Arrow's Flight by Mercedes Lackey (The Heralds of Valdemar #2)

While I was pleasantly surprised that Arrows of the Queen managed to make a compelling story out of a nearly conflict free fairy tale, I was looking forward in Arrow's flight to having things grow a little darker and more serious. Arrows of the Queen after all had taken a shy, mistreated child through her time at the Collegium, where she trained as a Herald, made friends and concluded with her feeling of acceptance and her foiling a conspiracy against the Queen. Since I knew Arrow's Flight saw Talia's graduation from the Collegium and her first internship, riding the roadways dispensing justice and generally keeping order in the kingdom, I expected this to be the point in the series that things kicked off, that Talia left the safety of the Collegium to be confronted with something much darker and more serious, that this would be when the fairy tale ended.

After a brief potted history of the Herald's in general and Talia in particular, Arrow's Flight begins with Talia's graduation as a Herald, and almost at the same time Elspeth the Heir being chosen by a companion.

While I was a little surprised Lackey didn't make more of Elspeth's feelings here, (especially with Elspeth's redemption from brathood being such a major part of Arrows of the Queen), at the same time this did seem to take the story in a new direction, and one which harped back to the conspiracy of the first book, that of politics.

Talia attends a ball with the help of the handsome and scholarly Kriss, her mentor for the upcoming internship, and his best friend the sensitive Derk. With Kriss being the nephew of the obstructive Lord Orthallen, as well as with some intimations that the court held Talia in suspicion for her gift of empathy, I suddenly thought I saw where the story was going, a murky political conspiracy with a travel narrative.

The problem was, that suspicions was all we got. Quickly enough Talia is whisked off to a romantic party with her fellow Heralds, and then is riding off to the north with the beautiful Kriss in toe.

This problem of conflict being threatened but never actually delivering, combined with an overall lack of narrative direction and momentum is the main reason I feel rather disappointed in Arrow’s Flight.

Kriss and Talia's relations are mostly very amicable and the judgements and issues they confront as they progress through villages on their circuit are usually easily resolved, even when encountering problems like plague or mistreatment of a servant, indeed to say part of the duties of Heralds is acting as impartial arbiters, it was almost surprising how easy making judgements seemed to be.

The only two major genuflections we get in the direction of some sort of conflict were to my mind both a little unnecessary. First, Talia's gift starts to become a problem with her projecting emotion unconsciously and being overwhelmed by the emotions of others, despite the intensive training she'd supposedly already received at the Collegium. Where this came from I'm not sure since there was no hint of this before, be that as it may the idea of an empath projecting her own emotions is one which a deft character writer could have a field day with, however this is one occasion where once again Lackey's habit of simply stating what characters feel rather than showing it through dialogue and actions made the conflict far less of a problem than it might have been, particularly since it is resolved by Kriss (who for some reason knows all about empathic gifts and how Talia can  keep hers under control despite the fact Talia is the only Herald to have such a gift and none of this was understood by her far more experienced teachers at the Collegium), giving her exercises and acting as her sometimes harsh tutor.

Indeed this brings me on to my second major issue and the only other vague attempt Lackey has in giving Talia something to actually deal with in a major way, her feelings for Kriss. There is a certain style of written male character I've noticed that authors (especially female ones), seem to often cast in the role of love interest for a female protagonist. Eloquent, witty, sensitive to feelings, artistic, not necessarily handsome but compelling and competent, usually but not always with at least one previous bad relationship. Derk had all the hallmarks of this character to the point that Talia's feelings for Derk were almost inevitable from his first appearance in the book, (indeed I suspected as much from Derk's brief introduction in the previous instalment).

The idea of Talia spending a huge amount of time with Derk's best friend purely as friends is of course fine, especially for its potential for conflict and character growth, but the fact that the two of them end up sleeping together, with Kriss telling Talia how pleased he is that she is madly in love with his best friend even as they cuddle struck me as more than a little crass, indeed as rather adolescent. This was heightened by the fact that Lackey's style here seemed to vastly improve and she appeared to quite enjoy describing if not actually erotic, at least heavily romantic scenes that probably would've been pleasant to read but for the context; especially since they mostly occurred during an otherwise slightly dull section when both characters were snowed in.

Combine this with the fact that Kriss is both amazingly handsome and universally competent and always taking the lead in things, and I found the relations here just a little clichéd to say the least. The whole situation, from Kriss and Talia actually discussing her feelings for Derk, to the narrator's emphasis on how nice a guy Kriss was and how troublesome his life constantly being chased by amorous young women was (oh the poor man), was a little off.

To Lackey's credit however, the final resolution of this relationship was a spectacular and hilarious scene, and one which was both well deserved and gave Talia back a deal of her credit, indeed I almost got the impression Lackey realized herself the relationship was a mistake and gave Talia a truly explosive get out which cleared the air between them, as well as restoring my faith in Talia as someone who actually has respect for friend's boundaries however handsome they might be.

Another major problem I had with Arrow’s Flight was lack of direction. Despite a distinct improvement in overall style, with none of the shifts in tone or odd time skips that troubled the first instalment, the book just seemed to be a random series of events that occurred at intervals, including Talia's relationship with Kriss. I almost get the feeling that Lackey stuck the relationship and the problems Talia had with her gift in just to mark time since even though Talia's ride around the kingdom was nominally supposed to be more dangerous, in practice things feel almost as safe and conflict free as they did in Arrows of the Queen, particularly with Talia feeling a little more passive in this book than she had previously, mostly because of Kriss.

Unlike Queen, Lackey did however deliver far more in the ending and something of a climax, albeit one which just happened to happen on Kriss and Talia's round and could've done at any time rather than being the result of what had come previously either thematically or emotionally. Finally we saw some physical danger to both Heralds, Talia's ill-advised relationship came to a spectacular point, and though her issues with her gift were resolved earlier at least they were resolved. The book also concluded with Talia exacting an actually quite unpleasant duty of Heralds. Though this was perhaps not as complex or fraught with tough decisions as it might have been, I was relieved by the fact that Talia did get something nasty to deal with and dealt with it quite adroitly and appropriately, indeed that section to me felt almost like a return of the quietly competent Talia of the previous book rather than as Kriss’s helpmate as unfortunately she was for most of Arrow’s Flight.

Though stylistically and in terms of it's ending Flight was an improvement, the lack of direction, the rather pointless and ineffective conflicts and the distinctly odd relationships meant I was a little more disappointed with Flight than Queen.

It didn't seem Flight ended the fairy tale begun in Queen, so much as just let it gutter out, (there was even a handsome prince). Given that we've already had one book of the story of Talia's recovery, and now needed to see that learning put into practice this probably was not the best direction Lackey could take here.

I am however assured by my lady that Arrow's Fall is the really dark volume and the point that Talia will come into her own and show her metal passing through some incredibly bleak circumstances, so I'll look forward to an improvement in the next volume.

7/10 And she met a handsome prince, and waited for her life to begin

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