Brightly Burning by Mercedes Lackey is one of those rare stand-alone novels from the Valdemar Universe. The only other is By the Sword. I find Lackey’s stand-alone novels to be more interesting, likely because she’s not bloating the story to turn into into three books. Instead of trilogies, Lackey could have made her novels more like Stephen King’s in which each book is its own entity, but characters from other novels may sneak in. Lackey could have made the protagonist in one novel who appears as a secondary or tertiary character in another.
Brightly Burning‘s contained story is about Lavan Chitward, a sixteen-year-old son of people in the fabric business. The Chitward children are expected to follow their parents’ professions, but Lavan just isn’t interested. At great cost, his father sends Lavan to a trade school where the teen is meant to discover what interests him so he can be apprenticed as soon as possible. But a greedy school master whose negligence allows the older students to bully people like Lavan sends our protagonist to the breaking point. Sudden intense headaches lay him up in bed, and his fever is outrageous — he even looks sun burned. When the bullies finally have Lavan cornered and alone, they discover the dragon Lavan didn’t know he possessed inside him, and how deadly it is when unleashed.
Enter Herald Pol, an unusual character for Lackey’s Valdemar books in that he is older (in his fifties) and still alive. He has no strong Gift, but a little bit of all the Gifts. Thus, when Lavan and his unique Firestarter Gift are discovered, he is taken to Herald Pol because there is no one else with this Gift who could train him. Soon after, Chosen by the Companion Kalira, Lavan develops his Gift to destroy arrows mid-flight, erect walls of fire, and ignite targets at great distance. Why is he being raced through his training and pushed by Pol? It can only mean that the war with Karse, a neighboring country of priests and sun worshipers that believes Companions are demons, is marching toward Valdemar.
Because Lavan is sixteen, he’s not so lost as younger protagonists in previous Valdemar novels. He’s old enough to be opinionated and a little defiant, yet recognizes that he’s growing up and needs to participate in society. It was a nice change to avoid a lead character who’s riddled with doubt and whines about it. For instance, after realizing he is the source of many deaths, caused unintentionally, Lavan decides firmly that he will not kill anyone, and no one can make him. If his new Gift is needed in the war with Karse, he can create fires to deter, not kill.
Training a Gift also takes less space on the page than training mage abilities. I’ve been worn out with mage characters because it seems that anything they want to do, they eventually can with magic. A Gift has limitations that create tension in the plot. Lavan can start and control fire; he can’t suddenly predict the future, or sway someone with empathy, or talk to animals because it suits the plot. In fact, in #ReadingValdemar we haven’t focused on a protagonist who isn’t a mage since By the Storm back in September 2019. Even then, there were some mages in the story. The only magic in Brightly Burning comes from Companions, who are pure white because they use magic energy — are magic energy — but their magic interferes with plot very little.
Another aspect nicely done is the setting of Brightly Burning. Valdemar’s capital was originally built with a design to slow invading forces. The city’s homes and businesses are erected along a spiral, reducing the number of enemy soldiers that fit on the road at one time and how quickly they can reach the palace. Lavan traverses this spiral a few times, and we even see how Valdemar’s capital has it’s underbelly of hired thieves and alleys down which people won’t traverse. While early in the series Heralds and Companions are portrayed as all goodness and Valdemar a place of peace, watching Heralds navigate the dangers of their own capital creates an authentic setting that reminds readers there is more to Herald life that settling spats after a bull impregnates a neighboring cow and the owners fight over the offspring.
Too, as Lavan and his party travel to the battle where Valdemar is at war with Karse, they pass highborn homes, places with history memorized by Bards, thatched-roof huts, fields with animals, and children playing. Entering the working class areas of Valdemar remind readers what Heralds are fighting for in the battle against Karse, and it’s bigger than simply protecting the crown. Because setting shapes characters, I felt more connected to Lavan and others through a clearly-written sense of place.
The only aspect of Brightly Burning that really honked my hooter was Lackey’s descriptions of women. This author is downright shallow in her writing. Good women are slender, trim, or fit. If they’re not those things, they’re lovable roly-poly mother figures we’re meant to like anyway. One woman who volunteered to help with the war is described as having a nose too big that keeps her from being pretty. And exactly what is a “big” nose, Ms. Lackey?
Up next is the Oathbound trilogy, one Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku and I are excited to get to. We got a taste of the main characters in By the Sword and are eager to learn more.
I am embarrassed to say I never noticed how Lackey treated women in this book. I’ve gotten used to Lackey’s stereotypical expectations of strength and beauty when it comes to her female characters. For a book series that has so many female protagonists, so many women saving themselves, I find Lackey’s writing to often be less feminist that I’d hoped. In fact, I noticed that when she started to pair with Dixon her writing made more of a shift towards the traditional roles/expectations/descriptions for most characters. Unclear if that’s his influence or an editor/publisher or what, but I’ve learned to let it go.
I like that you brought up the setting so much. You’re right — setting was very important to this book, unlike many others. No matter where Lavan was, the setting strongly influenced the outcomes. Whether he was trapped at home where he could hear all the servants from his poorly positioned bedroom, or he was strapped in a chair in front of a fireplace in the Merchant School, or he was confronted with open fires on a mostly baren hillside near the Karse border — setting was always key. I noticed this a bit when they were traveling, but now I feel like my eyes have opened wider to the role of setting in this book.
I’m with you on wanting more standalone novels. This and By the Sword are my two favorite Valdemar books. Perhaps Lackey is a stronger writer when she is focusing on shorter forms? We should read one of her short story collections next year and see what we think.
The short story collections are actually written by other authors and then edited by Lackey. Fan fiction!
I think the moment that made me decide to call out Lackey’s portrayal of women in this book was when she said the woman who volunteer to go to war with her father had a nose too big to let her be pretty. Now I know people have thoughts about their own noses and what size they should be, but noses are a big deal and made me think of the way people are “othered” by their noses.
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Wait. These are published collections of Lackey approved fan-fiction?! I didn’t realize such things even existed in the world! I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised. But wow. I definitely want to check a few stories out, though I don’t know I’ll read a whole collection if they aren’t written by Lackey…
I’m glad you called this out. I’ll be paying attention in our next trilogy to see how Lackey portrays women very closely — particularly since our protagonists come from very different cultures! I have a feeling this will be a relevant topic…
The surprising thing is Lackey edits these collections. There are a few listed on the Valdemar wikia. I half wonder if the stories would be even better than Lackey’s books because she has some room for improvement, but doesn’t seem to see where.
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I mean, I feel like at this point her editors aren’t pushing her all that hard, you know? Valdemar sells and that’s what matters!
Brightly Burning is the only Valdemar book that I’ve never reread. Tragic, tragic story.
The Valdemar anthologies have some great stories. Most are by professional fantasy writers. Lackey always has at least one story in each book. She has a few protégés whom she co-authors with. The stories are set all over Velgarth (the Valdemar world) and many of the authors write about the same characters in more than one volume. Like a traveling judge in Karse in one series, or a family of Watchmen in Haven, or a well-born widow who is becoming a Herald beside her teenaged children. I have some definite favorites! (Oddly, there were some serious editing and continuity errors in #13.)
There are some “lemons” among the good stories but I just skip them in a reread. There are 13 anthologies so far and #14 is coming out in November. I believe that they are not all considered “canon,” but many of the stories are about characters that would never fit into Lackey’s novels yet they say nothing that contradicts the established world. There’s several featuring Vanyel, by both Lackey and others, and one fills in a little detail mentioned in the Herald Mage series. (Trying hard to avoid spoilers. If you want to know more, email me privately.)
I hadn’t realized there were 13 anthologies. When I go to the Valdemar wiki page, it only mentions a couple. Jackie and I have always wondered why there are no novels that follow a bard! We’d both love to see this. We have ones about mages, heralds, healers, and gryphons, but no bards.