Adding a co-author, and what it means to label books when you can’t label the character — a #ReadingValdemar conversation post

Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku and I are on the last trilogy of the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey. Well, the last trilogy that we plan to read in 2019. There are still several more. In this, THE OWL MAGE trilogy, Lackey added a co-author in husband Larry Dixon. Did having a wingman (hahaha, owl pun) make a discernible change in the first book, Owlflight? Also, Jackie and I seem to be having different reactions to the novels as we’ve moved forward in the year, so we wanted to discuss that too. Lastly, it’s always fun to think about what our expectations are for the rest of the trilogy we just started.

Did you notice anything different about Owlflight knowing this book is co-authored by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon?

Melanie: I had a much easier time remembering each character, so I wonder if Dixon had something to do with that. In the previous few trilogies, I could easily mix up main characters, including one whom I had enjoyed even earlier in the series when they were new and more clearly written with specific character traits. Thus, I think Lackey had too much bouncing around in her head and needed someone to check her writing. I would think an editor would do that, but perhaps it’s hard to tell one of fantasy’s most popular authors to try again.

Jackie: I agree. The named characters all have distinct, unique personalities in this book, unlike some of the previous books we’ve read. Chalk one for Dixon! For me, the biggest difference has to do with pacing. Owlflight spends a lot of time in Darian’s head in the beginning. This didn’t have the same feeling as the previous Valdemar novels we have read. While yes, we have spent many hours in the heads of our narrators, never did the pacing feel so wrong. There was a lot of repetition and reinforcement of concepts I didn’t need as a reader. To me, Darian’s character felt different from all the other Valdemar characters thus far. And in my brain, I attribute that to Dixon. Who knows how right or wrong I might be. So, Dixon 1, Lackey 1. Perfect.

What did you learn about Owlflight when reading the other person’s review?

Jackie: I didn’t realize that Lackey and Dixon are trained to care for birds of prey! That’s a neat tidbit I picked up from your review, Melanie. I know this will change how I read the passages about the bond birds in the future. There were some moments when I was reading and I thought to myself, “Wow, this is a lot of detail about bird interactions. I wonder how real this all is?” Turns out it’s all super real! I like this, as it reinforces the importance of these characters. Lackey and Dixon must really know their birds of prey to show such differences between the species, as well. 

Melanie: While I know that all labels are things we invent, Jackie, your review made me think more about who the target audience for a book is. Lackey is never categorized as anything but adult fantasy in bookstores and the library, but you felt that Owlflight belonged in middle grade reading. Because labels are subjective, I don’t disagree with you, but my brain asked a lot of questions afterward: did the Harry Potter series raise our expectations for how long or challenging a middle grade novel can be? Are all books that avoid violence and strong language and feature a character aged 11-13 considered middle-grade appropriate? Should libraries include copies of Lackey in the youth section? I used to just go with whatever the publisher or library said about labels, but I learned recently that some libraries categorize all books by and starring African American characters as “urban fiction.” Which, you know, is a racist assumption about the lives of black people. Urban fiction is typically considered African American stories set in cities and focus on relationships and seedy dealings, and include lots of sex, swearing, and violence. However, it was originally a wider term that captured fiction set in the squalid part of a city, including novels like Oliver Twist.

What do you look forward to the most as we continue this trilogy? 

Melanie: So far, every character we meet is pre-labeled. Herald, mage, Hawkbrother, Shin’a’in, Karsite, etc. Yet, Darian comes from nowhere and is adopted into a new way of life with two different groups, a village and a tribe. He’s not even half one group and half the other — we know little about his parents, who seemed different from the other villagers, so we have no clues about potential labels other than “villagers.” And I’m not even sure his parents were that, as they hunted in a haunting forest in which no one else would enter. What made them so brave? Who are they? Because Darian has no roots story and is the right age for a bildungsroman tale, he’s pretty blank thus far, so I have no predictions for who he’s going to be as an adult, or where he’ll end up. Thus far, we have few references to Heralds, and I’m not even sure if he’ll be interacting with them, which has me intrigued.

Jackie: Oooh, good points! I would be really interested in a story with few to no Heralds after the last few trilogies we’ve read.

I greatly appreciated that Owlflight did not have a “big bad” that will follow us throughout the rest of the series. I like that we were able to focus on Darian and his personal concerns. I am hopeful that throughout the next two books we continue this singular focus on Darian. Yes, I want to know more about what it means to be an adopted Hawkbrother and I’m certain we’ll learn more about this strange magical terraforming, but I like the simplicity of a series just focused on the growth and development of one man. One man’s actions can have huge ripple effects, as we saw earlier with Vanyel. Perhaps Darian will be similar!

Melanie: I also enjoyed how Vanyel’s journey throughout THE LAST HERALD-MAGE trilogy didn’t have a “big bad” that Vanyel obsessed over. Yes, he dreamt about this villain for all three books, but we didn’t wallow in the bad guy’s thoughts for three books. I enjoy smaller battles in Lackey’s writing and find myself more interested when there’s an action sequence. I loved that about Owlflight, too.

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