The Last Herald Mage trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey

>> Friday, June 08, 2007

TITLE: The Last Herald Mage trilogy (Magic's Pawn, Magic's Promise, and Magic's Price)
AUTHOR: Mercedes Lackey

COPYRIGHT: 1989 for the first book, 1990 for the second and third
PAGES: 352, 320 and 352 for books 1, 2 and 3 respectively
PUBLISHER: DAW (Penguin group)

SETTING: Valdemar, a country in the fictional world of Velgarth
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: These three books are a complete trilogy on their own, but they're part of a larger group of books set in Velgarth, mostly in Valdemar. This larger group includes several series, all interconnected (you can see a bit more here). From what I've been able to find out, this particular trilogy covers a relatively early part of Valdemar history.

REASON FOR READING: I've been meaning to read more Lackey, after loving both her 500 Kingdoms and Elemental Masters series. Li recommended these in particular.

(nice summary taken from here):

Alienated from his family, unsuited to life as a warrior or landholder, Vanyel is entrusted to the care of his aunt, Savil, a Herald-Mage in the kingdom of Valdemar.

Sensing that there is something unusual about the youth, Savil seeks to help him discover his true talents. Yet it is not until his friend and fellow student Tylendel opens a Gate of power and unleashes horror upon the land that Vanyel's latent talents are jolted awake - with dangerous effects.

The only thing that may save Vanyel from his own wild magic is the intervention of a Companion, one of the beautiful, mysterious beings in the form of great white horses who bond for life with a chosen human Herald or Herald-Mage.

But though Vanyel may prove to be the most powerful Herald-Mage Valdemar has ever seen - if he survives long enough to master his abilities - desperate trials await him. For ill luck has taken an increasingly heavy toll on Valdemar with each passing year, claiming the lives of many among the Herald-Mages.

Even more disturing, there is no rest for Vanyel even in sleep, for his dreams have long been haunted by the barely glimpsed image of an unknown enemy - one who may be only a figment of his own imagining ... or the creature responsible for all the evil and misfortune that plague the kingdom.

Is Vanyel foreseeing his own doom, as he believes in his darkest moments? Or are the dreams a warning that will enable him to save Valdemar, his fellow Herald-Mages, and himself?
THE PLOTS: The Last Herald Mage trilogy follows the aristocratic Vanyel Ashkevron from his adolescence to his becoming the most powerful Herald Mage in Valdemar, as he struggles with his increasing duties, his loneliness and his sexual identity. And if you would like to read this, I'd recommend that you don't continue reading, as what follows will probably be pretty spoilerish (just to say what the second book will be about will spoil things about the first one).

In Magic's Pawn we meet Vanyel as an unhappy and misunderstood young man, constantly berated and abused for not being the kind of brute warrior his landholder father wants him to be, especially because he's the eldest son and heir. Vanyel is resentful and scared when he's sent to Haven, the capital city, to live with his aunt Savil, an intimidating Herald-Mage. Surprisingly, under her tutelage Vanyel finally comes into his own and even finds love with another of her students -another boy, something Van wasn't expecting. But this is a love affair that ends in tragedy, and it's aftermath suddenly unlocks Van's heretofore latent powers to an amazing degree.

Magic's Promise takes place some 12 years later, when Vanyel is 28. In those intervening years he's mastered his raw powers and become a celebrated hero, the most recognized of all Herald-Mages. During this middle volumen in the trilogy, he spends some time resting at his ancestral home, learning to come to terms with his relationship with his family. But he won't be able to rest as much as he intended, because there's some potential trouble nearby, right over the border, and it soon become clear that if he doesn't do something, the consequences could be disastrous.

By the time we get to the last book in the trilogy, Magic's Price, Vanyel is in his mid-30s. The peace agreements signed by the previous queen have been slowly falling to pieces, and Valdemar is under threat. With fewer and fewer Herald-Mages appearing and their death-toll going up, Vanyel has been running himself ragged trying to do everything and be everything. And to make things worse, the King, his friend, has become practically crippled by disease. The only thing that calms him is the music of a young Bard, Stefan, who happens to have a long-time crush on Vanyel.

MY THOUGHTS: Ahhhh, Vanyel. I fell in love with him early, even when he was being a little twerp. The rich, complex world-building, the interesting, subtly-drawn secondary characters, the plots... all well and good (or rather, more than good), but it was Vanyel who had me turning the pages. He's just so real, so heartbreaking, and it was amazing seeing the way he developed through the years.

I liked Pawn because he's so believable as a teenager there. Sure, he is very badly treated by his family, but he definitely feels very sorry for himself, too, in a very sullen teenager way, and it can't be denied that he's a bit of a brat, especially once he's at Haven. But there's something there under the irritating boy that drew me in and make me feel for him.

As I mentioned in the summary, we have a romance with a sad ending in this first book. What Vanyel develops with Tylendel is not some kind of light puppy love, but a real, solid lifebond he will miss for the rest of his life, and this is something that Lackey manages to show even at this stage. But you know, I didn't really mind the unhappy ending all that much (other than hate to see Vanyel suffering so much), because like Savil, I had the very same doubts about the healthiness of the relationship those two had developed.

I finished this one feeling very bittersweet but loving the feeling. The moody teenager living deep inside me was in heaven. I couldn't wait to see how things would evolve.

The next one, Promise, ended up being by far my absolute favourite of the trilogy. This was quite a surprise to me, because when Li described the books for me, she mentioned that there was romance in the first and third book, so I thought "Well, I suppose I'll have to read that second one quickly then, so I can get to the romance in the third one".

I fully expected some filler here. Instead, I got an immensely affecting portrayal of a wonderful man having to deal with the prospect of having only a lifetime of duty to look forward to. Van is a fascinating character in this book, as he comes to accept the loneliness of being a hero everyone is afraid of. Here's where he comes to terms with who he is, sexually and in general, really, and comes to terms with losing Lendel.

But all is not sad in this book, as Van also finally makes peace with his family and comes to accept them, as they come to accept the real Van. It becomes even clearer here that in the first book Van really was a very young man, with a very young man's vision of things, a vision that was sometimes wrong because the adolescent Van was so self-involved and so determined to see himself as a poor, misunderstood little thing.

So that was amazing, but it wasn't the only thing going on in the book. There's also the matter of what's happening across the border in Lineas and Baires, and that was a fascinating little mystery. It was the combination of these two elements that made this one the best book in the trilogy.

I don't think I waited even five minutes after I finished Promise before I started Price. And at the beginning, it was great. I was drawn in by the dark, dark tone and atmosphere, even as I very much enjoyed seeing Van get a little bit of happiness for a change.

His romance with Stefan could have been a problem. First, because of the age difference. Van is in well into his 30s here, while Stef is about 18 (or probably more like 17 around the beginning). And second, there's the fact that Van is this huge hero for everyone in Valdemar, and Stef has idolized him for years. But this wasn't as squicky as it might have been, mostly because Stef is much more sexually experienced than Van, and he's the one who does all the pursuing. There is an awareness on Van's part of the possible power imbalance, and so when they finally do get together, it's dealt with, and I didn't think there was really a dominant party in their relationship.

So I was quite liking the book. Maybe not as much as book two, in spite of the fact that I was getting a romance here, but it was good. And then... wham, the ending. Or rather, the last part of the book. I'm talking about what happens from the moment Vanyel travels North with Stefen to confront the danger there. I can't really describe my problems without going into huge spoilers, and it will be a long rant, so I'll just leave some spoiler space, rather than white out the font








Ok, here's the thing. The problem isn't really the lack of HEA (and no, having Stefen live out his long, long life alone and then join Van in death isn't a HEA for me, even if Van made him a ghostly visitation and assured him that he would be waiting on the other side). I didn't like having Van die, but all right, it was an ending that was appropriate to the trilogy, what with all that about "magic's price" and so on. What really pissed me off and made me close the book very unhappy was something else.

First, it felt to me as if this particular villain appeared completely out of the blue and was wholly undeveloped. Sure, we'd already seen that someone was after Van personally, but it was a very minor thing in the whole of the story. In the end, the whole thing felt like: oops, turns out that, though we never even suspected it, this guy has been up there getting power and plotting against us for a hundred years and more! He's been attacking Herald Mages all along and we never knew! (and what the hell did Van mean when he said that he and Lendel, too? Was Lendel's suicide related to this? It wasn't clear to me). It wasn't something that had been threaded throughout the book, much less throughout the trilogy, other than Van's dreams about his death. This huge final confrontation felt completely unintegrated to the rest of the story.

And there was also the fact that this all-important villain is just featureless. We know nothing about him. Who is he, why is he doing this? Oh, he's someone evil, and he's doing all this because he's evil. That's as far as motivation goes. I prefer my villains a bit more understandable, thank you very much. It's what makes things more interesting.

Second, and even graver, I was extremely disturbed by a scene of horrific and graphic sexual violence that was totally needless, as far as I'm concerned. On the way to confront that evil mage, Van is taken captive by a group of bandits and subjected to a brutal gang-rape. Part of what bothered me was that Lackey is an excellent writer and had succeeded in making me give myself over to the story completely, so she really made the scene come alive to me. I wasn't expecting it, and it turned my stomach completely. Some of the details she considered necessary to share with us were much too sickening, like what happened to Yfandes's tail. That particular detail has been stuck in my nightmares ever since I read the book. I actually had to immediately pick up a book by comfort-author extraordinaire JAK after that, just because I couldn't stop thinking about this stuff (yep, I've had this review in the works for some time. This was the book that had me reaching for White Lies).

But the key word about this scene is "needless". It wasn't really the graphicness that I found unforgivable, but the fact that there's no reason to include it in the story at all. Storywise, is it needed to show how evil the evil mage is? No, because this isn't done on his orders; all he wanted was to get Vanyel alive. The rape is just the bandits trying to get some revenge on the Heralds, who'd made their lives difficult for years.

Or is it needed for character development? I recently read a book by Linda Castillo that included a graphic description of a rape endured by the heroine (it was a flashback, in this case, but this didn't make it any less awful). The thing is, as distrubing as that scene was, that rape was a key element in making the heroine into the person she became. It was necessary that this happened to this character and it was even necessary that we see exactly how horrific it had been, so that we understood her.

But in the case of the scene in Magic's Price, does surviving the rape forge Vanyel into a stronger, more determined man? Does it put doubts in his head about what he needs to do? Does it change him in any way? IMO, no, not at all. He's traumatized by what has happened, obviously, but he and Stef and Yfandes take refuge with some friends of the Tayledras and Van recovers with Stef's help, a process greatly glossed over. And no, this recovery isn't the point of the rape, either, because I didn't see that it advanced Stef and Van's relationship in any way. The love and trust between them remains just as huge.

Then Van immediately heads up into the mountain to confront the villain and gives his life to defeat him. Would the pre-rape Vanyel have behaved any differently? Hell, no. Would it have been easier or harder for him to make the decision to sacrifice himself? I really don't think so. So, again, why the hell was was this rape scene even included?

The only possibility I can think of is to show that Van can have a dark side (when he gets free, he very nearly mind-forces his main tormentor to kill himself), but this was so obviously Van in a traumatized rage and not thinking clearly, that I don't think anyone can blame him, just as Stefen and Yfandes don't. And even if this had been Lackey's intention, it would be overkill, like killing a fly with a nuclear blast.

Phew, it really did bother me, didn't it? Such a long rant, I hadn't done this for a while!


Magic's Pawn: A-

Magic's Promise: A

Magic's Price: B- (averaging a B+ for most of the book and a D for the last part that was so disappointing).


Anonymous,  18 November 2012 at 16:22  

I loved this series, too!

Maybe I can help with the understanding behind the violence towards Vanyel at the end of the last book. I saw it as a the plot coming full circle. Tylendel, in the first book, was driven mad by the - spoiler alert - death of his twin. This led to the events that started Vanyel on his journey as a Herald-Mage. The violence in the last book was directed towards Vanyel and drove him mad enough to commit an act that - when he was sane - he deplored. He was afraid that Stephen and Yfandes would repudiate him like Tylendal had been by his Companion. The events are dissimilar enough that Yfandes and Stefan understood and stood by him. The similarities are there, though, with Vanyel taking the place of Tylendel and Stefan taking the place of Vanyel. This is important to the fact of who Stefan really is, which we found out at the beginning or so of the third book. Tylendal has to work through the debt owed to Van because of his actions and through his failing as a Herald, which is why he has to "earn his place." Tylendal has to go through similar events that he put Vanyel through in order to attain redemption.

The end of the third book disturbed me greatly also, but that is what great fiction reaches the reader emotionally. We, the readers, may not always like the emotions evoked, but the fact that we feel them is the point.

Rosario 22 November 2012 at 07:20  

Thanks for this, I wish I'd seen it right after I finished it. It's now been over 5 years, so understandably, memories are a bit fuzzy!

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