In The Hills Have Spies we followed Mags and Amily’s oldest child, Perry, outside of Valdemar’s borders to discover a cannibalistic mage kidnapping people and controlling (or eating) them. In Eye Spy our protagonist is their middle child, Abi. While she’s always felt something odd, Abi never thought she had a mind Gift like her brother or parents. But when Abi and Princess Kat are headed into town to fetch a specific food for the very pregnant Queen, that funny feeling roars down on Abi, making her aware the bridge they are on is going to collapse (see the cover below).
After some probing from an unlikely source — not a Herald, but a Healer — Abi learns she has a Gift that lets her feel stress in structures. Immediately, she’s entered into the Artificers, the students at the Collegium who study with Master Artificers who specialize in various structures: bridges, walls, dams, etc. The other students, all male and none Gifted, wonder if this new girl will cheat with her Gift while they’ve spent years studying.
HIGHS & LOWS
Although Eye Spy could easily be a total bildungsroman novel, Abi’s Gift and intense studies over three years move her quickly to her thesis, her Master project: to fix that damn bridge that nearly killed her, the one that everyone says shouldn’t have been built in that spot over the river in the first place but that city folks have come to rely on. But just as her plans have been approved and materials arrive, Abi chooses to leave with a delegation of Master Artificers. They’ve been asked specially to pose solutions to structural problems in several towns outside of Valdemar’s borders that are part of no country. Why? If these citizens are satisfied with what Valdemar can offer, they’ll agree to be absorbed, placed under Valdemar laws and taxed, with the benefits afforded all citizens.
It is author Mercedes Lackey’s choice to continue taking this family outside the country’s borders that is so exciting. While Valdemar has its own laws and codes of ethics, surrounding them are locations with mages, sentient magical animals, new foods and languages and customs. Readers are familiar with these elements because we’ve read about them in other Lackey novels not set in Valdemar but that still take place in the same world. Allowing these dissimilar worlds to meet creates more excitement. Especially in Eye Spy; we spend half the novel in Valdemar and half outside the borders, getting a good balance.
It is that halving that creates good pacing. In Valdemar’s capital, Abi does a bit of spy work for her father, goes to class, faces off with a bully, and spends time with her siblings and friends. After leaving the capital, Abi is outside of her element, and away from her parents, too. I don’t know her age, but the text suggests she’s a teen, but over fifteen. The group leaving is not only Master Artificers and Abi, but another amazing female mercenary named Jicks. Jicks brings her own hired muscle, two lugs with similar names and no personalities, who eat like goats. While the towns are welcoming of the Valdemar crew, who were invited by the towns to come, one city is suspicious, claiming the Valdemar delegation was already there and ruined a protective wall. Thus, we get into a mystery and revenge tale, but also question the ethics of justice outside Valdemar’s laws. Are Valdemarans obligated to help everyone regardless of citizenship?
Lackey continues to improve on her characterization. Jicks, who loves roughing it and violence, uses diction and an attitude fitting her character. When warned that things won’t be comfortable, Jicks reassures Abi that she and her two guys are not “comfortable unless we’re up to our asses in snapping turtles and shit.” Even Abi, who could easily morph into a previous female protagonist in the Valdemar books, is different. She’s mathematical, ahead in reasoning and combat thanks to her dad, and realizes she’s asexual. Also thanks to her parents, she’s a bit spoiled for comfort. Even though the brilliant stars shining in the quiet countryside delight this city-born teen, she’s not sold on nature:
“I knew I was going to get eaten by a bear!” Abi exclaimed, unable to help herself. “I just knew it!”
Lackey’s shift to characters driven by math and problem solving, to new characters working together, and the setting, made for an enjoyable read.
Are there any fantasy novels you have enjoyed that have a healthy dose of STEM in them? Did the fantasy elements and STEM work in harmony, or create discord among the characters?
The setting is very intriguing, isn’t it? And, I think Terry Brooks fantasies have the most STEM components – that and Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series. I think in Brooks’ books it works in harmony and Kagawa uses it more to create discord. Wonderful review!
Thank you, Tessa! I’ve heard of Kagawa — I believe she wrote those fox books? I tried to read those, but they were always on hold at the library, so I took that as an omen. I should go back to them. Magic and STEM in discord sounds right up my alley.
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I cannot think of the specific example but I have read some fantasy novels with STEM components and they did work together. I’m sure that’s helpful but I’ve barely finished my coffee. Lol.
Ha, I am also drinking my coffee! My first thought is that a fantasy novel with STEM elements must be steampunk, but that’s not true. There are others. I tend to see it also framed as a conversation between science and god, with magic being the religious element. I once went to a debate that had three panelists: 1) a total scientist with no god, 2) a religious dude, and 3) a scientist who believes everything was kicked off by god but developed through science after. I see these three tensions in a lot of magic/STEM novels.
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That had to be one interesting debate! Before the pandemic, I had been considering going to the American Atheist Convention in Cincinnati, but then….plague. It’s also in February. What a horrible time to go to Ohio.
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I don’t think I’ve read any fantasy novels that have STEM elements exactly – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels have elements of both fantasy and science fiction, but the science is always treated exactly the same as magic, so I don’t think that really counts.
However, your question makes me think of the Thief of Magic books by Trudi Canavan, of which I’ve only read the first two (and quite a long time ago). They’re fantasy through and through, but one of the central conflicts of the universe she’s created is the conflict between different ways of viewing magic. In the world, magic leaves a dark residue on the person who has just used it. There are some highly industrialised irreligious societies that treat magic as a resource, like coal or gas, and this residue gets called “soot”; at the same time, there are some very religious societies where magic is the special privilege of a few priests, and the residue is called “sin” (and believed to only appear when someone outside the priesthood uses it) – so even though it’s all built on magic, about half the world treats it in a STEM sort of way and half the world doesn’t.
That’s interesting to think of coal or gas as being like magic. How many of us really understand how these resources work, and how many think these resources are limitless but also come with a heavy price (on the environment)?