The Collegium Chronicles by Mercedes Lackey

(some spoilers)

I generally don’t review series as a whole. I like to dig into the little details too much. However, sometimes, it seems the only practical way to do it. In the case of The Collegium Chronicles Foundation, Intrigues, Changes, Redoubt, Bastion – and its hero Mags, it was because the flaws repeated through the series were likely to up far more of the word count than any joy found in the little details. So why write multiple reviews with the same things repeated when I can cover it all in one post?

Ironically, repetition is one of the series’ weaknesses. It is inevitable as series progress that ideas feel reheated and with twenty-five Valdemar books prior to Mags’ tale, the tale of everyone’s favourite cosy kingdom has very much progressed. Nevertheless, some parts of the concept really do cut very close. Mags grows up an exploited mine slave before being Chosen to become a Herald (for those who don’t know much about Valdemar, there will be a note at the bottom) and, due to a mix of natural skills and the outsider status that came from his upbringing, ends up becoming a spy. To a long time Valdemar reader, the similarities to Skif of Catch A Thief seem loud. There are other similarities; the sport Kirball feels very like the Hurley of Exile’s Valour, Mags’ mentor Niklas reminds me a great deal of Talamir, and so on. None of this is deal-breaking and there are a great many creatives that I admire who cheerfully take multiple whacks at the same idea. Nevertheless, the less enticing the idea, the more weight there is on other elements.

This is exacerbated by the series not really being about what it is somewhat advertised as being about. The title is The Collegium Chronicles; the Goodreads blurb reads as “This series focuses on the founding of the Heralds’ Collegium through the eyes of a former mine slave, Mags.” That’s an element of Valdemar’s history of genuine interest to a long time fan like me. The foundation of something isn’t a particularly common story either. People like stories of restoration rather than creation it seems. Sadly, it has very little to do with the founding of the Collegium and is instead focused on Mags; on his training, on his friends, on his mysterious heritage.

I have to say that the focus on the mysterious heritage – he was found as baby after a nest of bandits was destroyed – is where the series really starts to lose me. Foundation and Intrigues are, by and large, pleasant enough slices of Lackeyness; gifted and big-hearted youngsters from bad situations find a new home and family in altruistic societies and overcome trials and tribulations to become heroic people. They are not her best in this vein, but they are not markedly unreadable compared to the others as long as you’re willing to dig through Mags thick accent (his dialogue tries to preproduce it), multiple chapters about a sport you probably don’t care about, and a few pieces of very convenient stupidity from characters. Changes was the sound of a story getting bogged down in too much repetition of the same old scenes and insufficient plot, but it’s only when Mags’ blood family appears in Redoubt and Bastion that things really unravel, particularly as all parts of the books not concerning them end up short of their own plot.

I’ve talked about repetition a few times and must do so again, as repeating the same thing is one of my main exasperations with the books here. I mean that very literally. As the series progresses, Mags often remembers past events, something covered by copy-pasting whole page chunks of previous books. I have nothing good to say about such a practice, and can only plead with all editors everywhere to point blank refuse books where this has been done.

I feel like at this point I should talk about what in The Collegium Chronicles is good. I have a great deal of time for Lackey’s work as a rule; they’re about people striving to be good and winning when they are, they are told in an easy to read fashion, and often contain a number of interesting scenes and dramas. Her qualities are evident here but the weight of the shortcuts, the repetition, the bloat, the bait and switches, and everything else makes them hard to see. Some of the additions to Valdemar’s world also feel like retcons. There probably are strengths to the series I’m not seeing due to my exasperation but there we are. If there is one unalloyed good to this series, it is Amily, the daughter of Niklas. Her background as someone who is at once raised in a happy place yet overlooked and chafing at her disability is a point of difference, and perhaps contributes to her clear-headed wisdom and kindness.

In short, I can’t imagine anyone other than established Lackey fans enjoying this series, and no small number of them are as exasperated with The Collegium Chronicles as I am. I’m always here to tell you that Lackey and Valdemar are an enjoyable piece of fantasy for those so inclined, with a place of importance in the genre’s history for works like The Last Herald-Mage and Vows and Honours that put gay and asexual characters front and centre long before most mainstream fantasy. But even the best make hashes of it sometimes, and this one is a hash indeed.

(that note – Valdemar is a medieval-ish/renaissance-ish fantasy kingdom whose main point of difference is the existence of Companions and Heralds; Companions are semi-angelic spirits in horse form, and Heralds the people Chosen by them for their altruism, heroism, and magical gifts. The Heralds – and the laws state every monarch must be a Herald – undertake a number of tasks in Valdemar, resulting in the kingdom having a reason for its generally high level of benevolent behaviour, key to Lackey’s whole atmosphere)

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