Arrow's Fall by Mercedes Lackey

Rating 8.0/10
And she lived happily ever after, until she was horribly tortured!

As Arrow's Fall started, I was really not sure where things were going or how Lackey would resolve Talia's story given that there wasn't much that required resolving from Arrow's Flight at that point.

On the one hand, the start of the book, Talia's return to haven and the Collegium did see a step up in tension, presenting some realistically disagreeable political debates and showing Lord Orthallen, thus far only an obstructive arse to be far more of a problem for Queen Selenay and her supporters than we might have suspected, especially over such critical matters as Elspeth the Heir's proposed marriage to the prince of the neighbouring kingdom of Hardorn. Lackey's writing style also did show some improvement, particularly since the first section showed much more that characters like Kriss weren't universally nice in the way they acted, giving more nuanced depictions than Lackey had presented thus far.

That being said, I wasn't sure about some of the plot here. I disliked the way in Flight Kriss was quite able to have an affair with Talia despite her supposedly being in love and sharing a mystical life bond with Kriss' best friend Derk. While I hoped this plot had been resolved with the explosive confrontation at the end of Flight, Lackey saw fit to drag things out in a decidedly less than satisfactory way by having Kriss admit to Derk that yes, he had indeed slept with Talia while conveniently forgetting to mention that they'd spent the entire time discussing how right Talia was for Derk. This sent the plot into what I can only describe as a Robert Jordan spin, (ironic given Fall predates Jordan by four or five years), which was particularly frustrating since there seemed no earthly reason why Kriss would neglect to mention how much he wanted his best friend to be with Talia, heck he'd spent the entire time they were together saying so to her.

This resulted in rather a lot of needless prevarication and depression on Derk's part, extra frustrating for serving no point which didn't make for pleasant reading. The promiscuity of Heralds also served to drag out the plot regarding Elspeth, in which Orthallen attempted to introduce the teenaged girl to some unsavoury company and initiate an affair with a rakish young noble. Why exactly (given that the reigning monarch was a Herald and Heralds were supposedly so casual about promiscuity), this would be a bad thing, or how exactly this would further Orthallen's goal of marrying Elspeth off to the prince I do not know. Indeed, in general I find Lackey's attempt to combine highly open relationships among a community of accepting people with customs of arranged political marriage less than successful.

That being said, Talia's confrontation with Elspeth's potential suitor was a wonderful moment and once again shows Lackey's gift for writing rather comically emotional scenes, even for such usually gentle natured characters as Talia, despite the fact that given the general niceness of most characters such scenes do feel a little out of left field.

Up until this point, roughly halfway through the book, I confess I was rather wondering why my lady told me Arrow's Fall was where everything kicked off, or that I'd enjoy it as the darkest volume of the series, since thus far it'd been pretty much an extension of what we'd seen before.

Then however, Talia and Kriss journey to Hardorn to investigate the prince, and suddenly I found myself reading a vastly different story. Whether Lackey realized herself that her lack of conflict wasn't making for a compulsive read, or whether she simply removed her gloves for the third volume, almost abruptly I found something far grimmer, a story with violence, murder, dark sorcery and torture. While Lackey's descriptions of the unpleasant circumstances first the people of Hardorn and then Talia go through are fairly brief, usually a sentence or two, she did manage to insert a few pointed little phrases just to give an idea of how bad things had been, indeed her offhand, yet strangely calm depiction of horrific events reminded me strongly of her later work. I'll also give Lackey credit that one rather unexpected character from Arrow's Flight, and a conflict Talia resolved in that story, returned and served as a major focus for the plot in a way that was satisfying if not entirely unexpected.

After this rather horrific section, the return to the safety of the Collegium felt more than appropriate, indeed I was relieved myself when things started to improve for Talia, albeit I found the swiftness of her recovery from some pretty horrific experiences a bit too pat for my liking.

That being said, the experiences Talia goes through are so extreme, it is almost a relief, as is the final resolution to the main character thread, though I did rather feel on the romantic angle that we'd seen a little too much prevarication for prevarication’s sake so that Lackey could deliver her romantic  ending with enough punch. It all felt rather too contrived, particularly given that the tension between Talia and Derk earlier in the book didn't really need to be there at all.

In terms of its overall plot, while the major conflict with Hardorn did feel slightly abrupt in its introduction and resolution, things got so profoundly nasty, especially as contrast to the almost overblown safety of the previous volumes that I didn't feel the lack of setup here was too much of a problem, albeit I was disappointed that one villain who seeks revenge on Talia is someone we didn't even see in the previous books due to Lackey's use of time skips.

Speaking of villains, Lackey was obviously thinking of a sequel since though the book finishes with a victory it's not the final one. While the closest thing the series has to a recurring villain is defeated in a rather cursory fashion and one which I felt slightly too obvious, particularly since he was supposedly intelligent, the really nasty characters introduced in the latter half of Fall are very much still out there and apparently feature heavily in the next Valdamar set, The Mage Winds trilogy, books I'm rather more eager to progress to than I expected to be, indeed Fall contains far more setup for it's sequel than either of the two previous volumes making it a distinctly strange end to a trilogy.

Arrow's Fall is an unexpected conclusion to the series. Despite some of the previous issues, especially contrived emotional drama, occasional time skips into niceness; it's unquestionably a far more adult story. The politics, Lackey's characters, and the traumatic circumstances themselves definitely show that Lackey's writing, and the series have grown up, plus though Talia's story is over, the trilogy ends leaving us more aware than ever that there is more of Valdemar to explore and that Valdemar is a land of light and shadow, and one I personally will be glad to revisit.

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