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‘s Eragon.
The most significant similarity between Havemercy and Sarah Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinths is the characters, including multiple first-person perspectives. But where Ms. Monette mainly alternated between two POVs, Ms. Jones and Ms. Bennett 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 Monette’s 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 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 and Ke-Han, and the Well — the source of the Volstov magicians’ magical Talents — and then 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 Jones and Bennett introduced readers to their world in bits and 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, Jones and Bennett 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 this 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.
Havemercy — (2008-2011) Publisher: This stunning epic fantasy debut introduces two exciting new authors — and a world brimming with natural and man-made wonders, extraordinary events, and a crisis that will test the mettle of men, the boundaries of magic, and the heart and soul of a kingdom. 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… Filled with adventure and discovery, treachery and betrayal, Havemercy is a thrill ride to the unexpected — and an unforgettable journey that will linger long after the fire of battle has cleared.