After something new, I wanted something old. Something I hadn’t reread in years because, well, it’s kind of dumb. But I won’t get rid of the book even so, and thus here we are. This is Castle of Deception by Mercedes Lackey and Josepha Sherman, set in the world of The Bard’s Tale. And I mean the old computer game The Bard’s Tale, which I personally have not played. (I did go pick up a copy of the PS2 version sometime after I discovered this book, but still.)
The thing to know about Mercedes Lackey is that she’s been a part of fandom for a very long time. You can tell just by looking at a lot of the books she’s written, even the timing of them. Take Castle of Deception. It’s from back in 1992. Not having played the original game, I don’t know how much of the plot relates to it, just like with that Wing Commander book I read a while back. So since I can’t make a good comparsion, let’s talk about what we’ve got here.
Kevin is a sixteen year old bardling. That is to say, he’s young man who has the potential to wield Bardic Magic and is currently in training. But, being a young man, he’s quite certain he knows everything he needs, if only he had that magic to help him out. So when his master Aidan sends him to Count Volmar’s castle to copy a manuscript, he’s eager for adventure. He’s not thrilled by the restrictions placed on his copying – by his master and by the count’s people – and has an inflated idea of his own self-importance, but his heart’s in the right place.
Unfortunately for Kevin, it seems that there’s more going on than it seems. Thirty years prior, the Princess Carlotta had tried to usurp the throne from her aging father, displacing her half-brother the heir, Prince Amber. She had used her sorcery to turn Amber to stone, and Bard Aidan, along with several others, was able to stop her and put Amber on the throne. Not that you’d suspect the elderly Aidan to be so much of a hero, which is one of Kevin’s many disappointments with life.
Once he arrives at the Count’s home, Kevin is made thoroughly miserable by his lack of status and enforced isolation. So when he’s given the opportunity to lead a rescue party for the sake of the Count’s niece Charina, he jumps at the chance like any young hero would. Of course, he’s the youngest in the group by a long shot after Lydia the mercenary, Eliathanis the White Elf, Naitachal the Dark Elf, and Tich’ki the fairy. Somehow, the bardling has to get this mismatched group of people to work together and save the Count’s niece.
It’s a fairly straightforward adventure in the tradition of Dungeons & Dragons, but that’s no bad thing. Sure, Kevin’s obnoxious at the beginning, but we do see him mature and learn not only how to lead but how to use his own skills in the real world. And, of course, it seems that Charina is the least of their worries…
I first found Castle of Deception in the used bookstore that was next to the eye doctor. It was the first time I’d really had a local used bookstore to go to, and I was in heaven. I was able to expand my Lackey collection with old, out of print books I’d never heard of before, and each one seemed better than the last in my excitement. It was also the first place I’d ever seen fabric bookcovers of the type I’m never seen without these days. They were made by a local woman as I recall, and had some wonderful patterned fabric choices. (My first one had dinosaur skeletons. I miss that one so much.) It was a great little local business called Books Again, and I was very sad when it closed. In many ways, it was that store that helped me get to where I am today, because until then I had never really bought used books – it just didn’t occur to me that you could get them anywhere besides Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, and other stores. Admittedly, I was only in highschool at the time, but still, it was an important formative experience.
And, like I said, I picked up a video game later because of this book. It’s not easy, especially for a very casual video gamer like myself, but I have fun with how down and dirty it gets. (You can literally tip cows in the game. I love this fact.) I’ve only beaten the first major boss at this point (don’t ask how many years I’ve owned it, you don’t want to know), but I still have fun in between being frustrated at my own inability to play it well.
But if I’m not a great video gamer, I am a good reader. And it was no great difficulty to follow Castle of Deception with Fortress of Frost and Fire, the second Bard’s Tale novel Mercedes Lackey had a hand in. Although this one is coauthored by Ru Emerson instead of Josepha Sherman. To my mind the exercise reads as another case of a more experienced and famous author giving boosts to newer, less well-known authors. But it’s still very Lackey, to the point where I can see her hands in it, as compared to her book with Piers Anthony which seemed to be almostly completely written by her.
Following the events of the first book, our Dark Elf friend Naitachal has forsaken his life as a Necromancer and become a Bard. He’s even got his own apprentice now, the bardling Gawaine. And considering that one of the characters in this book is a Paladin named Arturis, I’m pretty sure someone was thinking on Arthurian lore here. Probably Emerson, as Lackey didn’t really get into those legends until some twenty-five years later.
What does bear Lackey’s unmistakable stamp, however, is the titled fortress itself. If you asked me what her favorite fairy tale was, I’d have to say it’s the Russian Firebird. You know, with the deathless katschei in his fortress of everwinter, his heart that is not kept in his body, his collection of pretty maidens, etc. Fortress of Frost and Fire was actually the first of Lackey’s renditions that I encountered, but I’ve read no less than three from her hands. And, I suspect there’s a fourth in that Elemental Masters series I refuse to touch. I don’t have proof of that, and have no interest in looking it up, but I seem to recall there was a variant on Beauty & the Beast in there and so I see no reason why she wouldn’t insert her favorite fairy tale at some point.
It’s a rather full adventure, as Gawaine gets a face full of real world experience that helps him overcome the final obstacles in becoming a functioning adult all the while we see a number of colorful characters (including the aforementioned Paladin) becoming more than they were when we first met them. It’s a rather mixed bag though, as the group includes a dwarf, a lizardman, a stereotypical Russian peasant (of course, if you’re going to do a Russian fairy tale), a Druid, and our old friend Naitachal.
By the time I’ve gotten to Fortress of Frost and Fire, I’ve gotten over some of the problems I had with the early chapters of Castle of Deception, like Kevin’s attitude. No, the flaws I noticed in Fortress of Frost and Fire are more to do with standard rookie mistakes, such as changing viewpoint characters from one paragraph to the next. It does make sense in the end, but it’s a little rough on the reader who can’t follow the author as intuitively because of it. That’s how you can tell that the bulk of the work was likely done by the junior author of the pair, because I’m quite certain Lackey herself was beyond that by the time this was published in 1993. Or at least I hope she was. We never want the people we look up to to be flawed, now do we?
Anyway, there are a total of three Bard’s Tale books that I know of and are coauthored by Mercedes Lackey. The last one, Prison of Souls, is with Mark Shepherd (who also wrote some SERRAted Edge books with Lackey) and is the rousing conclusion to this set. As you may have noticed, the real center of these books is Naitachal, the Dark Elf Necromancer-turned-Bard. Now a good century after the events of Castle of Deception, his current bardling is Prince Alaire, the King’s youngest son.
It’s never stated how many generations down from Amber Alaire is, but we do know that Kevin is dead of old age and Gawaine is quite elderly. I would note that Prison of Souls reminded me of Marc Scott Zicree’s Magic Time books in that there are some inconsistencies on details when this third book refers back to the first. Minor things, that you’d only notice if you’d recently read the first, or your memory is as good as or better than mine when it comes to your reading material.
Things are fairly quiet at Naitachal’s house when a royal messenger comes out of the blue with a letter. He and Alaire are being sent as formal ambassadors to Suinomen, Althea’s neighbor to the north. Apparently there’s been noises about war threats and the King wants it dealt with. Oh, and as an added catch, Suinomen doesn’t like mages. Or nonhumans, for that matter, as most of them seem to be creatures of magic. So the two head off, concealing their identies of Bard and bardling, and Alaire is to be just Naitachal’s secretary.
Alaire is quickly swept off by Kainemonen, the Crown Prince and resident drunken sot, while Naitachale works on behalf of the Althean king. However, very little is as it seems and the two may find out that there’s far more going on in Suinomen than anyone outside the country thought.
As I said, this trio of books is clearly Naitachal’s story overall. Sure, he’s an adult and an Elf (which makes him older and more experienced than most of the other characters he meets), but he’s not infallible or omnipotent and he’s got just as much to learn in each book as his students. And that climax in Prison of Souls…! Truth be told, the only reason I reread Castle of Deception (despite my continuing opinion that it’s the weakest of the three and Fortress of Frost and Fire (which is mostly retelling a fairy tale I’ve seen numerous times and don’t find as engrossing as Lackey seems to) was because I knew having all that buildup would give Prison of Souls a truly satisfying conclusion. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy it even if I hadn’t reread the preceeding volumes, just that reading the last book in any series is never as satisfying if you can only vaguely recall what led up to that point.
You can figure these books aren’t horribly long – all of them are under 400 pages apiece. And, regardless of quality, they are fairly quick reads once you get into them. (Prison of Souls is probably the one that takes the least amount of time to get into.) They’re not the best books I’ve ever read, but they’re not the worst by a long shot (witness I still own and reread them). And they’re yet another example of why I consider Mercedes Lackey to be a “gateway” author. In this case, I never would have picked up The Bard’s Tale video game if not for these books. I don’t know that this was a life-changing occurrence, but it’s often hard to look back and point to all the effects stemming from a single specific cause.