Foundation, by Mercedes Lackey (DAW, 2008)

Mags – short for Magpie – has never known any life other than the harsh conditions of the gem mine where he, and other orphaned children and slaves, labors year-round, digging out ‘sparklies’ for the cruel owners. His only vague hope is surviving until he’s old enough to be turned loose on his own, something he doesn’t dare dream about too hard. Like so many others, he expects to die as he lived, in the depths of the mine. But then the Herald comes, a white-clad savior riding a blue-eyed, equally white horse, and he rescues Mags from the hellish existence. Another horse – a Companion – Chooses Mags, and just like that, the boy goes from gem-digger to Herald Trainee. And now, should he make it through his training, he’ll be one of the fabled Heralds of Valdemar, responsible for defending the kingdom and enforcing its laws.

But this is a time of transition for Valdemar, a time when the Heralds are changing over from the earlier mentor-and-student system to one of formal learning in the newly-built Collegium. Mags is an early example of the new breed of Herald, Chosen from the general populace without the education or benefits those better off are used to. He has to learn a great many things, and prove to the doubters and dissenters that he’s as good, and as worthy, as anyone else to earn his Whites and become a full-fledged Herald. He has to prove that one can learn to be a Herald by learning in a classroom, as part of a group, just as well as those who learned on the road under the direct tutelage of older Heralds. If he can do it, if he can become a Herald, any Trainee can. In the process, he’ll make friends with Bardic and Healer trainees, gain allies amongst the influential members of Court, and work to foil a band of foreign visitors intent upon sabotage and espionage. But the greatest challenges will be internal, as he overcomes a lifetime of neglect and slavery to discover just who he’s meant to be.

Foundation, the first book in the new Collegium Chronicles, details a previously-untold period of early Valdemarian history. It’s set not too long after the era of Herald Vanyel, as told in the Last Herald-Mage trilogy, and introduces readers to a whole new batch of characters. In many ways, this is much like Talia’s story in Arrows of the Queen, as a mostly-ignorant youth is brought into the Herald Collegium, and transformed into a proper Trainee. Everything is told from Mags’ viewpoint, so everything is new and interesting. Mags is a rather sympathetic character, with all of the right positive traits to become the perfect Herald and protagonist, and very few irredeemable negative traits to count against him. This occasionally becomes a hair tiresome, as I kept hoping he’d screw up once in a while, but that’s a small complaint against a rather likeable character.

Foundation is really a character-driven book, rather episodic in nature, as it details Mags’ life at the mine, on the road, and at the Collegium, following his growth as a person and the development of his relationships with the other characters. There’s very little external conflict beyond how he deals with some of the more antagonistic elements at Court, and even the climax of the book is relatively subtle. Lackey’s clearly going for something of a slow burn with this series, giving us time to get used to things before she sets too much on fire, I suspect. The emphasis is on intrigue and exploring the Collegium and how it’s affecting society and the world in general, and how the Heralds are coping as well. I rather enjoyed Foundation, but I think I’ll need to read future installments in the series before I can really tell just what sort of a story Mercedes Lackey is telling here. Is it about Mags and his friends, or about the Collegium itself? Will our hero become a legend, or is he just one of a thousand Heralds to live and die in service to the Kingdom? It’s too soon to tell, but at least we’re off to a enjoyable start. It’s always nice to get a new story set in Valdemar, which has long been one of my favorite fantasy series.

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