Review: Shenanigans by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Shenanigans by Mercedes LackeyShenanigans (Tales of Valdemar, #16) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Tales of Valdemar #16, Valdemar (Publication order) #55
Pages: 336
Published by DAW Books on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This sixteenth anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Lackey herself.
The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom's ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all ages--and all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talents--combined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and more--make them indispensable to their monarch and realm. Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.

My Review:

Last week’s Into the West – and Beyond before it – focused on the very serious adventure of the Founding of Valdemar. Kordas Valdemar and Company’s epic journey gave series fans a much better idea of just how much blood, sweat and tears went into the creation of the place that we all love. But that’s certainly not all there is to Valdemar.

Shenanigans, the sixteenth book in the Tales of Valdemar subseries (after last year’s Boundaries), presents series readers with a treat of a present for this holiday season, as the stories within are exactly what the title names them – shenanigans.

While there’s a bit of derring-do, Shenanigans is a collection of marvelous, funny and often marvelously funny stories set in all the periods of Valdemar history among all of the many peoples and creatures that make the place so much fun to read about for so many glorious years.

In spite of the blurb, most of the stories in Shenanigans do not revolve around the Companions and their Chosen. Some do, of course, or it wouldn’t be a Valdemar collection, but quite a few of the shenanigans in the collection thereof are more slice of life stories, and there are a fair number that feature people with telepathic “gifts” that are not Chosen and may not even wish to be.

Of course, there are also several stories set among the students of the Collegium, because, well, students and pranking make for a fun story no matter what world they’re set in.

Which leads to my two favorite stories in the collection, “Pranks for the Memories” by Dee Shull and “Fool’s Week” by Anthea Sharp. The stories are similar, but they are still both excellent. It’s spring. The students are restless. (Probably every teacher everywhere is nodding their head at THAT idea). In “Pranks” one student mentions a family tradition of a week of pranking. In “Fool’s Week”, someone remembers that there used to be a traditional “fool’s week” at the Collegium until the practice, not unsurprisingly, got out of hand.

It’s suddenly in hand again, to the point where even the teachers are participating. And it’s hilarious!

The other standouts – at least for this reader – come in pairs. “All Around the Bell Tower” by Stephanie Shaver and “A Bouquet of Gifts, or The Culinary Adventures of Rork” by Michele Lang. Both are stories about young girls who have gifts that the people around them can’t quite identify – and that give them each more than a few problems. What each child needs is someone to both listen and understand. The story in “Bell Tower” is a bit more traditional Valdemar in that it’s her Companion that finally brings help in the persons of both themself and their accompanying Heralds. In “A Bouquet of Gifts” we get a much fuller than usual portrait of the helpful hertasi as Rork the chef, as he sets up a feast for a returning friend, also makes a new one – along with a menagerie of mischievously ‘helpful’ creatures and animals.

We saw a lot of the hertasi in Into the West and it’s lovely to see them again here.

And then there are the two stories that include both romance and adventure in equal measure – if on nearly opposite ends of the socioeconomic strata. “A Cry of Hounds” by Elisabeth Waters and “One Trick Pony” by Diana Paxson. “Hounds” is set in the King’s Court of Valdemar. Lord Repulsive’s father is dead, and Lord Repulsive himself is trying to marry off his 12-year-old stepdaughter. In reality, he’s selling his 12-year-old stepdaughter and trying to keep the King from finding out that the child is only 12. Because he will not approve the marriage once he learns, and he will not be amused when he discovers the deception. And he is not. Lord Repulsive gets what’s coming to him with the help of his castoff brother, his sister-in-law and every dog she talks to with her AnimalSpeech. And he deserves every bit of it. (Lord Repulsive really is repulsive. It’s not his real name but “if the shoe fits” or in this case, more like “if the Foo shits”…)

Last but not least there’s, Diana Paxson’s “One Trick Pony”, which mixes a bit of the bittersweet memory of heartbreak and the horrors of war into its story about a man who has found peace after grief and war by gardening, and the way that peace is invaded by a woman who reopens his heart and a newly born Companion who is learning the limits of their own power one prank at a time.

Escape Rating B: After the necessary seriousness of Into the West, the mostly lighthearted tales of Shenanigans were an absolute delight. As with most collections, not every single story hits its mark, but more than enough of them to make Shenanigans a treat for Valdemar fans. Certainly something to tide us all over as we wait for Gryphon in Light, coming in June.

Review: Into the West by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Into the West by Mercedes LackeyInto the West (The Founding of Valdemar, #2) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: The Founding of Valdemar #2, Valdemar (Publication order) #54, Valdemar (Chronological) #5
Pages: 496
Published by DAW Books on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The long-awaited founding of Valdemar comes to life in this second book in the new series from a New York Times-bestselling author and beloved fantasist.
Baron Valdemar and his people have found a temporary haven, but it cannot hold all of them, or for long. Trouble could follow on their heels at any moment, and there are too many people for Crescent Lake to support. Those who are willing to make a further trek by barge on into the West will follow him into a wilderness depopulated by war and scarred by the terrible magics of a thousand years ago and the Mage Wars. But the wilderness is not as empty as it seems. There are potential friends and rapacious foes....
....and someone is watching them.

My Review:

We already knew the destination. What Valdemar is, what it became, seemed fully formed all the way back in Arrows of the Queen, which takes place almost 1400 years after the founding of Valdemar and was originally published in 1987. We’ve known the destination for a very long time.

This is the journey. Literally. Just as Beyond was the final push to start that journey, Into the West is the journey itself. Complete with all the cold, mud AND bugs that any adventure requires.

But, where Beyond was a story of running away, Into the West is a story about running towards.

As high as the stakes were, and still are, in the events that opened the way for Valdemar and his people to leave the corrupt Eastern Empire, the story itself built to a big climax – even bigger than Kordas Valdemar himself expected.

That part’s over. They’ve gotten away – at least for the moment. They believe that they left enough of a mess behind that it will take some time for the Empire to get its political shit into a big enough and unified enough pile to come after them.

Leaving a crater where the capital used to be should keep things back in the Empire in disarray for quite some time. At least until the surviving nobles and warlords and military commanders shake out which of them is going to be in charge and possibly charge after the fleeing Valdemarians.

If they can even find them after however much time that’s going to take.

So the big thing that everyone was working towards has been accomplished. Everyone was willing to unite towards that gigantic and hugely dangerous common goal. Into the West is the story of what happens next.

On the one hand, it’s an adventure. They are headed, as the title proclaims, into the west. To the place where the Mage Wars magically corrupted the land and everything on it centuries before. Kordas Valdemar knows that the land is still dangerous, but hopes that the intervening centuries have allowed the land to recover enough to make it habitable for his people.

On the other hand, it’s every bit as much of a political story as Beyond. But like the difference between running away and running towards that is the lynchpin of each book, Beyond’s portrait of the Eastern Empire was a lesson in what NOT to do and what NOT to be. It’s up to Baron Valdemar, the man who will be Valdemar’s first king, to figure out what his country and its people should do and will be in the centuries to come.

All they have to do is get past all the things and people that want to kill them along the way.

Escape Rating B: If you’ve read Beyond – and I highly recommend it – Into the West picks up just where Beyond leaves off. That Valdemar and his people are now beyond the reach of the Empire and are headed into the west.

Which makes this a much different type of story than the previous book – one that isn’t quite as exciting – but is very much necessary – in the opening several chapters.

The big story, of course, centers around Kordas Valdemar, the man who will be the first king of the country that will be named after him. If one has even read a cursory summary of the previous published books in the Valdemar series – which nearly all come AFTER this one in the internal chronology – one already knows that Kordas succeeded. He did become the legendarily good king that the history books talk about nearly a millennium later in The Last Herald-Mage series.

Which, by the way, doesn’t mean you have to have read any of the series previously in order to enjoy Beyond and Into the West. And certainly not that you have to have read any of them recently. Like even in this century recently.

But Into the West is the story of Kordas, not as a myth or a legend, but as a man facing a seemingly impossible job with an all-too-real case of impostor syndrome. He has to do this, He promised his people he’d do this. He’s in over his head and knows it – not that anyone wouldn’t be over their head under the circumstances.

He’s doing the best he can to make the best decisions he can to save not just the most people but the most people with the right ethics and the right moral compass along the way.

So this is the portrait of the legend as a real man, with all his flaws and all his virtues. And by the nature of that portrait, it is also an up close and personal view of how the sausage of government gets made.

For a lot of the story, their journey reads as more of a series of vignettes than a continuous narrative. While there are hints of the everyday drudgery of getting this mass of folks moving, the high points of the story naturally occur when things happen. Sometimes disastrously but just as often when conflicts are avoided or when kindness is paid forward and back along the way.

And then at the end they learn just what it is they’ve let themselves into – and it’s explosive and page-turning and even brutally epic.

But the getting there has a couple of hitches that Beyond didn’t, one which deals with the story in its present, and one which has its impact because of the future that is known but hasn’t happened yet. And one bittersweet heartbreaker to tempt us all to keep reading or go back and read again.

There’s a piece of Into the West that is a coming of age story for Kordas’ much younger sister-in-law Delia. In order to help her get over her entirely too obvious and cringeworthy crush on him, Kordas assigns her to a forward scouting party. It’s the making of her and gives the story a way of seeing the perils, trials and tribulations of this big journey at a much smaller and more easily encompassed scale. But her mooncalf obsession over Kordas really slowed the story down until she finally started to get over it.

The second hitch was the expedition’s winter rescue by the Hawkbrothers. As it occurs, it reads very much like a deus ex machina that shortcuts past a lot of what would have been a hard, killing winter even without the surrounding monsters. Once it happens, it does feel like something that had to have happened because it already did. It also provides a touching pause between disasters just before the newly fledged Valdemarians discover that their oh-so-convenient rescuers weren’t nearly as all-knowing as they pretended to be.

When Into the West wraps up after a truly epic concluding battle, the story is at a point where it could be the end of this Valdemar subseries. But I hope it isn’t, and that’s because of that bittersweet little heartbreaker at the end.

The one signature feature of the entire Valdemar series that we do not see in either Beyond or Into the West are the marvelous, magical, horse-like Companions who serve as guides, friends and even consciences of the best and brightest that Valdemar the country has to offer. But I think we’ve met the people who will become them, and in a scene that just about breaks the heart we get just a hint of what depth of love and kind of sacrifice was needed to make the Companions possible. And I want there to be a third book in the Founding of Valdemar so I can find out if I’ve guessed right.

But in the meantime there’s a new collection of Valdemar stories, Shenanigans, that I’ll be reviewing next week followed by a new novel about Valdemar’s legendary gryphons, Gryphon in Light, coming this summer.

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes LackeyThe Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley (Elemental Masters, #16) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, steampunk
Series: Elemental Masters #16
Pages: 320
Published by DAW Books on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The sixteenth novel in the magical alternate history Elemental Masters series follows sharpshooter Annie Oakley as she tours Europe and discovers untapped powers.
Annie Oakley has always suspected there is something "uncanny" about herself, but has never been able to put a name to it. But when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show goes on tour through Germany, Bill temporarily hires a new sharpshooter to be part of his "World Wide Congress of Rough Riders": a woman named Giselle, who also happens to be an Elemental Master of Air. Alongside this new performer, Annie discovers that she and her husband, Frank, are not simply master marksman, but also magicians of rare ability.
As they travel and perform, Annie must use her newfound knowledge and rare skill to combat creatures of the night scattered across the countryside, who threaten both the performers and the locals. Annie's got her gun, and it's filled with silver bullets.

My Review:

When I read the first few books in the Elemental Masters series – as they came out back in the early 2000s – I loved these retellings of classic fairy tales set in an alternate, slightly steampunkish late Victorian/early Edwardian era for the way that they mixed a bit of magic with a bit of alternate history to put a fresh face on a tale that was oh-so-familiar.

Now that I’m thinking about this the series is an alternate version of another of Lackey’s alternate ways of telling fairy tales, her Five Hundred Kingdoms series (begin with The Fairy Godmother) where the purpose of the story was to subvert the fairy tale to keep it from subverting someone’s life.

I digress.

I stopped reading the Elemental Masters series after Reserved for the Cat as a consequence of the “so many books, so little time” conundrum that all of us who live in books are faced with so often. But I came back when the series switched from fairy tales to legendary characters with A Study in Sable and the three books that followed (A Scandal in Battersea, The Bartered Brides and The Case of the Spellbound Child) because the legendary character that was introduced and followed in this subseries of the series was none other than Sherlock Holmes.

I can never resist a Holmes pastiche, and these were no exception.

But after following the “World’s Greatest Consulting Detective”, even an alternate version thereof, through an alternate version of Holmes’ London, the series took itself across the pond to the Americas while briefly turning to its roots of retelling fairy tales with Jolene. Which I have yet to read – even though just the title is giving me an earworm of Dolly Parton’s marvelous song – which I’m sure was the intention.

I was, however, all in to read this latest book in the series, The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley, because I was wondering how the author would blend this historical character into this world where magic is hidden just beneath the surface.

It turns out that Annie Oakley herself, the real one, provided her own introduction to this world. As this story opens, we’re with Annie as she is in contracted servitude to a married couple she only refers to as “the Wolves” in her diary. Her real, historical diary.

The Wolves – whose identity has never been conclusively determined – starved her, cheated her, threatened her and physically and mentally abused her at every turn for two years, beginning when Annie was nine years old.

In this story, those two years of hell on earth become Annie’s introduction to the magic of this alternate world. Not just because the people she calls “the Wolves” turn out to be actual wolves – or rather werewolves – but because her desperate escape from the Wolves is facilitated by the magic of this alternate world – both the magic of the fairies AND magic of Annie’s very own.

After that shocking and heartbreaking beginning, the story shifts to Annie Oakley as an adult, the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, traveling in Europe.

Where she discovers that her childhood rescue by fairies was not the fever dream she tried to convince herself that it was. And that the magic she has hidden from herself all these years is hers to command – if she is willing to learn.

And that she’ll need all the training and assistance that she can get. Because the wolves are still after her.

Escape Rating A-: When I was growing up – back in the Dark Ages – there weren’t nearly enough biographies of women in my elementary school library. Honestly, there weren’t nearly enough, period. While there still aren’t, the situation has improved at least a bit.

Annie Oakley ca. 1903

One of the few that was always available was Annie Oakley. It was easy to find stuff about her, and as someone who read as much of that library as humanly possible, I found what there was. She’s a fascinating person, as a woman in the late 19th and early 20th century who was famous for what she herself DID, and not for who she married, who she killed (I’m looking at you, Lizzie Borden) or who or what she was victimized by. Nor was she famous for her beauty. (I’ve included a picture to let you judge for yourself on that score, but whether you like her looks or not they are not what made her famous.

Her ability to shoot a gun, accurately and at a distance, is what made her famous. It also put food on the table when she was young and her family was broke.

Blending her real history and real talents into this magical story, and keeping reasonably close to what is known about her while expanding it into this created world was fascinating and fun. This was also a terrific story to get new readers into this long running series, as Annie is an adult when she finds out that she has magic, and her training in her newly discovered powers helps the reader get on board with the way that this world works AND is fascinating in its own right.

So this story’s blend of history with magic just plain worked for me – even more than I expected it to. More than enough to make me not miss the Sherlock Holmes of the earlier stories in the series too much.

Obviously, I really enjoyed this particular entry in this long-running series. MORE than enough that I’ll be back the next time the author returns to it. In the meantime, I have plenty of entries in the series that I missed to dip into whenever I’m looking for this blend of magic, myth and history.

Review: Boundaries edited by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Boundaries edited by Mercedes LackeyBoundaries (Tales of Valdemar #15) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Valdemar (Publication order) #53, Tales of Valdemar #15
Pages: 368
Published by DAW Books on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This fifteenth anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Lackey herself.
The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom's ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all ages--and all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talents--combined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and more--make them indispensable to their monarch and realm. Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.

My Review:

After reading – and loving – Beyond, the opening book in the Founding of Valdemar prequel series, I was reminded of just how much I loved this world, and how many stories it still had to tell. So when Boundaries popped up, it seemed like a good time to see if that good feeling about Valdemar still held up.

Because there are so many stories yet to tell in this world, and Boundaries is the fifteenth book of a long-standing series of Tales of Valdemar told by writers who have fallen in love with this well-developed world and have been given the opportunity to explore a bit of it that has piqued their love and interest.

Some collections I dip into and out of in various places within the collection, looking for stories with certain features or certain characters. And not that I don’t love the Firecats, because cats. There’s a long, long ago Valdemar story where two Firecats, at the end of an adventure, have a taste for “field mice on toast” and are planning to go out and hunt for their field mice, admonishing their human on the way out the door that “Toast will be provided!” And isn’t that just cats all over?

The theme of this collection is, just like it says on the label, boundaries, particularly the boundary between Valdemar and Karse. A border that has been a tense place where two countries with conflicting views on just about everything – magic, religion, freedom and opportunity – observe an uneasy peace that is all too often neither easy or peaceful.

Borders are always interesting places, as they are where unlike things and people rub up against each other with interesting, and occasionally even incendiary, results. As it proves in several of the stories in this collection.

Escape Rating B+: Like all collections, some entries are stronger than others. And some work for more people than others. But it was still wonderful to visit Valdemar and its neighbors again, so I’m happy I picked it up.

My favorite story in the collection is “A Time for Prayer” by Kristin Schwengel as it manages to tell a story that both displays the fear in which the hierarchy of the Sunpriests of Karse is held by most people while at the same time showing the service of the priests at the local level to their communities and the surprising flexibility of how that service is performed. Priests are supposed to be men – and only men – in Karse. And yet this is the story of a woman who has been trained by the previous priest in this little village as his acolyte and who, in spite of all the laws and strictures against it, steps fully into his place upon his death. Who, in spite of her fears is not found wanting by her god, no matter what those who believe they speak in his name might believe.

There are also two lovely stories about healers, “Tides of War” by Dylan Birtolo and “Final Consequences” by Elizabeth Vaughan. The first is about a young soldier during and after his first battle (against Karse, of course!) discovering that in spite of what everyone else thinks, both he and his country would be best served if he became a battlefield medic rather than one of their patients.

While “Final Consequences” takes place far from a battlefield, it tells a lovely story about the life of a healer, the demands on their time, the joy of their work, and the way that their service leads to both a full life and just occasionally, a happy ever after. In a setting where not all battles involve obvious bloodshed.

And of course, last but not least for this reader, there’s a cat story. Not a Firecat story, but a cat story. “A Clutter of Cat” by Elisabeth Waters is just an adorable story, not entirely filled with kitten fluff, about a community centered around the ability to Mindspeak animals – and some of the resistance to that gift. Along with some resistance to the cats who are, after all, just being cats.

Review: Beyond by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Beyond by Mercedes LackeyBeyond (The Founding of Valdemar #1) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, anthologies
Series: The Founding of Valdemar #1, Valdemar (Publication order) #46, Valdemar (Chronological) #4
Pages: 384
Published by DAW Books on June 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The long-awaited founding of Valdemar comes to life in this new series from a New York Times bestselling author and beloved fantasist

Within the Eastern Empire, Duke Kordas Valdemar rules a tiny, bucolic Duchy that focuses mostly on horse breeding. Anticipating the day when the Empire’s exploitative and militant leaders would not be content to leave them alone, Korda’s father set out to gather magicians in the hopes of one day finding a way to escape and protect the people of the Duchy from tyranny.

Kordas has lived his life looking over his shoulder. The signs in the Empire are increasingly dire. Under the direction of the Emperor, mages have begun to harness the power of dark magics, including blood magic, the powers of the Abyssal Planes, and the binding and "milking" of Elemental creatures.

But then one of the Duchy’s mages has a breakthrough. There is a way to place a Gate at a distance so far from the Empire that it is unlikely the Emperor can find or follow them as they evacuate everyone that is willing to leave.

But time is running out, and Kordas has been summoned to the Emperor's Court.

Can his reputation as a country bumpkin and his acting skills buy him and his people the time they need to flee? Or will the Emperor lose patience, invade to strip Valdemar of everything of worth, and send its conscripted people into the front lines of the Imperial wars?

My Review:

Time flies whether you’re having fun or not. Come to think of it, that kind of applies in the story, too, as there are certainly times when Kordas Valdemar is not having any fun at all, but time is flying because he and his duchy have way, way, way too much to do to get the hell out of, not exactly Dodge, but out of the corrupt Eastern Empire before it either wipes them out or topples from within under the weight of its own corruption.

I read what became the first book in the very long running Valdemar series, Arrows of the Queen, when it first came out back in 1987. My initial paperback copies crumbled to dust long ago, but I still have the Science Fiction Book Club hardcover omnibus edition of that original trilogy. It feels like that was a lifetime ago and very far away.

I remember the series fondly, because at the time it was published there wasn’t much like it at the time. It was female-centered, it was a heroine’s journey, the worldbuilding was deep and fascinating and felt like a place that one would want to live. It all just worked and I loved the whole thing and seem to have read the first 30 books or so before it fell under the wheels of “so many books, so little time”.

So it had been a long time since I traveled to Valdemar, but remembered it so fondly, that when the eARC for Beyond popped up I was, well, beyond interested. I love foundational stories anyway, and here was a foundational story for a world I still sorta/kinda knew. That it was set at a time in that world’s history that hadn’t really been touched on before meant that I could pick back up here and not feel the compulsion to go back and read the 15 or so books in the series that I missed before reading this one.

Not that I might not take a look at them afterwards! But events later don’t usually impact events before – and Beyond was certainly before pretty much everything else.

So here we are, in the far past, before Arrows of the Queen or Magic’s Pawn, and, as it turns out, headed beyond the borders of the Eastern Empire that Valdemar and his people came from. This story is the story of the leave-taking, and very much the story of why they left.

And it’s a doozy. If you have fond memories of Valdemar, as I very much did, Beyond is a fantastic way to go back. If you’ve never been, it’s a terrific time, and place, to start.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that I remember from my previous reading is that, in spite of more than a few crises along the way, Valdemar as a place felt livable. Like Pern and Celta and Harmony but surprisingly few other fantasy (or fantasy-ish) realms, the world seems to be functional. Not that humans aren’t more than occasionally idiots – because we are – but the foundations seem to be solid and the place seems to work, more or less, most of the time.

The story in Beyond is the beginning of the story of why Valdemar mostly works. The Eastern Empire is the horrible warning of what happens when bad follows worse in endless succession for centuries. At the point we meet Kordas Valdemar, it’s not a matter of if the empire will fall, its when – and how much collateral damage that fall will do.

What we have, in a way, is kind of a fix-it fic. Not that Kordas can “fix” the empire, because it is way too late, the corruption is much too thorough. There have been too many generations trained and “nurtured” in the belief that all the corruption is the way that things are supposed to be.

Rather, this is the story of a whole bunch of people from all walks of life who have said, “enough” and have the means and the method to find a way out. Beyond is the story of a PLAN, definitely all caps on plan, and the implementation of that plan. It’s about the last coming together, of the getting of all the ducks in their rows, and of all the things and people and events that conspire to make it happen AND that get in the way.

And I loved the two-steps forward, one-step back of the whole thing. The meticulous organization running headlong into the desperate measures. And I especially loved the people making it happen in spite of the odds and the risks and the strong possibility that it will all go pear-shaped.

Which it kind of does, but in the best way possible.

So if you enjoy watching a plan coming together, if you like watching people work hard and sweat much in order to bring off the work of decades, if you don’t mind just a bit of villain monologuing and love a story of unlikely heroes, Beyond is a delight.

Especially if you’ve never been to Valdemar or are, as I was, looking for an excuse to go back.

The one thing I missed in Beyond that was part of the magic of the original series are the magical, fascinating, horse like Companions. I kept waiting for them to appear because they were such a marvelous part of the original stories. There are beautiful and intelligent horses, because that’s what Valdemar-as-a-duchy was famous for, but no Companions – at least not yet.

Therefore, it made me very, very happy to learn that Beyond is the first book in The Founding of Valdemar trilogy. The Companions are coming, and I can’t wait for them to get here!

Review: The Case of the Spellbound Child by Mercedes Lackey

Review: The Case of the Spellbound Child by Mercedes LackeyThe Case of the Spellbound Child (Elemental Masters, #14) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy
Series: Elemental Masters #14
Pages: 320
Published by DAW Books on December 3, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The fourteenth novel in the magical alternate history Elemental Masters series continues the reimagined adventures of Sherlock Holmes in a richly-detailed alternate 20th-century England.

While Sherlock is still officially dead, John and Mary Watson and Nan Killian and Sarah Lyon-White are taking up some of his case-load--and some for Lord Alderscroft, the Wizard of London.

Lord Alderscroft asks them to go to Dartmoor to track down a rumor of evil magic brewing there. Not more than four hours later, a poor cottager, also from Dartmoor, arrives seeking their help. His wife, in a fit of rage over the children spilling and spoiling their only food for dinner that night, sent them out on the moors to forage for something to eat. This is not the first time she has done this, and the children are moor-wise and unlikely to get into difficulties. But this time they did not come back, and in fact, their tracks abruptly stopped "as if them Pharisees took'd 'em." The man begs them to come help.

They would have said no, but there's the assignment for Alderscroft. Why not kill two birds with one stone?

But the deadly bogs are not the only mires on Dartmoor.

My Review:

I actually read this a couple of weeks ago, while I was in the middle of listening to The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl followed by Mycroft and Sherlock: The Empty Birdcage. I was on a Sherlock Holmes kick and looking for stories that were at least Holmes-adjacent, as both Mesmerizing Girl and Spellbound Child turned out to be.

In other words, unlike Mycroft and Sherlock, which is definitely Holmesian all the way even if it is still focused more on the older brother than the younger, both the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club and the Elemental Masters are series that I got into for Holmes but stayed in for everybody else.

Which is a good thing, because Spellbound Child, like last month’s Mesmerizing Girl, is all about the everybody else and only tangentially about Holmes. At least in Spellbound Child Sherlock isn’t in need of rescue along with some of that everybody else.

This story is part of the author’s Elemental Masters series. In this series, the world is an alternate version of our own history, it’s just a version in which magic works but is mostly hidden and strictly controlled by its practitioners – especially those who are masters of their particular elements.

The series began with The Fire Rose back in 1995 – a story that I read at the time but have no recollection of beyond the concept. I kept up with the first few books in the series, but then dropped it for a long time, until A Scandal in Battersea caught my attention two years ago, not for its fantasy but for its screamingly obvious Sherlockian elements. And have continued with the series ever since, even stepping back one book to A Study in Sable, where the entire current cast of characters was introduced.

The above should give heart to any readers who have not read the whole series. I do think starting with A Study in Sable would be beneficial to becoming acquainted with the current cast and situation. And all Holmes pastiche series seem to start with a play on the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, as this one does.

However, Holmes is not an elemental master – at least not unless someone declares logic to be a form of elemental magic. He is, rather, a skeptic. In spite of his friend and biographer, Dr. John Watson, being an elemental master himself, as is Watson’s wife Mary. It is an interesting take on their long-term friendship and collaboration, as Holmes has his sphere in which he is an acknowledged expert, but Watson also has his. And there are times when logic must defer to magic, no matter how much Holmes may scoff. He does not believe, but he has seen. And there have been multiple occasions where magic is the only answer left after he has eliminated the impossible.

This story takes place during Holmes’ hiatus after Reichenbach Falls, so his presence is very much on the QT, as that saying goes. He’s part of the story but neither the integral or central part, and that’s as it should be.

Because this is a case that is intimately steeped in magic. And in a peculiar way, it hearkens back to the original premise of this series, that of retelling fairy tales in a new and magical world.

The child who is missing, and spellbound, turns out to be a surprisingly rational and logical version of Gretel. Making her also missing, also spellbound, but ot nearly as mature or rational or logical little brother Hansel. (This is a series where the females often get top billing and solve the case – and so it proves here.)

It is up to non-magical but highly practical Gretel, really Helen Byerly, to figure out just how the extremely wicked witch was ensorcelling ALL the children, and escape to find help. Help in the form of Dr. John Watson, his wife Mary, Spirit Master Sarah Lyon-White and psychic Nan Killian, along with their foster daughter Suki and their highly intelligent birds Grey and Neville, sent to the “wilds” of Dartmoor by the Wizard of London to determine why so many children have gone missing in recent years – and why so little is being done about it.

While this case doesn’t wind up at Baskerville Hall – as I fully admit I was more than half expecting – it has every bit as as many twists, turns and surprises as Holmes’ and Watson’s more famous visit to the moor.

Escape Rating B+: If you look carefully at the background image in the book cover, you’ll recognize the silhouette of the famous detective, complete with pipe and just the suggestion of a deerstalker cap. It does lead one to believe that there will be more of Holmes than actually occurs in this case. On the other hand, there’s plenty of Watson, or rather, Watsons in this one, as the Wizard of London has tasked the Watsons with a case that he finds more important than the locals seem to.

After all, it’s obvious to him fairly early on that someone is kidnapping children with magical talent. While all that the locals notice is that the missing children are “not their kind” meaning either poor or members of the Travelers, and are therefore beneath society’s notice.

Everyone involved, the Watsons, Nan and Sarah, as well as Holmes (and the reader) are fairly incensed by that attitude and determined to do what they can to get to the bottom of it.

I found the case to be an intriguing one, as the perspective switches from the imprisoned children to the search for them and back again. In spite of the magic involved, the search is actually fairly straightforward, even if some of the means and methods are otherworldly. What tugs at the heart in this story is the plight of those children, trapped by chains of both metal and fear to serve as magical “batteries” for a hedge wizard who would be a bully with or without magic.

The character who really shines in this story is the non-magical but eminently practical and oh-so-brave Helen Byerly. She’s trapped with the others, chained by magic she doesn’t understand, and yet she still finds a way to improve conditions for everyone she takes under her care – and reasons her way to an escape that has a chance of freeing them all. The story may focus on the Watsons and the other masters and magic users, but Helen is the real hero of the tale.

And I always love seeing a smart girl participate in her own rescue!

Review: The Bartered Brides by Mercedes Lackey

Review: The Bartered Brides by Mercedes LackeyThe Bartered Brides by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy
Series: Elemental Masters #13
Pages: 320
Published by DAW Books on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The thirteenth novel in the magical alternate history Elemental Masters series continues the reimagined adventures of Sherlock Holmes in a richly-detailed alternate Victorian England.

The threat of Moriarty is gone--but so is Sherlock Holmes.

Even as they mourn the loss of their colleague, psychic Nan Killian, medium Sarah Lyon-White, and Elemental Masters John and Mary Watson must be vigilant, for members of Moriarty's network are still at large. And their troubles are far from over: in a matter of weeks, two headless bodies of young brides wash up in major waterways. A couple who fears for their own recently-wedded daughter hires the group to investigate, but with each new body, the mystery only deepens.

The more bodies emerge, the more the gang suspects that there is dangerous magic at work, and that Moriarty's associates are somehow involved. But as they race against the clock to uncover the killer, it will take all their talents, Magic, and Psychic Powers--and perhaps some help from a dearly departed friend--to bring the murderer to justice.

My Review:

The Bartered Brides is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, as was last week’s Mycroft and Sherlock. But in spite of the two stories having more or less the same starting point, the Holmes canon, they couldn’t be any more different in tone or even genre.

Mycroft and Sherlock was a fairly straightforward, albeit excellent, historical mystery. The Bartered Brides on the other hand puts Sherlock Holmes in the midst of a Victorian urban fantasy. This is a world in which magic explicitly works, although most people, including Holmes himself, are at best reluctant to believe in it.

Just because Holmes doesn’t believe in magic doesn’t mean that magic doesn’t believe in him. Particularly in the person of Dr. John Watson, Sherlock’s chronicler and partner-in-solving-crime. Because Watson is an Elemental Water Master who solves cases that go where Holmes mostly refuses to tread.

Although for a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, Holmes himself is conspicuously absent for most of this story. The Bartered Brides takes place at a well-known point in the official Holmes canon, after the events of Reichenbach Falls, where Holmes and Moriarty both fell to their purported deaths. And before the events of The Empty House where Holmes returns, not from death after all, but from a long sojourn around the world recovering from his wounds and mopping up the remainders of Moriarty’s criminal organization.

Unlike in the canon, Watson at least, as well as his wife Mary, know that Holmes is alive and on the hunt. Which means that they are also aware that Moriarty’s henchmen in London might very well be hunting them.

But in the meantime, Lestrade is desperate. He does not know that Holmes is still alive. All he knows is that the headless corpses of young women are washing up on the banks of the Thames. He is out of his depth – not atypical for Lestrade. But this case feels weird – and it is – so he calls in his best Holmes substitute, Dr. John Watson and the two young women who assist him with his magical cases, psychic Nan Killian and medium Sarah Lyon-White.

When even their best isn’t good enough, they consider dropping the case. Until an emergency meeting with Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, representing Her Majesty’s government and Lord Alderscroft, and leader of London’s Elemental Masters convinces them to stay on the case.

They are both certain that this isn’t the usual kind of serial killer at work. Instead, this series of crimes looks like it’s right up the darker alleys of elemental mastery. Alderscroft in particular is beginning to believe that an Elemental Spirit Master has gone to the bad. And if there’s someone in London dabbling in the foul waters of necromancy he needs to get it stopped.

Nan and Sarah are also right. It would be too much like a bad farce for there to be both a gang of Moriarty’s henchmen out committing evil AND a gang of necromancer’s assistants out doing evil at the same time – even in a city as big as London.

But what could one have to do with the other?

Escape Rating B+: This is a fun book and has become a fun series. Originally the Elemental Masters series seemed to revolve around reworkings of classic fairy tales across various points in time where magic users who were masters of their particular elements were part of the reworking of the tales. And some entries in the series were better than others.

But a few books ago the author moved from reworking fairy tales to dealing with one legendary character in particular. In A Study in Sable she introduced her own versions of Holmes, Watson and the rest of the Baker Street crew. Sherlock was still very much his extremely rational self, but the Watson of this series is very different. His water mastery makes him much closer to Holmes’ equal, albeit in a different sphere. He also has allies and resources of his own separate from Holmes.

This redirection of the series really zings! It can also be read without reading the Elemental Masters series as a whole by starting with either A Study in Sable or an earlier volume which serves as a kind of prequel, The Wizard of London, which introduces the characters of Nan and Sarah as well as Lord Alderscroft, the titular “Wizard”.

The criminal conspiracies in this story do reduce to Occam’s Razor. Two separate gangs doing this much damage would be too much. It is a surprise however to see just how the one set of evil relates to the other – and they are both definitely very evil.

The truth about the headless corpses and their evil purpose will chill readers right down to the bone. As will the mastermind’s methods of obtaining them, which spotlights just how disposable working class women, especially young women, were at this point in history, as well as just how pervasive racial prejudices were at the time.

What makes this subseries so much fun is, of course, the cast of characters. The varying perspectives of this Watson with more agency, his equally powerful wife Mary, and the two young women who are determined to make an independent go of their world lets us see this version of Victorian London from it’s highest pinnacles to very nearly its lowest depths through the eyes of very sympathetic characters.

The villain in this case is deliciously and despicably evil, and we are able to see just enough of his horrible machinations to learn what he’s up to and to wholeheartedly concur with him receiving his just desserts.

This version of Victorian London is fascinating and magical, in both senses of the word. I hope we have plenty of return visits to look forward to!

Review: A Study in Sable by Mercedes Lackey

Review: A Study in Sable by Mercedes LackeyA Study in Sable (Elemental Masters #11) by Mercedes Lackey
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Elemental Masters #11
Pages: 313
Published by DAW on June 7th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Psychic Nan Killian and Medium Sarah Lyon-White—along with their clever birds, the raven Neville and the parrot Grey—have been agents of Lord Alderscroft, the Elemental Fire Master known as the Wizard of London, since leaving school. Now, Lord Alderscroft assigns them another commission: to work with the famous man living at 221 Baker Street—but not the one in flat B. They are to assist the man living in flat C. Dr. John Watson and his wife Mary, themselves Elemental Masters of Water and Air, take the occult cases John’s more famous friend disdains, and they will need every skill the girls and their birds can muster!

Nan and Sarah’s first task: to confront and eliminate the mysterious and deadly entity that nearly killed them as children: the infamous Haunt of Number 10 Berkeley Square. But the next task divides the girls for the first time since they were children. A German opera star begs Sarah for help, seeking a Medium’s aid against not just a single spirit, but a multitude. As Sarah becomes more deeply entwined with the Prima Donna, Nan continues to assist John and Mary Watson alone, only to discover that Sarah’s case is far more sinister than it seems. It threatens to destroy not only a lifelong friendship, but much, much more.

My Review:

I read A Study in Sable AFTER I finished A Scandal in Battersea. That’s definitely the wrong order. But A Scandal in Battersea served as a marvelous reintroduction for this reader to the Elemental Masters series. So marvelous, in fact, that when I closed that book I grabbed as much of the series as I could from various libraries and immediately started on A Study in Sable, order be damned.

I’m very glad I did.

With the exception of the villains, the cast of characters is the same between the two books. Our heroines are the psychic Nan Killian, Sarah Lyon-White the medium, their extremely intelligent and protective birds, and the famous Dr. John Watson and his wife Mary, elemental masters of water and air, respectively.

And as deeply involved as ever in the life and casework of that most rational of men, Sherlock Holmes.

Just as in A Scandal in Battersea, the focus here is on the magic that functions in this slightly alternative version of our own world. But as in Scandal, a case that at first seems to rest entirely in the magical realm that Holmes refuses to believe exists, turns out to have so many potential effects on his rational universe that he finds himself involved in spite of himself.

Such is the case of A Study in Sable. A celebrated German opera singer – definitely not Irene Adler – is under siege by hordes of ghosts while she performs in London. She hires Sarah for her mediumistic talents, but unlike most of the people who hire either Sarah or Nan, makes it clear that ONLY Sarah’s presence is welcome, and that Nan is something less than the mud she scrapes off her expensive boots.

At first, Sarah is happy for the money, and feels duty bound to help the spirits “cross over”, but looks forward to the end of her task. But as the horde of ghosts seems to be nowhere near diminishing, Nan and Sarah’s bird Grey discern that Sarah seems to be falling under the sway of the opera singer, in a way that is not natural.

As Sarah’s natural enjoyment of the luxurious setting morphs into a kind of desperate, personality-altering hero-worship, Nan moved from being mildly jealous to seriously alarmed – and that is the point where the Watsons, and eventually Holmes, are drawn in.

The question is whether even their combined powers will be enough to draw Sarah out from under the spell before it is too late.

Escape Rating A-: I had every bit as much fun with this one as with A Scandal in Battersea. However, if you are coming to these fresh, start with Sable. The two stories flow together extremely well when read in the correct order.

Although there are no steampunk elements in these books, the way that this alternate Victorian and early 20th century England seems to function, along with its blend of magic and “normal” life, reminds me even more strongly of Cindy Spencer Pape’s excellent – but seemingly complete – Gaslight Chronicles.

But the story in A Study in Sable rests very much on the strength of its characters – particularly in this case the character of Nan Killian. She and Sarah are independent young women, who are partners in their independence but not romantic partners. At the same time, romance seems to be far from either of their current horizons. And I like that – that these young women are making identities for themselves and neither expecting nor even thinking that romance will solve things for them.

This book is particularly Nan’s show, as Sarah is increasingly not herself as the story progresses. We feel for Nan as she watches in horror as the friendship that has sustained both her and Sarah unravels under the influence of the supernaturally charismatic opera singer.

It is also fun to see a version of Dr. John Watson where he is definitely Holmes’ equal. Their spheres of talent and influence are different, but Watson in this series is a master in his own right, and never kowtows to the sometimes imperious and always self-absorbed Holmes.

The case in Sable is one where Holmes’ seemingly mundane missing persons’ case draws inevitably towards Watson’s case of malign psychic influence and Sarah’s never-ending ghostly horde. When the separate strands merge, the whole story makes wonderfully blinding sense.

I’m very glad I decided to delve into the world of the Elemental Masters. I’ll be back!

Review: A Scandal in Battersea by Mercedes Lackey

Review: A Scandal in Battersea by Mercedes LackeyA Scandal in Battersea (Elemental Masters, #12) by Mercedes Lackey
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Elemental Masters #12
Pages: 310
Published by DAW Books on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The twelfth novel in Mercedes Lackey's magical Elemental Masters series reimagines Sherlock Holmes in a richly-detailed alternate 20th-century England

Christmas is a very special time of year. It is special for Psychic Nan Killian and Medium Sarah Lyon-White and their ward Suki, who are determined to celebrate it properly. It is special for their friends, Doctor John Watson, and his wife Mary, both Elemental Masters, who have found great delight in the season seeing it through young Suki’s eyes.

It is also special to others...for very different reasons.

For Christmas Eve is also hallowed to dark forces, powers older than mankind, powers that come awake on this, the Longest Night. Powers best left alone. Powers that could shake the foundations of London and beyond.

It begins slowly. Women disappearing in the dark of night, women only missed by those of their own kind. The whispers only begin when they start to reappear—because when they do, they are no longer sane. And when Nan and Sarah and the Watsons are called on to examine these victims, they discover that it was no ordinary horror of the streets that drove them mad.

But then, the shadows reach for other victims—girls of good, even exalted families, who vanish from concerts, lectures, and evening balls. And it will take the combined forces of Magic, Psychic Powers, and the worlds greatest detective to stop the darkness before it can conquer all.

My Review:

A Scandal in Battersea is the 12th book in Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series. I read the earliest books in the series long ago, probably when they were published in the mid-1990s. It doesn’t seem as if one needs to have read the whole series to get into this particular entry in it, although now that I’m diving back into the whole thing, it looks like A Study in Sable is more of a direct prequel to A Scandal in Battersea than any of the other books.

The original premise of the Elemental Masters series was to re-tell well-known fairy tales in a late Victorian/early-20th century alternate universe where magic works and is divided into at least four main branches representing the classic “elements” of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. But other forms of “magic” were introduced in later stories, notably telepathy and other ESPer powers, and the mediumistic power to communicate with spirits.

Over time, the series morphed into a single world, with some semi-continuing characters, including many of the protagonists in A Scandal in Bohemia – notably our main characters. John Watson (yes, that John Watson) is a Water Master, his wife Mary is an Air Master, while Nan Killian is a Psychic and Sarah Lyon-White is a medium.

It takes all of their combined powers, plus the rational mind of Sherlock Holmes, to solve this case. It all begins with a young woman having visions of a ruined London where a tentacled monster sucks people into itself, never to be seen again. While traditional medicine believes that the poor girl is mad, Dr. John Watson is all too aware that she might be sane – and psychic, warning of evil on the horizon.

And so it proves. Someone, some idiot, is calling up a power that he does not understand, in the belief that it will give him earthly power and vast wealth. And power. Lots and lots of power. All he has to do is sacrifice a few virgins to its ever-growing hunger.

Of course it all goes wrong. Bargains with demons, devils and otherworldly creatures of shadow never go well, at least not for the human bargainer. Plus, (or minus, depending on on your perspective) sometimes the monster gets out.

In order to keep this monster from getting out, every person and creature that our heroes can find on the side of the light, or even just on the side of keeping our world for us, wades into the fray.

And it might not be enough.

Escape Rating A-: For a book with Sherlock Holmes on the cover, where the title is a direct reference to one of the canonical stories, there just isn’t enough Holmes in this book. In the end, I had an absolutely marvelous time with this book and with this world, to the point where I ran out and picked up as many of the previous entries in the series as I could borrow from libraries, but there’s not enough Holmes to justify its description as, or to satisfy my yen for, yet another version of the logical, rational Holmes finding his way in a magic-working world.

But if you are looking for a version of Victorian London where magic works and where the cast of characters is both diverse and endlessly fascinating, you’ll love A Scandal in Battersea. That the main characters are a pair of independent young women and their intelligent birds just adds to the fun.

If you like this concept of a magical, or at least slightly alternate, Victorian London, the setting of A Scandal in Battersea reminded me quite favorably of Cindy Spencer Pape’s Gaslight Chronicles. And since I loved that series and it seems to have ended, it is very nice to find something that reminds me of it quite so strongly.

And if the monster in A Scandal in Battersea gives you the shivers as much as it did me, take a look at A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman (included in his collection Fragile Things, which is a pastiche where Sherlock Holmes’ London intersects with the Cthulhu Mythos, with predictably creepy results. I include this reference because the descriptions of the monster that they have to fight struck me as Cthulhu’s cousin. A reference that left me appropriately creeped out.

As much as I missed Holmes until his appearance at the ¾ mark, I had a great time with this book and could not put it down. I enjoyed this world so much that I immediately picked up an earlier book in the series, A Study in Sable, which introduces readers to Holmes, Watson and Mary Watson in what looks to be a kind of prequel to A Scandal in Battersea.

I’m charmed and enchanted all over again.