This past Thursday, Eric came back from a trip to Sweden, and brought with him a pile of books from the stash that we left behind in storage when we moved to London. Most of the pile was made up by 9 books by Mercedes Lackey. Lackey writes fantasy, of the traditional sword-and-sorcery sort. To be correct, she does write some other stuff too, but none of the other books look particularly interesting and haven’t read any of them, while I do own all her s&s books.
She is my favourite writer, but in a peculiar way. Her books aren’t literary masterpieces, by any measure. I couldn’t even say about any of her books that this is the best I’ve read in a long time. But they have something that makes me read them over and over again – I just re-read one of her trilogies over the past 5 days. I have never thought much about why I like them, so I’d like to do it now. Writing about them looks like a great way of doing this.
The first fantasy book I read was Lord of the Rings – that’s “traditional” fantasy, stories about worlds different from ours, not counting children’s books where the boundaries between reality and fantasy can often be fuzzy. I would have been around 13 at the time, I guess – it was definitely before I moved to Sweden, but I guess my mother must have bought it for me when she was in Sweden. I can’t imagine that I could have bought it in an Estonian book shop at that time.
After moving to Uppsala (that’s in Sweden by the way) I discovered some fantasy and SF books in the library (quickly consumed) and then whole sections devoted to fantasy in the bookshops. Mercedes Lackey was one of the first fantasy writers I found. I am often attracted to books by their covers, and the trilogy of Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, Magic’s Price stood out with their mostly-black spines, and covers that didn’t show dragons or half-naked women wielding huge swords. I started browsing one of the books and couldn’t put it down – in fact one of the shop attendants came to scold me and asked me to either buy the book or leave it be. So I bought it, of course.
The trilogy turned out to be only one of many that all take place in the same world, and it’s her books about this world that I love. As with all fantasy worlds, it’s a world that appears simpler and wilder than ours – and somehow cleaner and better as well. And as with all good fantasy worlds, this one is coherent and makes sense: its magic is almost a science, it has its history and nations and geography, etc etc. Nowhere near as well-developed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth (then again, most people don’t spend decades dreaming up a single world) but definitely enough to feel solid, not like the flimsy fabrics of some books. This is one component of what I like
in these books.
The stories themselves are about one or a few people. They’re written in 3rd person, but we also hear the thoughts and feelings of whoever we’re currently following. (In fact, while writing this just now, I’ve learned with the help of Google that this technique is called “rotational limited” or “episodically limited third-person omniscient” point of view.)
The characters are a second important ingredient in the books. The main ones are always “fallible but likable”, and while they all stand out in their world in some way, and achieve something, they remain very human. They are not heros who are destined for greatness and never showing any weaknesses worse than being grumpy in the mornings. Most of them are young, at least initially – sometimes the trilogy starts following them in their teens and ends decades later. In several trilogies the protagonists are either orphaned or estranged from their parents, and they’re often outsiders who are misunderstood or shunned by people around them, until they find a community that values them more.
(Now why would a book like that appeal to a teenager who’s just moved to another country, where she doesn’t know the language, doesn’t feel like she fits in, and has to leave behind the parent she feels closer to?)
The stories themselves are mostly adventure, often with some romance mixed in. Some have grander action, wars and dangerous travels, others are more concerned with the characters’ daily life, but they’re all relatively simple and straightforward. Importantly, there are no god-given quests to retrieve magical artefacts that will save the world!
But the details of the stories aren’t really that important. It’s more the feelings they convey. Some books are built on ideas – these are bearers of feelings. They make for very emotional reading – there is excitement, discovery and danger; great friendships and strong bonds; love and loss; doubt and hope. They’re absorbing and intense, and I find it very easy to feel with the characters. It’s difficult to describe… I’ve seen reviews that describe the books as “whiny tripe” but her style works for me.
I like reading my Mercedes Lackey books in particular when I’m tired and need rest. I know the stories, and even if I read carelessly and miss some details, it doesn’t matter. The “stuff” that the books are made of gets through anyway. They are comforting in their familiarity, and yet they don’t grow stale – her storytelling keeps working. A bit like an old soft blanket – it works because you know it so well, not despite it.
PS: I couldn’t find any good links or reviews about these books, so just go to your favourite bookshop. The official and semi-official sites mostly just had acres and acres of bibliography – she is one prolific writer!