I’ve been reading my way through Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdom series, and I keep meaning to review each book…but I reviews piled up and I haven’t got to them. So I thought maybe I’d better review the series on a whole. It may be best looking at them all together anyway, because I have definite feelings–mixed.
The series has been rather hit and miss for me, both in that some books are better than others and that some aspects of books have been better handled than others. The biggest advantage of this series is a blissfully brilliant concept–in the 500 Kingdoms (take that literally) life is constantly influenced by the Tradition, a vague, overarching, not-quite-intelligent magical force which tries to push people and events onto…well, traditional paths. Therefore life tends to conform to familiar fairy tales, for good or for ill. The Godmothers are a network of powerful magical women, who work through and around the Tradition, trying to create happy endings.
I love that concept. I love all the playing with traditional fairy tales, and I love the clever ways they get retold. I love the ways people find to manipulate the Tradition, and the sometimes silly things that have to be done to keep the Tradition happy.
Things get more mixed with the characters–from book to book, some have been strong while others have never felt fully realized. Likewise, I have mixed feelings on the plots–some are good, but several have felt distinctly scattered. But perhaps I’d better look at this book by book.
The first book is The Fairy Godmother, which I did review. It tells the story of Elena, who should have been Cinderella but her prince was unsuitable, so she was taken on as a Godmother instead. Eventually she has to teach a conceited prince a lesson, and a romance ensues. This is one of the better books in the series, with strong characters even if their romance lacked some depth. Some parts of the book are given over too much to world-building, but mostly we’re following Elena’s development and the plot carries along well.
One Good Knight focuses on bookish Princess Andromeda, whose country is being ravaged by a dragon. Maiden after maiden is sacrificed, and it’s inevitable that eventually Andromeda is chosen. I like Andromeda and her growth, and this one also has a particularly effective villain. The romance feels dragged in near the end, but is actually pretty cute too. I didn’t love this one somehow, but it was enjoyable.
Fortune’s Fool is about Princess Ekaterina the mermaid and Prince Sasha, a fool in the traditional sense of a secret wise man, whose role is to bring luck. They’re among my favorite characters in the series so I enjoyed reading about them–particularly the ups and downs of Sasha’s somewhat odd job. This one suffers from a bit of a plot problem, though, in that they each have separate, unrelated adventures, then meet and fall in love, and only then finally get into the main plot (a genie who’s been kidnapping girls) and…well, by then there’s a definite about time feeling to the whole thing. Though it ultimately all ties together, it frequently feels unfocused as we go along.
The Snow Queen feels like the weakest installment. Aleksia is a Godmother with the unique role of Snow Queen, who finds out a witch is using her name and stealing away young men. Meanwhile, the mother and the sweetheart of Veikko, the most-recently stolen man, set out to find him. I like the way this one plays with the fairy tale, but I wasn’t that fond of the characters and the plot felt hopelessly slow-moving and unfocused. In Aleksia, I saw a problem in making a Fairy Godmother your heroine–like in the fairy tales, godmothers frequently put people through horrible situations…for their own good. Even when it’s fairly convincing that they’ll learn something, it still gives me an uncomfortable feeling. And then I don’t know what the focus of this book was meant to be: Aleksia’s growth (which didn’t feel fully explored) or the quest to find Veikko (who we didn’t meet and have little reason to care about) or the fight with the Snow Witch (who doesn’t really come in until near the end).
Fortunately, The Sleeping Beauty is a better tale, blending together Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the Norse Siegfried saga. Scattered though that sounds, it actually fits together pretty well. We get an intelligent princess, a more likable godmother, and two very charming princes. There’s a crowd of princes and champions who have to overcome a series of challenges, which gives us some of the best playing-with-fairy-tale tropes of the series!
Beauty and the Werewolf is also one of the better volumes, a loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast merged with Little Red Riding Hood. When Bella is bitten by a werewolf out in the forest, she has to stay at the Duke’s manor until they find out if she’ll change into a werewolf too–staying there specifically because Duke Sebastian just happens to be the werewolf who bit her. Bella and Duke Sebestian are both good characters, and there’s some nice mysteriousness centered around the Duke’s invisible servants. In a way, less happens in this installment than in many others, but I think that the more focused plotline actually helps, compared to the disjointed feel some of the books have.
Just recently Lackey published a 500 Kingdoms novella, “A Tangled Web,” which you can find as part of Harvest Moon. This reprises a couple of characters from Sleeping Beauty, and tangles them up in the Hades and Persephone story. Persephone plans her own kidnapping to get away from her overbearing mother, but things go awry when Hades’ servant kidnaps the wrong blond goddess. This one is particularly hilarious in many spots, with a pretty focused plot–it’s just not that long, so Lackey can only do so much!
As you can see by now–there’s good and bad. Unfortunately, just as there’s an overarching premise that’s great, there’s an overarching problem as well. I hate to say this about what I know is a major figure in fantasy writing but…I frequently don’t like Lackey’s writing very much. There’s nothing particularly brilliant about the sentences themselves, and there are often places where I feel the books needed another round of editing–the same word repeated in close proximity, little inconsistencies, or information that’s repeated unnecessarily. It sounds nitpicky, but it really throws me off at times. And maybe I come to that lack-of-editing conclusion in part because I know she has an absurdly large bibliography…but something is just a bit off here. And on a larger level, those plot problems and lack of character depth ultimately come down to writing too.
I’m glad to have read this series because there is a lot that’s fun, but I won’t be rushing out to read more of Lackey’s enormous bibliography. If you like fairy tale retellings, there are some good ones in here–and the good news is, any of them can be read independently of the others, if you’re tempted to pick anything up!
Author’s Site: http://www.mercedeslackey.com/