Winds of Fate

by Mercedes Lackey

Cover image

Series: Mage Winds #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 1991
Printing: July 1992
ISBN: 0-88677-516-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 460

Buy at Powell's Books

As a kid working my way through nearly everything in the children's section of the library, I always loved book series, since it meant I could find a lot more of something I liked. But children's book series tended to be linear, with a well-defined order. When I moved into the adult SF section, I encountered a new type of series: one that moves backwards and forwards in time to fill in a broader story.

I mention that here because Winds of Fate, although well into the linked series that make up Valdemar, was one of the first Valdemar books I read. (I think it was the first, but my memory is hazy.) Therefore, in my brain, this is where the story of Valdemar "begins": with Elspeth, a country that has other abilities but has forgotten about magic, a rich world full of various approaches to magic, and very pushy magic horses. Talia's story, and particularly Vanyel's, were always backstory, the events that laid the groundwork for Elspeth's story. (I didn't encounter Tarma and Kethry until somewhat later.)

Read now in context, this is obviously not the case. The Mage Winds trilogy, of which this is the first book, are clearly sequels to the Arrows of the Queen trilogy. Valdemar was victorious in the first round of war with Ancar, but the Heralds have slowly (and with great difficulty) become aware of their weakness against magic and their surprising lack of it. Elspeth has grown into the role of heir, but she's also one of the few who find it easy to talk about and think about magic (perhaps due to her long association with Kerowyn, who came into Valdemar from the outside world in By the Sword). She therefore takes on the mission of finding an Adept who can return to Valdemar, solve the mystery of whatever is keeping magic out of the kingdom, and start training mages for the kingdom again.

Meanwhile, we get the first viewpoint character from the Tayledras: the elf-inspired mages who work to cleanse the Pelagiris forests from magic left over from a long-ago war. They appeared briefly in Vanyel's story, since his aunt was friends with a farther-north tribe of them and Valdemar of the time had contact with mages. Darkwind and his people are far to the south, up against the rim of the Dhorisha crater. Something has gone horribly wrong with Heartstone of the k'Sheyna, his tribe: it cracked when being drained, killing most of the experienced mages including Darkwind's mother, and now it is subtly wrong, twisting and undermining the normal flow of magic inside their Vale. In the aftermath of that catastrophe, Darkwind has forsworn magic and become a scout, putting him sharply at odds with his father. And it's a matter of time before less savory magic users in the area realize how vulnerable k'Sheyna is.

Up to this point in the Valdemar series, Lackey primarily did localized world-building to support the stories and characters she was writing about. Valdemar and its Heralds and Companions have been one of the few shared elements, and only rarely did the external magic-using world encounter them. Here, we get the first extended contact between the fairly naive Heralds and experienced mages who understand how they and their Companions fit into the broader system of magic. We also finally get the origin of the Dhorisha Plains and the Tayledras and Shin'a'in, and a much better sense of the broader history of this world. And Need, which started as Kethry's soul-bonded sword and then became Kerowyn's, joins the story in a much more active way.

The world-building is a definite feature if you like this sort of thing. It doesn't withstand too much thinking about the typical sword and sorcery lack of technology, but for retroactive coherence constructed from originally scattered stories, it's pretty fun. (I suspect part of why I like the Valdemar world-building is that it feels a lot like large shared universe world-building in comics.) And Need is the high point of the story: she brings a much-needed cynical stubbornness to the cast and is my favorite character in this book.

What is not a feature, unfortunately, is the characterization. Darkwind is okay but a largely unremarkable here, more another instance of the troubled but ethical Tayledras type than a clearly defined character. But Elspeth is just infuriating, repeatedly making decisions and taking hard positions that seem entirely unwarranted by the recorded events of the book. This is made worse by how frequently she's shown to be correct in ways that seem like authorial cheating. At times, it feels like she's the heroine by authorial fiat, not because she's doing a particularly good job. I can muster some sympathy for not wanting to follow the plan of the Companions when it became clear they were acting entirely out of character and actively intervening, but she expresses that with petulant, childish insistence rather than reasoned argument. And she suddenly decides Skif is in love with her and treating her like a fragile princess on the basis of absolutely no action that occurs on camera in this book so far as I can tell, and proceeds to treat him like dirt for large sections of the book. That Skif then lives down to this suddenly negative impression doesn't help.

This book also has quite a lot of the U-shaped story arc in which everything gets worse and more horrific and more hopeless for the heroes over the course of the book until it turns into torture, and only then do they manage to claw their way back out. I've come to dislike this way of building tension. It's undeniably effective, but the parts of the story near the bottom of the U are difficult and painful reading. I prefer a bit more evenly-spread hurt/comfort storytelling in my popcorn fantasy reading.

Winds of Fate is, sadly, not a very good book. Most of the characterization is intensely irritating, the writing is a bit uneven, and the middle section of the book is rather painful to read. For me, though, that's balanced by the world-building and the sense of broadened scope, by Need's abrasive decisiveness, and by some really entertaining reactions to the combination of Elspeth, Need, and her Companion walking naive into the broader world. I still have a fond spot in my heart for it, but I'm hoping the remaining books of the trilogy are better.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-08-14

Last modified and spun 2016-10-02