Conversation Post: the ethics of medicine, power, and land ownership in Owlsight by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon #ReadingValdemar

Jackie: Is this really our second-to-last discussion post? Where did the time go?! But I digress. This month we read Owlsight, the second book in the Owl Mage trilogy aka Darian’s Story. I found it was much easier for me to get lost in Owlsight than Owlflight.

The introduction of Keisha as a character drew me in instantly. I was so excited to have a new female protagonist that I just dove right in. I enjoy how practical and “normal” she is as a community member in this changing Valdemar. Did you find Keisha to be engrossing, too?

Keisha from the cover of Owlknight

Melanie: I did enjoy Keisha, but I thought her character could be all over the place, too. Sometimes she was highly confident, but then there was a seven page stretch in which she doubted and whined that put me off. It was the only such case in the whole novel, though.

She also compares herself to her sister, at one point saying they look incredibly similar and then noting her sister is loved by all village boys, which is typically a trope for a spoiled pretty girl. But, the sister is described by Keisha as the nicest person while she thinks she herself is both cold and shy. But she has friends and family that love her. I couldn’t always reconcile the way Keisha and her sister were compared. 

I was intrigued by her choice to forgo proper training and stay in Errold’s Grove. If she left the village for Valdemar and healer’s training at the collegium, she’d be gone for years, leaving Errold’s Grove with no healer. The way she made it work with monthly visits from the healer occupying a nearby keep was a good compromise, and I liked the way it introduced ethical questions. Would you choose a lightly trained doctor who is good at the basics over one who had done their whole degree and internship?

Ethics come up again when we learn that the true villain of the novel — contagious disease — could affect everyone. Should the healer’s risk their lives to save the vagabonds? Would disease come to k’Valdmar via airborne pathogens anyway?

Darian and Kuari

Jackie: I deeply connected with how Keisha views herself. She expected the world to view herself as she did. Lackey and Dixon made that very clear with all the moments when Keisha doubted herself, compared herself to others in a way that put her down, etc. But they also proved that how Keisha saw herself isn’t truly how the world saw her. As a character, she needed to come into herself and properly grow up. Keisha literally left home and became an adult in this novel. I loved it.

That said… the execution wasn’t perfect. The seven pages of doubt and whining could have been shortened, and we could have experienced more external comparisons where Keisha interpreted an interaction incorrectly. Keisha had to come to love and respect herself before she could see that others loved and respected her.

Image by artist Larry Dixon

Plus, she’s what, fifteen? Of course, she thinks she isn’t pretty or well-loved if no boys are fawning after her! This is a village where your only job is to get married and have babies. It’s hard to break that mold.

The focus on ethical questions and answers are really inspiring. I found myself pondering these questions long after I had closed the pages of this book. Most fantasy has stark black-and-white views of good and evil, right and wrong — decisions are so easily made and it’s very clear what “side” these decisions fall upon. I enjoy the grey elements Lackey and Dixon have introduced.

In fact, I wish they had explored more deeply these grey elements. Not only those about healing but about refugees, community, responsibility, accountability, ownership, and power. Is the Mayor responsible for sharing all the information he receives from the Tayledreas? Why? Who owns the land at the edges of Valdemar, and how are those stakes reinforced? If they aren’t, what does that mean for ownership? So many questions! Each of these concepts was touched on in some way, but few explored as deeply as those ethical questions related to healing. 

Melanie: Keisha is actually seventeen, very close in age to Darian. Given the medieval feel to the Valdemar series setting and the culture of these border towns (patriarchal, everyone’s an “adult” younger than we would tolerate), I think she’s grown in status, but still has a case of the teen doubts.

Good conversation.

However, you’ve brought up a point that I hadn’t considered, and it ties into psychology: we think people are looking at us and thinking about it all the time. I know that it’s called “the spotlight effect” by some psychologists. Thus, the way Keisha views herself is projected onto others, but she also thinks people are watching and judging her for her simplistic appearance, less-than-bouncy personality, and single status.

I love all the ideas you’ve come up with in your list of ethical concerns, and you’ve reminded me that in the Owl Mage books (so far), Queen Selenay of Valdemar doesn’t look as fair and rosy as she typically does because we discover that these border villages are largely ignored by the crown. Very few resources, monetary or in the form of Heralds, are spent on places like Errold’s Grove. Once k’Valdemar is created and the crown notices, nearby Errold’s Grove starts to prosper.

I think there are some ethical issues there, ones that I appreciate because it makes the Heralds look less perfect, which I know was something that annoyed us both. Book three, Owlknight, picks up two years later in Darian’s and Keisha’s lives, and I think some of our questions about ethical dilemmas will be addressed (*plot twist* I’ve started Owlknight).

Jackie: Well then. I don’t know why I thought Keisha was so young! Silly me. 

I didn’t know “The Spotlight Effect” had a name! How cool. I know I’m still affected by it, most often at work, so it was reassuring to me to see Keisha struggle with things I am struggling with. This is one of the key reasons I’m so hard on myself. And, I believe, why Keisha was so hard on herself as well.

I can super excited to start Owlknight! I was waiting until we finished this conversation so I wouldn’t actually give anything away. We’ve read so many books I’m starting to find the specific details from book to book are blurring together. We’re about to start our FINAL #ReadingValdemar book. This has been one wild ride. Thank you for letting me join you on this journey, Melanie. Now, on to Owlknight!

Melanie: Looooves you.

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