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Friday, June 27, 2008

"Havemercy" by Jaida Jones + Danielle Bennett

Read Reviews via SF Reviews

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jaida Jones is a twenty year old Barnard College, Columbia University student studying modern Japanese literature. Jaida previously worked as an editor for both Harris Publications and Scholastic, while her poems have appeared in Hanging Loose Press, Mythic Delirium, Jabberwocky, Where We Are, What We See, and The Best Teen Writing of 2004. “Cinquefoil”, a collection of her poetry, was published by New Babel Books in November 2006. She also writes The Shoebox Project, a popular Harry Potter fan website.

Danielle Bennett, twenty-one years old, is from Victoria, B.C., where she studied English literature at Camosun College. “Havemercy” is their first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: Thanks to its elite Dragon Corps, the capital city of Volstov has all but won the hundred years’ war with its neighboring enemy, the Ke-Han. The renegade airmen who fly the corps’s mechanical, magic-fueled dragons are Volstov’s greatest weapon. But now one of its more unruly members is at the center of the city’s rumor mill, causing a distraction that may turn the tide of victory.

With Volstov immersed in a scandal that may have international repercussions, the Ke-Han devise an ingenious plan of attack. To counter the threat, four ill-assorted heroes must converge to save the kingdom they love: an exiled magician, a naive country boy, a young student—and the unpredictable ace airman who flies the city’s fiercest dragon, Havemercy.

But on the eve of battle, these courageous men will face something that could make the most formidable of warriors hesitate, the most powerful of magicians weak, and the most unlikely of men allies in their quest to rise against it...

CLASSIFICATION: Don’t let the cover art and Plot Summary fool you. There may be dragons, magicians, war and a little steampunk in “Havemercy” that may at times recall
Naomi Novik’s Temeraire and Glen Cook’s The Black Company, but the book is definitely not your typical epic fantasy adventure. Instead, the novel has a lot more in common with Sarah Monette’s unique Doctrine of Labyrinths fantasy series, including multiple first-person POVs, distinctive character voices, in-depth study of characters & relationships, and male homosexuality. Where the two differ is in their presentation with “Havemercy” much more accessible and not nearly as dark or graphic as Sarah’s novels, although the book is still recommended to adults because of explicit language and certain themes.

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 388 pages divided over sixteen chapters and includes a map of Volstov and the Ke-Han Empire. Narration is in the first-person and alternates between four different point-of-views: Margrave Royston, Rook, Hal and Thom. “Havemercy” is self-contained, but much of Volstov, the Ke-Han Empire and the surrounding lands are left unexplored. Plus, the authors are writing a semi-sequel :)

June 24, 2008 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Havemercy” via
Bantam Spectra. Cover artwork is provided by the fantastic Stephen Youll.

LIVIU’S TAKE:Havemercy” was not quite the book I was expecting based on the blurb and cover. Instead of being a standard human/dragon fantasy, this book is much more complex and interesting than that. And despite being almost 400 pages long, it's a very fast read and I almost did not put it down.

Like in most debuts there are some pacing imbalances, and the book lacks a strong distinctive voice at the beginning being split between four POV's. Two of them are relatively inexperienced youths, and one is an exiled magician feeling sorry for himself. Only pilot and all around tough guy Rook has a very distinctive voice in the first several chapters. But then Thom and Hal start maturing fast in the crucible of events and their voices become very distinctive, while Royston the magician, starts to find a new zest for life and through his eyes we experience life with the movers and shakers of Volstov.

The title character, metal magic sentient dragon Havemercy, has only a supporting role, though the parts when it appears are as good as any in similar fantasy.

Royston, sophisticated and worldly, dreads nothing more than his exile at his ultraconservative brother's estate in the middle of nowhere. Hal the poor, somewhat naive, distant relative that is groomed as Royston's nephews’ tutor hungers for knowledge so the encounter between the two is like kindling a fire. The emotional undercurrents between the two men enliven the action in the isolated countryside. When the magician is emergency recalled to the capital, what will happen with the budding relationship between the two?

In the capital, Rook, the ace of the fourteen elite Dragon Corps—pilots that ride sentient, metal dragons built by the magicians of Volstov—messed up his peacetime behavior one too many times. Because of this and Royston’s misdeeds, both of which, while unrelated, involved important personages of a country the ruler of Volstov is desperately courting for an alliance, something had to be done. But while Royston is just one of many magicians and could be safely exiled, Rook, and by extension the Dragon Corps, are essential, so a compromise is found requiring a sensitivity trainer for the tough pilots.

That is a merciless job, so Thom a “graduate student” and protégée of a powerful magician gets it, attached with the big carrot of being set for life if he succeeds, and the implicit stick of obscurity if he fails. But Thom has a secret of his own and is tougher than he seems. After the inevitable hazing at the beginning, Thom earns the respect of Master Sergeant Adamo the leader of the Corps, and slowly of the others. Only Rook keeps hazing Thom and when that backfires, he makes it his ambition to break the plucky youngster in any way he can. But life has a way of surprising people...

The main plot of the book becomes discernible after a while, the tension builds very nicely and the ending is fitting and excellent. While the book is self-contained there is ample scope for a sequel.

A big positive surprise for me this year and highly, highly recommended.

ROBERT’S TAKE: Like Liviu, “Havemercy” was not the novel that I was expecting. After all, it’s a fantasy debut written by twenty-year-olds, one of whom is a huge Harry Potter fan, with a picture of a dragon on the cover… Let’s just say I made assumptions and was quite delighted to find that “Havemercy” had much more in common with
Sarah Monette—who I feel is one of the most original authors in the genre today—instead of say, Christopher Paolini'sEragon” ;)

The most significant similarity between “Havemercy” and
Sarah Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinths is the characters, including multiple first-person perspectives. But where Sarah mainly alternated between two POVs, Jaida & Danielle tackle four different narratives. And like the protagonists in Monette’s novels, each character in “Havemercy” owns their own unique voice, although Rook is by far the most distinctive and strongly reminded me of Mildmay the Fox because of his tough-guy attitude and vulgar slang. Margrave Royston meanwhile, reminded me of Felix Harrowgate—both are magicians, nobles of a sort, and homosexual—while Hal is a country-raised distant cousin of minor nobility who possesses a ‘natural proclivity for learning’, and Thom is a commoner who has remade himself into a cultured ‘Versity student. The only problem with the latter three narratives is that they are strikingly similar in style to one another with only minor variances, but on the plus side, all four of “Havemercy’s” protagonists are fully-developed characters that readers can sympathize with and their interaction with one another is both believable and compelling—all important qualities in a book of this nature where characterization is the driving element rather than plot or worldbuilding. And in this regard, I’d say “Havemercy” is quite successful, because I found all four characters charming in their own way and really enjoyed their different dilemmas…

Where “Havemercy” falters as a book is with the story and worldbuilding. Of the former, very little of consequence actually happens. Royston has an illicit affair with the heir of Arlemagne—one of Volstov’s important allies—and is subsequently banished to his brother’s country estate in Nevers, where he befriends Hal. Rook meanwhile, gets caught up in his own Arlemagne scandal, and in punishment, the Dragon Corps are forced to take ‘sensitivity training’ under the young student Thom. Between these two storylines—which is basically a love story and a deep character study of what makes the Dragon Corps different from everyone else—you have two-thirds of the plot in “Havemercy”, although there’s also a subplot involving long-lost family members. It’s about 260 pages in that “Havemercy” introduces a third storyline involving the centuries-long war between Volstov & Ke-Han, and the Well—the source of the Volstov magicians’ magical Talents—where the book really takes offs and provides most of the story’s excitement. In other words, “Havemercy” may be a fast-paced read, but the novel comes up a little short in the thrills and adventure department :) The real problem with the plot though is not the lack of heart-pounding action, but its simplicity, particularly how easy it is to anticipate what’s going to happen because of all of the foreshadowing, like certain characters falling in love, others discovering they’re related, and finally defeating the Ke-Han once and for all.

As far as the worldbuilding, I really liked how Jaida & Danielle introduced readers to their world in bits & pieces through the eyes of their protagonists—such as the Dragon Corps through Thom or Volstov through Hal—rather than overwhelming us with boring info-dumping. The issue I had with this system is that there just wasn’t enough information provided. The complicated history between Volstov, Ke-Han and Ramanthe; the European/steampunk-influenced setting; the capital city Thremedon; Talents; the Well; Basquiat; Volstov’s allies…the authors tell us about these different places and concepts, but because they only give us the barest minimum of details, the world never really comes alive, not like the characters do. Heck, Havemercy, the novel’s title character, and her fellow dragons—half machine, half magical weapons of war—are little more than a gimmick, and are nowhere as interesting as their dysfunctional riders :)

Of course, where the plotting and worldbuilding may have been lacking, Jaida & Danielle more than make up for it with their strong writing skills—I was particularly impressed with their aforementioned characterization and some surprisingly astute observations about human behavior—and charismatic personalities :) In fact, one major advantage “Havemercy” has over
Sarah Monette’s novels, is how much more appealing and likable the book is, and with the right push, I really think “Havemercy” could attract a wide audience.

In conclusion, I highly suggest giving Jaida & Danielle’s debut novel a chance. It may not be a perfect book, but “Havemercy” has wonderful characters, is written with irresistible enthusiasm, is both fun and intelligent, is refreshingly original, and could be one of the year’s biggest surprises…


ThRiNiDiR said...

Havemercy is really getting a lot of attention lately; and almost all from moderately positive to great; I guess it's another one for my knowwhat. great review :)

RobB said...

Nice double-take review. The book sounds interesting.

Robert said...

Uros, the novel definitely deserves all the attention it can get :) Hopefully you'll get around to reading it!

Rob, thanks! I'm hoping Liviu and I can do more of these dual reviews :D

Liviu said...

I hope too we will do more dual reviews.

The mix of someone with thousands of sf novels read, but comparatively little fantasy with someone very experienced in fantasy should make for an interesting contrast in why and how much we enjoyed any given book

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the review. I had never heard of the book until I saw this, and ended up going out and buying it late this morning.

Tia Nevitt said...

Who is Liviu? Did I miss an introduction? Nice double-review!

Robert said...

Liviu, I agree it's an interesting tandem, especially when we switch roles and review a SF title :)

Scott, no problem :) Just hope you enjoy the book! Let us know what you think...

Tia, thanks! Liviu is a new contributing writer. He joined in May and his first book review was Alastair Reynold's "House of Suns", posted on May 15. Since then, he's written several more reviews--many of which are yet to be posted--and has also helped me out with the spotlights. So you'll be seeing a lot more from him :D

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, I haven't read Havemercy yet, but this review has convinced me. I don't have any prejudices against the authors for being Harry Potter fans (yes, they both are), seen as I've read most of their fanfics and rest assured that they've come a long way in terms of writting.

I'm ordering it from Amazon as soon as possible. I regret not having bought in London when I had the chance, though.

Anonymous said...

Firstly I must confess to only reading half of the book before I could take no more. Havemercy has all the machismo of Top Gun with none of the action. It's a long-winded character study of people neither especially interesting nor likable. There were some nice ideas and had they been developed a little earlier then perhaps I could have found the strength to keep reading. As it was I found the book an introspective joyless read, too sensitive for it's own good perhaps?


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