EXPeriencing Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms

Cover image via this review site that had a good, high-quality version. Never has it been more true than this series, but don’t judge this book by its cover. Mostly because nothing that’s happening on the cover has anything to do with the story, nor do the people even look like the characters.

Fantasy novels are my happy place. No matter what sub-genre they fall in (YA, fairy tale, high fantasy, modern), they always comfort me and transport me immediately to their world. If I just want to sink into something familiar–even if it’s a completely new world–it’s gotta have a good love story and there’s gotta be some kind of magic. Bonus points for realism even when everything’s fantastical. Extra bonus points for strong female protagonists. Give me someone to root for, give me a couple good kisses, and I’m a happy camper.

In high school, I had a Thing for faeries and fairy tales. A Big Thing. I loved them. I had just a few too many faerie statuettes and knick-knacks, and fairy tales were all I read for a while. I couldn’t wait to get to Ball State and join the Honors College so I could take their fairy tale class. Although I never did end up taking that class, and my obsession with faeries and their tales waned, I’ll still devour a good retold fairy tale.

One of the series I discovered in high school was Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms collection. Mercedes Lackey, of course, is one of the most well-known fantasy authors out there. Case in point, her bibliography has its own Wikipedia page separate from her author page. I haven’t read nearly as many of her books as my best friend has. She’s probably read most of the over 100 novels Lackey has written, to be honest. When we were in high school, I remember her telling me about the second novel in this series, One Good Knight, and I picked it up. I think it’s the only novel in a series I’ve ever read out of order, but I soon fixed that by picking up the first book in the series, The Fairy Godmother. Both are very good.

The premise of these tales are that the lives of the kingdoms’ inhabitants are dictated by The Tradition. Traditional tales we all know–Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty–are tales everyone in the kingdoms know, too. And since the stories have been told so many times, The Tradition forces them to keep playing out in real life again and again. For instance, in the first book of the series, the main character Elena should become a Cinderella. Her father dies and she’s in the clutches of her wicked step-mother and step-sisters. But there’s a problem. While The Tradition is trying to make Cinderella happen, Prince Charming is only a toddler. Not exactly compatible with the teenage Elena. So she takes charge of her fate by becoming a Fairy Godmother, a benevolent overseer in the kingdoms who uses The Tradition to help make sure the not-so-great outcomes of some of the Traditional tales don’t come to fruition, while simultaneously helping the good ones work. It’s a really fun twist on the tales we’ve all heard 18,000 times in 18,000 different ways. By acknowledging that yes, they do keep happening, Lackey is able to build a whole world out of these tales in a fresh way.

Until just recently, I had only read the first four books in the series, and I read them all in high school. I loved The Fairy Godmother and One Good Knight. The third book in the series, Fortune’s Fool, I remember literally nothing about. I just read the synopsis and only one scene came to memory. Usually I remember a little more about books, but having read this in high school, I’m not surprised it slipped my mind. The fourth book in the series, The Snow Queen, I remember somewhat, but mostly what I remember is that I really wasn’t a fan of it. It just felt forced and rushed, and I remember being glad it was over with.

If you’re thinking I’m not doing a great job convincing you this is a good series, let me bring it back from high school days. While at Barnes and Noble a couple weeks ago, I realized there are two more books out in the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms collection now: The Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Werewolf. I picked up The Sleeping Beauty and just finished it a couple days ago.

As it should be with all fantasy novels, I sunk right in. Is The Sleeping Beauty the best fantasy novel I’ve ever read? Nah. But it had everything I wanted for a quick, entertaining adventure. The premise is that The Tradition is trying to make two tales of sleeping princesses happen at the same time: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. This wealthy kingdom’s Godmother, Lily, has had her hands full for centuries trying to keep war at bay, and now on top of it, she has to help save Princess Rosamund from seven evil dwarves, keep her from getting murdered, and help find her a suitable husband so the five surrounding kingdoms don’t launch a massive attack. The solution to the last problem is to host a grand tournament of princes to win the princess’s hand and help rule the kingdom. It may sound a bit on the sexist side–like The Bachelor or The Bachelorette but, you know, Traditional–but Lackey does a good job of acknowledging and allowing her characters to acknowledge the implications of the tournament and what it means for Rosa as Traditional Princess but also Strong Female.

Lily and Rosa are intriguing characters who make a great team, if not particularly in depth. The couple of princes who show up and throw some wrenches in the Sleeping plots–for good and bad–also make a good team, and you of course end up rooting for the right prince. It’s also a pretty funny novel, which Lackey states at the beginning is something she’s going for. When you first meet the one of the princes, Siegfried, he’s talking to a bird:

“So, this Kingdom is rich?” he asked his companion, a little, brown, nondescript bird. Heroes didn’t usually have any interest in birds, and the names and categorization of them were generally limited in a Hero’s education to “good to eat,” “not good to eat,” and “singing while I have a hangover, kill it with a rock.”

I was also reminded that the unicorns in Lackey’s novels are… vapid, to say the least. The particular unicorn that ends up showing up in this novel, Luna, can’t say her L’s or R’s, so when she’s trying to convince the various heroes she can be of some use, it’s heartwarming, yet highly amusing:

“Luna, we’re going into danger,” he said, as gently as he could. “We don–“

“I know!” said the unicorn, stamping one hoof impatiently in the dead leaves. “I aweady know that! I’m coming wif you!”

The humor adds some welcome chuckles to the adventure.

While a bit predictable in outcome, The Sleeping Beauty is satisfying, which is sometimes just what I want. I love being caught off guard by a love story not going as planned, or someone dying who you desperately wanted to see live happily ever after. But, not always. Sometimes you want a fun adventure, some magic, some twists and turns (or just a couple of gentle bends), and a happily ever after. That’s what you get with The Sleeping Beauty, and it was well worth diving back into this world to experience.

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