Friday, February 27, 2009

Bardic Voices I: The Lark and the Wren by Mercedes Lackey

I have several books on the go, in an attempt to confuse and frustrate myself, I think. I usually try to finish one first, but I keep seeing books I want to read. I've got a half-formed review of Patrick Lima's The Organic Home Garden in my head, and I'm through the first chapter of Liz Primeau's deeply personal and beautifully real memoir, My Natural History. But did I read either of those today? No, I picked up Mercedes Lackey's Bardic Voices I: The Lark and the Wren. And proceeded to skim/half-read my way through it.

Lackey used to be one of my favourite authors, starting with her Mage Winds trilogy and extending to several of her other books, stand-alone and series, the Valdemar books, her urban fantasies, and whatever else by her I could get my hands on. She's extremely prolific, and her books are often quite long, so it wasn't hard to stay occupied when I was on one of my many Lackey kicks.

I therefore hold her and her books in special esteem. I have, unfortunately, also tried re-reading them over the years and not found them as readable as I once did, and The Lark and the Wren was no different. I don't know what it is -- her plots tend to be exciting, her characters solid and entertaining, there's always humour and adventure and romance. I think the problem is that I don't find them as inventive as I once did, and the language doesn't have that special sheen that grabs me now; as I get older, I prefer my prose economical (like Hemingway) and poetic (like McKillip or Ondaatje). And with Lackey, I just don't get that.

One of the problems I have noticed with her books, and particularly with this one, is that she tends to pack a lot of plot in where half the plot might have sufficed. The reason I picked up The Lark and the Wren again was the first major tale of the book, where Rune (our heroine) plays her fiddle for the Skull Hill Ghost for the duration of one night, on a dare. This part of the story is particularly well-written. It launches Rune off on a journey that will take her from her backwater town to the cities, and introduce her to kind, generous, intelligent people; as well as a number of nasty, greedy, nefarious, and ignorant people as well. All of this is well and good. The problem comes with the fact that there are a series of events, each of which could have made for the climax of the novel. This goes on for some time. Then, when we finally get to the last climax of the novel, it's not really any more exciting than the rest of them and the book kind of flatlines out.

Another issue I have is the introduction of seemingly spurious characters, and then the introduction of a somewhat major character in the last several chapters. You know what this reminds me of? It feels like a collection of stories that Lackey had, all about these characters, and she's attempted to string them all together in a coherent, novel-sized narrative. And then, halfway through the book we start perspective-switching in ways that we didn't through the first half, and we go from Rune's perspective (third person limited) to several other characters, and then back to Rune, and from then on the perspective-switching continues although not quite as severely. Mostly we stick with Rune with an occasional slip back to Talaysen, her mentor.

My final issue with the book is that it is occasionally quite unnecessarily preachy, and I suspect this is precisely what attracted me to it lo those many years ago. Lackey and I agree on many points: the necessity of taxation, the unfairness of the class system, the equality of each and every human being (and non-human being), the deep injustice of a religious system that does nothing for the people it purports to want to save, the importance of kindness, and so on. I agree with all these things, and I think they're important. But Lackey has a tendency, which was particularly transparent in this novel, to use her heroes and heroines as mouthpieces for these points. That works for many people, and I know it used to work for me. But reading this book again reminds me of how unsubtle she can be when she's trying to prove a point.

What I do still like about it is the characters themselves. Rune in particular is a great character, if not particularly original; she's brought up in a rather rough environment, and is the local loner except for a few kind souls around her. She somehow manages to stay sane, kind, and talented, and strikes off on her own to make her fortune. She's funny, wise, hard-working and talented, and it's a pleasure to hang out with her. Which is part of what makes the perspective-switching so irritating, because I want to spend time with Rune.

The characterization throughout the novel is fun, even though it does often draw on familiar fantasy tropes, and the world is well-built, solidly described, and believable. And I really do like the various plots -- I just wish that Lackey had picked and chosen, rather than included them all. Or created them as a group of short stories, as opposed to mashing them all up into one long novel. The Skull Hill Ghost plot is especially excellent, as is Rune's time spent in Nolton. The book loses some momentum after she heads for the Midsummer Faire and never quite gets it back, although there are certainly some enjoyable aspects after that as well.

I think, overall, I might just stop trying to read Mercedes Lackey again, because I did love those books and I don't want them to lose that status in my mind. That said, I'm going to try the Diana Tregarde mystery Children of the Night one more time, and maybe Lackey's re-telling of the story of the swan princess, Black Swan. If those don't work, I think I'll probably stop reading her entirely, to preserve the fond feelings.


Anonymous said...

It is so hard to return to writing you loved when younger and find you don't love it anymore. Mine in the last couple years has been Edgar Allen Poe.

Unknown said...

It is always a little sad. It makes me wonder, in some cases, what has changed about me, because the writing certainly hasn't changed. It doesn't happen too often with me, although there are some books that I'm scared to try again. Much of Madeleine L'Engle, for example.

Jill said...

Kiirstin - That is so disappointing when that happens! I agree with so much of what you say about your experience with her books. I loved them when I was in my late teens and early twenties. There weren't that many writers then who had the strong female heroines in their fantasy novels, and I just couldn't put the books down. Some of my rereads were a bit disappointing, but I still have a fond feeling for those books. I've been planning an eventual reread of the Tregarde series, too, once I finish up with Tanya Huff's blood series. I hope those will go better for both of us!

Unknown said...

You know, I think that her strong female characters were definitely a draw for me (still are, apparently) and I kind of missed that when I was writing about this book. I used to look specifically for books with female leads. Those are becoming much, much easier to find -- maybe that's one of the reasons Lackey's work doesn't seem quite as original as it did, despite the fact that she had those strong female leads earlier than a lot of others.

Ana S. said...

I've only read one book by her -- Black Swan. I mostly had problems with the writing... I found it unnecessarily flowery. I did like the characters, though. And unsubtle is definitely always a problem for me. Even when the points being made are ones I agree with.

Unknown said...

I seem to recall with Black Swan especially she was going for a more formalized feeling, which may have lead to the excessively flowery language. I can't remember exactly -- it's been years since I read it. She really does do characterization quite well, though, definitely.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on mercedes books. however, there are some treasures that i have read multiple times. Most of which includes her later valdemer series. Take a Thief and Exiles honor. i believe those are some of her better works.

Unknown said...

See -- that's interesting. I haven't read either of those. Many of her later Valdemar books came out after I'd started finding other authors to love too, and my Mercedes Lackey reading spates came fewer and further between. She has that newer series, too... I can't remember the name of it right now, but I've thought of picking those up as well.