This book is set in a fantasy world that is very much like Europe sometime in the past.
Rune has spent her entire young life working at a small inn. When work slows down and customers request it, she can do what she loves - play her fiddle. After the inn's owner's kind wife dies, however, Rune gets fewer opportunities to play, and townsfolk start treating her worse. When her mother begins jockeying to become the inn's owner's next wife, Rune wonders what will become of her.
A dare prompts her to go and play for the Skull Hill Ghost, who rewards her for her music with more silver than she's ever seen in her life. Since her life at the inn appears to be little more than a dead end, Rune decides to take her silver and make a new life for herself. Her goal is to become a Guild Bard, but first she'll need to find teachers who can help her fill in the gaps in her musical training.
What Rune thinks she wants to do with her life may not actually be what's best for her, however. Eventually, she learns about the Free Bards and even finds love among them. As one of the Free Bards, she meets a young man with a gift for music. The young man could make an excellent Free Bard, but he won't survive long enough to do anything if Rune and her companions can't figure out how to protect him from the assassins that are after him.
If you think my synopsis seems a little “all over the place,” that's because the book itself kind of is. The Free Bard stuff doesn't even come up until maybe halfway through, although Lackey at least doesn't drop it in totally out of the blue, since readers will probably have noticed and wondered about all the musicians in Rune's life who seemed to mysteriously know who she was and what instrument she played. The stuff with the young musician who's being hunted by assassins doesn't come up until nearly the end. Surprisingly, he's not the setup for a second book – the entire thing is resolved, nicely and happily, by the end of this book.
Mercedes Lackey used to be one of my absolute favorite authors. I read everything by her that I could find. Then one day I read one of her newer Eric Banyon books and started to get annoyed by how black-and-white it seemed like her stories had become (although the last straw for me was really when Lackey wrote a thinly-veiled version of herself into her Valdemar books, but that's a story for another post). The good people were almost saintly, while the bad people were very, very bad. The good people might do things that supposed pillars of the community didn't like, but the idea was that those “pillars of the community” were wrong and weren't good in the ways that really counted.
I remembered loving this book when I first read it. I still enjoyed it, but I realized that the black-and-white worldview that I thought was brand new in Lackey's books must have always been there. What changed wasn't necessarily Lackey's writing. What changed was me.
Rune doesn't see her love of music as a waste of time. Music may not have concrete benefits, but she notes that, when she plays, the customers at the inn stay a bit longer and spend more money than they might otherwise have. Rune was born out of wedlock but doesn't see anything wrong with an unmarried person having sex, as long as everyone involved is willing and the appropriate birth control is used. Rune's steadiest and best job, upon leaving the inn, is as the musical background entertainment at a high class brothel. Although the prostitutes who work there make lots of comments about how, if they had the ability to do anything else, they would, it's the kind of place that reminds me of, say, Inara and other Companions in the world of Joss Whedon's Firefly – this is a prostitute's life at its cushiest. All the prostitutes of course have hearts of gold and are far nicer and kinder than most of the city and Church officials Rune encounters.
In the book, the Church is populated primarily by people who use their power for their own benefit. They help those who have money and have very definite negative opinions about Free Bards and Gypsies (both groups which may, in theory, contain bad people, but not a single one of those bad people makes an appearance in this book). The Bardic Guild, like the Church, is not presented in a good light: it is old-fashioned and still operates under the belief that women cannot and should not be Guild Bards. There are also several pages in which Rune and her first music teacher debate the value of taxes and tithes (taxes are good, because they pay for lots of things that people need, but it would be better if city officials were less corrupt; tithes are good in theory, but the Church is so corrupt that the tithes tend not to be used the way they're supposed to be).
Rune occasionally encounters or hears about people in the Church or in the Bardic Guild who don't quite fit the mold, but they're rare enough that it tends to look like those two groups are at least 95% corrupt. I don't suppose I entirely minded that – sometimes it's nice to read books in which there are clearly established “good” and “bad” groups – but it would have been nice if some of the Free Bards had occasionally complained about their lot in life or been a little lazy. It's not that I wanted laziness or complaining to be presented as “good,” I just didn't want those actions to be something that only bad people did. Good people should be allowed to have off moments.
I hadn't remembered that Talaysen didn't really show up until about halfway through the book (he made an earlier appearance, too, although first-time readers might not catch that), and I hadn't remembered that he and Rune went from “we essentially just met” to “let's get married” so quickly, but I still enjoyed reading about their romance. Some people may be a little put off by the age difference – I think Rune is 17 or 18 when she and Talaysen start their relationship, and Talaysen is more than 20 years older than her. The age difference is definitely something that's touched on. Talaysen worries about it a lot, while Rune pretty much dismisses it as a non-issue – there's some nice humor as Rune gets frustrated while trying to seduce Talaysen (although I think Lackey did this better in another one of her books: Magic's Price). I think Rune's reaction is part of the reason why the age difference didn't bother me when I first read the book and didn't bother me during this reread.
Overall, The Lark and the Wren still managed to stand the test of time for me. I enjoy reading about characters who start off in horrible situations and manage to survive and thrive when they set off for bigger and better things. I must say, though, that my absolute favorite book by Lackey with this type of character is Arrows of the Queen. I think “good” and “bad” are still fairly clearly defined in that book, but at least some of the good characters aren't completely perfect (one of the “good” characters has a pompous moment, for instance), and I remember the book being a tad more focused on the whole.
- Alanna: The First Adventure (book) by Tamora Pierce - This is the first of four books about Alanna, a girl who pretends to be a boy in order to stand even a chance of becoming the first female knight in Tortall. I thought of this and other books by Pierce a lot whenever Rune disguised herself as a boy as part of her goal of becoming the first female Guild Bard.
- Wild Magic (book) by Tamora Pierce - Yes, I know, another Pierce recommendation. What can I say, if you really liked this book by Lackey, you should give Pierce a try. This is the first of another four-book series, set in the same world as the Alanna books. I don't think the romance crops up in this first book, but this quartet might be good to try if what really appealed to you about The Lark and the Wren was the positively presented May-December romance.
- Dragonsong (book) by Anne McCaffrey - This is the first book in a trilogy, although the trilogy is part of a larger series. Menolly wants nothing more than to become a Harper (basically, a professional musician), something her father does his best to make impossible. Menolly runs away and struggles to survive away from civilization and other humans. Fortunately, she ends up befriending and raising a group of fire lizards (tiny dragon creatures). Those who really loved the struggling young musician aspects of The Lark and the Wren may enjoy this. I recommend starting with this first book, but the music stuff becomes even more important in Dragonsinger, the second book in the trilogy. It's in the second book that Menolly begins her life at Harper Hall, a place devoted to music.
- Mairelon the Magician (book) by Patricia C. Wrede - This is the first book in a duology. I've actually written about this one, so click here if you'd like to read more about it. Mairelon, a magician, hires Kim, a girl who had so far survived by pretending to be a boy, and the two try to track down some magical artifacts. Marelon and Kim's relationship makes me think of a stretched-out version of Talaysen and Rune's, a bit. It's not until the second book that any romantic elements come into play, however.
- Damia (book) by Anne McCaffrey - Technically, if you want to start with the first book, you need to read The Rowan - this is actually the second book in the series. I've added this one primarily for those looking for another story with May-December romance. This book, set sometime in the future, follows the life of Damia, a telepath born to two of the most powerful telepaths in history.
- The Beekeeper's Apprentice (book) by Laurie R. King - Another story with a May-December romance between two smart, primarily practical people, although I should warn you, the romance is only hinted at in this book - it's not until a later book that anything happens. In this book, Marry Russell is a teenager chafing under her aunt's restrictive and not particularly loving care. She meets a retired Sherlock Holmes, who takes her under his wing and gets her involved in a few minor cases, until they are both eventually drawn into something much more dangerous. I've written a post about this book, too.