Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett
Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett
Bantam Spectra Books, July 2008, ISBN 978-0-553-80696-0
I’m not sure how the collaboration between Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett worked when they wrote Havemercy, a fanciful novel about the besieged kingdom of Volstov and the iconic men who ride the magnificent mechanical dragons that serve as Volstov’s main defense. But it sure felt like there were two distinct styles going on in the pages of this book; one with an irreverent, humorous and engaging voice and one with an overly romantic, milquetoast absurdity that threatened to leech out any credibility that the first style established.
Pity, that. The book begins very promisingly, with characters being introduced as intertwining narrators in alternating sections within chapters. There is Margrave Royston, a witty, intelligent yet somewhat caustic politico (possessing a magical Talent) with a not so daring weakness – dalliance – with a more daring twist: he prefers his bed partners to be young and male. Having indiscreetly seduced the son of allied royalty, he finds himself exiled from the city he loves to the far less sophisticated country estate of his younger brother.
Hal is adopted son of this younger brother’s shrewish wife and serves as default tutor and full time babysitter for the couple’s three young children – a task that the dreamy, intelligent boy appears to genuinely enjoy. As the sudden coming of the Margrave causes turmoil and disruption in the orderly (and somewhat pedestrian) household, Hal has been assigned to keep the Margrave company – and keep him out of trouble.
Then there is Thom, the promising young ‘Versity student, assigned the unenviable task of trying to bring a modicum of tact and social sensitivity to the boisterous and unabashedly raunchy men who make up the Dragon Corps – adored military heroes in a time of war and embarrassing yet untouchable miscreants during peacetime. Thom is an idealistic young scholar of modest means who fears that this assignment will bode ill for his psyche, but knows that accepting it will garner him the appreciation of the Essar (the ruler of Volstov), thus allowing him to continue in his studies.
Finally, there is Rook, the foul-mouthed, intense and fiercely roguish corpsman who rides the magnificent Havemercy, the mechanical beast imbued with the magic of the magicians who built her. Rook is the one who insulted the wife of a foreign diplomat by assuming she was a prostitute, thus provoking Thom’s presence at the edge of the Corps. Rook is a wonderful bad boy, with his wildly braided blonde hair streaked with blue, his utter contempt for authority, and his voracious appetite for malicious mischief and mayhem.
Had Havemercy been a straight-forward rip-roaring yarn of military bravery, rowdy bluster and character intrigue, it may have turned out to be a pretty darned good tale. The depiction of the men of the Dragon Corp and their place in society, as well as the layers of that society as glimpsed through the deposed Margrave and all the characters’ interactions with the ruling hierarchy, while not breaking any new ground, were well realized and engagingly presented. The concept of the mechanical dragons (can you cry “steampunk, extraordinaire”?), their relationships with their riders, and indeed the recounting of flight were very imaginative and even gripping at times.
Unfortunately, all the best of intentions couldn’t salvage the mess that developed once Ms’ Jones and Bennett introduced the obligatory love story into the mix. It started out fine – tender, even – but devolved into a hyper-Victorian, overly principled, ridiculously prim story line was out of character for both the worldly Margrave and the innocent Hal. The narratives of both spoke of passionate yearning, but neither acted upon it except in ways that would put a pre-teen to shame, and even then with cautions and demurements that would have had even staid matrons urging them for gods sake to get on with it. Which they never did.
Not saying that side-stepping the question of sex is wrong. Many books suffer because writers just can’t be honest with admitting that writing about sex is difficult, and often unnecessary. But in this case, we have an obviously horny, powerful, experienced libertine who all of a sudden develops a high sense of public decency, without the benefit of a deep connection with the subject of his affection (or affectation). The heightened propriety leaves an incredibly false taste in the mouth, especially when compared to the ribaldry of the Dragon Corps. Those men may be cads, but at least they aren’t posturing about it.
Would that the relationship between Royston and Hal were more honest – both publically and privately. In fact, Hal becomes such a precious character, no matter who he interacts with, that one would expect him to melt right away if caught in the rain. Shame, that. He could have been quite interesting, given more than the superficial treatment that he’s subjected to in this story. Awakening? Coming of age? We aren’t that lucky. Then there is the evolution of the (non-romantic) relationship that develops between Rook and Thom. This development is much more interesting, and far more appropriately written, but even it bogs down as a one trick pony show. So many promises, so little payoff!
Unfortunately, just as the very promising characters begin to flatten out, the action also stalls. I’m no military genius, but even I would be hard pressed to explain how keeping all of your most potent military weapons and materials in one place during a time of active warfare is a valid strategy. Also, it’s hard to understand why a society advanced enough to create magnificent clockwork dragons (albeit infused with magic) could go for generations without overcoming their one most limiting flaw – an inability to carry enough fuel to target the opposition’s central city. Are these really the people we want to be rooting for?
Oh, well. Despite its narrative weaknesses, the book is still worth reading to get to know the colorful characters as they initially unfold. It’s good raw material…. but you may want to borrow that and make up your own adventures in your head or simply enjoy the scenery. What you come up with may be more rewarding than that happens by the end of Havemercy. But that scenery is still engaging for the most part, if you’re ok with a book that’s entertaining as a dalliance, rather than one that is gripping or absorbing. Havemercy is not a waste of time, but don’t put anything off to experience it – it’s only really worth idle time, if you have it.