Today's book review is Fortune's Fool by Mercedes Lackey.
This is the latest in the Five Hundred Kingdoms series. Although a couple of minor characters carry over from earlier books, it stands alone. A new reader might be a little fuzzy about The Tradition, which is explained better in The Fairy Godmother, but the story would make sense.
This is basically a feel-good story. The plot is a relatively unusual mix of familiar fairy-tale elements from different cultures, but the overall story doesn't have any surprises, and doesn't even give the reader much cause to worry that things won't actually turn out right in the end. The characters are pleasant and likable, if a little shallow, and Lackey's world is comfortable and welcoming. It's fun to read through, but once it's over it doesn't leave you with much. There's one rather pornographic sex scene, but other than that, it seems to be aimed at 14 year olds.
It's cotton candy. If that's what you want in a book, you should enjoy it. 7 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
This novel is about two kingdoms, both of which seem to know more about The Tradition than I think they're Traditionally supposed to. In the first kingdom, Led Belarus (a land of Russian folk tales), Sasha is the seventh son of the king, a Fortunate Fool, and a Songweaver. As a Fortunate Fool, he takes the role of the fool, playing tricks and receiving abuse, and accrues Luck which he distributes to the kingdom. As a Songweaver, he uses his music and songwriting abilities to cajole The Tradition into making things pleasant for the people. At the beginning of the story, we learn how wise and selfless he is, and then he is sent off to tour the kingdom looking for emerging evil that needs to be headed off.
Interwoven with this, we also meet Katya, who is one of the daughters of the Sea King (another ruler of the sort that justifies the idea that despotism is the perfect form of government, if you can just find the right despot). She's a secret spy and fixer, with slightly stronger magic than Sasha. She demonstrates how capable she is by visiting a kingdom drawn from Japanese folk tales (it's even called Nippon), where she recognizes the right side in a battle of magic between two sorcerers and helps to defeat the evil. The good sorcerer turns out to be a kitsune, and gives her a magical paper bird which can be unfolded into notepaper and then folded back into a bird which will fly to the person (either a specific person or a certain sort of person) the owner designates.
At this point, Sasha is staying at a seaside inn and feeling depressed because everyone else at the inn is part of a happy couple. He goes off to sing melancholy songs to the sea just as Katya comes ashore to investigate why things are dangerously peaceful in Led Belarus (if things are too safe for too long, you see, it Traditionally attracts big bad stuff). They fall in love, cure each others' virginity, and then suddenly transform into experienced practitioners of the physical arts of love for one day, and promise to marry. Then the Sea King summons Katya to investigate a new problem. Young girls have been disappearing from an area north of Led Belarus. Katya gets herself captured by the nasty, who turns out to be a Djinni (except that Lackey has her singular and plural mixed up and calls him a Djinn) who has set up shop in the castle of the Katschei, who wasn't quite as deathless as he meant to be and got offed a while back. The Djinni doesn't have any particular interest in girls, but since the Katschei's schtick was to capture and imprison maidens, the Tradition pushes him to do the same thing. He doesn't bother with mundane girls, though; he only captures magical ones, and drains their power to add to his own, turning a growing area around the castle from a forest into a desert. In addition to the Swan Maiden and the Snow Maiden, he has a wizard's apprentice, a wolf girl (a reverse werewolf, native form wolf, can assume human form at will), and he acquires a rusalka, a gypsy, and a few others, including a ghost called a Wili who, although material, can pass through solid objects. All of the captives are nice and friendly except the rusalka, who is actually an evil, almost-mindless water spirit, not a drowned girl. Katya tricks the rusalka into trying to drown her (since she's the Sea King's daughter, she can breathe water) in the Djinn's presence, and the Djinn burns the rusalka alive, horrifying the others. Katya sends the bird off to find a Champion.
While this is happening, Sasha has gotten worried and decides to track Katya down. The innkeeper's wife, who happens to be a witch, provisions him with lots of good bread and sends him north. He meets an old beggar woman on the road, whom he feeds and treats kindly, and of course she's a witch, and she gives him the advice that he has to go through Baba Yaga to get to Katya. He deals with Baba Yaga by pretending to be a deaf-mute simpleton willing to work in exchange for food. He does a very honest days' work cleaning out the stable, where he finds a wise Wolf who tracks for Baba Yaga, a wise Goat she rides, and Sergei the Humpbacked Horse (a long-lived figure who has connections with Sasha's family, great wisdom, and the ability to fly). He feeds and cleans all the animals, winning their goodwill, and by feeding them breaks the magic binding the Wolf and the Goat. Sergei is bound by a musical spell, and he takes the flute and plays the tune backwards, ending the spell. He escapes with Sergei, and when Baba Yaga takes her Wolf and her Goat and goes hunting, they wait until she's well away from her house and her mortar before they run off. Unfortunately, Baba Yaga's army of ghosts is so numerous and strong that Sergei and Sasha are separated, and Sasha is chased over the gentle upward slope of a mountain and falls down the steep side into a cave, where he is taken deep underground by green-skinned guards who deliver him to the Queen of Copper Mountain, a very old spirit who, though not evil, has a pattern of taking mortal lovers and using them up. He wins the confidence of the Queen's servants by treating them decently, and escapes seduction by being true to his love, so he is allowed to leave the underground kingdom, where he makes his way to the sea (riding the Goat, who met him after he escaped) and gets on an unseaworthy boat, thinking that since it isn't storm season it should be safe. Of course, a storm comes up, and the crew rather rudely throw him overboard, where he is taken captive by the Sea King's people (who helpfully give him the spell that lets him breathe underwater). While he's waiting for the Sea King to see him, he puts his feelings into a song, and has the whole palace pushing the King to help him by the time they get together. Fortunately (which he always is, being the Fortunate Fool), he hits it off well with the Sea King, who agrees to the marriage, and then it's off to meet the Champions, who got the message from the bird but didn't actually know where the Katschei's castle is, so they were waiting for help from the Sea King. Sasha thinks to himself that he's recently ridden in Baba Yaga's mortar, on Sergei, on the Goat, and now on a dolphin, and laughs at himself for thinking that a dragon will be next. Of course, the Champions are Adamant and Gina from One Good Knight, and in short order he is riding a dragon. They consider the situation and decide that before the dragons can try to fight the Djinn, they want to get the captive maidens safely away. Sasha decides that the best way would be to get the Queen of Copper Mountain to tunnel them out, so they fly to the mountain, where the presence of the dragons quickly attracts attention and gets him another audience with the Queen, who after some persuasion decides that the Djinn is enough of a threat that she should actually intervene rather than staying neutral. The Wolf reappears conveniently, helping them to find Sergei, who gives them some advice and agrees to take a message back to the castle. Sasha has received one bird message, but it mentions that using the bird (or casting any other spells) attracts the negative attention of the Djinn, so they don't want to send the bird back.
While Sasha was having these adventures, the girls have been searching for the Djinn's bottle, which they believe will have his True Name written on it. About the time the tunnel is ready and the attack is mostly set, they find it (it was in the oven in the kitchen, in the only fire in the castle). The inscription on the bottle has the Name, but it tells them that they will need all four elements to defeat the Djinn. The dragons provide fire, Sasha provides air through his music, and Katya provides water, but they need the Queen for the critical air part, and she isn't willing at first. They decide to try anyway, and just as they are about to lose, the Queen shows up. Katya, on the spot, makes the condition for the Djinn's release that he must repent his evil ways and follow the laws of the Djinni of the City of Brass, and thus they win the big battle with nobody dying.
The book ends with an epilogue, a year later, where the castle has been taken over as a new Chapter House, where Adamant and Gina are the Champions, the apprentice wizard is the apprentice Godmother, and most of the rest of the girls have found permanent roles. Led Belarus has claimed the area, Copper Mountain and the Sea King have set up permanent embassies (the latter, thanks to the new lake, connected to the river, that now surrounds the castle, and (although they still have to go about their business of keeping Traditional evil in check), they all live happily ever after -- a little too perfectly.