The Hills Have Spies by Mercedes Lackey
If, like I was, you’re utterly unfamiliar with Mercedes Lackey’s hugely popular and wide-ranging VALDEMAR series and the various interconnected novels set within that kingdom, The Hills Have Spies (2018) is a good entry point. The narrative flow is familiar in a retro, 1980s kind of way, evoking the fantasy genre I immersed myself in during my adolescence, with an appealing and likeable main character, various clever animal companions, a dastardly villain who spends most of the novel off-page, and just enough tension to keep me turning the pages to the comfortable, heartwarming conclusion.
Peregrine is the oldest of three children born to Mags (Herald Spy of Valdemar) and Amily (the King’s Own Herald), and Perry and his siblings have spent their childhoods being trained in the arts of subterfuge, spycraft, swordplay, and developing their individual talents while befriending and cavorting with the royal children. Perry’s is Animal Mindspeech, which he uses to communicate with and see through the eyes of animals ranging from tiny mice to birds to dogs. It’s all exciting enough, but Perry’s never left the royal city, and when troubling reports of itinerant workers and merchants going missing along Valdemar’s border reach Mags’ ears, he and his eldest son set out to determine what might be afflicting the remote countryside.
Perry and Mags’ journey to the border has the feel of a short-term road trip, with plenty of time taken for ambling, campfire building, engaging with local villagers and wildlife. Perry gets to put his considerable skills to use on several occasions tailor-made for character development, his relationship with Mags is respectful and loving even as Perry chafes to make his own decisions and establish himself as his father’s equal, and their animal companions — Mags’ actual Companion, Dallen, and a local creature known as a kyree and introducing itself as Larral — each have their parts to play in solving the mystery of the disappearances. The overall tone is a little YA, leaning heavily on Perry’s process of maturation and self-determination during an eventful period in the young man’s life while keeping the sense of danger light, and I can easily imagine my younger self clutching The Hills Have Spies with eager anticipation for what animal or obstacle Perry would encounter next.
At no point did I get the sense that Mags, Perry, or their companions were in any real peril, but I wasn’t looking for a novel that would challenge my genre expectations or cause me a lot of grief, and I genuinely enjoyed following Perry’s exploits as he took the investigation into his own hands and encountered situations and beings that were new and unfamiliar to him. Lackey’s handling of an intelligent, sensitive adolescent boy’s thought process and sometimes foolhardy decision-making felt realistic, and his father’s fretting over whether Perry could handle himself felt equally realistic, echoing the concerns any good parent would have for their child’s incipient adulthood.
There was also a fair amount of contextual information for what I assume to be staples of the VALDEMAR tapestry as a whole, including Companions and a smattering of Gifts (i.e., Animal Mindspeech), though I’m unclear as to how Gifts differ from magic, which seems to be impossible in Valdemar; the novel was easy to read and understand without intimate knowledge of the greater continuity, though, and background information is easy enough to find online for readers who need it.
The Hills Have Spies is the first novel in the FAMILY SPIES series, followed up by Eye Spy, recently-published and featuring a similar journey through adolescence for Perry’s middle sibling, Abidela. I liked this volume enough to jump right into Eye Spy afterward, and will be reviewing it for Fantasy Literature soon.
Did you ever review ‘Eye Spy’? I really enjoyed the book, and I’d love to read your review.
Unfortunately, a review of Eye Spy never came together, for various reasons. My apologies! I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it, though.