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Book(s) Review: The Heralds of Valdemar

December 27, 2012 1 comment

Once, just once, I’d like to read a fantasy novel wherein the young protagonist doesn’t make everything one hundred percent worse by not telling someone in authority that there is a problem.

Take Arrows of the Queen, the first book in Mercedes Lackey’s The Heralds of Valdemar series. The protagonist, a young girl named Talia, is Chosen by one of the country of Valdemar’s Companions (a really smart horse with telepathic powers) to become one of the Heralds. The Heralds are Valdemar’s incorruptible (except for one case that never gets explained) police force, some of whom ride Circuits in different parts of the country hearing cases and dispensing justice and some of whom are stationed throughout the land.

Talia, however, comes from the fantasy world equivalent of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints. The story opens with her father’s wives (her mother died in childbirth) congratulating her on her thirteenth Birthing Day and telling her she has a choice: she can either join their religious order, become someone’s Firstwife, or become someone’s Underwife. None of these particularly appeal to young Talia, so she runs off in an adolescent huff (which I will forgive because all three of those choices sucked) and gets picked up by a Companion, something she’s only read about in the three books she’s managed to obtain.

She figures that she’ll return the Companion to the Heralds and beg them to find some work for her to do so she won’t have to go home. The Companion takes her to the capital of Valdemar where she’s told that she has been Chosen and that she has to go through years of training to become arguably the most important Herald–the one assigned to the Queen to be her loyal confidant and advisor.

Despite the fact that, in the real world, anyone presented with this option would probably go into catatonic shock at having to deal with a world completely outside her comfort level, Talia becomes an outstanding student. Not trusting anyone, especially men, is the only side effect of having been raised by self-contained, patriarchal society, and she doesn’t even have a breakdown the first time a guy comes in the room which I found somewhat disappointing.

Yes, that’s the only side effect even though Heralds are known for being a hedonistic bunch (Sex! Sex with everyone!) and she comes from a life where girls get married at thirteen and would probably get stoned for showing too much ankle. She does, however, start getting anonymous threats that she refuses to tell anyone about because…trust issues.

So, because she didn’t tell anyone she’s been getting threats, she gets thrown in the river in the middle of winter and almost drowns.

Then, in the second book, Arrow’s Flight, she’s graduated as a Herald and on her year and a half internship. This involves riding the circuit (far away from the capital city where the Heralds are trained), dispensing judgement, while being monitored by a more senior Herald named Kris (who is fantastically beautiful and perfect and this gets mentioned every other page). They find out that her Gift (because all Heralds have a psychic ability of some sort) has gone haywire and she almost ends up killing herself and Kris because she didn’t tell anyone she was having issues.

So, because she thinks her mentor won’t take her seriously, she almost screws up a case that needed mediation AND almost kills them both.

You’d think that perhaps she would have learned her lesson by the time Arrow’s Fall comes around, but that would not be the case. In this one, there has been an offer for the Princess’ hand, so Talia and Kris are sent to a neighboring kingdom to assess the Prince who turns out to be an evil sorcerer.

But wait, let me stop for a minute. That’s what the back of the book says the plot is. However, that’s only about what one third of the book is about. They don’t actually start heading toward the capital of the other kingdom until almost halfway through the book and she’s only actually there for sixty-six pages which is just enough time for shit to go straight to hell and her to get rescued by the guy she’s refusing to believe she’s in love with.

Because, really, the actual plot of the novel is that even though she slept with Kris in Arrow’s Flight, she’s actually lifebonded to Dirk, Kris’ best friend, but she won’t talk to him about it. Dirk won’t talk to Kris or Talia about it because he thinks Talia’s in love with Kris. Kris won’t talk to Talia because she thinks Kris’ uncle is evil. There’s also a subplot where the Princess won’t talk to Talia because Talia interrupted her plans to lose her virginity to a bad person and Talia won’t talk to the Princess unless she apologizes for being a moody teenager.

It’s like a never-ending Mobius loop of everyone not talking to anyone.

So, because Kris and Dirk won’t talk to each other and Talia and the Princess won’t talk to each other, Kris and Talia are sent to an authoritarian sorcerer Prince’s home where even more shit goes to hell, but in the interest of keeping this spoiler-free, I’ll leave it at that.

On the other hand, the books probably would have been condensed down to a single volume had people just talked to each other and Valdemar is an enchanting place to visit. I couldn’t find any gaping plot holes and even though sometimes I wanted to shake Talia, that’s true of a lot of other teenage protagonists (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter), so you could say it’s a merit to the series that her choices did elicit that kind of response. I wanted her to succeed in the first book. I wanted her to control her Gift in the second book…and I was scared in the third book when she was captured.

Ultimately, yes, I’d suggest this as a light read for fantasy-lovers. I intend to pick up the next of Lackey’s series at some point when I’ve whittled down this stack of books I got for Christmas.

Lackey, Mercedes. Arrows of the Queen. New York: DAW Books Inc., 1987. Print. ISBN 0886773784
Lackey, Mercedes. Arrow’s Flight. New York: DAW Books Inc., 1987. Print. ISBN 0886773776
Lackey, Mercedes. Arrow’s Fall. New York: DAW Books Inc., 1988. Print. ISBN 0886774004

A Postcard: Six to Eight Black Men

December 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I was all ready to sit down and write my thoughts about Gates of Fire because I’ve been putting off since I finished the book (for no good reason), but I made the mistake of going to the mailbox and getting the mail. In it today was a card from one of my fellow postcrossers on postcrossing.com. The picture side of the card was this:

Santa has a fantastic hat

Apparently, gold grows on houseplants in Holland.

I looked at it, then looked at it again, then thought, “Why does that black child have a switch and why does that priest-guy remind me of Santa Claus and OH MY GOD THIS IS WHAT DAVID SEDARIS WAS TALKING ABOUT.”

I quickly turned over the card to see a wall of tiny handwritten text from the Netherlands.

Big Tradition!

Reproduction prohibited? The hell you say!

To save your eyes, let me transcribe:

Hello Amadei! We hereby send you a postcard from the coast of Holland. On the picture an old drawing of a Big Tradition here in Holland. It’s a bit similar to your American Santa Claus. Here we have ‘Sinterklaas’, who always ±2 weeks before dec. 5th arrives from Spain on a big steamship. He has many helpers (zwarte Piet), these are all black Moors. From then little children can put their shoe in front of the heating-stove, so Zwarte Piet can come down the chimney to put a little present in it. Climax = 5 dec., when Sinterklaas visits all children to bring big presents. After that he goes back to Spain, taking home the naughty children… 😦

I first learned about this tradition from David Sedaris’ essay “Six to Eight Black Men.” He has a discussion about it with a local Dutch man over how Christmas is celebrated in the Netherlands, part of which is the discovery that Santa doesn’t have elves (which the Dutch man sees as “grotesque and unrealistic,” but instead has six to eight black men (no one’s able to put a strict number on it) as his helpers. From the essay:

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”

You can listen to part of it if you stream this episode of This American Life, Act Two. Or, if you want to hear the whole thing, you can listen here. Or, if you want to read the whole thing, it’s in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

I highly recommend it.