How well do you know fairy tales? Are you only familiar with the ones Disney has made into feature length films? Do you know all those written by the Brothers Grimm? Or does your knowledge extend further, into other cultures beyond Western Europe? Regardless of what you may or may not know, have I got a series for you. This is the Five Hundred Kingdoms by Mercedes Lackey.
The first book, which sets the stage for the world as a whole, is The Fairy Godmother, and answeres that age-old question that somehow, people tend to forget to ask. Where do Fairy Godmothers come from? But before we can get to that, we should talk about the world of the Five Hundred Kingdoms first.
We all know some basic fairy tales, such as Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella, the Princess and the Pea…etc. In this world, whenever someone’s life begins to resemble one of these tales, a power arises and begins to force their life into that mold. This power is known as the Tradition, for its impetus is to follow a previously-laid path and further reinforce it as a Tradition. So, after Elena Klovis’ mother died and her father remarried a self-centered woman with two spoiled daughter, the Tradition began to shape her life towards that of Cinderella. She was an unpaid slave in her own home after her father’s death, but there was no ball for her to attend when she was sixteen. After all, the Prince was still a toddler. Nor did anyone rescue her when she was eighteen. In fact, it wasn’t until she was twenty-one that her stepmother chose to depart, with her daughters, leaving Elena alone to make her escape.
That’s when she became an apprentice Fairy Godmother. You see, Godmothers and Wizards in particular are people from failed Traditional paths. Elena is just one of many failed Cinderellas. She couldn’t marry her Prince because he was a child, but he could have just as easily been an old man, a Princess, or gay. Any one of those would have caused the Traditional path to fail, but you can’t explain that sort of logic to a faceless force, which just kept trying harder and harder to push her into the mold. The feeling of pressure surrounding her was magic, which she, as an apprentice Godmother, was then able to use.
The duties of a Fairy Godmother are innumerable. Essentially, they try to guide the Tradition into beneficial paths for the Kingdom or Kingdoms they are responsible for, while preventing it from taking more destructive ones. It’s no easy task, especially as there’s nowhere near five hundred Godmothers or Wizards, the latter being the male counterpart to the former. Then you consider that Evil Sorcerors and the like generally only need to focus on a single country, and the Godmother is responsible for several…it can be a challenging job.
The Fairy Godmother divides fairly neatly into two sections. First we examine Elena’s life as she’s known it, then we get into her new existence as an Apprentice Godmother. The second half is later, after she’s on her own and starts off with a low-risk Quest she’s assisting with. Both halves are good, though the first part is probably stronger and more interesting and the second is something of a precis for what the series is. It’s in the first half that the world of the Five Hundred Kingdoms is established and the reader is introduced to the Tradition and its power and function. The second half is…well…these aren’t in the romance section. Aside from the fact that they are definitely fantasy books, the Five Hundred Kingdoms tales are fully of sappy and obvious romance as the main characters seek and earn their Happily Ever Afters.
When I said that I wanted to read something lighter than my big, hardcover copy of The Summer Queen, I meant it on two levels. Not only do I have mass market paperbacks for all but one of the Five Hundred Kingdoms books, but they are such light reads that I finished a 480 page book in a single day, without staying up late, and this is by far the longest entry in the series. None are so short that I need to bring more than one to work, but they are not at all difficult to read. Really, the biggest challenge you’ll find here is recognizing every fairy tale that is referenced. I’ll be honest and admit that I don’t know all of them. I can recognize most, of course, and especially those which Lackey seems to prefer, but I should also point out that the plots of these books don’t always follow the strictest interpretations of the stories they draw upon. Which, of course, makes them better books for it.
So, of to the next sugary saccharine tale of Adventure, Love, and Magic in the Five Hundred Kingdoms!