Review – Closer to Home

Closer to Home (The Herald Spy, #1)Closer to Home by Mercedes Lackey
Synopsis from GoodReads:
Mags was once an enslaved orphan living a harsh life in the mines, until the King’s Own Herald discovered his talent and trained him as a spy. Now a Herald in his own right, at the newly established Heralds’ Collegium, Mags has found a supportive family, including his Companion Dallen.

Although normally a Herald in his first year of Whites would be sent off on circuit, Mags is needed close to home for his abilities as a spy and his powerful Mindspeech gift. There is a secret, treacherous plot within the royal court to destroy the Heralds. The situation becomes dire after the life of Mags’ mentor, King’s Own Nikolas, is imperiled. His daughter Amily is chosen as the new King’s Own, a complicated and dangerous job that is made more so by this perilous time. Can Mags and Amily save the court, the Heralds, and the Collegium itself?

I really enjoy Lackey’s Valdemar series.  My introduction came through the sub-series about Vanyel (Magic’s Pawn/Promise/Price) thanks to a high school teacher and her ‘lending library’ of English-language fantasy books, despite being the school’s Japanese teacher!  What I’m trying to say is that these books will always hold a special place to me because of that introduction and because they were the sort of books I needed at that point in my life – optimistic fantasy with a generally good view towards both hetero and LGBT relationships, with an emphasis on families of choice and an acknowledgment that sometimes you have to stand up and fight for what you believe in and that life will always have pain as well as pleasure.

Parts of this review might not make sense to someone without some background in the Heralds of Valdemar, and I apologize for that.  Also, if you’re going to start the saga somewhere, maybe start with Arrow’s Flight instead of Vanyel’s books, since that’s a much better introduction to the series with a lot more information about the world in a lighter setting.

Now that that bit of housekeeping is out of the way…

In this latest installment, a continuation of the five-book sub-series The Collegium Chronicles, we return to a time after Vanyel but well before the later books dealing with Queen Selenay’s reign.  There’s a bigger focus on political intrigue than exterior threats, which is a nice change from TCC when we dealt with assassins and the traditional Valdemar enmity with Karse.

I’ll admit to entering this book with a bit of wariness.  I felt that TCC was drawn out too much and had a bit too much repetition in plot from book to book, so I was beginning to wonder if Lackey had lost her touch with these newer books.  I’m happy to report that the main plot from TCC has been neatly wrapped up and set aside, with a whole new set of problems for this next chapter of Mags’s life.  Those who are hoping for political intrigue should enjoy this novel as Mags gets more into the business of being the King’s Spy.

However, this is more than just Mags’s story.  It is also the story of his lady-love, Amily, coming into her own.  The summary provided above (and also on the back of my copy of the book) isn’t quite right as this novel definitely doesn’t deal with a plot against the Heralds.  Instead, it deals with two feuding families who have come to Court for the Winter Season to find spouses for their children – on the one side, a son, and on the other side, three daughters.  Amily is made King’s Own – the King’s closest advisor – during this hectic time as other courtiers start choosing sides in the feud and it erupts into violence again and again.

Now, this might remind some people of the story of the Capulets and Montagues from Romeo and Juliet, if only in some form.  And this novel certainly has a subplot that resembles R&J – but it is R&J gone horribly wrong, which is a wonderful change from the straighter retellings of the tale.  Finally we see one of the ways that a ‘romance’ between two youngsters who have only just met can run off the rails.  And, no, R&J doesn’t end happily – but I will say that Closer to Home’s R&J subplot goes poorly in a wholly different way, and one that could just as easily have happened in R&J.

One more point I would like to make about this novel is the growing awareness Mags and Amily, our two viewpoint characters, have for how constrained the lives of certain people are.  Mags has always been aware of how hard it is for the poor considering his own background as a child mine slave, but his adventures in the underbelly of Haven, searching for informants to add to his growing network, lets him find ways to help more people than he had thought possible.  Amily, meanwhile, is getting a good look at just how constrained the lives of highborn women can be, especially the way they’re brought up, to only consider their value as to how they can marry to bring good to their family, etc.

The reason I bring this up is because both Amily and Mags aren’t content with ‘the way things are’ and both begin working on ways to try and change the lives around them for the better.  I can only hope to see this trend continue going forward in the sequels to this book, particularly the way both are trying to change the mindsets of those around them from ‘this is how it’s always been and always will be’ into ‘this might be what’s been but I can work hard and have a better life with these resources’.  That’s right, resources, provided by the government, in this case a monarchy and nobility.  The point, which I’m going to be blunt about, is that hard work combined with the generosity of those who can provide resources is how you can change your life and get out of untenable circumstances.  Yes, there’s luck involved as Mags, especially, thinks about, but there’s more to it.

This is fantasy at it’s best, looking at real world problems and depicting ways that anyone can make a step towards solving it.  And that is one more reason to love this genre.

4 out of 5 stars.  Yes, there are some parts that could be improved.  Yes, there are some parts that feel like contradictions of earlier parts in the same book.  Yes, sometimes there are moments where we get to listen to the exact same thing told again.  But this was so much better than TCC and felt like a return to the Valdemar books I have loved.

I have high hopes for the sequel, which I will have started by the time this review is posted.  But if you’re thinking about reading this book, at least read the prequel sub-series, The Collegium Chronicles, or the background won’t make any sense at all.

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