My lady was rather shocked that this site has no listing for Mercedes Lackey, a prolific and sensitive author and definitely one of the fantasy old guard whose works are usually regarded as cornerstones of the genre.
Since I'd previously only read her twisted take on superheroes, the online podcast series Secret World chronicle, I was eager to try out her more standard fantasy fiction, beginning with her first novel and the start of her epic Valdemar sequence, Arrows of the Queen.
One of the first things that struck me about the book is its truly unusual emphasis. In the Hobbit, Tolkien remarks that things that are uncomfortable, unpleasant or dangerous make for extremely good tales, while tales who focus only on experiences of comfort or happiness are pretty dull. Arrows of the Queen is however one of the rare exceptions when the converse is true.
The story focuses on Talia, a farm girl who flees her restrictive, misogynistic community on her thirteenth birthday to avoid an arranged, and likely abusive marriage. To her joy, Talia finds her long time dream coming true as she is adopted by a Companion, a sentient horse like creature with a psychic link to her (not unlike Anne Mccaffrey's dragons), a creature she'd previously only read about in old stories. This means she is to become a herald, a set of guardians who keep justice around the kingdom of Valdemar, carry messages and use their own magical gifts to keep the peace.
After some very uncomfortable inferences about Talia's life among the Holder kin, the book generally settles down to detailing her time at the Collegium, the school where Heralds are trained, her attempts to make friends with fellow students take up some unique responsibilities and learn to use her own particular gift of magic.
While Talia’s time at the Collegium isn't entirely without incident or danger, I did find it remarkable how compelling the heartwarming story of a shy, wounded girl learning to trust and become a competent, responsible herald was. Undoubtedly this is because of Talia herself, since despite being a quiet, retiring person, Lackey is careful to make Talia rather more than just a passive character whom good is done to, and gives her several tasks and situations in which she can show her own specialized talents. The way Lackey contrasts Talia's feelings of being out of her depth with an immediate snap back to straight forward competency in situations she can instantly grasp and responsibilities she can deal with is almost humorous in just how human it makes her.
In general, "character" is the main strength here, and Lackey gives everyone at the Collegium, from the queen, to the cook, to Talia's roguish friend Skiff distinctive personality, manner and history of their own. Indeed, having finished the book I almost feel I know several of these people myself. Indeed, according to my lady, several of the main characters of their own series. I also applaud Lackey for the way that she doesn't overburden the reader with information on the Heralds, the history of Valdemar or on possible upcoming events further in the trilogy but just peppers revelations through the book at intervals, indeed her ability to gently impart information in the course of describing classes or conversations without having massive info dumps likely would make Arrows of the Queen a very accessible book for a newcomer to fantasy literature.
One problem however, with Lackey's writing (likely due to the fact that Arrows was written early in her career) is that on occasions her style is rather jarring, often in ways that impact the strongest aspect of her work, her characters.
Her casual, personal style when discussing the central experiences of characters like Talia is adequate and readable enough, perhaps less poetic than some though not actively discordant. However, on occasions she will abruptly jump viewpoint, often mid scene, in a move which can badly interrupt the flow of the narrative. Talia's first meeting with the Principle of the Collegium for example rather abruptly switches to the viewpoint of the Principle, deciding how to progress with Talia and forming judgements about her previous life history and whom might be best to teach her.
What makes these shifts even more odd is that frequently while the actual view changes, the way things are essentially described does not. Thus while the Collegium Principle does observe Talia in ways she could not observe herself, his view of the Collegium and the students that populate it is very much the same as hers, impressed with the same sense of breathless excitement, wonder and apprehension. It is likely for this reason the teachers at the Collegium, whatever their age, generally come off as rather more similar to the students, especially when we're seeing things from their perspective.
This uniformity of viewpoint also presents Lackey with another problem with her essential theme of a coming of age story, the problem of time skips. Frequently Lackey will explain what Talia (or other characters) are feeling in rather bold terms over longer periods of time, without any indication in the immediately narrated sections that these feelings existed. Thus, while individually Talia's relations with her fellow Herald trainees are universally amicable and she seems to have good life long friends. The time skip narration takes pause to say how lonely she is, the conflict between the rather tragic teenaged girl in the time skips and the fairly likeable, friendly (if somewhat reticent) person we see in the narrated sections make it almost appear that Lackey is trying to create conflict for conflict's sake rather than letting it arise naturally from the story. Were Talia a less likeable character, this focus on negativity despite her mostly friendly relations might almost appear rather self obsessed. It is not just with Talia, but the time skips and this strangely enforced loneliness also create some oddities with other characters, for example a scene from the Principal's perspective in which he asks Cheryl, one of Talia's fellow students, to watch out for her and yet we don't see Cheryl again in Talia's immediate view for quite some time (doubly odd given the fact the time lapse sections don't mention her either).
This tension between narrated and time lapsed sections also sets up some quite abrupt changes in tone and odd introductions. For example we first learn of Talia becoming embroiled in a conspiracy when she explains about this to a friend, detailing several experiences she had at the hands of another character whom we never actually meet in standard narration view.
Problematic though her time skips and viewpoint alterations are however, Lackey's knack for witty dialogue, naturalistic settings and above all her gift for actually inspiring sympathy for her characters in her readers, makes the standard narrative sections of the book extremely readable, and the sweet story they tell all the more satisfying, a particular achievement since with one notable, if short exception, it's remarkable how smooth Talia's adolescence is (discussions of her mysterious loneliness aside).
The book's ending I have to confess was a little disappointing, mostly due to the fact that the major threat in the book which remains for the most part a nebulous one is dealt with in such a pat, abrupt manner. It feels a distinct anti climax, indeed Lackey virtually says "and then everything worked out" before moving to the epilogue and Talia's final meeting with some of her friends. The conspiracy feels rather like an afterthought. In fairness however my Lady does assure me that more on this threat will be upcoming in the second two, far darker entries in the series, albeit that the threat was so defuse thus far it's not seemed particularly threatening or something I feel much concern about, since Lackey gives no foreshadowing or similar indications that more is to come of this, the book could well have ended with "and Talia became an awesome Herald and lived happily ever after".
All this being said, one aspect of Arrows of the Queen I greatly admire is Lackey's ability to make characters that are likeable, and tell a tale of hope, recovery and friendship without once stepping over the border into the saccharine, or giving readers the impression that everything is always completely safe. However nice the Collegium is, Lackey makes no bones about the fact that the world outside its walls is a distinctly dangerous one, especially for the Heralds who attempt to bring order to the chaos, another fact which points to the series taking a bleaker tone in the next two volumes.
Arrows of the Queen is not really a fantasy story for those who love non-stop action, or even for those who love authors like Robin Hobb who thrive on emotional pyrotechnics. It is however an easily read, and genuinely charming story, a fairy tale for grownups populated with likeable characters who get the rewards they deserve, as well as a gentle introduction to Valdemar, it's people and Talia herself.
Review by Dark
Arrows of the Queen
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