Mercedes Lackey, Joust (DAW, 2003)
One thing I've always enjoyed about writing fantasy is the creation of the setting. Designing the culture, language, and customs is a blast. If you have some time on your hands, some extra paper and a pencil, I would highly recommend you create a world of your own just for kicks. It's a very amusing pastime, and gives a little energy jolt to the imagination. However, what differentiates fantasy novels from random imaginative scribbling is that along with a fantastic setting, there is also a plot, some characters, and maybe some character development.
With Mercedes Lackey's new novel Joust, the first positive thing I would like to say is that is has a magnificent setting. Casting aside the medieval-inspired world of Valdemar for a blessed change, she imbues this tale with an atmosphere very similar to that of ancient Egypt. Set in the blazing desert land of Tia, there are two main seasons, the Dry and the Rains. It is during the season of the Dry when we are introduced to Vetch, a scrawny, mistreated serf who is forced to work the land his family owned before the aggressive Tians conquered his patch of farmland. Young Vetch is an Altan, one of a race of people currently undergoing a losing battle with the Tians, and for that he is made a serf, lower than a slave, with little or no real value since he cannot be bought or sold. The only thing that has kept the boy alive is his hatred for his cruel masters.
All that changes when a Jouster and his dragon make a pit stop at Vetch's master's farm. Jousters are the airforce of the Tians, riding the wondrous, jewel-toned dragons for the glory of Tia's Great King. Vetch, understandably, is resentful of Jousters, since they are responsible for the majority of Tia's victories against the Altans. However, when Vetch's master attempts to beat him for gawking at the Jouster's dragon, the Jouster, named Ari, not only defends him, but also chooses Vetch to be his dragonboy. Within the blink of an eye, Vetch is free of the gruelling work of a serf, and is instead given the relatively easier task of tending Ari's dragon, Kashet.
That is how the story unfolds at the beginning, but the rest of it is swiftly buried underneath a mountain of detailed description and information. The actual plot, about how Vetch plans to escape by hatching a dragon of his own, does not even come into play until half the book is already read. Until that point, Mercedes Lackey lets us in on the finer details of how the Jousters live. She lavishes information on nearly every aspect of the Jouster lifestyle, from how their lances are made, to the complexity of their dragon saddles, to what they indulge in after-hours. The dragons themselves aren't left out, either. Pages and pages are spent to explain the exact procedures of how they are trained (ropes and ox prods initially), how they keep warm (magically heated sand wallows), and most importantly, how they are tamed (their meat is regularly drugged). Mercedes Lackey obviously spent a great deal of time creating this elaborate, self-contained world, but the story suffers a little because of it. It almost seems as though Ms. Lackey, after adding the finishing flourish to her world, suddenly realised, "Oh, I have to put a story in, too."
Don't get me wrong, at times the information is highly interesting, but at many points (especially when Mercedes Lackey waxes poetic about the architecture) it can be tedious. There were points in the story when I thought of Vetch as less of a main character, and more of an excuse to introduce some new tidbit about dragon mating rituals. However, as is the norm in most Mercedes Lackey novels, there is still a great deal of internal dialogue going on, so I still got to know Vetch, even if many of the other characters remained a mystery.
All in all, there is just enough tension to keep the story going, but I have a feeling that if Mercedes Lackey had eliminated the majority of the information, we would be get to the epilogue by page 180, instead of page 371, and Joust wouldn't have been any the worse for it. Ms. Lackey has put together an amazing world, but it seemed to me as if she created the story to fit her setting, and not the setting to fit her story. If Mercedes Lackey has created this to be first in a new series, I would highly recommend reading the future sequels, because without all of the introductory information, the tale of Vetch and his dragons is intriguing. However, if this tale was intended to be a stand-alone novel, by itself it is often tiresome and slow to push through. Fans of Lackey might enjoy it, but first timers should wait until a sequel or two is written first.