Anyone who enjoys fantasy novels has probably read quite a bit of Mercedes Lackey’s incredibly large body of work – as an avid reader, I heartily approve of that kind of work ethic on the part of authors I enjoy reading!
However, I’ve found her recent work to be declining, sometimes quite severely, in quality. Granted, I’m not the kind of fan who reads every single thing she’s written – some of her series, quite simply didn’t “hook” me when I first picked them up, and I haven’t revisited them yet, though perhaps I should, given that I may simply have been too young. She’s been writing for nearly my entire life, after all! So, in particular, I’ve been following her Valdemar books, the Five Hundred Kingdoms books, and the Elemental Masters series. The early Valdemar works contain some of her best work, in my opinion – epic wars, cutthroat politics, magical Armageddon, that kind of thing. There’s (finally!) some promise of that in the latest Valdemar series (The Collegium Chronicles), which started out as kind of an imitation-Harry-Potter. Except with an even more brutally abused protagonist.
But rather than epic fantasy wars, it seems lately that ML’s been producing a lot of, shall we say, fluff. The kind of thing that probably wouldn’t sell half so well if she were some nobody and not a super-publicized bestselling author already. It’s romance in a fantasy wrapper. (At least no vampires. Yet.)
And the Problem?
The recent stories are all about the Exact. Same. Character. Just dressed up differently and given a different name and backstory. The opinions and attitudes of the Princess, the Merchant’s Daughter, and the Abused Orphan Boy are fundamentally identical. Despite wildly different upbringing and life experiences, somehow all these characters all end up holding the opinions of the Stereotypically Tolerant Liberal Progressive. Unfortunately, it isn’t a sloppy mistake, either – all the characters are the “intellectual,” introspective (aka, navel-gazing) sort who “think too much” and therefore don’t quite fit into the Stereotypically Traditional Culture they’ve been written into, and tend to go on – at length – about this in pointless internal monologues that don’t actually have any relevance to the plot whatsoever. (This tends to happen whenever Brutal Reality intrudes in the form of necessary violence.)
It’s like… professional-grade Mary Sue. None of the characters have the “right” mindset (background assumptions) for their cultural upbringing, except perhaps Orphan Boy, who, as the lucky denizen of Lackey’s aristocratically egalitarian fantasy-land, gets his acculturation via Telepathic Mind-Meld with his magic horse. The rest of the characters are just Different From Everyone Else for no discernible reason other than that they’re “intelligent.” (The kicker is, they’re all Different in exactly the same way.)
That’s the main problem. There’s a couple minor ones I’ll be sure to complain about too, but those are functions of the Liberal Progressive attitudes on display rather than separate issues. One of the big problems these Enlightened-Before-Their-Time characters have with their home cultures is the (historically accurate) brutality of the worlds they inhabit. Now, considering public executions were great entertainment in city life, you’d think that a guy delivering a severe beating to a man caught poaching (for profit, after several unheeded warnings) instead of any of the much more permanent punishments that were legally employed would be praised for his restraint by the City Girl (uuuh, weren’t public whippings and executions considered spectator sports back then?) especially since she knows full well all the worse things that could have happened to the guy. But no, there’s angst and squeamishness that’s more appropriate to a sheltered modern mind than a medieval merchant’s daughter. Complete with “surely there must be a better way!” (Beauty and the Werewolf). This was particularly jarring, because I recently had the profound displeasure of reading Unnatural Issue (title should be taken as a warning to the reader; the book sucks), wherein the Knight in Shining Armor character lays a brutal public smackdown on The Guy Who Had It Coming. Who was also an unrepentant poacher. But he was a Bully, so brutal beatdowns are apparently a-ok if it’s one of the Good Guys who’s handing it out to somebody who is the designated Appropriate Victim. Gag.
I get the feeling that Lackey is desperately trying to shore up her Good Little Progressive Girl author cred. Possibly because the Five Hundred Kingdom novels are all heterosexual romances, and having a man and a woman fall in love and get married and have kids is just so TradCon Patriarchal Oppression, or something. It’s kinda sad, because if she ever bothered to stop writing “intelligent” characters regurgitating left-wing mythos, the series has some potential to be thought-provoking. Instead she fills her characters’ heads with stereotypical attitudes and BS sermonizing monologues. (The villains are a little more diverse in their villainy – although usually you know they’re the designated villain because they say something that a Modern Liberal Progressive wouldn’t approve of. The ones who were villains because they were mercenary assassins/kidnappers were a breath of fresh air.)
The long-running conflict in the Valdemar universe between the Multicultural Secular Nation and the Nation Run By Hypocritical Religious Fanatics probably deserves a post of its own, but then, it’s probably been analyzed in-depth by other people before.