the villagers she's a bastard and likely to follow in her mother's slutty, backwater footsteps.

Rune has talent, according to the occasional visiting minstrel. They teach her when they have time, encourage her, and feed her desire to get away from the village. She wants to go to the huge Kingsford Faire, to take the three-day challenge against other musicians and win, taking her place as an apprentice in the Bardic Guild.

--but there's no money for that. Her "pay" at the tavern is room and board, no more.

We're treated to seven pages of Rune considering prostitution or stripping.

Seven. Two of these are her thinking of how filthy and degrading and horrible and slimy and bad and sickening and awful and sinful and disgusting and otherwise not-good the stripping would be, as if that's somehow worse than prostitution.

We get 52 pages of "Rune is unhappy and trapped in a hellhole and she hates it here and they hate her and she hates them" before she opens her trap and tells some village boys that she will play for the Skull Hill Ghost to prove that her fiddling is going to make her somebody, someday. She grabs up her fiddle and marches all the way to the dark, forbidding hill in the woods.

The way the book blurb is written--and from the cover art--you'd think this was the Big Finish. Rune the Triumphant, player to Death, defeater of Doom, and all that. Nope.

The ghost comes and they make a deal: she'll play for him all night. If he digs her stuff, she gets to live.

Her digs her stuff, man. He tells her she's amazing and leaves her with a double-handful of silver pennies, remarking that she deserved gold but it'd be harder to explain to other people how this tavern child came to have so much money.

So now she's got money and the rest of a too-thick book stretching out ahead of her. It could have been so much better, but there doesn't seem to be much conflict for Rune, even while she's confronting the ghost. Everything pretty much falls into place for her, just so. Where there is something like a conflict or danger, it's resolved pretty quickly.

Basically, no Runes were seriously injured or killed during the production of this book. Author's pet? Rune is barely--more like minimally--educated, but is often the most articulate voice in the room. She doesn't really carry the "tavern bumpkin" role even in the tavern, which clashes with her upbringing.

The characters--all of them--are pretty straight-cut sketches, nothing really interesting about them. We know what Rune hopes to become, but we don't know much more than that.

The plot goes in a straight line from the Skull Hill Ghost to the city where she finds work, a teacher and lodging all on the same day. At the dramatically appropriate time, her teacher dies of pneumonia (giving the Big Emotional Hit) and she comes down with it herself. It takes the rest of Winter and part of Spring for her to recover--and just in time, the Church representative shows up to tell her that her teacher left her everything, and here's enough money for her to get to the next act in the book.

She hits the Kingsford Faire and enters the competition disguised as a boy: her teacher warned her that there are no girls or women in the Bardic Guild. Her best bet is to play as a boy. If she wins, she can either keep up the deception or reveal herself (so to speak).

She wins, gets the living crap beaten out of her...but fortunately she's rescued by the Free Bards, folks who play music without being part of a Guild or beholden to rich and powerful patrons. Not only that, she meets the love of her life and gets set up for the final act of the book.

Blah. I'll just stop there. I'd like to have seen some more slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.

This thing's so heavy-handed it must have been typed with a sledgehammer.

There's so much hand-holding I was starting to hope she'd just ask me OUT already.

There's so much hitting over the head I've got a concussion.

EVERY TIME Rune starts thinking, it takes several pages of making goddamn sure we get it. She's not a whore? She's not a stripper? Okay, just say that in a couple of sentences, I'll understand.

On p. 254, she meets Mr. Boyfriend. She sets out with him after the Faire, looking for a place to set up for the winter.

By p. 331, they're still on the road, weeks later. Mr. Boyfriend is being the noble, self-sacrificing older guy who doesn't want to lead Rune on. He's TWICE her age (35!!), it wouldn't work out.

PAGES of this.

Rune wants him, but thinks he's not into her. She's not pretty, she's not interesting...instead of calling her "Lark" the Free Bards should have called her "Mourning Dove." PAGES.

Pages of Very Serious, Deep Introspection! At least it's not "Brightly Burning."

By p. 350, rune finally nails Mr. Boyfriend. Maybe they can shut up, now. All that inner monologue self-torture stuff was audience abuse, just 4 shy of 100 pages. Did Baen tell her they needed a book "about this thick"?

Maybe she started out with only 200, but they forced her to pad it out. "Yeah, make it 488 pages."

They could have titled it, "The Demotivational Reader Edition."