Beyond by Mercedes Lackey

SYNOPSIS

Beyond is Mercedes Lackey’s newest Valdemar novel, the first in The Founding of Valdemar books. We go way back in time before Valdemar exists. Much like in Star Wars, a giant, evil empire controls almost everyone through cruelty. On the outskirts of the empire lives Kordas Valdemar, a working-class duke who breeds the finest horses in the empire. He’s country folk, as evidenced by an opening scene in which he assists in the birth of a foal:

The mare grunted with a contraction. Her vaginal muscles clamped down on his arm, he lost the miniature hoof he’d been groping for, and he thought his head was going to explode from the the compression of those muscles around his arm. And then, she farted in his face.

Okay, so that was graphic, but you get the point. The truth is, Kordas is not a country nitwit. In fact, he is the third generation of Valdemar dukes who have been planning for a daring escape from the empire, one that includes the tens of thousands of residents (and their stuff, and their livestock). That’s right, escape. The Valdemar we all know and love doesn’t exist yet. This is pre-Valdemar as a nation, pre-Heralds, pre-Companions. So, no magic horse avatars in this book, dear reader! Lackey has written a novel that comes after the Mage War trilogy and before our beloved Vanyel’s books.

By hiding away mages who perform no magic to avoid detection by the Emperor’s own mages, who scry the empire, and stockpiling food and resources, Kordas and the few people in the know ready themselves to create a Gate that would transport everyone from the Valdemar duchy into unknown lands far beyond the Emperor’s reach. But just when things look in their favor, the Emperor summons Kordas to the capital. But what is the reason?

HIGHS & LOWS

Beyond feels completely fresh, even compared to Lackey’s more recent books in the Family Spies trilogy. The characters are a surprising mix of human and fantasy, meaning yes, some of them are mages or have mind-magic, but they’re people you can relate to as well. That’s why I quoted the part about the horse giving birth and farting in Kordas’s face: farm life is real, and even Chaucer knew that fart jokes will always strike people as funny.

Each character is unique and serves his/her own purpose, preventing readers from mixing people up or wondering why that extra person exits in the plot. Surprisingly, Lackey leaves out the love story she usually includes (which is odd given how the books tell us repeatedly that it’s uncommon for a Herald to have a spouse or love life). Kordas is married to Isla through an arrangement, but they’re a good team rather than shy lovers:

It was at moments like this that [Kordas] was glad that his relationship with Isla was not a romantic one. She was able to see him off with equanimity; he was able to leave without desperately wondering if she would be all right. They trusted each other’s competence, and at this moment, that was more important than all the love-letters in the world.

Isla’s little sister, Delia, has a crush on Kordas that doesn’t devolve into pining and whining. She takes control of some aspects of the decades-long plan to escape the empire and becomes her own woman. I’m exciting to see what happens with her in the next novel, coming in 2022.

But Lackey takes it one step further. This is fantasy, and she can do whatever she wants, right? Thus, the language feels much more modern than fantasy novels that have a Medieval vibe. As Kordas checks in on his main mage to see how progress on building a portal is going, he has this conversation:

“Are you sure of this?” [Kordas] asked.

“Well, of course I’m not sure,” Jonaton said crossly. “It’s magic. It has built-in fuckery.”

I can hear my non-sweary friends thinking “ugh,” but I also appreciated that Lackey didn’t take her characters too seriously in Beyond. In another example, Kordas gathers his mages as they quietly try to test the portal Jonaton has designed. A bit of an eccentric, Jonaton dresses more like pictures of shamans that I’ve seen and has about fifty cats roaming his space. As they open the portal that will become a gate, something bad happens:

. . . and the black cat that had been trying to trip Kordas earlier gave a delighted meow — and leapt through.

“Sydney, you asshole!” bleated Jonaton, grabbing belatedly for his pet through the Portal.

Okay, who hasn’t had a cat be just a total asshole? It’s in their DNA, whether they’re tipping over your water glass, stomping across your pillow as you sleep, or jumping through portals to unexplored lands.

And yet the threat of violence and shame is very real in Beyond as the Emperor indoctrinates children against empathy, enslaves elemental creatures, and humiliates the empire’s dukes and lords by revealing embarrassing secrets about adultery, for example. It’s not just funny, and the more serious plot kept me all wound up as I wondered if Kordas would actually make the plan for a new home happen, if he would be able to go with everyone or would be stuck at the capital forever, if he follow through on all the new promises he makes at the capital. The pacing was almost perfect — erm, any time a machine is described I zoned out a bit — and kept me on the edge of my seat.

Okay, this is the last post for #ReadingValdemar! Yes, I’m going to keep reading the novels, but the organized read-along with Jackie (see image below) has come to an end. We’re out of books! Thank you so much for following us; this has been a three-year journey, if you can believe it. Our last post later this month will about what this read-along has meant to us over the years.

DISCUSSION QUESTION

If you’ve read the same author many times, and that person has been publishing for a long time, have you noticed a shift in their writing skills, their style, or how they approach their work?

18 comments

  1. Congrats on finishing this reading project. That’s quite an accomplishment and takes dedication.

    I’m trying to think of authors I’ve read that have published many books for years. Margaret Atwood comes to mind. She has definitely written many different kinds of books over the decades. I love that she has written in so many genres. But her writing style is still similar – very witty, cutting, even. Focus on male/female relationships and power dynamics. As she has gotten older I’ve noticed more writing about older characters and the hard things that come with aging.

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    • You know what’s funny is I tend to notice how different Atwood’s books are to the point that I have a hard time seeing similarities in the writing style. The MaddAddam trilogy is sci-fi, Alias Grace is a murder mystery of sorts, Cat’s Eye was a character-driven book. I thought her short story collection Wilderness Tips really showcased her skills in these different genres, and the writing was noticeably strong.

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  2. Now I’m a little bit sad. Valdemar has been part of my blog reading life for what seems like forever. You and Jackie have done it very well (as you did with Anne of GG), teasing out variations in the writing over time and speculating about behind the scenes stuff (co-writers, changes in motivation).
    I’m pleased too that after you have invested so much effort Lackey has come up with a new, fresh angle.

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    • Wow, you are a truly dedicated reader, Bill and I’m so pleased on all these variations you’ve picked up on. I’m going to keep reading the Valdemar books as they come out, but we’ve caught up to Lackey’s publishing, so we can’t have an organized monthly post. The next novel after Beyond comes out in June 2022.

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  3. I’ve really enjoyed these posts, and I think you’ve done a great job of making them readable even for people who aren’t reading the series along with you!

    In terms of authors who changed their style over many years – I’ve been reading Agatha Christie’s novels in roughly chronological order for the past few years, following along with a podcast, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing how her style changed over time. Her novels were being published for well over fifty years – 1921 to 1976 – and in addition to reflecting the many societal changes that happened over that time, the structure and content of her stories changed a lot as well. She started off with the kind of stereotypical, slightly convoluted murder mysteries that characterised the 20s and 30s, but quickly developed much better character writing and a more interesting style than a lot of authors writing similar works. Even as her plots went a bit off the deep end in the 60s and 70s, I think her character writing got more and more interesting, right up until her final works. It’s been a very interesting reading project!

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    • I don’t recall seeing a Christie post from you in a while. Is this something you work on regularly, or in fits and starts? One thing about the Valdemar read along is that we pre-determined that we’d have one post per month, and a set date, so we knew what to aim for. That kept me on track.

      Actually, I need (ok, want) to start planning out 2022. I know at the top of the list I’m reading with you in January. I’ll email you about that soon.

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      • I don’t write posts about Christie very often because I find it hard to explain why I enjoy her books without spoiling them. I’ve been reading or listening to one or two a month for the past couple of years and I’m nearly done – though one of the hosts of the podcast I’ve been reading along with has just passed away unexpectedly, so I think that project will be on hold for a while.

        Yes, looking forward to reading with you in January!

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    • So, I’m from Central Michigan, as you know, and my family vet has always been Dr. Pol. So I was pretty frickin’ surprised when I saw he got his own show called The Incredible Dr. Pol, which now has NINETEEN SEASONS. Dude’s famous now! Anyway, he’s a small and large animal vet, which is not common (the large animal part), so you frequently see this dude with his arm up a cow’s rear end because he’s helping a calf be born. So, when I read this horse scene, I could so totally see it. Except I doubt Kordas had those plastic gloves that go to your shoulder.

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  4. Yay, I’m glad you liked it as much as I did. I still need to read some of the Family Spies books and the Valdemar Anthologies (I saw a new one released yesterday?). I’ve read a few of them, and when I interviewed Larry about gryphons, I reread his essay in Under the Vale on Valdemar worldbuilding.

    I’m also glad that any new readers who finish the Mage Storms books and want to know about the empire can hop to this series if they want. Heck, if they go from this to the new gryphon books, it feels like the future of Valdemar is pretty secure.

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    • I was so surprised that the Mage War books were barely about the Mage War. I did love the survivalist story in The Silver Gryphon, but still, we learned so little about why these giant mages were fighting!

      The funny thing about The Mags Books, as I call them, is you have to read all of them in order, as they will reference and build off of each other. And there are 11 of them! The Family Spies devotes one book to each of Mags’s children. My favorite part is that Lackey starts weaving in things we’ve only know about in the Tayledras books, like elementals and talking animals, etc. and throws them at our non-magical Heralds.

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      • Oh, that’s interesting. Honestly, while I understand it was the style at the time (like corduroy pants and light flannel grunge overshirts), splitting some of these stories into trilogies was always unsatisfying to me as a series writer. Mage Winds -> Mage Storms was my favorite because it was really just six books in a series. So having 11 sequential books that build on each other is really what I want from my fantasy series.

        (I do think it’s funny how series readers tend to view trilogies like they’re standalones.)

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        • I guess I basically wanted to read loads more about the Mage War itself and not just the escape from what happened. I still don’t totally get what the war was about even. Mage Winds. Holy guacamole. So much with the same villain. I got a bit overwhelmed there, especially because the characters started to blend together for me. That’s what I appreciated about Beyond. Everyone was their own person, period. Even the council of six had six unique people.

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