Like many people of my generation, I grew up reading the epic fantasies of Mercedes Lackey. Always filled with the standards of high and epic fantasy, Lackey’s works were equally provocative with its unique (at the time) use of gay characters and more liberal attitude towards sex. This made them all the more exciting to a young boy in his teens still learning the whys and wherefores of sex. Lackey was never crude, nor explicit. Rather she has a gift for creating characters that resonate with young preteen and teen boys and girls.
Invariably, Lackey’s characters would always be young, often naive. These fresh faced youths would then be thrust into unusual circumstances wherein they learn heroism, honor, and the value of fighting for a just cause. There is usually a wise older person who will teach these frightened youths. Friends of various types would crop up, and there was always a truly evil villain, someone beyond redemption (though this would often be coupled with another character who was redeemable.) In short, Lackey’s works are everything epic fantasy readers look for in a novel.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Valdemar series. Lackey creates a world where magic is an inborn, innate talent, where fantastic creatures roam the land, and where teams of humans and Companions (horse-like beings) known as Heralds serve the cause of honor and righteousness. Lackey’s newest addition to this canon is Foundation the first book in what will be The Collegium Chronicles.
In Foundation a poor orphan boy by the name of Mags is forced to work as a slave in Valdemaran mine. Naturally gifted, he always find the best gemstones for giving to his master, all so he can get an extra crust of bread. His own innate goodness often leads him to give up that extra crust to the orphans even hungrier and lowlier than he. But all that changes when a Companion shows up to get Mags and he is quickly removed from his squalid conditions and into a world he never knew existed. He is one of a new crop of Heralds that must learn to be Heralds in a new way. Rather than the old master/apprentice way of learning, this new crop of Heralds must learn to be Heralds through schooling.
And here is where you say, “Harry Potter wannabe”. And you are right, it is. Lackey is writing a Harry Potter like story in her own world of Valdemar. But I’m not sure that is such a bad thing. Yes, the story line will be similar (i.e. young boy goes to school and gets embroiled in evil doings, but comes out the hero in the end) but Lackey has always had a gift for writing, and her stories, while not necessarily cutting edge, are always comforting.
You see, Lackey channels that inner child in all of us. In a world so full of grey, Lackey writes stories that are about black and white, about good versus evil. Who is good and who is bad might be in question at times, and in Lackey’s world there a far more good and good-intentioned people than there are evil, but both irrefutably exist. Call it comfort reading, call it tropish, but whatever you call it, Lackey’s stories ring the same emotional bell as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, most especially The Hobbit.
That is not to say that they are the same quality. Lackey writes clearly and concisely, keeping description to a minimum. That is a far cry from Tolkien. But both bring out the same feelings of good and right.
Now, on to the problems of Foundation. First and foremost is the fact that it is essentially Harry Potter in Valdemar. The correlations between the two are fairly obvious, and readers looking for originality had best look elsewhere.
Secondly, Lackey assumes that readers of this novel will be intimately familiar with her world of Valdemar. Lackey doesn’t reference much of what has come before, and the whole Companion/human relationship isn’t really explained, at least not compared to her earlier Last Herald Mage and Mage Winds series. New readers in the Valdemaran universe would be better off beginning with one of those two series, or perhaps the prequel trilogy of The Mage Wars.
Finally, Foundation gets overly repetitious. Lackey keeps beating the dead horse of Mags gratitude for rescue. While it is believable and likely even true that a character would behave in the way Mags does, it doesn’t need to be repeated each and every single time a new, positive experience occurs. One get the sense that Lackey is either trying to make a point about helping the poor and needy, or that she just needs filler to make her novel longer.
Foundation is comfort food for the fantasy reader. There are few surprises in plot or characterization. Nostalgic readers will want to pick this one up to remember days gone by. Young adults who have read a few Valdemaran novels, or who have read Harry Potter and its clones will also enjoy this tale. In fact, this might make a good novel to recommend to those kids in your household or classroom looking for more reading material. (But be aware that the book has a liberal attitude toward sex. It isn’t explicit, but free love exists and is acknowledged by the characters – which in this case are too young to indulge, yet.)
While I enjoyed Foundation for myself as an easy-to-read and fun story, plus the nostalgia factor, I recognize that very few readers are going to want to pick up this novel. For those who dislike epic fantasy, it has every one of the tropes you hate. For those who want new and innovative, this is anything but. But for someone who needs a reminder that good exists, right and truth can and should prevail, or who just need a book to curl up with comfortably on a wet Sunday Foundation is for you.