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Mercedes Lackey's new book, Brightly Burning, is an incredible adventure from beginning to end. Set in the magical world of Valdemar, the book follows the tale of Lavan Chitward, later called Lavan Firestorm, who begins the book as an ordinary middle child outshone by ambitious siblings. As the story progresses, he finds he's the only person who can save the kingdom from a terrible war through the use of his magical yet horrifying Gift. Valdemar is a land founded in the devastating aftermath of the Mage Wars, thousands of years before Brightly Burning. Baron Valdemar seceded from an evil empire to lead his people to a new land where they could live free. Afraid that his descendents might become targets, the Baron prayed to all the gods for a safeguard. This safeguard arrived in the form of Companions, who are instrumental to every book that unfolds in this incredible land.

For those unfamiliar with Valdemar, this book functions as a unique, stand-alone adventure. For old Lackey fans, this book is far richer, featuring details from many of her books that come before and after it, weaving more legends and rich adventures into the tapestry of Valdemar. The books can be read in any order and this one is excellent for sampling Lackey's world while deciding whether to step inside.

Lavan is an ordinary child who misses his happy country home and has no desire to follow the rest of his family into the cloth trade. He willingly goes to the merchant school his parents enroll him in, but encounters the worst danger of his life. A vicious gang of the oldest students tortures the other adolescents with beatings and public humiliation. The gang, known as Sixth Form, forces other students to act as their servants and even steal for them. Anyone trying to escape their rule is brutally caned. Lavan's parents believe that he's a liar and his teachers care only for the tuition fees.

One day the Sixth Form students capture him and proceed to inflict their worst torments yet. To Lavan's astonishment and horror, his unacknowledged gift turns on his tormentors in a blaze of unimagined fury, setting fire to the room and to its inhabitants. When he awakes in the House of Healing, burned and in pain, the Companion Kalira "Chooses" him. Appearing as pure white horses with startling blue eyes, Companions are actually spirits of Valdemar who Choose worthy citizens to become Heralds, an elite fighting force who roam the land dispensing justice. Companions only Choose brave, unselfish people who have the capacity for greatness, although they have been known to choose thieves, outcasts, traitors, and other unlikely future Heralds. Even the king must be a Herald to inherit the crown, thereby ensuring that no monarch can become a tyrant.

Many Heralds have startling magical gifts, though none are so powerful nor so dangerous as Lavan's, because it emerged through self-defense rather than proper training. Lavan is terrified of the fires that erupt when fear or anger threatens him. Since his first use of the fires killed several of his classmates, many people debate his worthiness to be Chosen. Only the wordless love of Kalira can help to surmount the guilt and fear his Gift creates.

He and Kalira have a lifebond, a deep, pure love binding them even tighter than most Companions and their Chosen. Lavan makes friends who help Lavan to feel comfortable and confident about his abilities, although the urgency is far greater than they wish. War is on the verge of breaking out, and only a Gift like Lavan's has a prayer of halting the advancing army, whose priests burn prisoners alive in order to summon demons.

Finally, the moment of battle arrives and Lavan, only a scared sixteen-year-old, is Valdemar's only chance to hold back the invading armies and their demons. What risks will he take to protect his friends and loved ones? Can he survive on the battlefield when the thought of taking another's life terrifies him beyond thought? And can he harness his Gift, which flares out of control when he feels rage or terror? The characters of this story follow Mercedes Lackey's unique style, with bad habits, day to day problems, and needs that bring each character to life. The hero, especially, has adolescent problems that every reader can identify with, from frustrated rage at being helpless against the powerful school bullies, to fear of being cowardly, and hesitation to harm another. He deals with the normal rigors of schooling, pushy relatives, and an unwanted crush even as he attempts to control the most dangerous Gift that his fellow Heralds have ever seen, with the loving aid of Kalira.

Lavan draws his readers into the story by his sheer reluctance to be a hero. As with many adolescents, he is unprepared for the challenges before him and must grow up far faster than he had expected. He is far from perfect, but his need for love and acceptance will touch the hearts of everyone who opens the book.

Brightly Burning is not a children's book, although the hero is still a teenager with problems such as bullies and school. This may discourage some adult fans who prefer reading about more mature conflicts. Lackey's books are generally not intended for children, although many teens will find this stand-alone story appealing. Brightly Burning is also a bit more violent and less romantic than Lackey's other works, but it sends clear messages about love and acceptance while telling an enjoyable story from beginning to end. The ending is oddly uplifting, in a way only a few writers can craft successfully. Other Lackey novels hint at the ending, and there is a vague and confusing prophecy near the book's beginning. The action-packed novel still twists and turns, leaving the reader wondering almost to the last page how the book will end.

This book brings to life the common fairy tale theme of the unappreciated child who becomes a great hero when he learns that he has magical powers. The theme appears in everything from Cinderella to Harry Potter and Star Wars. Yet this theme's popularity lasts through time because of its universal appeal. Everyone has felt neglected at some point in their lives, and everyone longs to find out that they have special powers and a destiny.

This book is a wonderful read, for old Mercedes Lackey fans, fantasy lovers, or anyone looking for wonderful characterization in a great novel. Very few moments of the book come across as boring or out of place, and the conflicts continue almost from the first page to the last. It is a story about love: between parents and children, husband and wife, brother and sister, and most of all within deep friendship that never fades. It's a story about when to cling desperately and when to let go. The relationships through the book will bring tears to your eyes and a smile to your lips. Burning Brightly is a magical, fantastic tale that will touch your heart on every level.

Valerie Frankel wrote her first novel at the age of sixteen, along with poems and short stories that were published in her high school magazine. Valerie was the editor of two college magazines and continues volunteer storytelling in her spare time. Her work has appeared in Spellbound, Zealot, Fables, Vertigo, Seele, and La Palabra magazines. Visit her Web site for more of her writing.

Bio to come.
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10 Jun 2024

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