Closer to the Chest by Mercedes Lackey

(total spoilers)

Closer to the Chest, eh? Well, I’ve got some feelings to get off my chest. In fact, while still avowing myself to be a Mercedes Lackey fan, I must admit that the following words are less of a review and more of an exorcism.

The reason for this is that a bit over half the book is given over to the most almighty Idiot Plot I have ever seen.

See, Amily is now fairly well established in her role as King’s Own. So when the priest of a little known faith known as Sethor the Patriarch comes to meet the King and just completely totally blanks her, it’s a bit of a surprise. The King and Amily brush it off a little as a society based around freedom involves honouring the freedom to be a dick. In any case, they soon have bigger fish to fry, as a campaign of misogynistic poison pen letters and graffiti comes to light. Valdemar’s powerful take great exception to this and set to work hunting down this writer, but who could it be? It’s totally mystifying who could be the person to behind this. So many words are to be written about figuring out who this could be!

This, gentle folk all, is what I can only call the most idioty idiot plot of all. To make matters worse, they do start to narrow things down. They realise how it’s being done probably involves a religious cult. Do they look at Sethor the Patriarch the moment that comes up? Do they fuck. I feel bad calling it an idiot plot as even an idiot would probably make this connection and at least throw the idea around. The previously highly competent characters do nothing of the sort. They spend more time wondering if it was a woman than whether it was an openly misogynistic cult.

I can only hope that this is meant to be a satire of how slow society can be to take action against the openly misogynistic. I do not want to consider any other explanation. Unfortunately, making a satire with previously established characters that has operating in an entirely different fashion to normal does not work well. It ends up a jumble of conflicting ideas and concepts, leaving this reader at least confused and irritated. Perhaps one could say that highly competent people acting in a completely different fashion to normal is normal when it comes to misogyny. Perhaps, but realism often makes bad fiction, and so it is here. Life is, art must convince. If we must have it this way, why not have Amily go “but them” and others go “oh, you’ve just got a grudge.” That would make sense while preserving the satire.

In any case, Mags does eventually get suspicious after there’s a wave of female owned shops being wrecked near Sethor’s temple. He works his way into the inner circle of vandals fairly easily, and then is part of a mission to the palace to kill Amily. Amily wrecks people’s faces, which leaves me conflicted because obviously I don’t want her to do nothing but there’s so many ways of showing agency and character she could have had throughout this book and this is the least interesting of them.

I have one final bone of contention to pick clean before I finish up. For a book decrying misogyny, it’s very much focused on male protagonists. This feels a great shame when part of the attraction of early Valdemar books was the strength of its women, both as individuals and in numbers. It’s also just a bit counter to the thrust of the book here. Perhaps Lackey wrote it because men need to confront misogyny for it to vanish, and not be stupid and complacent about it, and wrote a book directed at that. If that’s the case, it missed for me, and I don’t see why there couldn’t be more of a focus on women as well.

In any case, this book doesn’t work. It’s not tense and well thought out enough to be a mystery, there’s not enough action for it to be an adventure, not full-bodied and funny enough for satire, too conspiracy driven for slice of life, too unpleasant to be cozy and too cozy to be biting. It’s some dreary mix of all these things and while there’s clearly a market for this mix, it’s the same mix as in any other Valdemar book and in any other Valdemar book it’s done better. I can only recommend this book as how not to do it.

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