I first encountered Mercedes Lackey and her world of Valdemar when I was in high school. This was in the 90s, well before YA fiction was the publishing juggernaut it is now, and I had left the children’s section behind but still felt unsure about wandering the shelves in the adult section. No one cared that I was there, but I was a short, geeky teenager. I felt like everyone was staring at me.
And then I saw this book with a girl and a white horse on the cover, and being the horse crazy kid that I was, I decided to pick it up. I don’t remember now which of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books it was, but it was a fateful decision. Horses and teenage girls go together like peanut butter and chocolate, so Lackey’s choice to write a world in which misfit teens are chosen by magical, intelligent horses called Companions and whisked off to this life of danger and excitement was an inspired one. But it wasn’t just the notion of the Companion that drove my adolescent love for Lackey’s books. Like any good author, Lackey was concerned about more than surface level plot and character development. Among the Heralds, merit, hard work, and service drive them, and acceptance of people, no matter their age, gender, sexual orientation, or race is par for the course. This was different from any fantasy I’d read before. Those were focused on grand quests and featured typical fantasy characters like the heroic prince, the beautiful princess, the warrior, the wizard, the clever thief, etc. In Valdemar, I encountered an array of faces and personalities. Sure, the plots were predictable and the people were often too good to be true, but they were comforting. When I and everything around me was in constant flux, there was a world I could retreat to where competent people helped each other and were willing to talk to their enemies and try to work out their problems.
I stopped reading Lackey’s books after I graduated from university. I don’t know why. Perhaps I thought I had outgrown them, but thanks to Jackie at Death By Tsundoko and Melanie at Grab the Lapel’s 2019 #Reading Valdemar project, I’m rereading Mercedes Lackey’s books. I’m finding that they are just as much fun now as they were then. Sure, I recognize that the prose isn’t the best and that there are plenty of cliches, but the characters are so likable that it’s hard to put the books down once I’ve picked them up.
In Lackey’s debut novel, Arrows of the Queen, Talia is a thirteen-year old girl growing up in a strict, fundamentalist religious community where women are second-class citizens. She’s been abused by the men in her family, and the women are hardly better. They don’t know what to do with this girl who loves to read and dreams of a different life. When her family declares that she is ready, at thirteen, to get married and start a family, Talia panics and runs away. She runs straight into a beautiful white horse than even she recognizes as a mystical Companion. Not realizing what this means, she decides to ‘return’ the Companion to the capital where she discovers that she’s been Chosen by the Companion and has a greater destiny than she ever imagined.
Is this a cast of multiple tropes colliding? Yes, it is. The ‘Chosen One’, the ‘Mystic Waif’ are two I think of off the top of my head, and there are definitely others. But when a story is so engaging, I can forget the tropes and cliches. I read Arrows of the Queen in less than twenty-four hours. Though it was written thirty-two years ago, it still feels like a breath of fresh air after so many YA Fantasies featuring melodramatic love triangles, plain yet somehow drop-dead gorgeous heroines, brooding princes, evil empires to rise up against, and characters who will do anything for their friends except talk to them about important matters.
In Valdemar, people are skilled, but not perfect. There is romance, but it’s not the center of the story. There is political intrigue, but it’s not forced or unrealistic. Lackey’s storytelling is fast-paced, and while it’s not always bursting with action even the quiet scenes between two or three characters are interesting. Arrows of the Queen is obviously a debut, but it’s easy to see how it began Lackey’s 30+ year career with more than 140 published works to her name, with 43 books in the world of Valdemar alone. It is, as I’ve described it before, literary catnip: fun, easy to read, and populated by competent, likable characters doing their best to help the people around them.
I’m looking forward to rereading some old favorites and delving deeper into the Valdemar books Lackey has published since I stopped reading her work all those years ago. If you’re looking for a light, fun collection of books, I highly recommend Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. And feel free to join us in the #ReadingValdemar project! It’s only just started and is going on all year long. Check out Jackie or Melanie’s pages for details and schedules, and happy reading!