This is a collection of short stories from the Lackey’s Valdemar universe. Some of the stories are better than others. My favorites were Heart’s Choice by Kate Paulk and Heart’s Own by Sarah A. Hoyt. Although both stories are written by different authors, they take place in the same village (not just world, which is a Valdemar world anyway) and employ the same set of characters, even the same family, a year apart from each other. Both stories deal with the same fundamental theme: Who is human? What sets a human apart from an animal? If a guy has fur and a tail, is he human or is he an animal? If a man can’t talk, is he a human or a subspecies? If, when angry or provoked, he bites instead of punches with his fists, is he human then?
Both these stories are heartwarming and very well written, but the overall quality of the entire collection is rather average, like a mixed bag of fan fiction.
Interesting fact: Mercedes Lackey was the author who introduced me to fantasy as a genre. In the beginning, I adored her Valdemar novels and devoured all of them, many more than once. Then, like most first love affairs, I got disillusioned with her writing. Now, I’m on the fence regarding her stories, and specifically her Valdemar tales.
For those unfamiliar with Lackey’s Valdemar backlist, a bit of a background. Valdemar is a quasi-medieval country, and most stories set there, this collection included, deal with the Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions.
The Companions are intelligent magical beings, super noble and dedicated to the good of Valdemar. They are shaped like white horses. They find people, mostly teenagers, with some kind of magical gifts and bond with them for life. The Chosen ones become Heralds of Valdemar, as dedicated to the kingdom and its monarch as their Companions. The Heralds are professional heroes, absolutely incorruptible and very well trained in martial arts and other more brainy disciplines. They roam the kingdom like knights, dispersing justice, fighting bandits, and helping those in need. They are also habitually the ones who sacrifice themselves for the good of the kingdom.
Valdemar also has a cohort of Bards, who make songs for the good of the kingdom. Here lies my first very serious objection. I grew up in Soviet Russia, where all the ‘bards’ also made songs for the good of the kingdom. Of course, there were no kings, but the Communist ruling party came close in its unchecked power, and the artists and writers had no choice but to praise the communists and their party. If they didn’t, they ended up unemployed, in prison, or worse. Since then, I’m allergic to the arts that glorify the ruling body of the country. It’s never sincere. The artists are forced to do it out of fear of reprisal. Nothing noble about that.
So I hate the whole situation with the Bards of Valdemar. The poor bards can’t criticize their king or queen. Most of them don’t even want to. They were raised by the crown; they studied at the crown-subsidized Collegium, and they were so brainwashed (my interpretation), they don’t know otherwise.
The same is true for the Heralds. None of them realizes that there are other choices, that they can doubt and question and explore and take a different path. They are all marionettes of the crown, decent people totally controlled by their rulers. The Companions fill their heads with patriotic drivel mixed with love. Because their propaganda is intertwined with love, the Heralds believe that the Companions and the crown are infallible, and every deviation from their worldview is a crime. This whole caboodle makes me sick. Patriotism should never be enforced.
I want to free them. I also want to write a story about a Herald who starts doubting. Or a Bard who starts mocking the system, but I don’t think they would have a nice future in that universe. Neither would my stories, so I don’t write them.
I don’t think Lackey intended such a reading. For her, it was all straightforward. She wrote it all as if it was a good idea, not a satire – hence my disappointment.