1987’s Arrows of the Queen is the first volume in a Mercedes Lackey series, the Heralds of Valdemar.
At thirteen, Talia faces an arranged marriage. Whether she will be some stranger’s Firstwife or an Underwife matters little to Talia, who has no interest in being an overworked brood mare. Talia also has no interest in entering the Temple Cloisters as a silent servant of the gods. Since those are the only two choices the patriarchal Holderfolk offer women, Talia seems doomed to a miserable life.
Fate intervenes, in the form of a magical telepathic horse.
Although the Holderfolk shun the sinful outside world, Talia knows enough from the tales she furtively reads to recognize a Companion, one of the magical Herald horses, when she sees one. However, certain important details have been omitted from her education. When she encounters Rolan, Talia assumes the Companion has somehow become separated from its rider. Welcoming the distraction from her dismal fate, she sets out to return the Companion to its proper owner.
It takes a while for the penny to drop. Talia has been Chosen by Rolan on the basis of gifts Talia had no idea she had1. On arriving at the Collegium, she is accepted as a Herald, or at least a Herald in training. She will become one of the stalwarts on whose shoulders the security of the Kingdom depends. Indeed, Talia has been Chosen as the Monarch’s Own Herald, a very special position.
There are some catches, most significant of which is that the life expectancy of a Herald is somewhere between poor and terrible. Heralds are few, they often are forced to work alone, and they deal with challenges others would not survive. Very often, the Heralds do not survive them. The odds are fifty-fifty whether Talia will live long enough to retire or whether she will be killed in the line of duty. Daunting, but still better than anything the Holderfolk would have permitted Talia.
Being a Herald isn’t all fighting monsters from beyond the borders of the Kingdom. In what the Holderfolk might see as an amusing twist of fate — I joke! The Holderfolk are a dour lot who never found anything amusing — Talia’s duties as the Monarch’s Own Herald include mentoring the Brat, the spoiled and ill-behaved Royal heir, Elspeth.
One might blame the Brat’s poor behavior on her lofty status. In fact, Elspeth’s unpleasant temperament has been carefully orchestrated for political ends. Talia and her chums will have to work out why and who. The fate of Valdemar depends on it!
There are adventure novels in which danger is frequently mentioned and yet somehow never manifests for the central cast. This is not one of those books. Given the carnage amongst the supporting characters, it’s astounding that as many as half the Heralds die of old age. Perhaps in Valdemar, old age just means living long enough to be ambushed and hacked to pieces.
Some readers may notice parallels with the Harry Potter books. Note that the Heralds of Valdemar books long predate Potter, as for that matter, do Gaiman’s Books of Magic and Le Guin’s Earthsea, to which the Potter books also bear some similarities. Very special kids with very special destinies are not exactly new. Just ask Arthur.
I am not well read in Lackey, but the few books of hers I have read suggest that while the author is more than happy to provide readers with very special kids with very special destinies, there’s always a catch that makes the destiny not entirely wonderful. Talia has to deal with bullying and cut-throat court politics (and of course, excellent odds of a heroic, unpleasant death). Other protagonists have to deal unexpected curses2, and having to choose between being conquered by Team Evil or famine because all the peasants are off fighting Team Evil. Protagonists get to live the dream but there is a price to pay.
Arrows isn’t particularly well written but I can’t imagine that mattered. This book is wish fulfillment of the finest quality, hitting any number of necessary marks: special destinies, remarkable powers, found families, and of course, horses. I can only assume it was (and is) like crack cocaine for the demographic at which it was aimed. And why shouldn’t they have their own wish-fulfillment stories?
1: Try not to think about all the Holderfolk girls who were just as miserable as Talia but who didn’t have very special untapped powers and who didn’t get Chosen by a Companion.
2: In Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s The Enduring Flame series, protagonist Tiercel gets himself into trouble by dabbling in High Magic before fully educating himself on its drawbacks, most importantly that High Magic often kills the user as soon as they dabble in it. Hilariously, having acquired the Doom of Certain Doom by tampering in that which one should not tamper, he later decides he could become more useful if only he taught himself more High Magic, despite lacking both the knowledge and components to do so safely. Unfortunately, he is interrupted before he tries this. Sad, because the results could have been hilarious.