The Heralds of Valdemar:
- Arrows of the Queen
- Arrow’s Flight
- Arrow’s Fall
By Mercedes Lackey
Published 1987-1988 by Daw Books
Arrows of the Queen introduces us to the kingdom of Valdemar, a land of relative peace, prosperity, and openness guarded by the Heralds, people from all walks of life who are chosen by sentient sprit-horses called Companions. The Chosen have particular abilities of mind magic, such as mind speech, animal mind speech, fire-starting, and others. They also have a strong character and a desire to help others. Thanks to the Heralds, Valdemar has maintained internal stability and peace for centuries. This doesn’t mean the kingdom has no problems- its people are as human as any other- but the Companions help to ensure that Valdemar is a true meritocracy.
When Arrows of the Queen opens, we are introduced to Talia, a thirteen-year-old girl raised among the Holderkin, a religious and conservative group of people living on the border between Valdemar and its longtime enemy, Karse. Talia loves to read tales of adventure and romance, though it’s frowned upon by her community, which isn’t keen on educating girls. Women are second class citizens there and can look forward to nothing more years of drudgery unless they’re sent to convents and locked behind closed doors for the rest of their lives. Talia dreams of a different life, though, and when her stepmother declares that Talia is going to be married off, she runs away– straight into the metaphorical arms of a beautiful white horse with deep blue eyes. Even Talia knows this is a Companion, but instead of realizing that he has chosen her, she decides to ‘return’ the Companion to Valdemar’s capital city, Haven. Once she arrives, she finds that she is meant to be the Queen’s Own Herald, one of the highest-ranking roles in the kingdom. But first, she must learn to control her Gifts and survive among the cutthroat politicians of the royal court.
In the second book, Arrow’s Flight, Talia has made it through her years in the Heraldic Collegium and is nearly a full Herald. The only thing left is the year and a half long internship where she and Herald Kris will travel through Valdemar’s northern regions to act as arbitrators for conflicts among the people there. The trouble is that Talia’s control over her powerful Gift of Empathy is slipping, and rumors among the court add to her troubles. When she and Kris are trapped by a horrendous blizzard, things come to a dangerous head, and Talia must learn to control her Gift or face deadly consequences.
When Arrow’s Fall opens, Talia and Kris are returning to Haven, just in time for more problems. The young princess, Elspeth, has not yet been Chosen and so cannot inherit the throne. This could lead to a crisis, but one night Elspeth and Talia are drawn to the Companion’s Field, where Elspeth is unexpectedly Chosen by a Companion neither of them had known about until that night. Or have they? The details become fuzzy in their minds, but now that Elspeth is officially in the line of succession, the Queen’s council wants to marry the young princess off to form an alliance. They seem to find a good match with Prince Ancar of the neighboring kingdom of Hardorn, and Talia and Kris are sent there to negotiate the marriage contract. But all is not as it seems, and the two Heralds find themselves fighting for their lives in a strange land.
It had been a long time since I read The Heralds of Valdemar trilogy, so it was interesting to revisit it and find out if it would stand the test of time. For the most part, it did, though my views on certain aspects of these three books have changed since I was a teenager. While I can safely say that I enjoyed the reread, I don’t think that, overall, they stood up as well as I had hoped. But there are still some pretty great things about The Heralds of Valdemar.
- Acceptance: One of Valdemar’s basic creeds is “There is no one way”. This applies to religion, culture, appearance, and sexuality among other things. It is doubly true for the Heralds, who often felt like outsiders in the communities they grew up within. Once they are Chosen, though, they’ll never be alone again. Their Companion loves them no matter what, and there is a need for their skills and abilities regardless of how much money they have, what they look like, or who they love. The Heralds regard each other as family and do what they can to help each other. The rest of Valdemar might view them as libertines, but the Heralds accept each other no matter what– gay, straight, or asexual; athletic or scholarly; male or female; able-bodied or disabled. Every Herald has a place, their skills are needed and valued, and they never leave their fellow Heralds behind.
- Sex Positivity: In Arrows of the Queen, one of Talia’s friends provides her with ‘moon powder’ to help stop her ‘moon days’ (that is, menstruation) as well as being a form of birth control. Why was this included? Because Lackey’s audience was primarily young women dealing with menstruation, and isn’t it fantastic to imagine a world where all you have to do is take a little bit of medicine so you don’t have to deal with your period, and no one hassles you about it or declares it immoral? What else is great about Valdemar? Sexuality. Sure, the Heralds are considered libertines compared to many others in the kingdom, but they are open about sex, sexuality, and sexual orientation. There are open lesbians who end up being some of Talia’s best friends, and Talia herself feels free to take a lover without feeling guilty about it or feeling like she is bound him forever, just because they’ve shared a bed. The characters are mature enough to discuss their relationships like grown-ups and view sex as an enjoyable part of life. There are books being published now, in a far more accepting time, that don’t handle relationships and sex as well as Mercedes Lackey did in a less progressive time.
- Appearance: These days, a fantasy heroine must be beautiful. Even if she thinks she’s plain, everyone else thinks she’s beautiful. Put her in a gown and do up her hair and she turns into an even more glorious being all the other women envy. She’s tall, with perfect hair, deeply colored eyes, flawless skin, yadda yadda yadda. In Valdemar, though, the women aren’t all beautiful. Some of them are short and plain and have freckles. And yet somehow they manage to accomplish amazing things. Weird, huh? It’s like outer beauty doesn’t indicate inner potential. We have this tendency to associate beauty with goodness, but Lackey recognized that this is not realistic. People can be plain or even ugly, and yet still be good, while beautiful people can be horrid. Talia is short and plain and good. Her older brother is tall and handsome but awful. And when characters are pretty, Lackey doesn’t beat us over the head with it by describing their incredible eyes or luxurious hair every two pages.
So what’s not great about The Heralds of Valdemar?
- Mostly the Writing: Arrows of the Queen was Lackey’s debut novel. The next two books of the trilogy came out within a year, and it shows. The first book tells us everything and shows us relatively little, except for interludes when Talia’s insecurities need to come up or she wants to impart some bit of plot or character information. Pacing is often a problem throughout the trilogy, hurrying through parts that could use more explanation and drawing out sections that didn’t need to be as long as they were. Pacing issues, I think, are most pronounced at the end of Arrow’s Fall. A major conflict is resolved far too quickly compared to the build-up and barely brushes over a critical recovery period before hurrying on to a saccharine sweet ending. I’ll grant that this was Lackey’s first novel, written when there wasn’t much expected of fantasy. The writing definitely improves in later books.
- Talia is a Mary Sue: Let’s face it, Talia ends up being naturally good at just about every task she’s given, from mending old uniforms to disciplining royal brats to advanced horseback riding. Almost everyone loves her on sight and is incredibly loyal (even the gruff characters who don’t seem to like anyone love Talia). She is wise beyond her years and is able to impart profound wisdom to people two or three times older than she is. She becomes a skilled musician in short order and naturally has a beautiful singing voice. She’s just all around wonderful, and I don’t quite buy it. But again, I’ll chalk it up to this being Lackey’s inexperience. Her later characters aren’t so perfect.
Overall, I give The Heralds of Valdemar solid marks as an introduction to a great fantasy world that serves as an escapist haven for readers looking for a fun, quick read that is full of as much light as darkness. Just bear in mind that it is a debut effort, and so the quality of character and prose isn’t as high as it could be. Still, I think the Heralds of Valdemar trilogy stands up to a lot of current fantasy series, particularly those in that odd gray area between YA and adult fantasies. It accomplishes more in three books than many other stories do in twice that, and gives us a world where merit and deeds take priority over lineage and beauty.