Monday, October 13, 2014

Bastion

It's a Valdemar novel.  Of course I'm going to read it.

But I just spent half an hour attempting to write a positive review.  In vain I have struggled; it will not do.  You must allow me to confess that I did not particularly love this book.

I couldn't write that glowing review because it wasn't the truth, no matter how much I wanted it to be so.

Enjoying the experience of reading a book can occur simultaneously with not particularly loving the book.  That was my experience with Bastion.  Pretty much anything Lackey writes in the Valdemar universe makes me happy.  I love the concept and the expanding mythology and many of the reappearing characters.  And for a horse fanatic like me (although I've toned it down a lot since my elementary school days), the idea of Companions (not-horses-but-better) being bonded with humans takes the cake.

It's a mildly frightening experience to attempt to review a book and all I can come with was, "Ehhh ... meh.  Fine."  That's not a helpful review, but if you read no further, that is an apt description of my feelings for Bastion.

Several years ago, I picked up the first book in the Collegium Chronicles at work (aka the library).  I'd vaguely heard of this author (oh, how young I was in the ways of booklandia), and I knew one of my coworkers was a big fan, so I started reading it.  And I loved it.  Impatient for the next book to release, I began devouring Lackey's other Valdemar books, along the way developing a serious bookcrush on Herald Alberich (so scarred, so harsh, so dreamy).  And each time a new Collegium book appeared, I'd read it and think, "Hmm, so tell me more about the actual founding of the Collegium."  The series title is really misleading, although it does have more of a ring to it than The Slave-Herald Chronicles or The Magsisterium.  If you go into this series realizing that really only the first book talks about the founding of the Collegium, and the rest is about Mags and spy craft, you'll be aces.

As other reviewers have expressed, this series could have definitely been condensed into a trilogy.  Cutting out the miles of kirball (think polo meets capture the flag, but with Mindspeech) descriptions, which sent me into this charming physical state:


would really have slimmed the books down a good deal.  I did like Mags a good deal, since he never felt prideful or overconfident, which happens to so many fantasy heroes.  The supporting characters, like Bear the Healer, Lena the Bard, and Amily, daughter of the King's Own* and spymaster sub rosa, are all nicely drawn and have their own struggles with which to contend.  Unfortunately, Bastion either turns them into completely different characters or just ignores them.

Amily suddenly becomes an archery genius and fighting dervish, while Bear and Lena mostly want to have the sexytimes all the time.  Bear's genius with herbs and medicines pops up a few times, and Lena's Bardic abilities play a mildly useful role, but they're nowhere near the characters they were.

Then there's the plot.  Mags has just been rescued (okay, he escaped and dragged himself across the Karsite border) from two Mysterious Assassins who speak a Mysterious Tongue and use potions and rituals to try and convince Mags that he is one of them.  Mags doesn't know why they've kidnapped him or care about him at all, but he does know that now that he's escaped, they're going to come and get him.  And they'll probably do so by attacking his friends or his girlfriend Amily.  The Collegium masters recognize this as well (finally, some common sense!) so they create this elaborate scheme to send Mags and Herald Jakyr (the one who originally rescued Mags from the mine) on circuit with Bear, Lena, and Amily stuffed into a caravan.  They'll set up camp at The Bastion, a remote series of tunnels that recently housed the bandits who kidnapped Mags, and coincidentally enough, the place where Mags' parents died.

Traveling shenanigans ensue, Mags meets An Important But Probably Untrustworthy Person Who Can Explain His Past, and there is a very compressed epic battle scene.  

Actually, I found out Lackey is going to be further following Mags' career as a Spy-Herald and I did rejoice!  We are done with the backstory and back to the devious plotting, which I like a good deal.  Lackey really takes her time when she's describing setting up a cover and changing disguises and so forth.  Unfortunately, this book had to be rushed off first to tie up the loose ends of the previous four (which could have been dealt with in a novella, but whatever).  

I don't regret reading Bastion, but I am disappointed in it.  The mere fact that it was a Valdemar book meant that I was entertained, but at the same time, I could pinpoint the flaws in it.  It's completely possible to enjoy the reading experience while intellectually noting the writing flaws.  I call this kind of book a "popcorn book" like a popcorn summer blockbuster.  Lackey's novels aren't usually popcorn, and I hope that with the next books, she gets back on track.  

*If at this point, all of this jargon is confusing, go read Arrows of the Queen, and then let's talk.

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