Fantasy Recommendation: The Last Herald-Mage Trilogy
Growing up in a fairly conservative household, the first hints I had that homosexuality was even a possibility were in Mercedes Lackey’s books. There are minor lesbian characters in her Heralds of Valdemar trilogy, which I believe was her testing the waters for her next idea. The Last Herald-Mage was one of the first mainstream fantasy series to feature gay main character. Given that they were written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this was a fairly bold move. Gay panic was in full swing, and Lackey and her publishers took an enormous risk with this move. It’s one that not only paid off financially but introduced and humanized homosexual characters in a way that frankly had rarely been tried before, let alone succeeded.
Arguably one of the most popular trilogies among the Valdemar series, the books are a stellar achievement of storytelling in their own right, to the point that they have been chosen in this more open-minded time to be developed for an upcoming TV series. Fans are wary, of course, since Hollywood can badly handle fantasy, let alone LGBTQ+ fantasy. However, many of us are excited as well.
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Date Published: 1989, 1990, 1991
Genre: High Fantasy
Number of Times I’ve Read It: At least 20—I honestly have no idea
Content Warning: Magic’s Pawn contains depression, suicide, attempted suicide, and homophobic behavior and slurs. Magic’s Promise contains mentions of possible pedophilic grooming and suicidal ideation. Magic’s Price contains a rape and torture scene, although not graphic.
Accessibility: Available in eBook, audiobook, and print as individual books or an omnibus
Magic’s Pawn (5/5 Stars)
Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wants no part of such things. Nor does he seek a warrior’s path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his, if left untrained, may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the famed Herald-Mages of Valdemar.
But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil cannot master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin’a’in Adept, Vanyel’s wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone’s ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril…
Magic’s Promise (4/5 Stars)
The wild magic is taking its toll on the land, and even Vanyel, the most powerful Herald-Mage to ever walk the world, is almost at the end of his strength. But when his Companion, Yfandes, receives a call for help from neighboring Lineas, both Herald-Mage and Companion are drawn into a holocaust of dark magic that could be the end of them both.
Magic’s Price (5/5 Stars)
The final chapter in Mercedes Lackey’s spellbinding fantasy trilogy! The Herald-Mage, Vanyel, and his Companion, Yfandes, are alone responsible for saving the once-peaceful kingdom of Valdemar from the forces of a master who wields a dark, forbidding magic. And if either Vanyel or Yfandes falters, both Valdemar and its Herald-Mage must pay the ultimate price.
As stated, on my first read through of Magic’s Pawn at the age of 12, I had no clue that homosexuality was possible. A very sheltered child, even the hints at the beginning of the book were a shock. I quickly got over that, though, because the story is intriguing—once you get past the whininess of the main character. Vanyel is an annoying shit at the beginning, not all that uncommon for a misunderstood teenager. However, don’t mistake this for a book that would have been categorized as Young Adult in later times, unlike the first book of The Heralds of Valdemar trilogy. There are heavy themes of depression and suicide in much of the book. Lackey handles the entire thing with sensitivity despite the stark honesty of how she describes depression, suicidal thoughts, and homophobia. It is an incredibly relatable book as many members of the LGBTQ+ community have remarked.
Vanyel comes into his own by the end of Magic’s Pawn, and then the tale skips ahead about fifteen or twenty years to Magic’s Promise. This is a book that focuses much more on character building and world building than action, yet the action it contains is satisfying, at least in my opinion. I’ll be the first to admit I prefer character stories over action, so take that with a grain of salt. The story is more about Vanyel finishing healing from his traumatic childhood than it is about the intrigue that should be the main plot. The whole is fascinating and woven together in a way I thoroughly enjoy, though. And the ending has a nice little twist to surprise the reader.
Magic’s Price is probably the hardest-hitting of the three books in this trilogy in both plot and character development. Although Vanyel is in his early forties by this point, yet I threw more at him that reveals wounds he hasn’t dealt with properly. He finds the second love of his life and has a short time of happiness before a desperate situation rips it all away. The poignant end brings most of his fans to tears no matter how many times we read it. All the feelings are in this book, every single one you can think of, and by this point, Lackey had found the most excruciating ways to make you experience them.
One criticism that is lobbed at the books is that Vanyel is overpowered, and that is true. However, despite what the synopsis for Magic’s Pawn says (I have rarely seen one written so poorly, and I somehow doubt that Lackey herself wrote it), he doesn’t start out that way. He becomes highly powerful because of the tragedy that befalls him in the book, and he goes on to use his power to help others. He becomes an inspiring character not because he is perfect and powerful but because he is flawed, makes mistakes, and doesn’t always win, even with all the power he possesses.
I highly recommend this trilogy to anyone wanting a realistic character in a fantasy setting who is far from perfect yet still heroic in the end. It has some triggering moments, but anyone in the Mercedes Lackey Fan Group on Facebook would be happy to tell you which pages to skip if necessary for some of the more brutal parts. Also, most of the triggering events are not graphically depicted.
I do suggest reading in publication order the first time trying to get through all the Valdemar series, simply because of the way that she developed some details and how they’re introduced or mentioned in each trilogy. However, that isn’t a requirement, and there are plenty of people who have started chronologically or who just pick up somewhere in the middle.
© Allyson Pauley 2021