i think i'm finally starting to identify what's off to me about the current generation of Valdemar book (Lackey's writing in general as of late). i need to go back and re-read some of her earlier works to verify, but especially with the Valdemar novels everyone is just simply too good.
we've lost character and even setting complexity and have novels filled with these earnestly good people who have special magic powers to help make everything better for others. then huge amount of the books are filled with fluff details and settings. a good third of this book could be taken out and it would still be a very solid and comprehendable story, if not improved. there's just too much telling and too much of nearly irrelevant details. for example, Kirball, which is basically a cross between polo and rugby. it was created in the preceeding Collegium series and has become a recurring plot activity with sometimes chapters dedicated to it. it reminds me of the passages that were purportedly excised by Golding in the "good parts version" of the Princess Bride. it's flavor but there's just too much of it.
compare this to my introduction to Lackey - Tarma and Kethry. we have complexity, conflicted characters (even if they are very strongly aligned to good), and action. there is flavor and fluff, but it's more constrained, seasoning to heighten not to overwhelm. actually, now that i think of it, the books are about the same length in pages but set in a noticeably smaller typeface than the more recent publications.
Elspeth is a Herald... and starts out as pretty much an absolute terror and even reformed is a challenging woman with a strong personality. She even has some of the same skills as Mags and Amily, thanks to training from Skif, but the attitude towards the abilities and actions are different. It's not a magical "we're Heralds so everything we do is correct" - the consequences are more present.