Monday, May 9, 2016

Down the Stacks #27: Heralds of Valdemar

The week on Down the Stacks, we return to an author which - when this project began - I thought I’d have written about more by now: Mercedes Lackey.  Lackey has been writing consistently since the 1980s, with at least a dozen distinct series to her name, but this marks only the second time I’ve looked into one of her projects.  Like the last time, my focus this week is on one of Lackey’s major projects, and easily her biggest and longest-running: the Heralds of Valdemar.

Mercedes Lackey introduced the world to the kingdom of Valdemar back in the 80s, and she’s still producing stories from its world to this very day.  The series is divided into numerous trilogies and stand-alone novels each focusing on a different character and/or major event in Valdemar’s history, although at least half the major players are contemporaries that appear and play important roles in several sub-series.  It would take several thousand words to talk about all of them in detail, so this review will mostly limit itself to general information.
Valdemar is a kingdom in a world of magic and various nonhuman races, but on first glance the kingdom itself could easily be confused for a typical medieval society that happens to permit the worship of pretty much any god.  Compared to most of its neighbors, though, Valdemar is rather socially progressive with Crown-funded public education for children and no significant gender barriers to the most important jobs in the kingdom.  The palace of Valdemar’s monarchy shares its outer walls and grounds with a vast Collegium dedicated to training Bards, Healers, and most importantly the Heralds.
The Heralds are both the heart and sinews that keep Valdemar safe, strong, and progressive.  Each Herald is specifically Chosen by a supernatural horse-like being called a Companion for possessing both a pure, righteous soul and the potential for one of several psychic powers, or Gifts, including but not limited to telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, prophetic foresight, and the power to view distant locations.  A Herald and Companion are bound together for life, and the latter provides an unfailing source of emotional and moral support, and the Heralds as a group serve the kingdom of Valdemar as circuit judges, problem solvers, and even military leadership for the whole kingdom.  Valdemar’s monarch and the heir to the throne are both always Heralds, and due to the fact that sex is no barrier to being Chosen, Valdemar has been ruled by Kings and Queens alike throughout its history.
The Bards and Healers who share the Collegium with the Heralds represent two other groups of people possessing special powers.  Bards - always with a capital B - have gifts relating to creating music and influencing people’s thoughts and moods through performance, and their college training includes an intense study into ethics and honesty because a gifted Bard can easily alter history and create social chaos if they’re of a mind to.  Healers are those with a kind of magic that allows them to accelerate another’s recovery and extend their will into a patient’s system to actively fight off disease and poison.  Their value to Valdemar and the world at large is obvious.
There’s a fourth group of Gifted individuals known as Mages, who can manipulate the energy of the world itself, but for the greater part of Valdemar’s history Mages are practically unheard of within its borders.  This is a shame, because the magic system the Mages work under is quite detailed and interesting.  The priests of the various gods and goddesses of the world occasionally display abilities that border on magic through the grace of their deity, but only rarely.  The gods don’t like meddling in mortal affairs too much.
Of course, there wouldn’t be any stories in Valdemar worth telling if everything was perfect for them.  Although the monarch is a Herald and invariably just and forward-thinking and ordinary Heralds are constantly riding circuit to bring law and justice to the whole kingdom, Valdemar is a vast territory full of all kinds of people and nobody can be everywhere at once.  Even the capital city of Haven can’t completely shake off the problems of crime and backwards thinking, because the ordinary people are just people.  The kingdom’s internal problems, while occasionally important to the story of some Heralds, pale in comparison to the threats from outside - particularly from their southern neighbor Karse.  Throughout most of the books, Karse is a theocracy run by the corrupt, demon-summoning priests of Vakandis Sunlord, and these priests have a particularly violent hatred of Valdemar’s Heralds and their psychic powers, to the point that any Karsite citizen who possesses a similar gift is executed as a witch and the government is constantly trying to wage war with or undermine Valdemar’s stability.  There are other lands that try to pick on Valdemar or one reason or another, but Karse is the most constant antagonist force.
Valdemar has its foreign allies too, and of those the ones I like best and think are the best developed are the Tayledras, or “Hawkbrothers,” a tribal culture with an abundance of Mages in their ranks and a centuries-old duty to clean up and repair areas where the magic energy of the land is twisted up so much from ancient mage wars that it spawns and attracts monsters.  The Hawkbrother nickname for the Tayledras comes from their bondbirds - large birds of prey that form a similar bond with people as Companions do with Heralds, although it is not nearly as deep and birds nowhere quite as intelligent on average.
Each trilogy or stand-alone book usually focuses on a newly Chosen Herald - except for the Owlknight trilogy, Oaths & Honor books, and the Mage War trilogy - as they have to both acclimate to their new reality of having a pure white, silver-hoofed horse in their head all the time and figure out how to fix whatever big problem is afflicting the kingdom now.  Although Heralds in general can come from any walk of life, Mercedes Lackey has a tendency to have her protagonists be plucked out of bad living conditions (orphaned pickpocket, child slavery in a gem mine, arranged marriage to a man twice one’s age, just to name a few) or suffer from major psychological issues, or both!  It’s not a bad thing by any means - some of the best parts of a Valdemar story involve the protagonist overcoming their personal issues.
Amazingly, for as long as the series has been going on, Lackey still manages to make every new major character unique, and the newer books are always improvements on what came before.  There’s no definite required reading order to the series, although I strongly recommend reading the Mage Winds trilogy before picking up the Mage Storm trilogy, since the first leads directly in the second.  For entry points to the series, I’d recommend either To Take a Thief or the Collegium Chronicles which begins with Foundation and breaks the trilogy/stand-alone pattern by being five books long.  Take a Thief is the origin story of Skif, a major character in several other sub-series, while Foundation and its sequels are among the newest, provide a very good look into the issues a new Herald might face, and has quite a bit of mystery and intrigue in each volume.  If you want to experience true Magic in Valdemar’s world, I’d recommend the Owlknight trilogy or the Mage Winds and Mage Storm books.

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