The Last Herald-Mage: Book 1
Now we’re talking! The Last Herald-Mage trilogy is not only my personal favourite, but it’s also a famous somewhat-groundbreaking trilogy in the history of queer literature. Many people who might not be Valdemar fans have read this because of the positive portrayal of the gay characters, uncommon back when Magic’s Pawn was first published in 1989.
In fact, I owe my own acceptance and subsequent fascination with queer issues to this book. Before I read this, I knew about slash fanfiction and I thought it was weird. I was 13. I didn’t know gay people even existed—much like Vanyel, our hero, who discovers he is gay quite by accident during the course of his story.
If you start read the Valdemar books with the first published books, they mention Vanyel is the last magic-using Herald, that he died heroically in the north, and that he cursed the Forest of Sorrows. So that’s what these books are: the story of the life of a hero. They’re filled with heavy, sad topics. Death, sexuality, violence, war, rape.
And, rereading them, there are remarkably subtle subthemes as well, specifically family issues. These may be Misty’s best works.
To be honest, these books are such a part of the landscape of my teenagerhood that I don’t know how to start. Vanyel is one of my all-time favourite heroes. I bought the music album based on this series. (Shadow Stalker.) It seems weird to look at these books one at a time, especially since I read them first in the omnibus edition:
In case anyone reading these reviews isn’t actually familiar with the Heralds of Valdemar: Heralds are a peacekeeping (among many other things) force in the country of Valdemar. A Herald is Chosen by a Companion, which are telepathic magical beings shaped like white horses, and that is the only way to be a Herald. Heralds are all obsessed with duty, and they all have some kind of Gift: the Mage-Gift, which allows them to use magic, or any of the myriad Mindmagic Gifts, which are psychic in nature.
At the beginning of Magic’s Pawn, Vanyel is not a Herald. He doesn’t even want to be a Herald. He wants to be a Bard. But his father wants him to be a manly man and rule the the keep of Forst Reach. That’s where all the trouble starts.
A friend of mine traded books in high school. We wanted to share our favourite trilogies with each other. I gave her The Last Herald-Mage. She gave me those Drizzt Do’Urden books. I thought, and still think, that R.A. Salvatore can’t write anything worth beans but fight scenes. My friend’s reaction to Vanyel? She came to school in tears, yelling
BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS
“You never told me HE WOULD KILL HIMSELF!!” I think she eventually forgave me, but we resigned ourselves to loathing each other’s favourite books.
In Magic’s Pawn, Vanyel is sent to his Herald-Mage aunt, Savil, for toughening after his bully armsmaster breaks his arm. There he meets Tylendel, Savil’s protégé, a handsome shay’a’chern (gay) trainee. They fall in love, it turns out to be a lifebond, all seems to be well… until an unscrupulous rival murders Tylendel’s twin. Tylendel, psychically linked to his twin, becomes overwhelmed with the need for revenge. Vanyel, the follower in the relationship, does all he can to help. Ultimately Tylendel’s homicidal revenge is thwarted by his Companion, Gala, who repudiates him, and kills herself. ‘Lendel, overcome, kills himself shortly after.
Like my friend from high school, this book is a surefire way to start up my waterworks. Tylendel’s death is sad, but it’s Vanyel’s attempted suicide in the chapel afterwards, before the bier holding Tylendel’s body, that really gets me. This kid has been rejected by everyone, even his own lifebonded lover. It’s just heartbreaking.
At the same time, while the book does tread into sentimental waters, I don’t find that it is overwrought. Misty’s voice has a certain matter-of-fact tone that works against the melodramatic subject matter. I feel there’s enough humour and common sense throughout to counterbalance the sorrow—though I would never claim them happy books.
Overall, there’s very little negative I have to say about Magic’s Pawn. I think it sets up the other books well. The one thing I take issue with are those ice-dreams and eventual Foresight dreams of Leareth. I’ll talk more about that in the Magic’s Price review. But I feel like they are out of place, and worse, tip the scale more towards melodrama than these books deserve. I skip them when I read these books.
While at first blush the scenes and segments sometimes feel drastically different from each other, a closer read proves that everything is set up subtly. For example, we’re introduced to Savil’s Tayledras masks pretty early, which sets the stage for when she Gates Van to k’Treva Vale. From Tylendel’s introduction we’re aware that something political is going on with his twin.
However, one interesting feature of this series is how… in the background the bad guys are. I didn’t think this technique worked for The Black Gryphon.
But I think the bad guys coming in only at the end to be vanquished says something about what is actually important about Vanyel—ditto the fact that we skip over the war with Karse entirely, and when we catch up with Van in Magic’s Promise he is already a famous war hero—namely, that Van’s interpersonal dramas and connections shape him far more than exterior threats to Valdemar, and are more important to him. The villains are there because he is a mythic hero: but the real struggle is himself, the rejection that shaped his childhood. His real troubles are his need for his family to accept him as who he is; to come to terms with his grief over the death of his lifebonded, his first love; to balance his passion for duty versus the needs of his body. Those are very compelling dramas. These books have real depth in them that I find lacking not only in some of Misty’s other works, but also in other fantasy books that get caught up in how BADASS AND MYTHIC their heroes are while ignoring these inner struggles.
Addendum: One critique I’ve read about this series is that male homosexuality is romanticized unrealistically: pretty boys and Vanyel himself is stereotypically into fashion, music etc. This might be fair. On the other hand, this series was one of the first fantasies with a gay protagonist. Misty herself said that it was written more for people who weren’t gay, to promote tolerance. Vanyel is a great, believable, flawed, heroic individual who just happens to fit into a stereotypical gay mode. This is a fantasy story, about a character meant to be romantic, so on the whole I’m glad this series exists, because it helps to pave the way to more queer protagonists. Maybe this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s ok too.
Secondary addendum: Yfandes, Vanyel’s Companion, is amazing. I love her. Ditto for Savil. In fact, I love nearly every character in this whole damn series, including even the more one-dimensional villains.