For July, I asked my friends to recommend a fantasy or science fiction genre novel written by a female author. My friend M'Lee jumped at the chance to recommend "Arrows of the Queen" by Mercedes Lackey, first published in March 1987.
Sometimes we avoid things that are popular for fear of the disappointment that will come when it doesn't live up to the hype. In Lackey's case, I've avoided any of her books for ... most of my life, with my most recent excuse being that there are now so many books set in this fictional world that it would be a massive undertaking to catch up. When it ended up as a recommendation on this reading challenge this year, though, I knew I could avoid it no longer.
The book focuses on the newly 13-year-old Talia, a child from the Borderland Hold on the outskirts of the kingdom, in a culture that views women much as property, with men marrying many wives and women being married off at Talia's age. Talia is already different, however, in that she is a girl who knows how to read, and she uses this skill to read legends of the Heralds, a group of gifted agents of the Queen, and their Companions, mystical beings with an appearance like that of a pure white horse but with vast intelligence and psychic abilities.
When she learns she is to be married off, she runs away, hiding at the edge of their land. She's discovered by a horse on the road below -- except she quickly realizes it's no horse but a Companion, alone without a Herald. On her journey to the capital to return the "lost" Companion, she begins to realize the stories about their abilities are true. She is further shocked when she arrives and learns that Companions choose who their Herald will be and he was never lost at all but looking for her.
"Arrows of the Queen" is, in many regards, a typical fantasy story of an "ordinary" child living a miserable existence until they learn they have special talents or are chosen for a great heroic task. The journey to the capital, Talia's reactions and "fish out of water" adjusting to her new world, and the great task laid upon her are all familiar to anyone who's read fantasy before -- or even anyone who's read the Harry Potter books.
Common as the plot is, it's Lackey's writing that makes the book unique. She crafts her world and characters so well that the reader is quickly drawn in and begins to care about their fates. Even smaller, sideline characters are fleshed out enough to seem as real people, making the story feel less like fantasy and more like the reader is just witnessing the lives of other people around them.
It's hard not to care about Talia and how her experiences, good and bad, affect her. It is easy to know and understand her as we would know and understand our closest friends. Though we recognize that she is to become a great hero, we see ourselves in her because her reactions, hopes, and fears are so real, so human. And we want to see ourselves there, for the bond between a Herald and his/her Companion is the kind of bond we all long for -- someone who loves and cares for us deeply and seems to have a sixth sense of when we need help or how we are feeling, and whose very presence does much to lift our spirits.
The book is the first in the Heralds of Valdemar trilogy, one of many written by Lackey and set in this world. Before I had even finished this book, I requested the rest of the trilogy from the library so I would be able to know more about these characters and what happens to them. Even so, there is still a definite conclusion to this book and it could easily stand alone as its own story.
This fact means that the success of Lackey's work is a testament to her skill at crafting an interesting story. People did not seek out the second book because they had to in order to find out how the conflicts of the first book were resolved; they read it because they wanted more stories about these characters and this world. And they apparently continued to want more, because there are now a total of 43 books set in the Valdemar universe -- one series out of many that she has written over the years -- with the most recent one in this universe being published in 2013.
Knowing what I know now about the number of books and the apparent quality of writing, I'm not sure if I should be glad that I read and enjoyed this book (couldn't put it down, in fact) or if I should be sort of annoyed at my friend for recommending it, knowing that I'd enjoy it enough to want to read more and knowing the sheer size of the collection of works. Looks like I've got a lot more reading in my future!