This is the first Valdemar book she’s written in a while; it’s the start of a new series (The Collegium Chronicles) set a few generations after Magic’s Price (there is a Bard who learned a song from his mentor who had Stefen as his mentor). The timeline at the beginning has Magic’s Price as occurring during the reign of Randale, beginning in 798 AF and this set a little after 850 AF (no specific date). The Herald’s Collegium is currently being built; previously, trainees were trained individually or in very small groups by a mentor, but there has been a sudden influx of trainees and the number of Heralds who can safely have trainees (either based in Haven or on less-dangerous circuits) is not enough to cope. There is a general air of unease underneath everything in Haven, but the reasons aren’t really clear. Part of the unease is because some of the Heralds are not happy about the new Collegium; they think that the trainees need more personal supervision or the old ways were best or don’t like that there are enough trainees to force a change in training from mentor-apprentice to school-based or aren’t happy that there are trainees from more diverse backgrounds than previously. In the background, but only mentioned in passing, is that a sudden influx of trainees generally means a sudden need of new Heralds, often due to loss of existing Heralds due to war or other catastrophe.
Mags is a thirteen-year-old boy working in a gem mine along with a number of other orphaned or otherwise abandoned children; they are all underfed and overworked and there was a threat of murder for disobedience (people occasionally died in suspicious cave-ins; there were a few more blatant instances as well). He is eventually Chosen and taken to Haven to begin his training. Left alone at the Collegium at midwinter (his friends and most of the other Trainees went home), he attracts the attention of Master Builder Soren (ran into him at the market and advised him that the jewelry he was considering buying had flawed gems), and finds himself invited to one of Master Soren’s midwinter open houses. He meets several others around his age there and becomes friends with them. They are all the children of notable people and spend time spying (looking for signs of trouble; there are vague indications of unrest) under the direction of the King’s Own.
I thought this book was all right and I will read the next, but it is very generic Lackey and in some ways a retread of earlier books; there are parallels between Mags and Talia and also Mags and Skif, and there were also a couple of scenes that distinctly reminded me of other books, though in one case it was a generic sort of scene and I’d just read another book with a similar event. My biggest problem with the book was the complete lack of conflict or drama or action, even (except for a small amount at the end); I like escapist fluff, but I want a little more substance than this book had. Once Mags is at the Collegium, everything falls into place for him with very few problems (see below for a full description); he has no problems adjusting to the changes in his life, no problems controlling his Gift, and no one really cares about his upbringing. The one thing that actually bothered me about the book was that after he was first Chosen, his Companion kept him calm and accepting without telling Mags that he was controlling him. Mags was not bothered when he found out that his Companion could control his mind, either. Despite everything, I did find myself caring about the characters somewhat and wondering what the foreshadowing with Mags signified and what would happen next.
Mags is Special: Even at the mine, he is the best miner; most of the truly horrific parts of the experience are told later and most were seen, not experienced (not that being underfed and overworked and underdressed isn’t horrible). He somehow managed to teach himself to read and write sentences while all the other children were still struggling with simple words. The change in his situation is never too much for Mags to deal with (though his Companion was keeping him calm at first). He learns to ride quickly, though he does have some problems at first. Once at the Collegium, he gets a room to himself away from the other trainees. He is a natural with weapons, despite an early reluctance to raise a weapon against another person. No one cares that he has an extremely low-class background. He does relatively well in his classes (not the best, but not the worst), despite his almost complete lack of education; he does have a tutor for some subjects (history, especially) and he ends up with a friend as his tutor instead of an actual teacher. He has an extremely strong Mindspeech Gift, and has no problem controlling it. He and his Companion are closely linked enough that Dallan spends a lot of his time telling Mags what he should do in any given situation, so Mags doesn’t commit any social errors. He doesn’t make friends that easily at first, but he doesn’t make enemies either. He does spend a lot of time alone and just kind of avoiding company, but once he realizes that he is lonely, he acquires friends (not deliberately); Lena is a Bardic Trainee and the daughter of a high-ranking Bard, and Bear is a Trainee Healer without the Gift but with the best knowledge of herbal medicines of anyone at the Collegium. He attracts the attention (positive) of various high-ranking people and ends up with the King’s Own as his unofficial mentor.