Magic's Promise by Mercedes Lackey (Last Herald-Mage Trilogy #2)

There is very little good to be said about having a rotten cold, especially when said cold comes with a sore throat that makes it difficult to say anything at all. Fortunately, one of the bonuses of being married to a lady who shares both the same reading tastes and the same cold viruses as you is that you can at least catch up on your fantasy, and while Magic’s Pawn had had its issues I was still interested to see where Vanyel’s story would take him. Before going on; note that this review will necessarily contain a few spoilers for the previous book.

Twelve years after Tylendel’s death and his training with the hawk brothers, Vanyel’s astonishing level of power has led him to a pivotal position in the Heralds, especially since Valdemar is now at war. Cut off from forming close relationships due to his continuing grief, Vanyel returns from a long hard spell of duty, just looking for a little rest and relaxation. Since he must also visit his parents home at Forced Reach however, relaxation doesn’t seem likely, not with his homophobic father, histrionic mother, and the maid Milenna convinced that she can seduce him, despite the fact that he is gay. Returning to his home also means Vanyel must confront the ghosts of his past, such as the bullying arms master Jervis and the conservatively hostile Father Leren. Furthermore, a Herald Mage is never truly off duty, and when a magical disaster befalls the royal family of a neighbouring kingdom, Vanyel will be called upon to unravel a mystery which could threaten not just his own family but the hole kingdom of Valdemar.

One of the most welcome things about Magic’s Promise which is obvious from the get go, is that Vanyel is twelve years older. Though he still has his issues, he generally handles matters in a far more mature and stable way, and thus is much more pleasant to be around. This makes Magic’s Promise generally far less draggy than Magic’s Pawn, despite the fact that most of its first half just concerns Vanyel’s changing relations to his family. For the most part this is a good thing, both in terms of the conflicts it creates and the bridges it builds, indeed, it is much to Lackey’s credit that in a world with dragons, psychic horses and demon summoning wizards, she can do so much with the simple story of a young man’s struggle to have his family accept him for who he is, furthermore, make the steps he gains towards acceptance feel uplifting rather than indulgent. On the other hand, there are several established relationships and back stories which Lackey simply drops in at the start of the book, which are explained a little too briefly and so perhaps didn’t have the impact they might have had, had Lackey given them a bit more breathing space. After all, it was slightly hard to sympathise with the idea that Vanyel might be questioning his own sexual identity due to his closeness to a female friend, when we only see Vanyel and that friend interact once.

Also, while I am by no means an action junky, I will say I was slightly disappointed we didn’t get more by way of fantasy elements in the book, since the few hints we get of Vanyel’s exploits in the war, as well as the fairly dire situation in Valdemar generally are tantalising in the extreme.

That being said, Vanyel’s family relations are nicely messy, in particular I appreciated the way that when Vanyel becomes mentor to a couple of young boys in similar circumstances to his own, he has to deal both with his own unresolved feelings about his childhood and what biases those feelings might have left him, and that sadly common misconception among homophobic people, that all gay men are a danger to young boys. I wonder if Lackey specifically included Vanyel’s rebuttal of this belief once again as a slight nod to the Lord Withins of reality, especially in a book written in 1990.

I also appreciated that many of the characters who appeared slightly one note in the first volume now were given a little more depth, even the domineering Jervis, depths that Vanyel recognized right along with us. It is somewhat unusual for the second book in a trilogy to spend so much time trying to build bridges which were burned comparatively early in the first book, but it did give the plot for the books first half an interesting direction, as well as shed some light on events from Magic’s Pawn.

My only issue in terms of characters with Vanyel’s family was with the plot surrounding Milenna, a maid Vanyel slept with as a teenager before understanding his own orientation, who then proceeds to pursue him avidly throughout the book, in the mistaken belief she can tempt him away from being gay if he will sleep with her, something which Vanyel, (and the reader), treats as a minor irritation. I am fairly sure were a man doggedly pursuing unwanted relations with a female character, it wouldn’t be treated so lightly. For example, I doubt that a woman (gay or otherwise), would simply sigh and walk away if she discovered an unwanted naked man in her bedroom, nor would we as readers be asked to show as much compassion to such a stalker. This handling of Milenna’s plot is a little strange, given that Lackey does explore the idea of sexually predatory women elsewhere in the book, even showing the extreme damage done to one character by sustained childhood abuse.

Half way through, the action takes a sudden turn away from the Forced Reach estate as Vanyel is required to investigate a mysterious magical accident in the neighbouring kingdom. This gave us both a welcome change of setting, and a chance to see a grittier side of Valdemar than that we habitually see among the somewhat idealised heralds; we even met a herald who is a total git. It is to Lackey’s credit that even though Vanyel is somewhat overpowered as far as his magical ability goes, here we see him using more mundane methods of disguise and investigation, something which shows his competency as a herald and his maturity far more than any overblown blast of magical fire, especially given the grottiness of some of the places to which Vanyel’s investigation takes him.

My only other issue with the book involves emotion. Lackey’s style remains quick and readable with the odd minor touch of descriptive flair (especially with her synesthetic descriptions of mind-speak). She also has the ability to write very distinctive and recognizable dialogue; until anyone starts talking about how they feel. At this point, we are treated to a long and torrid discourse of the respective person’s emotional state, in the fervently humanistic tones of a group therapy session, even from characters like the supposedly pragmatic Herald Savil, or even the gruff Jervis. This habit of characters getting together and discussing their feelings, though it often made for satisfactory conflict resolution, at the same time made the book (especially in its former section), feel slightly more like a series of therapeutic encounter groups than a novel.

Speaking of emotions, though for the most part Vanyel was far more pleasant to be around, sadly as soon as Tylendel was mentioned Vanyel started wallowing again; returning to his highly irritating teen self. What was worse, one of these occasions also coincided with Vanyel magically bullying a teenaged boy. Though he does have some reasons for this, the fact that he was essentially taking out his frustrations, and that there was no pay out for this was disappointing in the extreme. Not of course that Vanyel’s attitudes and actions aren’t understandable, still, given how nice it was to meet an older, more competent and less self-obsessed Vanyel here, the return of the angsty teenager from Magic’s Pawn was sadly not a welcome one. Indeed, if I have one minor criticism of the book, it was that there were still slightly too many occasions when Vanyel needed a metaphorical boot up the behind, and not enough people prepared to give him one, though at least he comes to his senses once again in the end.

The ending was a little indulgent to some extent, but more than adequate for all of that. While I admit I was disappointed in the slightly trite “with great power comes great responsibility” hero speech from Vanyel, at the same time the places Vanyel went in the final defeat of the villains were certainly satisfying enough, and said something quite interesting about the cosmology of Valdemar itself. I did think Lackey tied up the loose ends a bit too tightly, even including a Wizard of Oz style gift giving scene with Milenna rewarded for her stalking and the arsy herald being given a responsible position despite no indication that he’d ceased being an arse, indeed it is a little odd that for a book which spent so much time giving nuance to minor characters, the ending was so unequivocally neat. That being said, the way the conflict finished, and some of the slightly unexpected consequences were nicely delivered, albeit unlike Magic’s pawn I do wish there had been a little more anticipation of the third volume here, indeed in terms of portents and hints at the larger and darker plot we know is on the way given some of the future history in Arrows of the Queen, Magic’s Pawn showed rather more than Magic’s Promise did, and with Vanyel making peace, albeit a slightly uneasy one, with his family, the series could almost have ended there.

In general, Magic’s Promise was a step up from Magic’s Pawn. A book which resolves conflicts, lays ghosts to rest, and shows Vanyel’s moved on a little, which should hopefully put him in a better position for the fireworks we know are to come.

7/10 When ya comin home Van, I don't know when, but we'll get together then

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