Pros: Incredibly detailed and “real” world; very detailed character sketch
Cons: Something of an info-dump at times; some unstated assumptions; not for everyone
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Mercedes Lackey is a famous and incredibly prolific fantasy writer. I’m often surprised that I haven’t read more of her books, but I think it’s because her worlds have so much already written about them that the idea of approaching them seems daunting at best. When it comes to Lackey’s Valdemar books, I’ve previously read only one, a standalone book called Brightly Burning, and that was quite some time ago.
Foundation is book one of The Collegium Chronicles, and tackles the early history of Valdemar. A young boy named Mags has lived virtually his whole life as a mine worker, living in abject poverty and horrific conditions, until he’s swept up as a Herald Trainee and taken to train at—and simultaneously witness the founding of—the Heralds’ Collegium.
As Foundation is described in the press release as being for “first time visitors and frequent travelers alike,” I decided not to worry about my lack of background in the world and even resisted the urge to re-read my review of Brightly Burning as a reminder.
Mags is a carefully-chosen and virtually ideal narrator for a book that concentrates on teaching the reader about a time period and a group of people. Because of his isolation from society, his youth, and his lack of education, he has few preconceptions and everything has to be explained to him, and by extension to us, the readers. The one down-side to this is that much of the explanation comes in the form of thinly-disguised info-dumps, where Mags’s magical horse-like Companion explains everything to him as it happens.
One of the truly fantastic things about this book, particularly if you read primarily to explore characters rather than for high-paced action, is the exploration of Mags’s rather unique world-view. His childhood left him with an incredibly different perspective on life, and Lackey does an amazing job of conveying this. Similarly, she possesses a wonderful skill for conveying a world, and it’s easy to imagine and see what’s going on as you read.
The Collegium, the Heralds, and the Companions
If you’re a long-time fan of Valdemar and have been looking forward to reading about the founding of the Collegium, this book will definitely not disappoint. There’s a ton of information on the whys and wherefores, plenty of interesting side characters from around the Collegium and the surrounding institutions, and so forth. There’s very little resembling a plot until perhaps two-thirds of the way through the book, but I’m guessing that if you’re coming to this looking specifically for the Collegium background, that’ll be just fine with you.
The only problem is that if you really aren’t familiar with the world, you can notice that there are some unstated assumptions underlying the book that are likely to confuse first-time Valdemar readers. Since Mags is a blank slate, there are some questions he really should have thought to ask that he didn’t, such as what exactly are the Companions? Thus, while it’s a decent introductory book to Valdemar, it is not an ideal introductory book. There are a few too many unanswered questions that you end up feeling you’re not being let in on and are supposed to already know.
One other thing to think about is that the Heralds of Valdemar are very much depicted as an idealized system and society, in a rather old-school utopian fantasy style. The world might not be perfect, but somehow there’s always a right answer that will make things okay, even if some of the characters can’t see it or don’t want to acknowledge it. Not everyone enjoys this style of fantasy, particularly in this cynical age when many people have come to believe that there is no such thing as an ideal society. That said, there are plenty of other readers who very much enjoy escaping to the notion of such a society.
I won’t go into much detail at all on the plot since it doesn’t rear its head until late in the book, and makes very little progress before the end, which means that almost any detail would give too much away. All I’ll say is that it ends in a rather unsatisfying place, and while I’m sure the next book will help to answer some of the glaring questions it left me with, it would have been nice if they’d at least been raised before the end of this book. As it is, it ended up feeling as though there were some details that didn’t entirely make sense. Even simply having the characters note that those details didn’t make sense would have left me reassured that all would be revealed in the next book of the series.
If you’re looking for fast-paced action-oriented fantasy, this definitely isn’t it. If you adore character-based fantasy, this is a lovely choice. If you’re a long-time fan of Valdemar who wants to know more about the founding of the Collegium, absolutely grab a copy of Foundation today! If you’re new to the world, however, I’m a little ambivalent on whether this is the best introduction. If you love escaping to idealized societies, the Valdemar books definitely provide this; if you find such depictions annoying, then I doubt you’ll enjoy this one either. In short, whether you need to run out and pick up this book entirely depends on you, the reader.
Note added on 10/12/08: It’s worth noting that you long-time Lackey readers should find additional reviews by other long-time Lackey readers, since those I’ve found frequently suggest that this book contradicts details in many of the other Valdemar books.