Havemercy is a collaborative debut novel written by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett. In July, an indirect sequel (i.e., a related book with a different set of main characters, some of whom were introduced in the first book) called Shadow Magic was released. On its own, Havemercy has a satisfying ending, but as one of my favorite reads of this year so far, this character-driven fantasy/steampunk novel has me eager to read more by Jones and Bennett.
There are two main storylines that eventually merge in Havemercy, each focusing on two characters somehow brought together as the result of two separate scandals offending the same foreign country. One of these disgraceful situations was caused by Rook, a dragon rider in Volstov’s Dragon Corps. The wife of the diplomat from Arlemagne was perfectly happy to go to bed with him – until he tried to pay her afterward. Since the Dragon Corps are the main advantage Volstov has in its hundred year long war against Ke-Han, punishing them too harshly is out of the question. However, some measures must be taken to appease Arlemagne for mistaking a diplomat’s wife for a common prostitute. The solution is bringing in Thom, a bright student from the ‘Versity, to teach a sensitivity training course to the Dragon Corps. This task proves to be far harder than Thom anticipated – the Dragon Corps is rather spoiled, and Rook in particular takes a strong dislike to their new professor.
The other scandal involves Royston, a well-known magician who was in a relationship with Erik, a foreign prince from Arlemagne. Since the prince’s country is not as accepting of homosexuality as Royston’s, Erik betrays Royston once the connection between the two is discovered. He blames his entanglement with Royston on seduction by magic, even though Royston’s ability has nothing to do with charm. To appease the nation of Arlemagne, Royston is then exiled to his brother’s home in the countryside. While he is there, he meets the children’s tutor Hal, a very intelligent young man who is perhaps better suited to city life and a ‘Versity education than the country life Royston despises.
When the war against the Ke-Han takes an unexpected turn, it is up to these four very different men to use their unique positions to aid Volstov.
The main reason I picked up Havemercy was that I kept hearing it compared to Sarah Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinth series, which I’m sure you are all shocked to hear once again is one of my all-time favorites. There are definitely similarities – the emphasis on more character development than plot, the story told through the first person perspective of multiple characters, the setting being background without a lot of explanation, the contrast between the viewpoint of an educated person and an uneducated person who both grew up in the slums, and the inclusion of a gay wizard. However, it wasn’t quite as strong as Monette’s series, which had more vivid characters (but then, Monette’s characterization is first-rate and rarely matched). My personal preference is for darker books, too, and this was lighter than The Doctrine of Labyrinth series.
Havemercy was definitely well worth the read for fans of character driven fantasy, though. It is one of those stories in which the protagonists take the forefront and the plot is secondary so readers who prefer lots of action and adventure may be disappointed. That’s not to say that there is no action or adventure, but most of it is toward the end and felt rather rushed. As a reader who enjoys characterization the most, I didn’t care and found reading about these four very different men the main reason for reading this book.
Toward the beginning, I liked Royston, Hal and Thom but could not stand Rook, the obnoxious young dragon rider who thought a bit too much of himself and stirred up trouble. He was horrible to women and homosexuals, mean to Thom and overall pretty awful – yet he also had the most interesting point of view and by the end I found him my favorite to read about other than Thom. This was because Rook was brutally honest – he had no qualms about restraint or politeness and he never held anything back. Plus, as the character who had a connection to the mechanical dragons, he was the gateway to that part of the world, as Royston was to the magical side of it. By the end, Rook had also grown somewhat, which helped, although he still has a ways to go and I wouldn’t say I actually liked him even then. He also had the most unique voice since Hal, Royston and Thom were not all that different from each other despite their diverse backgrounds. All three of them had a more literate voice and a thirst for knowledge and learning, so although they were different, their narrative voices were not as distinct as Rook’s ungrammatically correct, vulgar one.
The story of Thom and Rook was definitely my favorite over Hal and Royston’s. As one of the most important people to the safety of the realm, Rook could do whatever he wanted and get away with it so Thom certainly had his work cut out for him when it came to teaching Rook some manners. I love a good conflict and their tale had plenty of that, as opposed to Hal and Royston’s, which quickly wrapped up any sort of conflict. Also, I found Thom and Rook’s parts had a lot more humor than Hal and Royston’s, who both tended to be more serious in their thoughts. One of my very favorite scenes was the role-playing sensitivity training session/competition Thom did in which each member of the Dragon Corps had to pretend to be everyone from “The Arlemagne Diplomat’s Wife” to “That Whore Rook Insulted the Other Day for Having Ugly Breasts” to “That Kid Ghislain Hit on the Head When He Dropped Merritt’s Boots out the Window.”
The world is a combination of fantasy and steampunk – there are magicians with various powers who built the mechanical dragons that are the big advantage Volstov has in the war. The main glimpse of the dragons we get to see is on the few occasions when Rook is out with his dragon, the titular Havemercy (who really has very little to do with the book in spite of that). Although these dragons are not truly alive, they seem very much so since they can converse and their riders do form emotional attachments to them. I would like to know more about the setting since several aspects are mentioned but not fully explained, such as how exactly the magicians get their powers. Since there is another books set in this universe, it may be explored in further detail later, but in this book at least, the setting, like the plot, takes a backseat to the characters.
Although it is not the best character-driven novel I’ve ever read, Havemercy is an excellent debut and well worth reading for those who prefer a slower paced look at some different characters to heavy action, a fast-moving plot, or massive worldbuilding. I’m very much looking forward to reading more from Jones and Bennet, particularly the sequel to this book.