The Hills Have Spies
by Mercedes Lackey
Recommended Ages: 13+
Anyway, what I learned in this book is that Valedmar is a kingdom in a pre-industrial world where magic is not unheard of, but it's also not trusted. Guys like Mags, who holds the title of Herald Spy and who has the Gift of Mindspeech – being able to send and receive thoughts with other human beings – don't really count as magicians, and you'll even catch him in this book saying he doesn't know anything about magic. Heralds are apparently some kind of law enforcement outfit that handles national security issues, and spies probably don't need explanation, so as the Herald Spy, Mags is a pretty important guy. Important enough, and trusted enough, that he, his wife and three children live in the apartment right next to that of the royal family.
Part of earning the white robes of a Herald, apparently, is being Chosen by a Companion – notice the capital letters – and sorry, I'm not sure exactly what sets Companions apart from other horses, other than being superintelligent and able to send thoughts back and forth with their Partner. It's apparently something quite obvious, however, because I've been given the impression that anyone less nearsighted than, like, me would likely spot it immediately. Oh yes, I guess they also have other psychic abilities and can become practically invisible if they want. There's that. Actually, that's a lot of information about Companions, I guess. But I spent a good part of this book feeling acutely like I'd walked in late and missed the bit that explained everything.
Not to worry, once things moved past the exposition stage, the action, intrigue and suspense became too absorbing to worry about the background information I'd missed. To be extremely brief, Mags decides it's time to take his 13-year-old son Perry out on a mission. Perry shows promise as a future spy but hasn't been Chosen yet, and at that age, most likely never will – and therefore, will never be a Herald either – so there's a sense, lingering between father and son, of someone getting close to feeling disappointed about something, but neither wants to admit what it is. They go out into the sticks, right on the edge of the kingdom, to find out if a disorganized, semi-retired Herald named Arville has any reason to suspect something is indefinably off about his corner of Valdemar. They find out that not only was Arville right, but it's worse than anyone could have expected: a twisted being of insane evil has started to gather an army just outside the kingdom's borders, and the nature of his powers may mean there's nothing all the King's Heralds and all the King's Spies can do about it.
But Perry, being the hot-headed brat that he is, decides someone's got to try. Naturally, he gets caught up with it, along with a semi-talking wolf/cat creature called a kyree, Larral is his name, with whom the boy forms an instant bond. (After Larral told Mags, "Rags, Ry roose Rerry," I couldn't stop repeating that line with a little giggle.) Yes, Larral can talk – in a Scooby-Doo kind of way – but better than that, he can communicate mentally with Perry. Not because their bond counts as Companionship or anything; Perry just happens to have the Gift of Animal Speech. This gift comes in handy as Perry get himself hired at the bad guys' fortress, disguised as a mentally addled dog-boy (named Dog-Boy) who has a mad talent for managing a kennel. But it's the idea of infiltrating the Master's compound that turns out to have been really mad – and so, increasingly, is the Master himself: a cannibal with a Mind Speech gift so powerful that he can enslave hundreds of people, and who is building up power by doing evil blood magic.
The sense of inevitable disaster builds and builds, even as Mags, Perry and various animal friends – and some that are, frankly, more than animals – do all they can to distract the Master from their presence while trying to work out how to stop him. From Mags' perspective, it's a father's worst nightmare. For Perry, it's a man-sized test of his skills as a spy, despite being barely more than a child. And for hundreds of people and creatures in the middle of an eerie, empty city in the middle of a quite possibly haunted forest, every tiny thing father, son and friends do could tip the teetering balance between life and death.
It's a pretty intense little thriller that took me to some fantasy-world places I haven't been before. The darkness that Perry goes up against may push this book up the maturity scale to the main character's age if not higher. However, it would be a dull reader who wouldn't come away from this book interested in learning more about such concepts as candlemarks (as a measure of time), Bondbirds, whatever those white-robed Heralds and their horsey Companions do, to say nothing of Mages, Watchers, Hawkbrothers, Sleepgivers and all those queer creatures of the Pelagir Hills.
I'm a little uncertain how to go about counting the books by this author, even broken down into their various sets or series; even the usually helpful Fantastic Fiction is uncharacteristically agnostic about this. The usual numbered lists of titles break down into standalone titles that may, so far as I know, be short stories, novellas or standalone books spinning off from the main series. I know, however, that Lackey's titles include multiple series based in the fantasy world of Valdemar, including Heralds of Valdemar, Vows and Honor, Last Herald Mage, Mage Winds, Mage Wars, Mage Storms (those three are trilogies), Collegium Chronicles, 15 anthologies of Valedmar stories, and a bunch of other titles just grouped under "Valdemar." Also within this Valdemar bracket are three Herald Spy novels, which directly feeds into the Family Spies trilogy, Lackey's most recently completed cycle, of which (sigh! at last) I can now tell you this book is the first installment. There's also a new book titled Beyond, just out on June 15 of this year, which is supposed to be the start of a new series called Founding of Valdemar.
But in case that last paragraph isn't enough, Lackey has also co-written a number of novels with her husband, Larry Dixon; and has either ghost-written, collaborated with or been ghost-written by Elisabeth Waters, Josepha Sherman, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Eric Flint and Dave Freer, James Mallory, Roberta Gellis (a.k.a. Max Daniels) and Rosemary Edghill (a.k.a. Eluki Bes Shahar); contributed to several multi-author series; put out, more or less solo, the (as far as I can tell) non-Valedmaran series Diana Tregarde, Shipscat, Bardic Voices, Elemental Masters, Fairy Tale, Dragon Jousters, Five Hundred Kingdoms, Martis and Hunter; and with or without various co-authors (including Piers Anthony, Cody Martin, C.J. Cherryh) penned or contributed to some 12 or 16 other books. Among her nonfiction works, she also edited a book called Mapping the World of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, an "unauthorized exploration" of the first six Harry Potter books. Her list of credits is obscenely long and difficult to parse out; I think I'll be doing well if I deal with the Herald Spy and Family Spies trilogies, for now.