Exile’s Honour by Mercedes Lackey

(moderate spoilers)

Sometimes, a re-read is like visiting your favourite restaurant, or going back on holiday to a place you loved years ago. I love spending time with the books that have entertained me time and time again. But sometimes you re-read and discover a story is now completely at odds with your taste, and instead of a refreshing time away you miss all your connections. That’s what happened when rereading Exile’s Honour by Mercedes Lackey.

It’s a huge shame as I liked so much about the book. I liked the main character, Alberich, and his sardonically virtuous take on life. The story hook – that a captain from Valdemar’s long time enemy, Karse, would be saved/kidnapped and asked/press-ganged to be one of Valdemar’s Heralds, is an intriguing one. I liked the themes of split loyalties, of what honour meant, of finding a new home it brought up. There’s a soothing, homely feeling to Lackey’s writing.

But there’s nothing much being done with it. Stories are about changes, right? About conflicts and mystery? Well, there’s precious little mystery here. What’s worse, particularly given the nature of the story, is that the conflict feels brief and a formality. Alberich has a chapter agonising over whether to stay but he more or less gives in at the first opportunity, something born of a spur of the moment decision from someone else. There’s constant allusions to people doubting his loyalty but we never see someone express those doubts out loud. He becomes a teacher and has a few brief conflicts with his pupils – but they’re sorted out in about five seconds flat. A lot of the second half of the book is taken up by a war which in turn, throws up next to no conflict.

What then of change? To a certain extent, Lackey deliberately eschews it. Her point is that Alberich doesn’t have to change, that all he has to do is to be himself to be accepted among good people, regardless of culture. He struggles to reconcile his oaths and duties to Valdemar and Karse but, by sticking to his own principles, finds a way. Quite easily too. But there are some changes, changes that are skirted over. It’s clear Alberich has been brought up in a way that hardened his viewpoints compared to Valdemar’s, and cut him off from a number of affectionate relationships. He’s open to beating his pupils for 0.5 seconds before the current teacher says “no”. Alberich goes “oh, okay, sure”. I’m really not in the business of saying “why didn’t I get to see young people beaten” but if Alberich believes it’s genuinely the best way to teach, and he’s teaching people to stay alive, is that idea going to just dissipate?

Doesn’t sound likely to me.

Alberich has a romantic interest brought in. A friend points out to Alberich he doesn’t know what to do with a woman who could be a friend and more. Great possible change! But it’s just left hanging, and wasn’t a bright thread on the tapestry to begin with. Then there’s the matter of Alberich’s mutable attitude to violence, which could be a sign of change, but just feels more inconsistent. So Alberich sorta changes but not really.

Not in a way that makes me feel a big emotional beat. I guess my feelings on those beats are one of the things that changed with this reread. I don’t have a sense of “yes, this is what I wanted to happen”. No great “this is the inevitable change that makes perfect sense”. Alberich feels the emotions but I don’t feel more than a pale shadow.

A definite point of change for me was the tone. It comes across as too preachy, too didactic, too CS Lewis on uppers. The moral thoughts would be better for being shown and not told by a long shot, not only for avoiding the sense of preachiness but also for the greater emotional resonance they would have. Watching Alberich live these moments would have been great.

Instead, Exile’s Honour is fine. A pleasant diversion. Incredibly frustrating if you let yourself dwell on what it could have been, but palatable stuff otherwise. I appreciate that this review has done the square root of fuck all to persuade you about that otherwise, but trust me on that. If you’re looking for an amble through a book in the spirit of The Goblin Emperor or The Curse of Chalion only with a taciturn warrior, and aren’t much in the need of a gripping plot, do give it a go.

Otherwise, well, maybe you’ll have my reaction too.

2 thoughts on “Exile’s Honour by Mercedes Lackey

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