Mags was a former slave, worked in a gem mine in the backcountry of Valdemar along with other children, who could get into the tightest places to retrieve the gems that the owners of the mine demanded. Slavery, though, is not allowed in Valdemar, and when Mags and his fellow workers were found, it meant bad times for the owners of the mine, and Mags and his fellow workers were freed. Also, Mags was Chosen by one of the fabled Companions of Valdemar, the white spirit-horses that are so beloved by the people, and hated by the enemies of the small country.
Because of his background, and how much he had to learn before he could join the other Trainees, being unable to read or write, and his scrawny body from the lack of food given to those at the mine, Mags never fit in with the other trainees. But he didn't lack friends- Mags found friends in Bear, a trainee at the Healer's Collegium without a healing gift, but whose ways with herbs and other ways of healing not magical was near-legendary, Lena, the extremely gifted daughter of a famous Bard, whose own father ignored her and her gift because of his own need to be the best and the brightest, and Amily, the daughter of the King's Own Herald, whose crippling impairment makes most activities too strenuous or damaging for her. None of them seemed to judge him, and all had their own problems, which meant that they could just be friends, and lean on each other for support, knowing that the others would understand how they felt.
But Amily's friendship brought Mags to the attention of the King's Own. And this King's Own, Nikolos, was carefully chosen by his companion, Rolan, to be something of a spy. Nikolos is particularly forgettable when not in Herald Garb, and the small Mags, who is equally forgettable, had the kind of abilities that Nikolos is looking for to be of special service to the King. So while Mags undergoes standard Herald training, and plays on the Kirball team, he is also tagged with being part of the "Special Service", essentially, with being a Herald Spy, and training for that, too. In effect, Nikolos is setting himself up as a fence in the lower city, with Mags playing his deaf-mute servant, and using his knowledge of gems and gemstones that he learned in the mines, to aid Nikolos in his work.
But Mags, in addition to helping his friends Bear and Lena with their family problems, and planning for Amily to receive the surgery she needs to fix her leg from Bear and the Healers, runs into a group of ruthless men in the lower city, using a bunch of homeless orphans as unpaid servants and forcing them to steal and spy for them. When Mags finds out, he knows he has to do a horrible act himself- because of the way the orphans have been mistreated, they will never accept kindness or handouts, seeing charity as something completely unknown. Instead, he must force himself to act the bully and take over their small group- to treat them, in seeming at least, the way that others have while actually allowing them to eat better and get better food and clothes than they have ever been used to before, and also in better quality. He must also make them do the same job- spying, that they have been doing for others, and somehow prepare them to find better homes off the streets and be accepted, and all without letting any hint show how hard and sickening such an imposture is for him. For if they sense anything off, they will run as far and fast as possible, and Mags wants to save them, if such a thing can be managed. And the city is suffering from strange irritation, possibly from the heat and possibly from a far distant source. Can Mags track down what is making people so hot under the collar, or will he be drawn into these irritations himself?
But he's also trying to help his friends deal with their family. Lena's father cares nothing for her, and only for himself, and Bear's family has decided that he will never amount to anything without a healing gift, despite the fact that his facility with herbs and healing in the slower, more natural way is worthy of the time and attention of the Healing Collegium- and they agree. But Lena's father is more than simply self-centered, and when her own father's crimes are finally revealed, can she stop looking to him for attention and respect and decide to stand on her own talents? And what of Bear? He knows his skills have worth, and that the Healing Collegium respects him for them, but can he ever stand up to his own family and decide that he is worthy, even if that means they will never respect him? And Amily's crippled leg may hold her back, but why is she so important to the assassins that keep coming into Haven and trying to make trouble? Will Mags lose her love if she gets back her mobility, and can he rescue her when the assassins steal her and take her into the lower city to escape?
And will Mags ever learn who his parents really were, or is it more important that he decide who he wants to be without that knowledge? Can Mags and Nikolas track down who the real culprits behind the assassins and saboteurs are, and what is happening in the situation with Karse? What will become of the three friends after they have become adults? And how will they fare in the Valdemar to come?
In a way, I was happy to see this book, but after I finished reading it, I found myself in many ways disappointed. Most of Mercedes Lackey's series set in Valdemar and its world (like Arrows of the Queen, the Last Herald-Mage, Magewinds and so on) are trilogies, but this book is the least like the ending to a trilogy I have ever read. Too many questions are unanswered at the end to make me feel entirely happy with the ending. And given how Bear and Lena seemed to have made progress before at the end of a book, only to go back to whining about their problems in the next, I distrust that they have finally learned their lesson after this one. Okay, yeah, Lena's father is under house arrest, and so is the bard who got drawn up in the plan of the kidnappers, but not much else really changes- there has either got to be a fourth book or another trilogy coming.
That annoyed me. Another thing that increasingly annoyed me was Mags's accent. Its tried to be explained away by saying that he keeps it so that people who don't know him will underestimate him. Okay, I can understand that. So then, why does he speak that way when he mind-speaks with Dallen, his companion, for heaven's sake, and even with his friends? He can speak normally perfectly well, and he certainly does it at the end of the book when he is searching for Amily, but when he does, his speaking without that horrendous phonetical accent is only described, not written out. And reading his accent, with the missing letters, apostrophes and all, is time-consuming and kept breaking me out of the story because it didn't flow with the rest of the words of the narrative.
Another irritation is Kirball, which showed up way too many times, and for too long. It looked like it was there to pad out the pages of the story, and I would have preferred to see more story and less sporting event. And the constant telling, not showing got irritating to me. Mags is explaining how people feel with his empathy, and I felt talked down to like I was in first grade and not very bright, to boot. Come on, you can let me figure it out... I'm not stupid or dumb, or even autistic. I felt that the overinsistence on telling got me as angry as the people in the Capital when Stone and Ice were around. But I knew why I was angry.
That being said, I still found the situations intriguing, and the ending got my blood pumping, but the irritation at all the telling and having to interpret Mags's ludicrous accent rankled fiercely. So many questions stuck around and new questions were raised that it scarcely felt like the ending of a trilogy. Read it, but you might want to pick this up from the library, or wait until the series has ended before picking it up, because there is a fair bit of irritation to interfere with the pleasure of reading. Not recommended. YMMV.