I have been revisiting a series of fantasy novels from my youth. It’s the Last Herald Mage trilogy by Mercedes Lackey. I want to be clear, there are problems with these books, and I do not recommend them. I think the reason I’ve been listening to them so much is that I find something this familiar to be comforting during a period of high stress.
But I have been listening to the three books over and over again, because each time I listen to the series I notice something new. And I have some thoughts on these books.
What I Like
I have really mixed feelings on the objective quality of these books. It’s always heartbreaking to reread something you loved as a child and find that with adult sensibilities, it’s just not very good.
And the thing is, Mercedes Lackey has really produced a vivid world and a compelling story with distinct, interesting characters. The world of Valdemar and surrounding nations are host to a variety of cultures with different governments and religious beliefs. She has also written a cast of non-human races other than the typical (boring) elves and orcs and whatnot. The Last Herald Mage trilogy doesn’t touch on these much, but other books set in the world do.
The central romance(s) in this series is sweet, which I found to be a pleasant surprise (more on why later).
The story itself may verge into the melodramatic, but I found it compelling as a tween and still find it compelling today. Its female characters feel complex to me, and its male characters range the gamut from the very toxic to the very kind.
I thought that the way that the romance is echoed and reversed through the first and last books of the trilogy was skillfully done. There are elements of it I didn’t notice reading the books in text that I did notice listening on audio, and I was grudgingly impressed.
In addition, I have always loved how Lackey handled magic in these books. She doesn’t present magic as a system, she presents it as a force, and leaves the means and methods of manipulating that force rather open ended. This leaves room for us to be surprised by the ways in which this force is used. I think there’s a lot of focus on magic systems in fantasy books these days, and I wonder if that’s an artifact from fantasy RPGs. I don’t like it. I want some mystery in the magic.
Magic’s Pawn was the first novel I’d ever read with a gay main character. Gay men play several roles in the Valdemar books, but gay women are conspicuous by their absence. The central gay romance is portrayed as sweet, which is nice because in my experience, gay relationships are often boiled down to the sexual, not portrayed as “normal relationships,” because The Straights are endlessly obsessed with gay sex.
Boy oh boy, the author loves to torture gays, though. The gay romance is intensely tragic, with one member of the couple dying young under painful circumstances. The second gay romance in the series involves one member of the couple dying alone, saving Valdemar from outkingdom threats.
Even supporting gay characters are defined by either their tragedy or their character flaws, and this is kind of common in gay stories told by straight authors; our pain is what they find most compelling about us.
This is also the first place I read about an agender character, referred to in the text as “neuter,” though the character is referred to with the pronoun “it.” I’m not willing to say outright that this is bad, but it’s definitely something we could have a conversation about.
One of the characters in a different series written in the same world is genderqueer; presented as a gay man, it states in the text that the character is perfectly balanced between masculine and feminine. This representation came before I even knew what genderqueerness meant, and it left an impression on me. It still defines gender based on the binary, but at least admits that there’s identity other than male and female.
Other books in the world of Valdemar tackle asexual characters as well.
The main character in the Last Herald Mage trilogy is the firstborn son of a family of landed nobility, and there’s commentary on classism in the books. Part of the change that the character experiences is coming to understand that “common people” are people just like him.
Despite this seemingly virtuous commentary, the entire society of Valdemar seems to rely on servants to keep things running. Very little is said about these servants. Even characters that come from low-born families end up at some point or another being waited on by servants, and there seems to be just an assumption that servants are there to help, and that they’re happy to do so.
I feel like this aspect of the setting kind of undercuts this awakening of the main character to the fact that poor people are alive and have feelings.
In addition, Lackey describes peasant folk in unfavorable terms; “as plain as a peasant hut,” being just one example.
Everybody is fucking white.
On the rare occasion when someone isn’t white, there seems to be a lot of appropriation and exoticism at play. When characters aren’t white, they’re almost always supporting characters. Whiteness is portrayed as the default, and race is never really addressed.
And like, this is white people stuff, right? Race isn’t an issue for white folks, so we ignore it. And the result is that representation suffers.
You could say, “well, this character is described as ‘swarthy,’ that could indicate race,” but this is the same cowardly stuff that Rowling pulled with both racial representation (black Hermione) and queer representation (gay Dumbledore).
And white writers need to do better.
What I Don’t Like
It’s always heartbreaking to return to a beloved work of fiction (whether it’s a book or a film or a television show) and find that it was never as good as you thought it was. I find it’s even more so when I see the good bits, and contrast them against the bad.
While a lot of the story is actually really compelling, it relies heavily on melodrama. Now, I like melodrama, and I think it appeals to the target audience for this book (which was probably teen girls, a little older than I was when I first read it). And I indulge in melodrama in my own writing, I’m not going to lie. But it has to make sense and it has to support the story. You can’t use “agony” every time there’s pain, or it stops meaning anything.
I often wondered when rereading these books how things got through the editing process. It’s astounding that my own personal editing process is more stringent than that of a large publisher (originally DAW Books). The writing errors are rife: reliance on cliche, repetitive word choice, conflicting sensory details, etc.
It actually made me want to go through the book and produce a version edited by me, except distributing such a project would be a violation of copyright law.
I wish the courtship period of the first romance was longer. I want the main character to immediately express attraction to his romantic partner, and maybe struggle a little more with the realization that he’s gay. When you write a romance, even if it’s within another genre, the build up is so important. It gives the romance importance. It gives it weight.
What I Want
What I really want is to rewrite the entire trilogy as good books instead of just good stories. And despite their many, many problems, I do think these are good stories. The writing, though, leaves a lot to be desired.