"Brightly Burning," Mercedes Lackey

Pros: Unabashed wish-fulfillment fantasy; good start for those coming late to Valdemar
Cons: Unabashed wish-fulfillment fantasy; too-perfect elite society
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 8/15/2002

I understand that this is part of a long-running set of books by Mercedes Lackey all set in the same fantasy world – Valdemar. While there are several full trilogies set in this world, “Brightly Burning: the Legendary Story of Herald Lavan Firestorm” is a stand-alone book. I have never read any of the other books set in this world, yet I rarely felt as though I was missing information; even when I did, things were eventually explained to my satisfaction. So if you’ve never read this series of books and have worried about coming late to such a large world, this book might be a good place to start.

The Story

Teenaged Lavan, or Lan, is underappreciated by his family, who all want him to join in some aspect of the family trade. He would much rather be back in his old town, riding and hunting with his friends. In an attempt to find something worthwhile to occupy Lan’s time, his family enrolls him in a school started by the local Trade Guilds to educate their children. That’s when things really go badly for him. Anyone who was small and shy in school can imagine what comes next – the bullying, the physical violence, the intimidation. Finally the older kids push Lan too far, however, and his magical Gift comes rushing to the fore – he sets them on fire.

Lan is meant to be a Herald, Chosen by one of the magical horse-like Companions and trained at the palace to use his Gift for the betterment of Valdemar. Things aren’t going to be easy for him, however. The parents of one of the school bullies want revenge. His own family is afraid of him. His Gift is stubbornly resistant to control. And war is brewing, war that perhaps only Lan can put a stop to.

The Details

Descriptions are beautiful, evocative. It’s easy to “see” most of what happens as you read along. Characters are interesting, if largely unsurprising – I wouldn’t call most of them stereotypes, but only occasionally do they do something unexpected. One of things I liked best was the relationships between those people, however – the relationships themselves sometimes did hold small surprises. Of greatest interest were the relationships between Lan and his parents (shifting, uncertain, uncomfortable), and Lan and his beloved Companion.

I’ve heard that this book is way too similar to many of Ms. Lackey’s other books, covering very familiar territory, but I’m afraid I can’t speak to that, having only read one other Lackey book (that wasn’t set in Valdemar).

Wish-Fulfillment Fantasy

This is a book in the by-now familiar tradition of wish-fulfillment fantasies. You can tell within moments what sort of end the bullies will come to, and how. You can tell that poor put-upon Lan will become an unusual sort of hero. Things are melodramatic, and people wallow in their guilt and snippiness.

It is an unabashed feel-good novel for anyone who has ever been picked on or stepped on, or wished for someone to come along and sweep them into a better life. Which isn’t to say that it’s all fun and games, or that there’s no tragedy. But even the tragedy comes in the grand traditions of guilt and sacrifice, both acceptable to the wish-fulfillment fantasy.

While bullying goes on in the school of the Trade Guilds, of course everyone is perfectly nice and wonderful in the Heralds’ school. While the common people might be unreasonable and nasty, everyone in the palace is grand and wonderful. They might ask a lot of Lan, or put him in uncomfortable situations, but they never degrade him or belittle him. Great pains are taken to describe the Herald system and its school as being superior and ideal, understanding and applying “obvious” principles that no one else has been smart enough to make work.

This book may not depict a perfect society, but it has a strong feel of your typical utopian fiction, the feeling that we’re being told, “if only society would do things this way, then everything would be perfect.” So, is this a pro or a con? To be honest, that’s entirely up to you. Do you like this kind of book? Are you in the mood for it? Would you enjoy just kicking back and having a little fun rather than reading for complexity or mood? The wish-fulfillment fantasy is overused and trite, but it’s overused because it appeals to people. Whether or not you want to read it is likely to depend on your own feelings – how much you enjoy such works, and whether you’ve grown tired of them yet.

I had fun with this book. Sure, it was easy to predict pretty much every plot “twist.” Okay, it sometimes felt like the whole “these people do it right” thing was overdone. And to be honest, I’m not overly fond of “common people suck, royalty are nice” fantasies. But once in a while it can be a lot of fun just to sit back and imagine that, in a perfect world, all the bullies would get what’s coming to them, we’d find that perfect someone, and we’d even get to be heroes in the end.

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