Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review of Havemercy

Havemercy is a collaborative debut novel written by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett. In July, an indirect sequel (i.e., a related book with a different set of main characters, some of whom were introduced in the first book) called Shadow Magic was released. On its own, Havemercy has a satisfying ending, but as one of my favorite reads of this year so far, this character-driven fantasy/steampunk novel has me eager to read more by Jones and Bennett.

There are two main storylines that eventually merge in Havemercy, each focusing on two characters somehow brought together as the result of two separate scandals offending the same foreign country. One of these disgraceful situations was caused by Rook, a dragon rider in Volstov's Dragon Corps. The wife of the diplomat from Arlemagne was perfectly happy to go to bed with him - until he tried to pay her afterward. Since the Dragon Corps are the main advantage Volstov has in its hundred year long war against Ke-Han, punishing them too harshly is out of the question. However, some measures must be taken to appease Arlemagne for mistaking a diplomat's wife for a common prostitute. The solution is bringing in Thom, a bright student from the 'Versity, to teach a sensitivity training course to the Dragon Corps. This task proves to be far harder than Thom anticipated - the Dragon Corps is rather spoiled, and Rook in particular takes a strong dislike to their new professor.

The other scandal involves Royston, a well-known magician who was in a relationship with Erik, a foreign prince from Arlemagne. Since the prince's country is not as accepting of homosexuality as Royston's, Erik betrays Royston once the connection between the two is discovered. He blames his entanglement with Royston on seduction by magic, even though Royston's ability has nothing to do with charm. To appease the nation of Arlemagne, Royston is then exiled to his brother's home in the countryside. While he is there, he meets the children's tutor Hal, a very intelligent young man who is perhaps better suited to city life and a 'Versity education than the country life Royston despises.

When the war against the Ke-Han takes an unexpected turn, it is up to these four very different men to use their unique positions to aid Volstov.

The main reason I picked up Havemercy was that I kept hearing it compared to Sarah Monette's The Doctrine of Labyrinth series, which I'm sure you are all shocked to hear once again is one of my all-time favorites. There are definitely similarities - the emphasis on more character development than plot, the story told through the first person perspective of multiple characters, the setting being background without a lot of explanation, the contrast between the viewpoint of an educated person and an uneducated person who both grew up in the slums, and the inclusion of a gay wizard. However, it wasn't quite as strong as Monette's series, which had more vivid characters (but then, Monette's characterization is first-rate and rarely matched). My personal preference is for darker books, too, and this was lighter than The Doctrine of Labyrinth series.

Havemercy was definitely well worth the read for fans of character driven fantasy, though. It is one of those stories in which the protagonists take the forefront and the plot is secondary so readers who prefer lots of action and adventure may be disappointed. That's not to say that there is no action or adventure, but most of it is toward the end and felt rather rushed. As a reader who enjoys characterization the most, I didn't care and found reading about these four very different men the main reason for reading this book.

Toward the beginning, I liked Royston, Hal and Thom but could not stand Rook, the obnoxious young dragon rider who thought a bit too much of himself and stirred up trouble. He was horrible to women and homosexuals, mean to Thom and overall pretty awful - yet he also had the most interesting point of view and by the end I found him my favorite to read about other than Thom. This was because Rook was brutally honest - he had no qualms about restraint or politeness and he never held anything back. Plus, as the character who had a connection to the mechanical dragons, he was the gateway to that part of the world, as Royston was to the magical side of it. By the end, Rook had also grown somewhat, which helped, although he still has a ways to go and I wouldn't say I actually liked him even then. He also had the most unique voice since Hal, Royston and Thom were not all that different from each other despite their diverse backgrounds. All three of them had a more literate voice and a thirst for knowledge and learning, so although they were different, their narrative voices were not as distinct as Rook's ungrammatically correct, vulgar one.

The story of Thom and Rook was definitely my favorite over Hal and Royston's. As one of the most important people to the safety of the realm, Rook could do whatever he wanted and get away with it so Thom certainly had his work cut out for him when it came to teaching Rook some manners. I love a good conflict and their tale had plenty of that, as opposed to Hal and Royston's, which quickly wrapped up any sort of conflict. Also, I found Thom and Rook's parts had a lot more humor than Hal and Royston's, who both tended to be more serious in their thoughts. One of my very favorite scenes was the role-playing sensitivity training session/competition Thom did in which each member of the Dragon Corps had to pretend to be everyone from "The Arlemagne Diplomat's Wife" to "That Whore Rook Insulted the Other Day for Having Ugly Breasts" to "That Kid Ghislain Hit on the Head When He Dropped Merritt's Boots out the Window."

The world is a combination of fantasy and steampunk - there are magicians with various powers who built the mechanical dragons that are the big advantage Volstov has in the war. The main glimpse of the dragons we get to see is on the few occasions when Rook is out with his dragon, the titular Havemercy (who really has very little to do with the book in spite of that). Although these dragons are not truly alive, they seem very much so since they can converse and their riders do form emotional attachments to them. I would like to know more about the setting since several aspects are mentioned but not fully explained, such as how exactly the magicians get their powers. Since there is another books set in this universe, it may be explored in further detail later, but in this book at least, the setting, like the plot, takes a backseat to the characters.

Although it is not the best character-driven novel I've ever read, Havemercy is an excellent debut and well worth reading for those who prefer a slower paced look at some different characters to heavy action, a fast-moving plot, or massive worldbuilding. I'm very much looking forward to reading more from Jones and Bennet, particularly the sequel to this book.


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orannia said...

Great review Kristen! I finished this last week and...YUP, what you said :)

I too loved the role-playing sensitivity training session - it was hilarious! And the sequel is on my TBR list.

Harry Markov said...

Yet, another novel to have on my TBR. Greatness. I would love to see how the mechanical dragons were integrated in this one.

Michelle Picard said...

I agree this was a fantastic book and will grab the sequel when it comes out. This is the first time I've visited your site, and was excited to see that Sarah Monette's series was at the top of your list. I loved it and was sorry to see it concluded.

orannia said...

Kristen - I wanted to let you know that I ordered The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit from The Book Depository yesterday. My library doesn't have it so I caved! Am looking forward to reading it :)

Memory said...

I kind of want to reread this now! I'm hoping my library finishes processing SHADOW MAGIC good and soon so I can return to this world.

Kristen said...

Orannia - Thanks, I'm glad you liked Havemercy! The role-playing sensitivity training part was hilarious - I was grinning all the way through it. The sequel is on my TBR list, too, although I'll probably wait for it to come out in paperback. If I don't wait, I'll have mismatched books and that can't be good.

Now I'm nervous since I know you rarely buy books without reading them first. I hope you love The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit. Did you get the revised version?

Harry - The dragons didn't show up a whole lot in spite of the title, but they did show up here and there and were important.

Michelle - I'm so glad to meet another Sarah Monette fan! The Doctrine of Labyrinths is one of my two favorites (along with Storm Constantine's Wraeththu books) and I was sad to see it end as well. Have you read her other book, The Bone Key? I have it on the TBR pile but haven't read it yet.

The sequel to Havemercy is out, although it is only available in expensive hardcover at the moment.

Memory - I always want to reread old favorites when I read a review of them or start telling someone about them. Hope your library gets moving with processing the new book!

Benjamin said...

Just a silly nitpick, but how on earth do you mistake the wife of a diplomat for a common prostitute? I understand that Rook is brutally honest and horrible toward women, but still...

orannia said...

I love the sensitivity training! Poor Thom!

And I have faith :) Unfortunately, I have no idea if the copy of The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit is the revised version - it was just the copy available at The Book Depository. Will try and work it out tonight. Oh, and am thinking of also ordering The Archer's a review (by someone I know) and she loved it!

Benjamin - one of the things you quickly learn about Rook is that he doesn't care about anyone or anything... Saying that, IIRC it is explained that said diplomat's wife was dressed in a particular style more commonly associated with prostitutes in Rook's city. Not that that excuses him...he isn't the easiest character to like.

orannia said...

Kristen - the version I've ordered was published in March 2007. I'm not sure if that is the revised version though but I'm guessing so considering it was published so recently...

Kristen said...

Benjamin - What Orannia said. Rook doesn't care, he's never formally introduced to the woman from the sounds of it, and he didn't realize that women in Arlemagne dress like prostitutes do in his city.

Orannia - Poor Thom indeed. They played every horrible prank they could think of on him. You couldn't help but feel very sorry for him.

If you get The Archer's Heart, I would love to know what you think of it.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that you love the first Wraeththu book. Yes, that's the revised version. I haven't read that one but I have read about some of the changes to it. When I did hear what some of the changes were, I was very tempted to get that version, too, even though it's expensive.

orannia said...

I'll keep you posted - on The Archer's Heart and The Enchantments of Flesh & Spirit :)

Benjamin said...

orannia, Kristen, thanks for the explanation. :)

I'm still undecided on whether to buy this and I have so many other books already...

Kristen said...

Orannia - Great, I'm looking forward to hearing what you think of both!

Benjamin - It's a tough choice when there are so many books demanding to be read.