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.
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?