Today’s Throwback Thursday is one that I’m both excited and apprehensive about. Have you ever read a book (or book series) and loved it so much that you never touched it again for fear that it wouldn’t be as magical the second time around? That’s me and this book series. The Last Herald-Mage trilogy, a 1989 series by Mercedes Lackey, centers around young Vanyel Ashkevron, the eldest son of Lord Withen of Forst Reach, whose only desire is to become a Bard instead of a young lord. Withen, exasperated by his son, sends him off to his Aunt Savil, a Herald-Mage in the kingdom of Valdemar, expecting that his son will finally learn to kowtow to authority under her teaching. Vanyel exceeds everyone’s expectations, even his own, by becoming possibly the greatest Herald-Mage in the history of Valdemar. Spoilers for the entire series after the jump.
The thing that always made The Last Herald-Mage stick out to me wasn’t that it was my first introduction to Mercedes Lackey’s world of Valdemar, although it was the first trilogy I read in the series. No, what made this series ultimately memorable to me was that its protagonist was gay. Up until this series, I had never read or watched anything with a gay or queer protagonist, so reading about Vanyel’s adventures was a revelation to me, and talking about this series with others led to some of the first conversations I’d ever had about gay people and gay rights.
I spent this past month rereading The Last Herald-Mage trilogy and actually found that it was much more difficult to read this time around. The content of the book hadn’t changed, but I had. As part of Vanyel’s character arc, he comes out to his (very conservative) parents. His father Withen, who employs a priest straight out of the Westboro Baptist Church, always suspected Vanyel of being gay (or shay’a’chern, Lackey’s fantasy term for it); he subsequently spends all his time trying to “toughen up” his son by letting his burly armsmaster beat Vanyel up and by forbidding anyone to talk about homosexuality to Van, lest he know there was a word for the strange feelings he was having. When Vanyel comes back home a war hero, Withen asks him not to bring any of his “friends” home; when Van points out a twelve-year-old boy who’s very talented with an instrument and tries to tell his father that the boy should go to the Bardic school at the Collegium, Withen panics and thinks that Vanyel is somehow carrying on an illicit affair with the pre-teen.
In short, Withen’s pretty terrible, and when I read the series as a kid, I thought it was all part of the story: like Harry Potter, of course Vanyel needed to start with terrible parents to grow up. It was the classic rags-to-riches story. But after having had the opportunity to learn more about the issues that LGBTQ+ people face today, Vanyel’s story hits too close to home; for too many people today, Vanyel’s story is not fictional. Fortunately, Lackey does an excellent, and excellently nuanced, job with Vanyel’s parents. They start out extremely homophobic, but gradually, over the course of the three books, come to accept their son for who he is. Withen repudiates his priest, learns about and empathizes with Vanyel’s life and loneliness, and finally welcomes Van’s eventual boyfriend into his home. Van’s status as both the kingdom’s most powerful Herald-Mage and shay’a’chern also work to lessen the prejudice that other shay’a’chern face. It’s exactly the kind of story there should be more of in our media.
Unfortunately, other aspects of the story didn’t ring as true to me. I love the idea of the soulbond AU, and you’d think a universe with canonical lifebonds would be a great idea to me, but the way Lackey developed it made it more stale and more boring than in many fanfiction stories I’ve read. Vanyel’s told lifebonded partners are rare, but he seems to run into them everywhere; the couple “just knows” that the other is their partner, though it’s never really explained. After Vanyel’s lifebonded partner, Tylendel, dies, Van retreats into solitude, becoming almost celibate as a result. Though Vanyel’s character does tend towards solitude, he spends a lot of time lamenting that he “will be alone for life”; he knows this for sure because there’s only one love for him and that particular person is dead. Even when Vanyel meets Stefen, it turns out that Stefen is actually the reincarnation of Tylendel; that’s why they can bond again. The entire lifebonding process seems like a shorthand for Lackey to write Van angsting about his life for whole chapters on end.
Many of the important relationships in the trilogy are between queer characters, whether those are Vanyel and Tylendel/Stefen’s or those of his friends, the queer couple Starwind and Moondance k’Treva, but the queer relationships, similarly, seemed a little soap opera-ish. Vanyel spends the first sixteen years of his life being emotionally abused by his father, so it makes sense that he holds Tylendel at arm’s length for the first month after meeting him; however, after falling into bed together, he quickly overcomes all his hang-ups and commits fully to being Tylendel’s boyfriend. A powerful villain, Krebain, explicitly lusts after Vanyel (and his magical powers), and the main antagonist, Leareth, is another beautiful young man (like Van and Tylendel) who offers to bring the deceased Tylendel back to Vanyel in return for Van’s allegiance. And many of the queer characters attempt suicide after their loved ones die or leave them, even though the narrative explicitly shows it as an incorrect reaction. Although the suicide rate is almost six times higher in the LGBTQ+ population than in the non-LGBTQ+ population, the way the issue is written in the trilogy makes the emotional narrative of the story at times read as overwrought, not as genuine.
Though there are some issues with the writing of the story, I still appreciate The Last Herald-Mage trilogy for what it was when I first read it: a story about a gay protagonist that dealt with his sexuality and his relationships just as much as it dealt with the plot and the magic of the storytelling. Lackey may not have covered all her issues properly, but she still created a gay hero who not only saves his kingdom, but goes on to be lauded as a hero of legend in all subsequent Valdemar books. The story is at times pretty dark—consider this review your trigger warning for suicide, suicidal ideation, rape, physical and emotional abuse, and, obviously, homophobia—but overall, it’s a very cool set of books.