Between Talia’s reading legends of the last herald mage Vanyel’s heroic final battle in Arrows of the Queen, and Vanyel’s own ominous and prophetic dreams in Magic’s Pawn, the third volume in this trilogy had quite a lot to live up to even before it started.
As the book opens, Vanyel has taken on a large amount of the responsibility for both the magical defense and governance of Valdemar, since King Randale is dying of a mysterious illness, and Valdemar is facing threats both magical and military. Following the attacks on his family in Magic’s Promise, Vanyel has once more retreated into himself, remaining aloof and not letting anyone get close to him. When however Vanyel’s nephew Medrin realizes his friend the bard Stefen has both the ability to block pain with his music, and an admiring crush on the unapproachable herald mage, Medrin presents Stefen as a solution both to the king’s increasing debilitation and Vanyel’s loneliness.
The first and most obvious problems with Magic’s Price will become apparent just from reading my above summation of the book’s opening. Despite some ominous clues in earlier and later novels, the actual threats Valdemar is experiencing are nebulous in the extreme. Though we are told there is a war with the religiously zealous country of Karse and Valdemar is in quite bad trouble, there is little evidence of this actually occurring, similarly, while we receive a few mentions of the supposedly famous Vanyel demon’s bane, there seem to be few demons around for him to be bane of. Indeed, it is only halfway through the book that the reason for Vanyel being called “The last herald mage” actually becomes apparent, and even then it is dealt with mostly as an aside.
This is because the majority of the book is concerned heavily with one plot, and one plot only, the romance between Vanyel and Stefen.
Romances, when created properly can be truly wonderful. Seeing two characters with their own history, desires and personality quirks discover each other, explore their feelings and finally come to love each other can be quite a captivating journey over the course of a novel, especially if that romance is set against an otherwise grim backdrop, or involves characters who have their own wounds and darkness to overcome. The problem however, is when a romance simply uses standard, archetypal characters, over wrought emotional phrasing and an emphasis on physical beauty, it can feel at the least hollow, if not actively offensive.
Vanyel and Stefen’s romance is so standard you can see the numbers by which it’s painted. Vanyel is the unapproachable and beautiful older love object (he’s even compared to a marble statue), who remains mysterious and unattainable for fear of hurting those around him. Stefen is the vivacious, gifted teenager who must persuade the older party not to see them as a child. There are the misunderstandings over gifts and sexual advances from the younger party, the older party deluding themselves into thinking of the younger as just a friend, the moment the younger party must seek advice about the older party’s past, the desire of the older party to keep the younger safe, even from the older party themselves, and of course the older party’s habit of behaving in a rather patronizing way towards the younger. Combine this with Lackey’s problem of being a little too fulsome in her discussion of character emotions, and you have something which reads more like the pottiest of potboiler romances than a work of fantasy from a landmark author. In fairness to Lackey a reason is given both for the large 16 year age gap between Vanyel and Stefen, and the rather instant love at first sight form of the romance, though sadly these reasons don’t make the constant recitations of each other’s virtues or the rather overblown ways Vanyel and Stefen relate to each other less irritatingly trite, even for someone who regularly refers to his wife as dearling, or sapphire, or sunbeam!
The only really unique thing about the romance of course, is that Stefen is a beautiful young man, not a beautiful young woman, and to Lackey’s credit I’m fairly sure there weren’t too many same sex fantasy romances around in 1990. However, for me at least, just as two characters being the same gender doesn’t preclude the possibility of them having a satisfying, well written romance, such as the one in The Chimes, unfortunately it also doesn’t preclude them having a dull and draggy romance either.
Vanyel and Stefen aside, the supporting characters were themselves as engaging as ever. In particular, Vanyel’s biological daughter, the princess Jisa proved to be a real breath of fresh air for the series, and her own romance and how it was explosively resolved made a nice change in pace; a shame we didn’t see more of her. I was also pleased that though we returned to Vanyel’s family, the events of Magic’s Promise had not been isolated instances, and Vanyel’s mother and father were able to accept their son for who he was, sexuality and all.
Unfortunately, talking of Vanyel’s family also brings me onto another major problem with this installment, Vanyel himself. In Magic’s Promise Vanyel mostly had grown up from the sulky teenager he had been in Magic’s Pawn. Here however, we see a regression to his previous attitude, with Vanyel being short sighted, high handed and patronizing. Indeed, his habit of Vansplaining to anyone around him, from his parents (whose attempts at acceptance Vanyel willfully ignores), to his wise aunt Savil, to Stefen. Indeed, my lady said she disliked Vanyel more and more as the book went on, which is not really a good way to relate to a main character.
The Vansplaining also ran into a rather severe problem with the book’s plot progression, since with the book almost exclusively focused on the romance, the only way Lackey could find to finally reintroduce an element of danger was to have the supposedly paranoid Vanyel act severely out of character, assuring everyone not to worry and that everything was fine, something which was again a telegraphed indicator that things were going to go wrong, and since things went severely and catastrophically wrong for a well beloved character, this just served to make Vanyel even less likable.
While Lackey did keep the politics going and maintain the idea of a complex world, unfortunately, almost of her efforts did was make me wish we could get out of the collegium and explore some more interesting parts of Valdemar rather than be forced to sit through more of Vanyel’s overly fervid romance. Similarly, while her style remained relaxed, readable and occasionally touched with descriptive flare, as when discussing mind magic, Lackey’s habit of rather overblown emotional discourse continued with Vanyel thinking how wonderful Steffen was, just before giving him long lectures about how he should watch out for dodgy gem merchants; despite Stefen being far more streetwise than Vanyel, plus a return of Vanyel’s trademark self-pity.
I was also a little confused at several mentions of Vanyel’s four children. Though I could just about accept that Shavri, King Randale’s wife and Vanyel’s best female friend asked him to help her get pregnant since Randale’s illness had made him sterile, it seemed a bit incongruous that apparently two other women had asked him the same thing (one having twins), particularly since unlike the clever and entertaining Jisa, these other children are never seen. Whether Lackey felt that Vanyel would be more likable if he were somehow biologically someone’s father I don’t know, either way it seemed a little weird to have someone be both gay, and quite literally a stud, and was just one more reason I found Vanyel hard to relate to here.
In fairness the book did pick up quite well in the final four hours, however as we’d had to wade through the previous ten hours, my sentiment was more “about time!” than concern for the protagonist.
Grim though undoubtedly things get, with Vanyel going through experiences just as horrible as Talia’s in Arrow’s Fall. However, the one problem here is that Lackey had left a lot of plot to get through in a short space of time. Thus in four hours we are suddenly introduced to the idea of monsters, mass mage murder, Vanyel’s torture and recovery, a completely new magical species, and a suddenly well organized and amazingly powerful dark wizard popping up in the last half hour just in time to be defeated, quite an anticlimax for a villain we’d heard about in several previous books.
Had these plots been introduced earlier, we could’ve had the epic conclusion we were promised. Indeed, even Vanyel’s romance would’ve been more emotionally satisfying if Stefen had needed to spend more time nursing Vanyel through his recovery rather than handling things through a rapid and all too sudden montage, but sadly this didn’t happen. Indeed, Stefen’s potential as a character with an interesting past, volition and talents of his own was generally far too under used.
I will say the ending did manage to actually engage my emotions, and also explain part of the world seen in Arrow’s Flight, although my disconnection from the characters made the ending less affecting than Lackey doubtless intended. I suspect if people were able to buy into Stefen and Vanyel’s romance a little more, the ending would have more emotional punch, which likely makes this more a book aimed at teens and those with less familiarity with literary patterns than adults or experienced readers.
Apparently, Mercedes Lackey said her usual writing formula exemplified in the Vanyel trilogy was to drop a mountain on her characters, let them recover, and then drop another mountain on them only to let them recover again before the next mountain. While I can’t fault her intention, unfortunately, what mostly happened in the series was a mountain got dropped on Vanyel, then Vanyel sat around and complained about how horrible the mountain dropping on him was for so long that he didn’t see the descending mole hill, only to then complain about how terrible it was that someone kept dropping mountains on him and he was doomed to be hit by mountains for all time, rather than say getting out of mountain range, or even noting that actually only the first one had been a mountain at all.
Though this is still definitely Mercedes Lackey, and her gift for creating likable characters of both the human and equine variety is still very much present, unfortunately with her decision to focus most of what should’ve been a dark and epic conclusion into a draggy romance featuring an increasingly dislikable protagonist, this one was not what it could’ve been, and though it’s probably still a valuable addition to the overall lore of Valdemar, plot and character wise I can’t help feeling this was a misstep.
Still, for those who have more tolerance for emotional theatrics or predictable romances than I do, there might still be something here worth exploring, since there are definitely the seeds of an interesting story here all the same.
Review by Dark
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