I missed out on Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books during my teenage years which is when I suspect a lot of people find these books with their magical horses (known as Companions) and tales of growing up and finding out about the world. I’ve been making up for it though since the books have been ending up neatly packaged into trilogies on Kindle over the past couple of years. This particular trilogy is interesting because it features a protagonist who is mentioned very early on in the first Valdemar novel (Arrows of the Queen) as a legendary figure. So, as with other readers, I went into this series knowing Vanyel was going to grow up, become a hugely powerful mage, he would die tragically, and leave behind the love of his life – the bard Stefen. It’s interesting to read a book where you know the ending and the journey is figuring out how we get there. So let’s start at the beginning…
The first book in the trilogy (Magic’s Pawn (The Last Herald-Mage Series, Book 1)) introduces the teenage Vanyel growing up in a noble family. The time period is pseudo-medieval so we have the whole lords, ladies, training in sword fighting, horse riding, and music being the primary means of entertainment. Vanyel is an outsider in his family, the eldest son but he isn’t interested in fighting, or women (era-related sexual mores apply – at 15 he has slept with women and so has his younger brother), he wants to be a musician. Events conspire to see him sent to live with his aunt Savil in the capital city of Haven where she is a famed Herald of Valdemar (a mage of sorts bonded to a magical white horse they can communicate with – the Companion). Savil realises what we the reader knows – Vanyel is traumatised by his life so far and needs care and support to break out of his shell. The reason for that becomes clear (and is something we as readers may have already realised) when Vanyel falls in love with with a fellow male student Tylendel with whom he develops a life bond – a magical connection which ties a couple mentally and emotionally.
Spoiler Alert: that relationship ends badly to say the least! And here I do have to issue a warning as this may affect some readers – the fallout of the events that sees Vanyel become a Herald Mage leave him traumatised to the point where he attempts suicide and has repeated suicidal thoughts. I would say that I think this is treated very well by the author and shows the support that is needed to help someone recover from these events. The book ends with Vanyel accepting his new abilities and using them in defence of others.
The second book (Magic’s Promise (The Last Herald-Mage Series, Book 2)) is actually as much of a filler story as the middle film in a trilogy often is. We skip 12 years to find Vanyel in his late twenties and he’s already a massively powerful mage who can pretty much single-handedly terrify entire countries into submission. We’ve also skipped a whole lot of interesting personal events as whilst he acknowledges himself as gay he’s practically celibate and has also fathered 4 children for friends. One of whom is the ‘daughter’ of the king and no-one other than the parents and child know Vanyel is the birth father. There’s a lot of story in there that could do with a further visit to this missing time period from the author! In terms of actual events in the book Vanyel begins reconciliation with family and people from his childhood home (having now realised that his father was scared that he was gay and that is why he was mistreated), rescues a traumatised young Herald, and takes out another magical enemy.
It’s the final book (Magic’s Price (The Last Herald-Mage Series, Book 3)) that brings us to where we expected to be. Vanyel is doing the job of multiple people as mages seem to be dying out in Valdemar, there is political unrest in neighbouring countries, and the king’s health is failing. A young trainee bard called Stefen is introduced as he is discovered to have a gift that helps the king focus and our players are now in the game. Vanyel resists Stefen for a chunk of the book thinking the bard has a bad case of hero worship, we are shown the other side where Stefen is confident in his sexuality (he knows he’s gay, and he’s more than happy to indulge in casual sex) and for the first time is interested in a serious relationship. Eventually they do start a relationship, discover they are life-bonded, and become inseparable. Happiness doesn’t last long though as Vanyel realises a hugely powerful magician is prepared to attack Valdemar and he has to be faced alone (Vanyel has dreamt of his own death facing this mage since childhood…). A final confrontation takes place and the legend of Vanyel is cemented as one man takes on an entire army and leaves behind a field of bodies. Stefen faces life alone, considers not facing it, but is given a reason to live that will pay off in later books.
It’s at this point I have to issue another warning as the events that lead up to this point include Vanyel being abducted by bandits and repeatedly raped and tortured. It’s not described in explicit detail, and is again era-appropriate in terms of what could happen to a captive, but I’m not convinced it was a necessary scene. Violence alone may have sufficed to provoke the events that follow, it didn’t have to include sexual violence.
My summary would be that I wish I could see more of Vanyel’s life, I also wish he could have had a happier one. It’s a success of a writer that I care enough about a character who could have come across as “all powerful wizard” that I want more. There are still some weaknesses in the writing such as frequently the first two-thirds of a book is detail heavy and slow with all the action in the last third. Rape-as-drama is also a cliche I could definitely live without. But the joy in having a fantasy novel with a gay teenage protagonist cannot be understated, if Lackey gets one thing very right it is that she doesn’t treat sex or sexuality as a big deal. I can imagine that for people of that age finding books in which all and any relationships (casual, serious, gay, straight, etc) are regarded as perfectly normal and acceptable will be beneficial and the start of a good conversation