Mags, the poor orphan boy who worked in grinding poverty and insanely Hellish conditions in a gemstone mine has been rescued and is now a Herald-trainee in Valdemar's new Collegium which is being set up to train Heralds, Bards and Healers simultaneously. But Mags, who was rescued by the Heralds from where he'd been little better than a slave in a mine run by an unscrupulous man, finds himself feeling disgusted with his fellow Herald-trainees, who complain about the food and their rooms, when Mags thinks them spacious luxuries, compared to his previous life. In any case, he doesn't think they have any right to complain.
More, though, it makes him feel like he'll never fit in with his fellow trainees. So instead of moving to the new building with the rest of his fellows, he goes on living in the stables with the Companions, most of whom he feels closer to. Being out in the stables when everyone else is in the main building has excited some comment about Mags, about why he is stuck in the stables, almost as if he isn't good enough. But Mags is happy where he is and doesn't want to move.
Meanwhile, Mags has been asked if he will join the Kirball squads that are starting up. It's a mixture of many sports, and played on the back of Companions. Unusually, gifts are allowed. and while Mags is a little put off by Dallen saying it is a wargame, he does agree to join one of the teams. He's shocked when he's told that he normally wouldn't be able to join, as a first year trainee, but his skills are up to the task- the Heralds just want to make sure he's filling out properly, since the lack of food when he was a slave made him the smallest and thinnest trainee.
On his way to dinner, he meets up with his friend Lena, the Bardic trainee. But they meet a strange bard, who gives Lena a message to deliver for him. Lena seems strangely put off by this, and she tells Mags that this strange bard, who gave no sign of recognizing Lena at all, is actually her father, and himself a famous bard. Unfortunately for Lena, her father could seemingly not care less about her, and Lena, who has hoped to make her father proud of her talent, is completely crushed that he doesn't even know or remember her. Apparently, all he cares about is himself and his own artistic temperament, which he uses to justify acting like a jerk. And he only gets away with that because he is a highly gifted Bard.
After dinner, he is given a task by the King's Own Herald, Nicholas. He's to follow a man named Councillor Chamjey, whose appearance and attendance at council meetings of late has been... irregular, which is unlike him. This time, however, Nicholas thinks Mags can investigate on his own. So Mags does, first going to his noble friend Lydia to ask what she thinks he might be up to, given that she talks to the servants, and servants talk amongst themselves. Lydia tells him that some of the servants think Chamjey is having an affair, but others have pointed out that is wrong. When he goes out. he never has presents or dresses up any, like a man would if he was trying to impress a woman. But, he might be using his position as a councillor to make lots of money off other people's misfortune.
So Mags tails him, and manages to find out that Chamjey is talking about winter taking out a lot of the sheep flocks around Valdemar, and how he is going to make money by raising the tariff on imported wool. Nicholas is happy with the job that Mags did, but he also wants him to talk to the thing, which sends Mags into a lather, thinking he isn't good enough to speak to the King. However, Mags finds he has already met the King, and spoke to him when he was looking like a plain and simple Herald, so that is one load off his mind.
Mags is still looking into finding out who his parents were, but the example of Lena and her father, which Lena is still upset about, makes him think that ultimately, who his parents were don't matter. It's what he does with himself that matters. But when he finally finds out where he came from, he is stunned. His parents weren't bandits, they were captured by bandits, and they were so foreign that nobody could understand their speech. Unfortunately, they were killed by the bandits, but had killed their own captor who came to kill them during the fighting with the guard in return. Their son was handed over to the townfolk of the nearest town to deal with, and that was that.
Mags is thrilled and angered by what he reads, but he thinks that maybe his parents were on the run because they were bad people. The Archivist begs to differ and tells him that maybe his parents were on the run from their in-laws because their love was forbidden, or because their families didn't want them to wed. However, going by the details in the report, they had to be from somewhere beyond Rethwellan- the other countries around are close enough that someone would have recognized their speech, the north was blocked by Herald Vanyel, and they weren't Hawkbrothers. So they were definitely from far away.
Back at the Collegium, Mags takes his first steps to get into the new sport of Kirball, and talks with Herald Setham about the game, and why it is being played- because they need more Heralds urgently, and they have to train them to face death and hardship. Mags understands, because he knows all about that, but most Heralds have come from a more settled life, and don't know what it's like to be on the razor's edge of death. Mags is just fine with this, and though he thinks that the field they are using is insane, he also likes the idea of the game.
After dinner, he goes to meet with Lena and his Healer friend Bear, and finds them talking in Bear's Greenhouse, along with his other friend, and the King's Own's daughter, Amily. Mags is happy that Amily and Lena have become friends, because Lena doesn't make friends easily. Mags hopes that Amily, who is crippled, can bring Lena out of her shell. Amily is also impressed with Bear, telling him his affinity with herbs is a gift, and he should cherish it. That makes Bear happy.
But while Kirball training starts to take up more and more of Mags's time, he finds out that Lena isn't the only one who is having trouble with her family. Because Bear doesn't have the true Bardic gifts of the rest of his family, they want him to come home from the Collegium and marry a girl he knew when he was a child, and have children, so that hopefully his children will have the healing gift. And because it's his family, and they are strong healers, Bear feels that maybe they are right and that is what he should do.
Mags is unhappy, but tells Bear that family isn't everything. After all, he's a foreigner, or at least, his parents were. But Bear tells him to keep it down. Apparently, foreseers have seen a vision of the King covered in blood and a dark figure whom they say is foreign born. And because Mags is foreign born and on the periphery of the trainee Heralds, being quartered in the barn, some people seem to think it means Mags will betray and kill or try to kill, the King.
But even though Mags tries to ignore the rumors, they don't go away. While those who know him know that him attacking the King is simply ridiculous, but the rest of the Collegium isn't so sanguine about Mags, and when a horrible accident breaks both of Dallen's legs, and Mags quarrels with both Bear and Lena, and Nicholas doesn't seem to want to see him any longer, Mags runs away from the Collegium and takes a job as a potscrubber to try to survive. But could it be that he is wanted after all? But when Mags must track down a man he can only call "Temper" because of his extreme anger, it may be the end of Mags, and the King as well! Can Mags find the man before he can kill the King, or Mags himself?
I really enjoyed this book. Mercedes Lackey's writing and the character of Mags just pulled me and kept me reading. This does feel a little bit different from most of the Collegium books because Mags is involved with Spying and the intelligence service of Valdemar-something that wasn't introduced into the series until fairly late in its continuity, with the introduction of Myste (an author insert for Lackey herself, given that her nickname is "Misty". But here we see that Spying Heralds date from the very beginning of the Collegium, and maybe even beforehand, since Nicholas must have been trained by someone.
Here we see how Mags' parentage both helps and hurts him- he doesn't have to deal with a borderline abusive and straight out neglectful father like Lena, nor a family that thinks he has far better things to be doing than his training, like Bear's family, but at the same time, he knows absolutely nothing about them, and he wants to. And so his being foreign-born ends up causing a lot of problems for him. But at the same time, it seems that it will also become more of an issue in the third book. Given that now we know that Mags was recognized by someone in the first book, and that he is again in the second, I feel safe in predicting that another foreign delegation may show up in the third book, possibly from Mags parents homeland and solve the mystery once and for all. And given that he was recognized (may look like a dead ringer for someone important), maybe he's a prince or a noble.
Like always, the story threads are skillfully interwoven, with threads for numerous subplots, from Lena and Bear's family troubles, Mags's jobs as a spy and tracker, and once again, the foreign delegation and what they want. I found the period of when Mags is despairing over everything and runs away difficult to read, as it felt painful, even to the reader, but when he finally comes back to himself, it gets better, and the story comes to a wonderful and even thrilling conclusion. But reading near the end made me feel a bit sick to my stomach, as Mags's concerns became my own, even while I knew that nobody would just turn him out of the Collegium out of hand. Mercedes Lackey's ability to make me empathize with Mags is one of the best parts of her writing, and the reason why I keep coming back to her stories and books.
This is a book and a series that you will definitely want to pick up, and a writer whom, once you have read her, you will keep coming back to her for all sorts of wonderful stories. Even her stand-alone books are excellent, and you may become a Mercedes Lackey evangelist yourself once you start reading her. Highly, Highly recommended. In fact, I can't recommend her enough. Go out there and read her.