Foundation by Mercedes Lackey #ReadingValdemar

Ever since I shared the 2021 announcement post for #ReadingValdemar, I’ve been pondering how I might do my reviews differently. On the one hand, you could start Lackey’s Valdemar books anywhere and figure things out. On the other hand, the first series for 2021, The Collegium Chronicles, doesn’t have as much detail about the system of magic. So, who is the audience for these reviews? Likely, anyone who has read a Valdemar book before. Thus, I’m changing up my review style a bit for #ReadingValdemar 2021 to be more inclusive.

Synopsis

Foundation opens with Mags, a thirteen-year-old slave who mines for gems. His ability to spot the tiniest fleck of gem gave him the nickname “Magpie,” and eventually just “Mags.” He doesn’t know his given name, nor does he know much about his parents other than they were of “bad blood” because they made their living illegally.

Rumor has it a strange white horse is attempting to enter the mine, a horse that is eventually accompanied by Valdemar guards. It is no horse, but a Companion who has Chosen Mags and can’t get to the boy. After Mags is removed from the mines and slavery, he lives at a guard post until he is strong enough to travel the seven days to Valdemar’s capital, Haven. Having been starved and denied medical attention his entire life, Mags is in poor shape.

When we get to Haven, readers may be surprised to learn how disorganized Herald training is. About fifty years after the time of Herald-Mage Vanyel, the setting is different from what readers may expect if they’ve read books like The Mage Storms trilogy, which is a more recent time period. Herald trainees were not attending classes, they were paired one-on-one with a full Herald to learn the business of keeping peace, enforcing justice, and defending Valdemar.

For reasons unknown — but that suggest a war may be approaching — more Herald trainees are being Chosen than there are current Heralds to train them. The decision is made to build a collegium to teach Herald trainees in the classroom, just like their Healer and Bard counterparts. The decision to change training tactics that have been used for hundreds of years causes a rift among Heralds, some of who mutter about it and others who harass the newly Chosen trainees in anger.

highs & lows

I enjoyed the slow pace and descriptive settings of Foundation. We’re given a clear sense of how the slaves in the mine are abused and what it looks like there, so it makes sense that Mags still has triggers after he’s removed from the mines. His flinches and guilt and fear all make sense for his former environment, and must be unlearned while he makes sense of trust and friendship. Lackey does not rush this. Typically, one chapter tells readers a young teen is living poorly before he/she is swept off directly to the capital where the youngster bemoans his/her awkwardness compared to more established youth and is plagued with doubt for an annoying amount of time. Lackey avoids that in Foundation and instead focuses on character development.

Mags’s friendship with the Bard trainee Lena is heartwarming in its simplicity. She shares the tragic tale of her dead pet rabbit (which she has at the collegium because she hasn’t any friends), and Mags’s Companion, Dallen, lets Lena ride him. The two hit it off fast and strong, reminding me of other great young friendships, like Anne Shirley and Diana (Anne of Green Gables) or Sara Crewe and Becky (A Little Princess).

Even though he has triggers developed from a lifetime of abuse, Mags’s personality is respected. He isn’t pushed to do more than observe quietly at a fancy party in the capital, and he continues to appreciate that he has food and shelter, which is more than he’d ever hoped for. The wealth gap in Foundation is obvious when it’s reflected through Mags’s experiences (and made more painful given the extreme wealth vs. poverty in the U.S., especially during the pandemic).

Check out Jackie’s review at Death by Tsundoku and Kim’s review at Traveling in Books.

exploration of reading preferences

For a fantasy novel, there is little action or impressive fantastical elements in Foundation thus far. Yes, the Companions are spirits that use white horse bodies as avatars, but because they’re so common to the Valdemar series, they don’t feel as fantastical as magic, manipulating mind Gifts in unique ways, or the demon creatures we’ve encountered in previous Valdemar books. Mostly, we’re getting to know an abused human being as he explores the comfort, security, and companionship most people take for granted. As such, Foundation is more about character development in a genre known for action and travel.

discussion question

Are you willing to read a genre book that is mostly about character development rather than the key ingredients that make the genre what it is? For instance, will you read a romance without a “big misunderstanding”? Fantasy without magic and a journey? Horror without an obvious monster/villain? Let me know about books you’ve read that are more character-driven as an exception to what is commonly expected for the genre in which the book was written.

23 comments

    • I’m hoping we get more spy stuff in the same vein as Alberich in his books. I loved reading about his disguises and personas and the way he’d trick people by memorizing books he was holding as part of his costume in case they suspected he was spying.

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  1. I was going to join y’all in this…and I got to about page 8 and rolled my eyes (the bit about sex and the woman just has to lay there lol) and gave it a few more and decided I wasn’t in the mood/this won’t help my reading slump! 😦
    But I’ll still follow along.

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    • It definitely trends to YA, and Jackie argues its even closer to middle grade, so if you’re not in the mood for that, it definitely won’t help your reading slump! Plus, Lackey always has some weird sexual nonsense where it just straight-up isn’t needed. The focus is the mine slaves; why add in that the owner’s sons are forcing themselves on kitchen maids?

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  2. I’ve been reading ‘hard’ SF for a long time now, and for years we didn’t learn much more about a character than was necessary to drive the action (and pick the goodies from the baddies). Sex when it occurred was so badly done that it were better not done at all.
    It is only in ‘recent’ years – a relative term when you’re my age – that (some) guy writers have begun including realistic character and relationship development. I’m thinking of William Gibson and Ian M Banks for instance. Womens SF was always a bit different (and better) and of course Le Guin and Lessing were titans and without them I’d probably still be a geek.
    I’ve read yours and Kim’s reviews, Jackie’s I will get to, and Kim in particular was concerned that NOTHING HAPPENED (and that Lackey was retreading old, muddy ground). What is my position? I want there to be character development but probably in the context of some sort of plot.

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    • Bill, I’m sure I read this comment at some point, but I don’t know what happened with my comment. Perhaps I read your comment at work, got busy, and never replied. I apologize for that! Lately, I have been seeing a lot done with character-drive science fiction novels. Martha Wells, Becky Chambers, and Mary Robinette Kowal all come to mind. I absolutely see these as being authors you would enjoy, as they write believable science fiction with a look at the human condition.

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  3. Ooh, great discussion Q! I am now wondering what would make a book qualify as a part of its genre if it lacks the expected tropes/techniques of that genre… what would make a fantasy a fantasy without the magic, for example? I often turn to genre fic expecting an emphasis on plot, but I do think that genre fiction can be stronger with solid character work behind it- do you think Foundation is just setting up the stage for heavier magic and plotting going forward? First-in-a-series world-building books are the only examples that come immediately to mind for me for fantasy books that are light on magic and heavier on character dynamics or the mechanics of the world- Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Iron Gold by Pierce Brown… even Game of Thrones doesn’t really have a lot of magic in it, especially in the first book we’re reading rather for world, politics, and character. I can’t think of any standalone fantasies that are devoid of magic in that way, though I do tend to enjoy when a magical or horror or sci-fi element is used as a sort of vehicle for social commentary even if it’s not very interesting magic/horror/sci-fi in its own right; so I suppose I do agree that there are cases where a genre book can be worthwhile even if it doesn’t follow the expected rules and tropes. It might be harder to find the right audience for those books though, as genre readers tend to have expectations of what they’re going to find within that genre, I think.

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    • The first book that comes to mind is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. You go in, forewarned that it’s Gothic horror, and likely come away surprised that not much horrifying happens. It’s more like a character study of women who are relegated to domestic care work (Eleanor cared for her invalid mother until the mother died, yet was harassed by her sister and brother-in-law for being selfish and wanting a vacation) and not allowed to dream.

      When I was reading Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey (I didn’t finish), I wondered to what extent the tropes of a Western shaped the book vs. teaching readers about how to respect folks who are LGBTQ.

      Lastly, when I recently read The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier, it had me once again wondering if we should even call time travel books science fiction if there isn’t some big machine developed in the story (not off page) that makes bzzz bzzz sounds and eventually breaks and scares the crap out of the time travelers. The House on the Strand was more about one man’s interest in other people’s relationships, causing him to distance himself from his own.

      It is possible that Foundation is absolutely there as a “foundation” to the series. This bundle is five books rather than the standard three for Valdemar, so perhaps Lackey gave herself more space to build characters. As a result, even though Mags is familiar to readers because he’s so similar to other protagonists before him, he feels more interesting to me because I have a better sense of the reasoning behind his thinking.

      Your point about Game of Thrones is interesting, but surprising; I didn’t know you’d read them!

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      • Haunting of Hill House is a great example- I was thinking too much along fantasy lines perhaps, but I have to agree I was surprised that Hill House was more psychological than really scary (though I did like it in the end).

        Your comment about Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted reminds me of Stephen King’s Elevation, which had so little of the sci-fi/horror and so much “how to accept that lesbians are real people too” storyline, which frustrated me in the same way Gilbert Grape frustrated me.

        Interesting point with House on the Strand- I usually do consider time travel books sci-fi, but now that I think about it I wouldn’t consider something like The Time Traveler’s Wife as sci-fi. It doesn’t necessarily need to have the bzz bzz machine to sell me, but I think for me it depends on whether the time travel is an investigation into how the world works and what our place is in it, versus traveling to meet a lover or search family history without any interest in the actual mechanism. I haven’t read House on the Strand though so I’m not sure where that one would fall for me, it sounds like it might be somewhere in the middle.

        I’ve read three of the Game of Thrones books; I need to finish as I do have the other two, but it hardly feels like a priority now that I know the TV adaptation had a disappointing ending and the rest of the books are still who knows how far away, if they’re ever published at all. Still, being in the middle is part of what’s keeping me from reading more fantasy, so I should just finish up! Have you read the GOT books?

        Looking forward to following your reviews through the series, and seeing if Foundation really does turn out to be foundational! 🙂

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        • I have neither read nor watched GOT because I’ve heard too much about how rapey it is. I just can’t stomach movies, TV, or books in which a big part of what’s going on is controlling women’s bodies. It honestly freaks me out and affects my physically. For example, I’m listening to The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, which as domestic abuse and threats of abuse, and I’ve been SO ANGRY the whole 13+ hours I’ve been listening so far.

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          • Ah, for some reason I really seem to read a lot about sexual assault. I don’t think I actively seek it out but it comes up a lot in my reading and is definitely a topic that interests me even while I do find it infuriating. I really liked the atmosphere and sadness to The Great Alone, but I could definitely see finding it frustrating or claustrophobic if violence against women really gets under your skin while reading. With Game of Thrones the rape is mostly a background annoyance, not really a main plot point (at least in the books; I’ve been putting off watching the show), so I can hate the social world of the book and the author for including it where it’s not necessary, but I don’t find it as disturbing to read about rape in that way as in books that investigate the topic very seriously. For me GRRM’s rape scenes are like Stephen King’s offensive slurs and comments- they’re there and they’re bothersome but I’m willing to condemn those parts of their fiction while also finding other elements to enjoy. (Which isn’t to argue that everyone should do so, steering clear of content that’s painful is a good, healthy choice!)

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            • I believe there was a huge backlash against the GOT show because the writers/director actually added more rape than was in the books, and people wondered why. If I remember correctly, there was more sex in general added. Ew. Maybe stick to the books. I know GRRM has given some updates about how he’s plugging right along and that the show actually slowed him down and harmed his process.

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              • Ah, I’ve not watched very much of the GOT show yet and have been trying to avoid anything spoilery so I wasn’t really aware of that! That seems like such a poor choice, especially if there was already talk against the rape scenes before the show aired (which I’m not sure about but wouldn’t be surprised). What a gross direction to take the show in.

                Lol, as far as I’ve heard GRRM has admitted he’s plotted himself into a corner he hasn’t figured out how to write his way out of yet. I’m sure his work on the show slowed things down though so hopefully now that it’s finished he’ll be able to put his mind to it and make some progress. Although, now that I’m thinking about him working on the show, I’m wondering if he was part of the reason the show went in a more rapey direction? Hmmm.

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  4. I love that you point out this book is really about Mags’s transformation. Lackey does a wonderful job developing Mags throughout this book – she takes her time and acknowledges that he is an abuse survivor and includes some real PTSD moments. In fact, I hope that the effect of this trauma continues to appear in consecutive books. This is a 5 book series; I would love to see Mags need to take real time to resolve these issues. And I’m hopeful Lackey will do this as she has dropped a lot of hints we aren’t done with the mines…

    Books that focus on character development are my favorites, regardless of genre. For example, one of my favorite fantasy novels is The Goblin Emperor and that whole book is almost exclusively character development. But the difference I see with Foundation and most books that center on character development is that the character development of Mags isn’t progressing anything forward other than Mags himself. The Goblin Emperor focuses on character development essential to the plot. Foundation felt like just a preamble to what is to come.

    Not to say I didn’t enjoy reading it- because I definitely did. I just wanted to see more meaningful connections to what was happening in this book rather than breadcrumbs for the future. That said, Lackey did hook me and I cannot wait to keep reading this series. If it wasn’t for our planned review dates, I’d just binge read this series, I know it. XD

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  5. I absolutely love character-driven fiction. An example of character-driven fantasy that renewed my interest in the genre as an adult reader? Elizabeth Lynn’s Watchtower series. I know some people have found it a slow burn, and I can see where that’s true, but I really love it. I’m still trying to collect her in vintage paperback (as I think she might be O/P). The Title Foundation makes me think of Isaac Asimov’s series, which I found quite satisfying as a young sci-fi reader but didn’t enjoy as much later on. Have fun with your ongoing series read!

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    • I went through and read a bunch of reviews of the first book in the Watchtower series and had a good time with that. Readers write the funniest things, including one person who felt the book mentioned cats a lot but then failed to have the cats do anything “significant,” making the reader feel “betrayed.”

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