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!

John Gwynne’s The Faithful and the Fallen and the Pleasures of Genre

I recently had the pleasure of reading John Gwynne’s epic fantasy quartet (or tetralogy) The Faithful and the Fallen. I’d been intending to read it for a while, and when I did, I was blown away by how effectively Gwynne managed to marshal all of the requisite epic fantasy elements into a story that kept me up past my bedtime for several nights running.

The series’ central protagonist is Corban, a young man who (of course), finds out that he is the one destined to become the savior of his world. He is joined by the requisite band of epic heroes, including a renegade angel, his sister, a wolven (basically a giant, wolf-like creature), as well as sundry others. He is opposed by all the traditional types of villains, including another renegade angel, a brutal pirate captain, and a god of destruction bent on bringing the entire world under his dominion.

Narratively, The Faithful and the Fallen hits all the right notes: the epic quest narrative (there are actually several), the titanic clash between good and evil, deeds of villainy and heroism, soaring triumphs and dark moments of despair. There are the various fantasy archetypes already mentioned. And it’s solidly told, with each character coming to inhabit their own space; even the villains get a few chapters of their own. As a result, we are drawn inexorably into this world, caught up in the sweep of the great and terrible events that are unfolding right before our eyes.

What really struck me as I read the series was how much it was able to accomplish within the confines of the genre of epic fantasy. Indeed, in many ways the series is a textbook epic, hitting all of the right notes in all the right places. There were a few key places where The Faithful and the Fallen colors outside of the expected lines, but for the most part there weren’t too many surprises in terms of either plot or character. There was a bit of a plot twist toward the end of the series, but nothing on the scale that we have seen in other epic series of late. All in all, The Faithful and the Fallen is exactly what it sets out to be: a thoroughly entertaining fantasy epic.

That is not in any way an insult. Quite the opposite. Sometimes it seems to me that we valourize works of fantasy that somehow transcend the perceived “limits” or “shortcomings” of fantasy as a whole. Those who praise A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, frequently do so in terms that emphasize its iconoclastic tendencies, its willingness to focus on the blood and gore and drudgery of the medieval fantasy setting and on the foibles and shortsightedness of humanity. This line of praise (and criticism) has extended to its television adaptation, and it has, I would argue, reshaped the expectations that many people have about what constitutes successful (or at least “interesting”) epic fantasy.

What series like Gwynne’s show us, however, is that it is okay if you want to write, or read, works of fantasy that don’t really break the rules. It’s okay if you want a story about a young person who sets out to save the world from a dark and pressing evil and has to journey through all of the parts of his world to do so. It’s okay if you want to have a fair amount of certainty that most of your main characters won’t die (though a few major ones do in The Faithful and the Fallen). It really is okay if you want to read an old-fashioned epic fantasy that is a celebration of the essential nobility of the human spirit rather than an exposure of the darker, more cynical parts of the human condition. It’s okay to take pleasure in the conventions of genre.

Indeed, that’s precisely the point of a designation like genre in the first place. Working within its confines lets us know what we’re in for. And, in a case like The Faithful and the Fallen, or for that matter any number of other epics (Terry Brooks’ Shannara series comes to mind), part of the pleasure is in feeling those familiar beats. To my mind, it’s about time we stopped feeling ashamed of the pleasures of genre and instead embraced them as a key part of why we read fantasy.

Who’s with me?