Magic's Price

by Mercedes Lackey

Cover image

Series: Last Herald Mage #3
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: July 1990
ISBN: 0-88677-426-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 351

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Magic's Price is the conclusion of the Last Herald Mage trilogy (Lackey is from an era of fantasy in which trilogies stopped at three books), but those books are widely spaced and mostly stand alone. You might miss some context around Vanyel's personal life and the politics of the kingdom, but there's a lot of somewhat-awkward in-line summary, so you could read these books out of order if you wanted to. As with the previous two, this is a re-read of a book I've read several times before, but not for more than fifteen years.

This is the book that finally introduces Stefan. On this re-read, that surprised me — I thought of him as a large part of Vanyel's overall arc — but he's only in the third book. He is, of course, key to the grand conclusion of Vanyel's story, beginning as the Bard who has the ability to blunt the pain of the badly-suffering king of Valdemar and then becoming more than that to Van.

It's also a book about Vanyel trying desperately to hold things together as the country falls on hard times and far too much weight is put on his shoulders. And a book about a climactic fight against an arch-villain (awkwardly and retroactively inserted). And Vanyel coming to terms with his own foresight. It's a book about rather a lot of things, and therein lies a problem.

I thought Magic's Promise had a better story than Magic's Pawn, but both had reasonably coherent stories and some internal flow. Magic's Price has three or four interwoven stories and some odd stops and starts. This is still early in Lackey's writing career (three years after her first novel), and I don't think she was entirely successful in what she was trying to do. The climaxes of the different stories don't quite line up and don't get enough separate attention, leaving a book that lacks clear dramatic shape, an engrossing build-up, or a satisfying climax.

The biggest problem I had is that the main threat is not adequately supported. The story is building towards a rather drastic conclusion, one that has been foreshadowed from early in the series, but the threat that creates that conclusion comes out of nowhere. Lackey tries to tie it back to events from earlier in the series, and maybe it was planned all along, but there's little concrete support and no build-up. It feels like a retcon. And the key character in that threat receives almost no characterization whatsoever. I'm a bit grateful for that, since Lackey tends towards total evil in her villains, but to have the cause of all the drama in this story be a complete cipher takes a lot out of the story. (Also, I truly could have done without the rape.)

The other irritation is that Vanyel spends quite a lot of the book being a jackass. This is another occasional problem with Lackey's books: her love stories, at least in her early books, involve a bit too much of people being stupid at each other. But I hadn't remembered just how much Van jerked Stef around and treated him miserably, straight to the end of the book. Love is a bit too ordained and imbued with magical powers in Valdemar, which is lucky for Vanyel: extensive plot support is required to explain why Stef didn't find someone else who was less of an ass. In the real world, when someone insists they have no emotional space for you, the correct reaction is "gotcha, have a nice life" and finding someone else to spend time with. This gets partly sorted out in the end, but I didn't find the reconciliation entirely believable, and certainly not fair to Stef. (And the age difference is just a little creepy, although thankfully Lackey doesn't put much focus on that.)

On my first read of the Valdemar corpus, this was the book during which I started getting interested in the lore and politics of this universe. There's much more of that to come, thankfully, as I think it's my favorite part of the series. At this point in her writing career, Lackey is getting better at avoiding infodumps and making her magic system interesting. The politics is still a bit black and white, but the Tayledras are a lot of fun (and increasingly less like elves, even if that's the obvious initial inspiration), and the areas beyond Valdemar are developing some more coherence. The conclusion loses a lot from the lack of build-up and emotional support, but it still adds an interesting bit of magical history that will be important later.

I wish I'd enjoyed Magic's Price more on re-read, but it was much spottier and more exasperating than I had remembered. That said, it certainly has its moments, particularly around the lore. This is the first book where one starts to realize just how powerful the Companions are, and just how much they're capable of that they're not showing. When I first read it, I loved it. Now, the flaws are too obvious, and Vanyel's behavior is too irritating, for me to unreservedly recommend it, but Magic's Price, and the whole trilogy, is important for building the lore of later books.

When I get to Elspeth's part of the series, the politics and magical system will be developed at much greater length. Next, though, my favorite stories in this universe: Tarma and Kethry.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-10-13

Last modified and spun 2015-10-20