Mercedes Lackey’s “Five Hundred Kingdoms” series

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This series is set in a fantasy version of our world, based mainly around Europe, a world with the characteristics of our fairy tales, myths and legends.

Many of the stories we know as fairy tales are the ancient traditions of this world. There is a magical force called The Tradition which attempts to force people’s lives into the same pattern as the ancient stories.

In this world there are various practitioners of magic (collectively called “magicians” in this series): (Fairy) Godmothers, Wizards, Witches, Sorcerers and Sorceresses. Any of these can be good or evil. The good magicians generally work in cooperation to maintain peace and order, and overcome evil.

The Fairy Godmother (2004)

Elena Klovis is mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, and forced to work as a servant. In fact, her life is following the pattern of Cinderella – except no prince turns up.

When her stepmother and stepsisters flee town to escape their creditors, Elena decides she needs a job, and goes to the hiring fair. Finally, at the end of the day, a woman offers her a position – she turns out to be the Fairy Godmother, Madame Bella, and she takes Elena as her apprentice. (The original Godmothers were fairies. Most of the current Godmothers are mortal humans, but the prefix “Fairy” is still often used. The Godmothers continue with the Fairies’ blessing.) Madame Bella is responsible for several kingdoms, so the stories that follow involve a few different kingdoms.

One of the first things Elena has to do is drink Dragon’s blood, which tastes horrible, but enables her to understand the languages of animals. Most animals don’t have much to say, but some animals, referred to as Wise Beasts, are intelligent, and it is possible to have intelligent conversations with them.

One of the assignments Madame Bella takes her to is the christening of a princess (with a striking resemblance to the corresponding scene in Sleeping Beauty). The several magicians have planned for the effects of The Tradition. As expected, an evil Sorceress turns up and casts a curse on the child after all the other magicians have bestowed their blessings. But she has overlooked Elena, the apprentice Godmother, who now has the job of casting a counterspell.

In another assignment, Elena has to alter the path of The Tradition where a woman’s baby is destined to become a Ladderlocks (Rapunzel), and changes the situation to that of The Princess and the Pea. When Elena completes this assignment, Bella leaves, and Elena becomes a full Godmother.

After this, a king establishes a quest. The Questers must venture through the forest, experiencing various trials, to win the hand of his daughter, Kylia, who is confined in a Sorcerer’s castle. The winner would thus become heir to the throne.

Elena has the job of administering the first test separately to each of three princes who are brothers. She disguises herself as an old woman, and asks each of them for food.

The oldest prince, Octavian, ignores Elena when she makes her request, so she casts a spell making him wander lost in the forest for a month. The second prince, Alexander, gets angry with her, and threatens to run her down with his horse, so she turns him into a donkey. The youngest prince, Julian, is kind to her, so she gives him advice which will help him in his quest. (And he does consequently win the quest and marry the princess.)

And then, because she can’t leave the donkey in the forest, she takes him home, to work on the property. (The Godmother’s property consists of the house, gardens, farmyard animals and orchards, with forests nearby, so there is plenty of work to be done. There are also four Brownies who look after the house and property.) She must turn Alexander back into a man every seven days, to prevent him becoming a donkey permanently, but he must still work on the days when he is human.

Eventually, Elena decides Alexander has learnt his lesson sufficiently to turn him back into a man permanently, but she does not release him yet. And romantic feelings start to be felt between Elena and Alexander. But Elena is afraid this could lead to adverse consequences – Godmothers do not traditionally marry or take lovers.

Then they hear bad news. The palace, where Alexander’s brother Julian is now heir to the throne, has been taken over by an evil Sorcerer called the Katschei, the king killed, and Julian and Kylia imprisoned. Elena and Alexander (who has military training) must gather up their allies and attempt to retake the palace.

One Good Knight (2006)

This story is based – at the beginning at least – on the Greek myth of Andromeda, and the legend of St George and the Dragon.

Princess Andromeda (Andie) is bored with her life, until she manages to convince her mother, Queen Cassiopeia, and the Queen’s adviser, Solon, that she is able to use her research skills to assist with the running of the kingdom. However, Andie starts to discover some strange facts. There has been an increase in storms on the coast, resulting in shipwrecks. Most of the salvage rights are owned by the Crown, so the shipwrecks result in wealth flowing to the Palace coffers. The storms are also causing trouble for the farmers.

Then a dragon attacks the city and ravages the surrounding countryside. The only solution is to send for a Champion to fight the dragon. And in the meantime, it is necessary to present a virgin girl to the dragon each week. The girl is chosen by lottery, and tied or chained to a stake for the dragon to take and eat.

Months go by, and no Champion appears. The sacrifice of girls continues. Andie hears rumours that it is the daughters of people who speak out against the Queen who are chosen in the lottery. Then Andie’s name is selected.

We, the readers, are told from early in the book that the Queen and her adviser are the villains of the story. Solon, with the Queen’s agreement, has used weather magic to cause the storms, has brought the dragon to their country, and has rigged the lottery. And Andie has discovered too much about their schemes, so they decide she has to die. Solon has also set up a magical barrier around the country to prevent Champions entering. But Andie does not find out who is behind these schemes until later in the book.

Andie is chained to the stake waiting for the dragon. Her friends have provided her with lockpicks, and have planted weapons around the valley, so she will have a fighting chance. As the dragon approaches, Andie struggles to unlock her chains. Then a knight appears, and fights the dragon, causing it to fly away.

The knight’s name is Sir George. Somehow a loophole was found, enabling him to cross the magical barrier. George wants to follow the dragon and kill it. Andie decides that she must not return home, as someone in the palace wants her dead. The two of them travel across country, tracking the dragon.

But there are surprises to come – George’s identity, the nature of the dragon, and more. And can the Queen’s and Solon’s evil schemes be thwarted?

Fortune’s Fool (2007)

As the author states in her introduction, she has used material from several Russian fairy tales in this book. Also, the theme of the wise fool is common to many Russian fairy tales.

Katya is a daughter of the Sea King. The Sea King and his family are much the same as the merfolk, except that they have legs instead of tails, despite the fact that they live underwater, breathe water, and swim instead of walking. Katya is the only family member, apart from her father, who can walk on dry land and breathe air without difficulty. For this reason her father has given her the position of secret agent, to investigate the lands surrounding his sea realm.

Sasha is the seventh son of the King of Led Belarus. According to the Tradition, the seventh son is often a Fortunate Fool, and the royal family have made use of this fact. In public, Sasha plays the fool, playing mischievous pranks on people, and earning curses from his family and other people. But in private his family praise him (unless he has gone too far). This is because playing this role brings fortune to the kingdom. But Sasha has another role, singing songs and playing instruments, to encourage prosperity in the kingdom. He also wanders the land as a musician, seeking out sources of evil, and using the magic of his music to banish the evil from the land.

On one of his trips, Sasha meets Katya, and they fall in love, and spend some time together. But Katya is called home by the Sea King, to be sent on another mission.

The Katschei, the evil sorcerer mentioned in “The Fairy Godmother”, had left his castle near Led Belarus, to attempt to take over another kingdom, as described in that book. But since his death the castle has remained empty. But now something else has taken over the castle, and is kidnapping young women. The Sea King sends Katya to investigate.

Katya allows herself to be captured. She finds herself in the castle with several other young women, all with magical nature or abilities. Their captor is a Jinn. He is kidnapping maidens of a magical nature, because he can draw magic from them to build up his own power. He has created a desert around the castle which prevents their escape. Katya, along with the other girls, try to work out how they can defeat the Jinn.

When Katya is delayed, Sasha sets off to try and find her. He has several adventures: he is captured by Baba Yaga, an evil and ugly witch; he escapes to the underground palace of the Queen of the Copper Mountain (a seductive woman, with whom Sasha is tempted to stay); he takes a trip on a boat at sea, gets caught in a storm, and is thrown overboard by the crew. He is rescued, and captured, by the forces of the Sea King, and must tell the Sea King his intentions toward Katya.

Then the Sea King takes Sasha to meet two Dragon Champions, Gina and Adamant (from the book “One Good Knight”), who have received a message from Katya. Sasha and the two dragons make plans on how they might rescue Katya and the other girls.

The Snow Queen (2008)

This story is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, and other traditions of northern Europe. There are two main plots, both of which follow the pattern of Hans Christian Andersen’s story in different ways.

Aleksia is the Snow Queen, actually a Godmother, whose palace is in the north in the ice and snow. Her geographical area of responsibility is a lot larger than other Godmothers’. Like all Godmothers, she has the responsibility of checking out the effects of the Tradition, and redirecting events which would otherwise have unfortunate results. She is skilled in the use of the magic mirror, to observe events throughout the lands. In a couple of minor plots, she rescues a couple of “babes in the woods” from death in the forest, and warns a king not to put his queen aside to replace her with his mistress.

One responsibility of Aleksia’s, as had been her predecessor Snow Queens’, is to teach young couples a lesson, when she sees they are heading in a Traditionally dangerous direction. For this reason she has taken the young man Kay to her palace, when he wished to be alone to do his work. Aleksia had noticed the magic of the Tradition building up around him, and realised that either he would become prey to an evil Sorcerer, or he would become a Clockwork Artificer – a kind of cold-hearted mad scientist who makes automatons and brings them to life. She has brought him to her palace, telling him it is to enable him to do his work, but has made the palace cold, lonely and boring, hoping he will reevaluate what is important to him.

But Aleksia has deliberately given Kay’s girlfriend, Gerda, the impression that Aleksia has cast a spell over Kay, and abducted him against his will. Gerda sets off on foot to try to rescue Kay. She is captured by robbers in the forest, but is protected, and eventually helped to escape, by the robber chief’s daughter. Then she is helped by a Wise Bear, Urho. (Urho can communicate mentally with humans, and so is not just limited to humans who have drunk Dragon’s blood.) But all this is also part of the test administered by the Snow Queen.

In the meantime, Aleksia gets word from Godmother Elena that there is another Snow Queen, an imposter, causing trouble. Aleksia needs to investigate.

Annukka is a Wise Woman of the Sammi people, capable of minor magic. Her son, Veikko, had been destined to become a Warrior Mage, and so had left home to seek out a teacher. Before leaving home he had become engaged to a girl called Kaari.

But Kaari and Annukka learn through magical means that Veikko is in deadly danger. They leave their village on reindeer-back to rescue Veikko. On the way they are captured by robbers, but Annukka uses her magic to overcome them.

Veikko had been learning from the Warrior Mage, Lemminkal. But Veikko, Lemminkal, and Lemminkal’s brother, Ilmari, had gone into the forest, and had been overcome by the false Snow Queen. The false Snow Queen had cast a spell on Veikko and taken him to her palace.

Aleksia finds out all this through her mirror magic. Leaving the protection of her palace, she uses transformation magic to change herself into a Swan, and later various other creatures, to reach the spot where the three men had been overcome. She eventually meets up with the two other women, and they plan how to rescue first the two brothers and then Veikko.

The Sleeping Beauty (2010)

This story is based on three stories which have sleeping princesses. As the author says in her Author Note: “Here we have a truly fractured set of fairy tales—when Sleeping Beauty gets hijacked by Snow White, then punted right off the field by the Siegfried saga.” By “the Siegfried saga” the author is referring to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or perhaps just the parts involving Siegfried. The Ring Cycle is based on Norse mythology.

The kingdom of Eltaria is small but wealthy, having a lot of mineral wealth which is mined by Dwarves. However the five surrounding countries are envious of this wealth, and are ever ready to invade. Eltaria’s army, under King Thurman, needs to be vigilant to defend against invaders.

Lily has been Eltaria’s Godmother for 300 years. In fact she is half-fairy, which explains her long life. She has a magic mirror, with a mirror servant Jimson – a spirit who appears in the mirror to answer her queries. (“Mirror, mirror, in my hand …”) She also has other magic mirrors through which she can travel from place to place.

The Queen, Celeste, has recently died, and Lily observes that Traditional forces are gathering to put in place an evil stepmother for the Princess Rosamund (Rosa). When she sees three evil Sorceresses competing for the King, Lily decides to preempt things, and takes on the role of an evil Sorceress herself, and marries the King, becoming Queen Sable. However her evil is limited to wearing black, and acting fierce and intimidating, especially towards the servants. And no one other than the King (and Lily’s own Brownie servants) know that the Queen and the Fairy Godmother are one and the same.

Then a Huntsman attacks the Princess Rosamund, and she flees on horseback to the forest. She is thrown by the horse and then captured by seven Dwarves. But these are not the friendly Dwarves of the Snow White story; these are dirty, smelly renegade Dwarves, operating an illegal mine. They chain Rosa to the hearth of their cottage, and force her to do their cooking and cleaning.

Lily, with the help of her mirror servant Jimson, finds out where Rosa is. Realising the need to follow Tradition, she disguises herself as a friendly peasant woman, and visits and assists Rosa over three days. On the third visit, she reveals her true identity to Rosa, and explains that she is also Queen Sable. She cannot break the Dwarves’ chain confining Rosa, so she gives Rosa a magic potion to put her into a sleep which gives the appearance of death. When the Dwarves find Rosa apparently dead, they take her into the forest and abandon her.

Lily is in the forest, performing the spell to awaken Rosa, when two princes, Siegfried and Leopold, turn up, apparently following the Sleeping Beauty Tradition where a prince must kiss the princess to awaken her. But they are too late, Lily’s spell has already worked. Lily, in her Godmother persona, Rosa, and the two princes return to the Palace with great ceremony: the lost princess has been rescued.

Siegfried is from the kingdom of Drachenthal to the north, and has a companion adviser, a Wise Bird. Siegfried had drank Dragon’s blood, so can understand the bird, and other animals. He had left his home and been adventuring as a Hero, fighting dragons and other wild animals which were attacking human communities, and lending his strength to armies at war. He is also attempting to escape the Tradition of his own land, that he is destined to find and awaken a woman in armour, sleeping on a stone slab surrounded by fire. Because if he does, the Tradition also dictates that all sorts of tragedy will follow. But it seems that wherever he goes, he keeps finding sleeping women in armour surrounded by fire. (Or, he wonders, is it always the same woman?) The bird has suggested that if he can find a woman in approximately, but not exactly, the same situation, the Tradition will be satisfied, but the terrible consequences will not follow. This is what had attracted him to the scene of Rosa’s awakening.

After this, Lily keeps an eye on the Huntsman. He had been sent as a gift to the Palace by one of the dukes, but Lily thinks the Huntsman is actually working for someone else, with evil plans for the Princess.

Soon after Rosa’s return to the Palace, the news comes from the border (where the King had been with the army) that the King is dead. This is likely to result in the surrounding nations invading. But Queen Sable preempts this by announcing a contest, and inviting princes from all nearby nations, with the prize being marriage to Princess Rosa. Siegfried and Leopold decide to enter the contest, and having become good friends, agree to help each other, until the number of contestants becomes small.

Large numbers of princes (and other adventurers) arrive and the competition starts. It consists of a series of trials over several weeks, testing physical strength and intelligence. Siegfried and Leopold are still in the running up to the final test, where the candidates have to come up with a long term defence plan for the kingdom.

But then the Princess is kidnapped, presumably by the Huntsman, or whoever he is working for. Siegfried, Leopold and Lily, assisted by various animals that Siegfried has befriended, work together to try and locate and rescue her.

A Tangled Web (2010) – a novella in the anthology “Harvest Moon”.

This story is based on the story of Persephone, a goddess from Greek mythology, but it also includes the characters Prince Leopold and Brunnhilde from Mercedes Lackey’s “The Sleeping Beauty”.

Brunnhilde was the sleeping woman in armour that Siegfried kept finding. She is also one of the Valkyria (Valkyries), goddesses from Norse mythology. However Siegfried and Brunnhilde decided to go against their presumed destinies, with Siegfried marrying Princess Rosamunde, and Brunnhilde marrying Leopold.

Persephone has been seeing Hades, the god of the Underworld (the realm of the dead), in the meadow near her home, but has been keeping this secret from her mother, Demeter, who is overprotective. Hades works out a plan to take Persephone to the Underworld, and Persephone is quite willing to go to live with him. Hades’ friend, Thanatos, the god of death, will abduct Persephone in Hades’ chariot. Then, being technically dead, Demeter cannot demand her return.

Leopold and Brunnhilde have been adventuring together, fighting evil beasts and evil men. Brunnhilde wants Leopold to be immortal as she is, and brings him to the Kingdom of Olympia where this might be possible. But Thanatos arrives in his chariot, and abducts Brunnhilde, mistaking her for Persephone.

When Thanatos fails to turn up to take Persephone, Hades takes her to the Underworld himself. And there they discover Brunnhilde, who of course doesn’t want to stay in the Underworld.

Prince Leopold goes to Mount Olympus, and complains about his wife being taken. The goddess Hecate investigates, and finds where Brunnhilde is. But Hades will not let her go so easily – this will create too much of a precedent: Leopold and Brunnhilde must undertake a number of tasks and trials before he will release her.

In the meantime, Demeter, being heartbroken over her daughter being taken, leaves Olympia. Demeter is the goddess of fertility, so winter descends on the kingdom. The gods have not experienced this before. However, Leopold gets them organised, to preserve the lives of the mortals, wild and domestic animals, and the “Otherfolk” (fauns and nymphs etc).

Persephone wants to stay in the Underworld, but must think up some other reason to allow her to stay, as her mother is still expected to demand her return. And the gods will surely give in to Demeter, to allow fertility to return to the land. If Persephone eats some of the food of the Underworld, this land will have a claim on her. But no food grows in the Underworld. But finally she finds a pomegranate tree in an isolated part of the Elysian fields (the part of the Underworld where the worthy dead reside). With Brunnhilde’s help, she struggles to get it to produce fruit before Demeter makes a demand for her return.

The final trials for Leopold, to recover his wife, require him to enter the Underworld (with the messenger god Hermes as his guide), fighting creatures and overcoming obstacles. And in a test reminiscent of the story of Orpheus in the Underworld, he must lead her back to the world above, without looking back at her.

Beauty and the Werewolf (2011)

This story is based largely on “Beauty and the Beast”, with a bit of “Red Riding Hood” thrown in, as well as the traditions about werewolves.

Isabella (Bella) is a young woman, whose household consists of her father (a merchant), her stepmother and two stepsisters, and the household servants. Unlike in the Cinderella story, Bella gets on quite well with her stepmother and stepsisters. Bella effectively runs the household, giving the servants their instructions, as her stepmother is not particularly capable in this respect.

One day, as she frequently does, (wearing her red hooded cloak) she leaves the city to visit Granny, the old Herb Woman and general dispenser of wisdom, who lives in a cottage in the forest. It is dark when she returns, and she is attacked by a wolf. She manages to fight it off, but gets bitten in the foot.

The next day the King’s soldiers come to her home, and take her forceably to the Manor of Duke Sebastien. It turns out that Sebastien is a werewolf, and had been the wolf that had bit her. He only turns into a wolf three nights each month, when the moon is full. He had somehow escaped the cage he had been locked in. Bella is to be confined to the Manor for three months, on the King’s orders, to see if she has also become a werewolf.

Sebastien’s household consists of his brother Eric, and the invisible servants. Eric is the Gameskeeper, and has the job of getting rid of poachers from the Duke’s forest. He is a somewhat agressive man, with a tendency to beat up poachers, and make advances towards young women.

When Sebastien had become a werewolf, and also because of Eric’s agressive nature, the human servants had left, so Sebastien, being a wizard, had summoned up invisible servants from the spirit realm to manage the household.

Despite her involuntary confinement, and her fear of Sebastien attacking when in wolf form, Bella soon fits in at the Manor, organising the household, making friends with the invisible servants, helping Sebastien in his magical research, and riding out with Eric on his Gameskeeper’s duties.

Bella receives help and advice from Godmother Elena and from Granny about her situation. It is not known how Sebastien had become a werewolf – it hadn’t occurred through any of the usual methods, such as being bitten by a werewolf, or due to Sebastien performing transformation magic. Most likely someone had put a curse on him. But who, and can the curse be undone?

Links
Mercedes Lackey – The Official Website

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