Fantasy Classics: “Arrows of the Queen” (by Mercedes Lackey)

KC here. For quite a while now I’ve been been wanting to make my way through Mercedes Lackey’s “Valdemar” series. Since Kellen has already read many of the entries in the series, I’ll be in charge of blogging about this extraordinary world as I make my way through the books in the series, beginning with Arrows of the Queen.

Arrows of the Queen focuses on the young woman Talia. Raised among the puritanical and repressive Holderkin, she is raised to believe that she will never be anything more than a man’s wife. Fortunately for her, she is rescued by a Companion, one of the mystical beings–in the shape of a white horse–that mark her as a Herald, one of those sworn to serve the monarch. By the end of the novel, Talia has come to accept her place among the Heralds, as well as her position as the Queen’s Own.

There’s something uniquely pleasurable about a fantasy novel that doesn’t try to take on too much, that simply wants to tell a good story in a lean and fast-paced volume. Lackey’s prose is smooth and swift, and the book’s primary focus on Talia’s feelings and actions (with occasional forays into other characters with whom she interacts). This limited perspective keeps the action tightly-focused, without the sort of plot meanderings that all too frequently trip up other, larger fantasy offerings.

Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty of action and intrigue, as well. At this early point in the trilogy, however, much of the greater context of the kingdom and its troubles sits ominously in the background. It is only toward the middle of the novel that Talia becomes directly involved with the darker currents of the kingdom, particularly as takes the young princess Elspeth in hand and attempts to make her into the kind of woman that can be Chosen by a Companion and thus become queen. It’s thus clear from the beginning that Talia has a very grand destiny in front of her, one that may well change the entire course of the kingdom’s history.

One of the most refreshing things about Lackey’s Valdemar series is that it includes same-sex relationships that are as rich and developed as any of the heterosexual ones. While Talia herself is not a queer character, she is surrounded by several who are, and even at this early stage it is clear that Vanyel, one of the most important characters in the Valdemar mythos, had a man as his lifelong companion. On a broader level, I would even argue that Talia’s narrative as a whole emphasizes the very queer value of a chosen family, the idea that, when one’s biological family casts one out, it is possible to find emotional fulfillment with others of one’s own choosing. Indeed, as Talia’s time at the Collegium makes clear, the bonds forged in such a setting can be just as, if not more, fulfilling than the ones dictated by biology.

Relatedly, Lackey has an almost uncanny ability to wrench pathos from even secondary characters. There’s an emotional authenticity about many of the books in the Valdemar series that’s awfully rare in epic fantasy. Her characters are at once extremely strong and yet also exceedingly vulnerable, and this makes them very human. As a result, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself cheering for them and becoming intimately involved with their fates.

And, of course, no review of a Valdemar book would be complete without mentioning the Companions. Though the concept of magical horses might seem a bit trite to some, in Lackey’s capable hands they become a key part of the world, and the intense emotional bond that develops between Heralds and their Companions, especially that between Talia and Rolan, forms the backbone of the entire narrative. It takes a rare talent to make talking horses seem so natural, but luckily that perfectly describes Mercedes Lackey.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Arrows of the Queen. I know that I am just beginning on my journey through this enchanted world, but I am very excited indeed about working my way through Lackey’s prodigious corpus. Stay tuned for my future reviews, and thanks for reading!