Herald Mags and King’s Own Herald Amily are finally married. Thanks to the unique nature of both their jobs — Mags as a spy and Amily as an advisor — they never leave the capitol for any wild adventures. But, trouble always finds them. Someone is delivering letters written in unidentifiable blocky handwriting, letters that either detail the receiver’s personal secrets (like cheating on one’s husband) or shame the receiver with messages about how weak and unwomanly she is, and that she should kill herself. That’s right, “she.” The sender — or senders — of the letters targets only women. If a woman deceives her husband, or has a job, or is a celibate nun who isn’t making babies, she is likely to be a target of these vile letters. The people on the case are the King and his circle of spies and advisors. They dub the letter writer “Poison Pen.”
HIGHS & LOWS
At first, I was dismayed that so much of Closer to the Chest is spent worrying about some mean letters. Lackey has the women who receive the letters “…cackling like a lot of frightened hens…,” and when Mags finds a woman who isn’t crying her eyes out over a nasty diatribe, he feels “relief not to see any weeping women.” Lackey is known for writing strong women, so all the running around and sobbing was just ridiculous. I hated it, especially because Lackey rarely details what’s in the letter. Granted, these books are geared toward young adults, but show me a teen who hasn’t read a horrible comment while trying to use the can in a public restroom, let alone from other teens. Make it hurt, Lackey! Otherwise, I didn’t quite get the fear everyone felt.
Another strategy would have been to give the receiver a chance to explain the consequences should the secret in a letter get out. Would it ruin her family name? Or her chances of marriage? Or, if she is married, would it hurt her children’s chances of successful marital alliances? Could she go to jail? Etc. In an effort to get some information out of the students and staff in the Heraldic, Bardic, and Healer Collegia who have received letters, Amily gathers the girls up in her room and gives them tea and cake to make them feel comfortable enough to talk about what their letters said. This type of coddling got under my skin, but perhaps Lackey chose to go this route because while Collegia students are trained in self-defense, the highborn are still the dithering idiots Medieval history told them to be.
Another point where I felt Lackey really hurt her own series, to an extent, was how the King’s group working on the Poison Pen problem felt that they had to be ethical in how they solved the crimes . . . to an extent. Mags, a powerful Mindspeaker, could look into anyone’s thoughts and discern who the villain is. However, not asking permission is considered unethical, so he does not. Thus, the plan is to ask all the highborn if Mags can sift through their minds. However, if someone says no, the plan is for the King to “politely suggest that anyone who doesn’t wish to cooperate should relocate. Far, far away. The Border [next to a neighboring country with which they are always at war], perhaps . . . Anyone who did would always be under suspicion, there would probably be a great deal of money spent making sure he lost every ally and friend he had, and so far he would be concerned his reign of terror [assuming the refuser is guilty!!] would be over since he would be under watch constantly.” Heralds are just people, but part of the deal with them being Chosen by Companions, spiritual avatars that look like white horses, is that each person Chosen to be a Herald has something special about him or her, something moral and good. Why scramble her own world building with coercion?
Just the other night Biscuit and I were talking about the U.S. court system. In an effort to prevent trials, which slows the justice process considerably, every effort is made for the defendant to take a plea deal. For instance, plead guilty and you’ll get 2-4 years and likely be out on good behavior in 1 year. Or, insist you are innocent, go to the trial, and risk a guilty verdict that puts you away for 10+ years. The entire thing is predicated on guilt. In the state of Michigan, Biscuit says, you can sit in a jail cell up to 180 days before your trial even starts.
Truth be told, while I had lots of “grrr” moments while reading Closer to the Chest, I did find myself getting lost in the book, as if I weren’t reading but really there with the characters. Part of that may be that Mags is now on his 8th book, so he’s quite familiar to readers. The more he’s the lead, he more I understand his psychology and relationships with other characters, and I quite like that. As I told Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku, I read the synopses for the next books in 2021 for #ReadingValdemar, and each sounds fantastic: Mags and Amily have three children, and each one gets his/her own book in the last trilogy. They have weird Gifts and go to odd places, and our beloved assassin cousin Bey comes back. Huzzuh!
What is the most ethically questionable thing you’ve read in a book, either fiction or nonfiction?
The entire time you read this book, Rush gets stuck in your head.
I will always be happy with Rush stuck in my head. All I have to do is read the title and it starts running through my head. ❤
Right?! And that happened to me over and over and over while I read this book.
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The poison pen letters sound nasty to me – I had experience with that at school and it was pretty horrible. It’s different to seeing a nasty comment about yourself on a toilet wall, because it means someone’s deliberately sought you out and has come into your space with the aim of hurting you. I think you must just be made of sterner stuff than the characters in the book! Though I agree that including the content of the notes would go some way towards establishing what it was that’s frightening people so much. One of my favourite mystery novels, Gaudy Night, uses a poison pen to great effect – the letters are used at an early women’s Oxford college and make all sorts of assertions about the “unnatural” nature of women academics, as well as rehashing whatever is most painful about the recipient’s personal life and blaming it on her. It’s been such a fight to get the college funded that all the women are afraid that senior management will get wind of the scandal and close the college down, on top of the upset of actually getting the note. So I think it can be an effective device, but it has to be presented with convincing stakes.
In terms of ethically questionable things in books, I’m assuming you mean behaviour that isn’t meant to be unethical? One of Asimov’s Robots books ends (spoiler alert) with the hero asking a robot with mind control powers to convince the woman this man has just broken up with to sleep with his rival, a man she has repeatedly turned down. It’s presented as “look how noble he is, he wants the woman whom he loves but can’t have to be happy!” It does not read that way.
I’m so sorry people wrote about you in school. I do recall a girl at my high school who somehow made herself the enemy of everyone, and thanks to computers recently being available in the home, some folks actually made a website devoted to how much they hated her. I think there are some writers who do bullying better, like Megan Abbott. Her books are cutting, and I would absolutely be terrified of a letter in one of her books.
Maybe I am made of sterner stuff, too? I recall learning that a bisexual girl had been picked on by a boy I knew, so I sought him out like a missile and basically said “DON’T” with the very threatening eyes my brother is known for. It worked.
For my discussion question, I was wondering if anyone had simply read something that would easily fit under the category of “that ain’t right,” as my people would say. Your example is even closer to what Lackey did in this book: they know its unethical but are twisting things so out of shape that they can convince themselves they’re being ethical.
This premise is so interesting sounding. Glad you found it so immersive ❤️. Most ethically challenging – well, you know I read a lot of thrillers and as a genre it’s all about ethical challenges. For me – I guess the hardest pill to swallow is being asked to sympathize with a character who commits adultery. Also a tough one is child kidnapping by a character who lost their own child and doesn’t have ill intent- they are suffering from a mental health disorder. My heart always goes out to them even though what they did was very wrong.
One of my followers has a very hard time with anything containing adultery because she’s been on the bad end of that before. For me, I find adultery incredible annoying and lazy. Just break up with one person and move on! I know it’s not that simple, though.
The child kidnapping one is so tough because the kidnapper can almost justify what they’re doing, even though it doesn’t make sense. I read Lucky Boy, which has not quite kidnapping, but it feels awfully close to it.
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Your point about ‘volunteer’ to let me read your mind or you will be banished reminds me of those small town rape cases where if a man doesn’t volunteer his DNA it is assumed he is guilty.
On your point about guilty pleas, an Australian in Guantanamo was told he would only be released if he pleaded guilty. But by doing so he gave up all avenues to clear his name.
I hadn’t even thought of how Guantanamo was so forceful about confessions. There was no such thing as innocence, and whenever I get stuck trying to remember how all that happened, I have to remind myself that Guantanamo is purposefully not located in the U.S.
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