Just when you thought fantasy publishing had jumped the shark for good — what with every other book on the racks these days yet another paranormal investigator/sexy vampire/demon slayer clone — along come two college students hammering out their debut novel between cramming for finals and late-night shifts at Starbucks. All at once a whole raft of tedious clichés are either refreshed and rebooted or thrown out entirely.
It's too early to tell whether or not Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett will one day join the ranks of imaginative fiction's great duos — Niven and Pournelle, Moore and Kuttner — but in Havemercy they certainly qualify for the semifinals. These ladies write like a house on fire, delivering fantasy's most pleasant surprise since Temeraire himself took wing in 2006. Jones and Bennett (I think I'll call them "Jaidani" to save space from here on) have reinvented dragons yet again, this time in a steampunk context. But the bulk of their story is driven by some of the most sensitive and authentic attention to character you're likely to see this side of Westeros. Their storytelling is far more consistent at this point in their careers than that of last year's Big Thing, the commendable but wildly overrated Patrick Rothfuss, and among the genre's young turks, well, they mop the floor with the competent but originality-challenged (to put it politely) Chris Paolini. Havemercy may be no Temeraire, but this is most assuredly a book to add to your shopping cart while you're busy picking up Victory of Eagles.
The setting is the kingdom of Volstov, which has been at war for a century against the neighboring Ke-Han Empire. Volstov has the advantage in that their magicians have created the mechanical dragons flown by the Dragon Corps. But the Corps is limited in its effectiveness as the dragons' fuel, drawn from the magical Well that Volstov's mages rely on, won't give them the range to fly all the way to the Ke-Han capital city and back. Still, they're effective enough to prevent any investiture of Thremedon, Volstov's capital, by the invaders.
It looks as if Volstov is, at last, on the cusp of victory. Drawn into the drama at this point is socialite magician Margrave Royston, who's been sentenced to exile for, ahem, indiscretions with the prince of one of Volstov's important allies. I enjoyed the way the mages in this world deviate from the long-bearded, sagacious Gandalfian norm. They're more like rockstars. Royston lives lavishly, appreciates only the most expensive fashion and food — Queer Eye for the Sorcerous Guy, you might say — and enjoys courting scandal as much as any celebrity. (Somewhere in Thremedon is a rehab clinic, I just know it.) But this time he's really put his foot in it — well, not exactly his foot, but never mind — and he is shipped off to his brother's country estate to contemplate the error of his ways, pretty much for the rest of his life.
In sharp contrast is the blustery dragon pilot Rook, the quintessence of the uncouth loutish soldier. All fourteen members of the Dragon Corps are typical flyboys, hard-partying horndogs among whom Rook is just the least restrained. And he has gotten the whole Corps in trouble with his own social faux pas, grossly offending the wife of a foreign diplomat.
The war is actually played out in the background for most of the novel, as the story settles into a character-driven piece about the respective relationships that these two men develop with two younger men they encounter in the wake of their troubles. Royston develops a fraternal bond with his brother's adopted ward, Hal, who's been earning his keep at the estate tutoring the children. This soon blossoms into love, and it's handled with such impeccable taste, warmth and sympathy (the little charades they have to play to conceal what's grown between them ring tragically true) that only people who have allowed homophobia to strip them of any vestige of humanity will find it offensive.
Hal enables Royston to outgrow the selfishness that has ruled his life up to this point. But no such epiphany comes easily to Rook, when the Dragon Corps finds itself having to take "sensitivity training" as a way of mollifying the offended diplomat. (It's a great scene, too, introducing each character in a little tour de force of narrative technique.) Teaching this is a hopelessly nervous student from the city's 'Versity, Thom. Years younger and laughably inexperienced in life compared to the pilots, Thom is immediately targeted for abuse — in the form of anything from childish pranks to direct bullying — from Rook. Nothing like a friendship grows here. In complete contrast to the Royston/Hal romance, Rook and Thom's aggressively heterosexual alpha male conflicts aren't masking any latent affections.
Havemercy's protags, likeable and otherwise, breathe life from each page in a way that many seasoned veterans of fantasy fail to convey. Each chapter breaks down into first-person point-of-view narratives, and you can see how Jaidani likely just chose which character each would write — a good way for collaborators to keep each other on their creative toes.
But being a first novel, Havemercy has its issues. One for which it'll catch a lot of flack involves how little we actually see of the dragons. Though the book is named for her (it?), Havemercy only appears in a handful of scenes. The dragons are artificial, but the magic that powers them has given them sentience and a personality type compatible to their pilots. Quite unlike Will Laurence and Temeraire's almost familial bond, Rook and Havemercy insult and cuss each other out like Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos and his familiar Loiosh, though their mutual insults are an expression of gruff affection. But while seeing so little of her does bestow a sense of exoticism and mystery on the dragons (we only learn the others' names), at the same time it means Rook's bond with Havemercy never communicates its depth to the reader as it should. Thus the book's climax lacks the emotional power it needs.
A second issue, a little more defensible, is that (and I'll minimize spoilerage as best I can here — still, skip the rest of this paragraph if you wish) while the authors manage to defy tiresome convention for most of the book, there is a reveal that comes up about two-thirds of the way through, regarding a link between two characters. Here, Jaidani latch onto the ripest cliché imaginable and hold tight like a cat clinging to a sock full of catnip. But what saves the story at this point is their refusal to let it spiral into mawkish, unearned cheap sentiment, which is what usually results anytime this hackneyed little chestnut is pulled out and hacked all over again. It doesn't kill the book like it could have. But although Jaidani make it more or less work for them, it was still an unnecessary storytelling choice.
Still, Havemercy's mercies far outweigh its failings. The story had any number of chances to collapse into eye-rolling melodrama. Jaidani achieve such emotional truth in their character development that the book avoids practically all of them. (The lack of prominent female characters is kind of interesting, too.) I also enjoyed some subtle moments of political commentary; like a certain president I could name, the ruler of Volstov has a rash habit of overconfidently celebrating victories before he's actually scored them.
Havemercy works beautifully as a rich and rewarding stand-alone adventure. It's an impressive debut for its 20-year-old creators and one of the few truly notable titles of 2008. Knowing the industry, and the fact that Jones' bio promises "more metal dragons!", I'm certain there will be a sequel of some kind. Maybe then we'll get to see more of these metal dragons. And we'll have a good idea of just how exciting things can get when these ladies really let their imaginations fly.