Friday, April 13, 2012

Fantastic Fantasies: By The Sword

It occurred to me the other day when I was contemplating what book to post on next that I hadn't done, well, anything on a nice, classic high fantasy novel (we're talking Lord of the Rings, epic sword-swinging, magic-wielding stuff here).  These days I tend more toward the supernatural / urban fantasy side of the genre. But, that is a serious gap I mean to address, especially since high fantasy was a big part of my early reading life. One of the first adult level books I ever picked up was By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey.  I was hooked, and her Valdemar series became one of my most treasured escapes.

The Basics
Lackey, Mercedes. By the Sword. New York: DAW Books, 1991. Print.

Mercedes Lackey is a prolific author in the fantasy genre; seriously I'm not even going to try to delve into her oeuvre here (It's big; the end). She's also worked with some big names in the fantasy fiction world, like Piers Anthony, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, and Rosemary Edgehill to name a few.  She's active in bird rehabilitation, which is pretty cool, and she often writes lyrics and folk music that tie in with the fantasy world she creates.

The Valdemar series is by far her most heavily populated, spanning 30 novels, 7 short story collections, and a companion book. By the Sword was my introduction to this world and remains my favorite (not that that stopped me from dedicating a ton of shelf space to this series).  The book follows the life of Kerowyn as she journeys from daughter of a Keep lord, to apprentice sword-slinger, to mercenary and leader. Having rescued her brother's kidnapped bride, Kero becomes apprenticed (more or less) to the sword mistress, Tarma.  This sets her on the path to become a mercenary with the Skybolts, where she works her way up the ranks and eventually makes her way to Valdemar (home of talking horses, what's not to love!).

The Book
Now that I'm done boring you with my atrocious summary (it's so hard to summarize fantasies without them sounding really bad), let me tell you why you need to pick up this novel (and then the whole darn series). Let's start with Lackey's fantastic world-building skills.  Lackey has created a world that spans a continent rather than a country.  While many of the novels are set in Valdemar, others, like By the Sword pick up elsewhere. Her world is so well crafted that you can pick up a character in any given location and have it connect with the world of the other novels. She's also built an entire history to the world, so that the series spans time as well as geography. Each new novel adds a new layer of richness.  The result? A seamless fluidity that makes the world of Valdemar and Velgarth seem like a tangible reality, and the stories become that much more immersive.

To get more specific about By the Sword, we become immersed in vaguely medieval world, with sorceresses, keeps, nobility, and an enormous, intelligent, mind-speaking wolf (known as Warrl; he's a favorite). I especially like all the details that focus on sword-play, stealth, strategy and war that appear as we follow Kero in her career as mercenary. Plenty of fantasy novels have mercenaries, mention mercenaries or talk about mercenaries, but few focus so exclusively on them to the degree and depth that Lackey does in By the Sword. We get an up-close look at mercenaries in Lackey's world that includes their organization and operations. It makes for an interesting and different slice of the fantasy world.

But the best part of this particular book is Kero.  Lackey's novels tend to be very character driven, giving readers very well developed characters to get to know (and love).  In particular, Kero was my Katniss (minus the grumpy dystopia).  Kero is a strong, independent female character; she takes care of herself and others, is a great leader, and can totally kick ass if necessary. As a thirteen-year-old she was my hero, and I'm awfully fond of her still today. We watch her grow up from a teen who's not quite sure where she fits yet, to fierce warrior, to a superb leader that puts duty and her people first. Add a little adventure into the mix, and you'll love every second of it.

I highly recommend this novel and the series to fantasy lovers of all ages.  There's a little something for all tastes in Lackey's Valdemar books.



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