Brightly Burning by Mercedes Lackey (The Heralds of Valdemar #8)

As I was fancying a fantasy novel, and for once was not quite in the mood for something dark, heavy or long, a short standalone trip to Valdemar seemed just the thing.

Though set a few centuries after the time of herald mage Vanyel, brightly burning also recounts the tale of a legendary hero Talia read about in Arrows of the Queen.

Sixteen year old Lavan, aka Lan, doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. For the rest of his cloth merchant family, the move to Haven City has been a blessing, providing opportunities to advance careers, make lucrative deals, find apprenticeships and climb the social ladder. Lavan however has no interest in social influence or in working in the textile trade. He'd much rather be back in the humble country village where he grew up, riding, hunting and exploring the wilderness. Despairing of their son's indecisiveness, Lavan's parents send him to a newly established school for the children of merchants, a school offering advanced education and useful skills. Little do they realise however, that the merchant school is a hell of fear and physical abuse, where unconcerned masters give a thuggish coterie of older students free reign to mistreat anyone they wish. Yet Lan has a gift, a truly terrible power which he cannot control, and those who try to mistreat him will soon learn they are playing with fire. It is this fire which will bring him to the attention of the Heralds; Valdemar's magical protectors, but even the peace of the collegium or the love of a psychically bonded equine companion might not be enough to keep Lavan from destruction, especially since Karse, the religiously zealous country to the south has begun a holy war against Valdemar, a war in which Lavan's gift might make all the difference.

What is odd, is that Lavan's story really should not have been interesting. This is after all the third time I've read the story of an abused child being chosen by a companion. Yet, both Lan, and the way his story is presented differs enough from Vanyel and Talia to feel fresh rather than repetitive.

One reason for this, is that Lan is simply just a pleasant character to be around, and Lackey begins by showing far more of Lan's mistreatment than she did of either Talia's or even Vanyel’s. Even though Lan's family, as upwardly mobile merchants are a far cry from the religiously repressive farming community Talia grew up in, Lan's abuse is much more immediate, since we experience it first-hand.

From the puzzled but dutiful way Lan approaches the school, to his discovery of just how vile the clique of sixth form bullies are, there is a stark reality to this situation. Indeed, even though Lackey's bullies are a little obviously self-aware, and much of their dialogue a bit too eeeevil, the atmosphere of the school, from the teachers' complete disinterest in what is going on, to Lan's desperate attempts to not be noticed by the bullies; even going as far as missing meals or staying late, had a frighteningly believable and gritty caste, and will be familiar to anyone who's been the target of bullies themselves.

That Lavan is about to do a Carrie is pretty obvious, but the warning signs such as headaches or feeling hot, and the fact that Lan's parents go from sympathetic treatment of his illness, to just believing he's experiencing teen migraines just increase the tension until the explosion. Whilst this explosion is a little easier than it might have been (with instant flambe rather than slow death), at the same time, Lackey does deal with Lan's feelings about it, and those of others involved in an adult and straightforward way.

This isn't to say Lan doesn't feel guilty, however unlike the self-flagellation, and obsessive discussion of the main character's feelings that so bogged down Vanyel's story, Lan's reactions are quite appropriate and also thankfully something he just deals with, indeed Lan's over all capacity to deal with things is another reason I warmed to him as a character.

After that nastiness, the rather utopian collegium came as a relief, and as with Talia, I just felt glad Lavan was finally not being mistreated, and was actually making friends, finding things he was good at, and generally being successful. The collegium section was also improved by the fact that Lackey settled on only two viewpoints, Lavan’s and that of Herald Pol. Indeed, whilst I found Pol's introduction a little too saccharine, at the same time, seeing the troubled Lavan through the eyes of a fifty plus fatherly mentor, especially a mentor who still very much had his own life and concerns (credit to Lackey for remembering that married people do not stop being romantic), was mostly appealing, rather than annoying,.

Unfortunately, I can't deny the collegium's overbearing niceness palled after a while, since while Lackey didn't entirely neglect conflicts of either the emotional or even the physical sort, they tended to get dealt with a little too efficiently to provide much threat. Indeed, like her own mentor Anne McCaffery, Lackey seems to like the idea that people (particularly the heralds and King of Valdemar), simply get together and sort problems out in the speediest most immediate way, which is a lovely idea in principle, but doesn't make for a gripping story in practice. Thus the school full of bullies is summarily investigated and cleaned up, and Whilst Lan's family are uncomfortable with both being complicit in his mistreatment and his new exalted herald status, well, luckily Lan's friend Tuck has an ever welcoming hearty farming family whom Lan is quite free to spend time with instead.

Speaking of Lan's friends, Lackey has a gift for writing engaging characters who are genuinely nice people, and usually giving them a quirk or two to make them distinct (I loved the idea of Tuck being a robust farm boy interested in history), however, the general heraldic chumminess tends to get rather in the way of actual plot, since whilst having Tuck court Lan's little sister is sort of endearing to read about, it doesn't really up the stakes.

Of course, there are a few shock moments, including Lavan's attempts to master his power and some machinations by a wonderfully hissable villainess, however most of these are quick conflicts, efficiently dealt with by good heraldic justice.

As unfortunately shown by Magic's Pawn, there is always romance to hold up a plot, but here the romance is a little strange.

All Heralds are psychically bonded to a companion; (a large, supernaturally fast and strong sentient white horse). Lan's companion Kalira is probably the most fun companion we've seen in the series so far, with a lot of personality and a genuinely sweet set of interactions with Lan. Complicating matters however is the fact that Kalira and Lan share a life bond. As established in other books in the series, this is a predestined, romantic connection between two souls. In some fantasies, these sort of cosmic instant romances simply serve as a way for authors to skip over actually needing to write realistic connections (indeed Lackey skated dangerously close to this in Magic's Pawn). However, in several of Lackey's other novels, the life bond has been more troublesome, either by people not realising its full import (as in Arrow's Fall), or in it provoking problematic actions (as in Magic's Promise).

I am honestly not sure what to make of the life bond here. On the one hand Kalira's playful and supportive interactions with Lan are nice to read about. On the other, the idea that Lavan and Kalira are both precluded from other forms of lovemaking because they're so invested in each other seems rather worrying; not that Lackey implies their physical interactions are anything more than those usual between a herald and companion; i.e. the interactions between any rider and their beloved steed. However, I can't deny when their dialogue took on a flirty, sexual edge (such as when Kalira is wishing Lan were a stallion), it did feel a bit odd.

What made this slightly odder, is that Kalira's general tone with Lavan felt like that of an older sister or young aunt. Had Lan been interested in someone else and Kalira simply boosting his confidence, I might have had less issue here, but with the total lack of interest either shows in anyone else, there was a slightly uncomfortable vibe, even aside from cross species compatibility.

Romantic trouble isn't limited to Lan either. Pol's teenaged daughter Eleanor gets a major crush on Lan, however literally nothing comes of this, indeed Eleanor never even speaks to Lan, or indeed Tuck about it, just occasionally sobs to her father, who feels powerless owing to Lan's life bond with Kalira.

Whilst we're told on several occasions Lavan notices pretty girls, and notices several are interested in him, he remains almost ridiculously clueless about Eleanor's feelings, even though according to her father she's mooning about the place as obviously as a night time satellite.

In the book's final third, matters suddenly pick up since the war with Karse is introduced, and Lan is sent as a human siege weapon to the front. I will say, given the amount of times war and martial exploits of the heralds have been mentioned, it was good to see the war up close as it provided a much needed sense of danger. Here we see trouble with Lan's gift start to take effect, and how it's activation by anger causes him to struggle, struggles which are exacerbated by a couple of horrific encounters.

I was disappointed that Eleanor really got nothing to do here, indeed to say such a lot is made of her being sent into battle to provide Lan with emotional support, it was astonishing how useless she proved to be. When Lan, in a fit of adolescent male misunderstanding, hopes that she will see a battle field and be so shocked at the blood and violence she'll retreat back out of danger, (clearly forgetting that as a healer Eleanor has likely dealt with more than her share of blood and violence), he is virtually proved right, or at least on the one occasion Eleanor is in physical danger, she literally curls into a ball and sobs, and then spends the rest of the battle sitting in a tent well behind the lines and is rarely mentioned.

This can't even be put down to Eleanor just being a product of a less than gender equal society, not with the hard as nails lady heralds, healers and scouts (one of them a descendant of Vanyel's equally tough sister), who we run into in the army. Indeed, as in previous Valdemar novels there is a weird tension between the equalitarian and accepting community of heralds, and some oddly archaic attitudes seen elsewhere, such as when Lavan's parents are hoping their daughter's make good marriages, or when one unpleasant woman's husband is charged to "control his wife."

Whilst we're speaking of mistaken attitudes, Lackey also unfortunately does very badly with a character being blinded midway through the book. Firstly straight out describing them as living a "crippled life", then giving them a fortunate psychic get out to avoid them actually having to deal with being blind. Suffice it to say, as a person of reduced visibility myself, Lackey did not win many brownie points with me here.

The book's conclusion is both action packed, and deceptively clever on Lackey's part. Lackey first makes it quite clear that the Karsites are not orcs or zombies or living weapons, but people not too different from the people of Valdemar, except for their dogmatic religion, and their homicidal sun priests who gain magical power from burning people alive.

Given the nasty nature of said priests therefore, when Lavan lives up to his sobriquet and subjects them to a bit of blow torching, we're none too sorry.

Lan creating walls of fire as fortifications gradually turns to attacking priests directly, to hitting ordinary soldiers with splash damage, and finally to indiscriminate blasting. At first I wondered where Lackey was going with this, given that Lavan's attitude seemed to be changing, and suddenly we were apparently expected to applaud the joy Lavan was taking in crisping Karsites, after all, yes the soldiers were ordinary people, but their officers forced them to fight and obviously all those nice people in Valdemar need keeping safe. We've already seen what horrible things the Karsites do, so this is perfectly okay? Right?

Slowly, anger, and its representation as a metaphorical dragon feed on Lavan's justifications, and we go from seeing the Karsites as an essentially human enemy which needs to be resisted, to freely friable flame fodder.

Of course, tragedy strikes and all bets are off, but even leading up to that tragedy, the conflict Lackey creates, and the way she taps in to standard tropes in a genre where epic battles, can merge too easily into glorified battles, and human enemies devolve into the inhuman was absolutely fascinating, indeed, though it would've made for a far grimmer story, I almost wish that this sequence hadn't been limited to the last couple of hours, and we'd seen more of this, perhaps with more reasons for Lan to hate the Karsites, and a darker depiction of the war.

In the reviews I've read, Brightly Burning has both been called too long, and too short, and in this case I can understand why. There is a surfeit of happiness, and a tendency to solve problems a little too efficiently, and yet several sequences and themes I'd liked to have seen more of, and some characters (especially poor Eleanor), who remain rather underused.

That being said, so much of this story just plain worked. From Lan's bullying, to his recovery, to his grappling with the intricacies of war, and a gift which is nothing but destructive. The style is quick, friendly and well-paced, though lacking slightly in the poetry department, and whilst characters tend towards the "nice", at the same time, sometimes that is enough, or at least, it proved so for me.

All in all Brightly Burning was probably my favourite Valdemar book so far. Likely due to being written much later in Lackey's career, the writing was just tighter, the viewpoints more focused, and whilst there was still the inclination towards idealism, there was at least more than enough else to keep my attention, and even at least some of the idealism felt justified. Indeed, despite its shortcomings the fact that I devoured all of this book's fourteen hours in less than two days, probably shows how just plain readable it was.

8/10 Douchebags roasting on an open fire

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