Arrows of the Queen

by Mercedes Lackey

Cover image

Series: Heralds of Valdemar #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: March 1987
ISBN: 0-88677-189-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 320

Buy at Powell's Books

SPOILER WARNING: Normally, I try not to spoil anything significant about a book, but I simply cannot discuss this book without spoiling the first 75 pages. I don't think it diminishes the reading experience, and the same events are spoiled on the back cover, but if you're particularly sensitive to this, well, here's your warning.

Arrows of the Queen is Mercedes Lackey's first published novel and the first novel (by publication order) of the long-running Valdemar series, which as of this writing is at 29 novels plus 5 short story collections and a companion guide. It's the novel that introduces the Heralds of Valdemar, a combination police force, national guard, corps of circuit judges, elite military, and agents of the crown for a medieval fantasy kingdom. The defining characteristic of a Herald is that they're hand-picked by a pure white spirit horse called a Companion, with which they form a telepathic bond.

This is not, on the whole, a series that tends to the make the top of the fantasy recommendation list of adults. One of the less derogatory descriptions I've heard of it is "fluffy horse fantasy books." Particularly at the start of the series, it smells rather strongly of wish fulfillment fantasy of the most obvious sort, complete with one's magical true companion for life.

And yet, I have read 23 of these books, I'd read this one twice before, and recently when I was in the middle of an intense work project and had no brain for serious reading, I picked it up again. And then stayed up way too late reading considerably more of it than I'd intended.

The heroine of the Heralds of Valdemar trilogy, of which this is the first book, is Talia, a girl of thirteen from an abusive family in a hard part of the country. Her family is harshly religious and expects her to become either a wife or a particularly oppressed sort of nun, and has very little patience for her desire to read old stories about Valdemar heroes. Despite managing to sneak a few of those stories, she's completely ignorant about the world outside her close-knit community and about who Heralds are and how they work. But when she's informed that she's going to be married shortly, she runs away, encounters a pure white horse that can only be a Companion out of stories, and finds herself riding that horse out of the life she knows in the belief that she's returning him to his owner.

If you have read just about any fantasy of this sort, you can probably write much of the rest of the book from there.

If you approach the start of this book intellectually, it's not going to work. Lackey spends most of the beginning of the book cheating outrageously. Coincidence piles on happenstance, Talia is ignorant of everything she needs to be to give the whole situation the maximum emotional impact, and the kingdom has a perfectly absurd rule (for even more absurd reasons) that prevents anyone from telling her what's going on, entirely so that Lackey can play the whole thing to heightened dramatic effect. It's completely egregious and audacious manipulation of the background for emotional heart-tugging.

And yet. I love the start of this book. I swear, it makes me cry every time I read it. Because at some other level, below rational analysis, it just works.

As her career goes on, Lackey gets much better at plotting and world construction, smooths out a lot of the fledgling writer problems that Arrows of the Queen shows in abundance, and writes much more nuanced stories. But the one thing that she excelled at from the beginning was dumping raw emotion on a page. I was stumbling over the awkward writing and extended infodumps at the start of this book and was thinking it wasn't going to work, and then Talia meets Rolan and we get the first description of a Herald being chosen (which is, like the corresponding event in McCaffrey's Pern, just pure emotional gold), and I'm sitting there with tears in my eyes because it worked again.

Lackey breaks my heart for Talia and then makes it soar, and it still works even though I know exactly what she's doing and exactly what's going to happen. The long period where the reader knows what's happening and Talia doesn't, which by all rights should not work, just makes the whole thing more intense. This book does the best job I think I've ever read of capturing the emotions underneath someone getting their heart's desire and not being able to believe it because it's too big, because letting themselves hope hurts too much.

Sadly, while I'd like to tell you that the rest of this book maintains the same level of emotion, it doesn't. It reaches an emotional climax at page 75 and then slowly tails off for the rest of the book. There are still moments: Talia's relationship with Jadus is a beautiful thing, and it's almost impossible not to like Talia and root for her against the various obstacles she encounters. But this is a first novel, and Lackey is too much in love with her world background. Talia spends most of this book in school getting lectures on how the world works, lectures that the reader gets right along with her and which are only marginally more interesting than transcribed school lectures. And, unfortunately, the book doesn't have a smooth plot climax so much as it sputters through a series of events that feel more like short stories.

But, that said, I read it straight through in two nights and then went on to read both sequels. Lackey has a brilliant touch for writing friendships, and while she doesn't always apply that touch well, she does it often enough here to keep putting a smile on my face. This is also one of those rare fantasy novels (particularly for its era) that has a completely matter-of-fact lesbian relationship handled on the same basis as any other pairing, and (even rarer) hints of how personal relationships don't have to always be dyads. (I'll forgive everything Lackey does to undermine that in the utterly obnoxious love story coming two books from now, since she makes up for it later in the series.) Lackey doesn't always manage to tell a compelling story, but from the start she does a good job helping the reader understand why Talia comes to love the Collegium and the Heralds so much.

I'm not sure that I can recommend this book to someone else. It's not, by objective standards, a particularly well-written book, and its two sequels are worse. There are better places to start in the Valdemar series, and while the events of this first trilogy have significant effects on what happen later, there are enough recaps that it's not necessary to read them to follow the story. Arrows of the Queen is very much a book of a particular type, and if you're allergic to wish-fulfillment fantasy or egregious cheating for emotional effect, I fear you'll get knocked straight out of this book.

And yet. And yet. Those first 75 pages are, for me, an iconic moment of fantasy literature, something by which I've judged every other fantasy rescue situation I've ever read, and when I'm in the mood for that particular type of emotional impact, Lackey delivers it every time. The rest of the book is a sort of warm supporting structure that fleshes out those emotions and makes them stick. If you're prepared to turn your suspension of disbelief up to eleven and let the emotion carry you along, maybe I can recommend it after all. But I suspect it works best if you read it for the first time as a teenager.

Followed by Arrow's Flight.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-03-27

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