So this is your fault, call_me_ishmael.
I'll start by saying that I read quite a bit of Mercedes Lackey when I was a teenager, although I omitted The Last Herald-Mage trilogy for some reason, despite it being well-known as formative reading for every slash-writer during the 90s. So I had some very vague memories of, like, talking horses and telepathy being in :italics with colons around it, like this: and also of Lackey being really preachy about her liberal/progressive politics, or something. In other words, it's not like I went into this totally unprepared for how trashy this was gonna be.
Let's start with the first sentence:
"Your grandfather," said Vanyel's brawny, fifteen-year-old cousin Radavel, "was crazy."
First off, I'd like to know why LJ doesn't have a blockquote button. Second, I guess I approve of starting off with dialogue in general, because I approve of starting in medias res, but then this goes into a really boring description of how complicated the Keep is, architecturally, and I just don't care. Actually, I skipped a few pages.
I skipped a lot of pages while reading this book.
Vanyel, it turns out, is a whiny 15-year-old kid of vaguely noble blood who's supposed to be the heir to his father's estate, only he doesn't want to be Lord of a fiefdom, he wants to be a rock star. No, seriously; he wants to be a Bard. His father's armsmaster breaks his arm during a practice bout, so Vanyel conveniently gets to spend a month hiding from everyone while his arm heals and whining in italicized thoughts about how everyone here is such a meanie poopoo head.
To be fair, the armsmaster does seem like a bit of a jerk, but Vanyel is also seriously a whining whiner who doesn't want any responsibility:
I don't want them looking at me like that! I don't want to be responsible for their lives! He shuddered again. I wouldn't know what to do in a drought or an invasion, and what's more, I don't care! Gods, they make my skin crawl, all those people--people, eating me alive with their eyes--
I guess I cut him some slack for being 15, but Jesus. At the end of the first chapter, we find out that Vanyel's father is planning to send him away to study with his aunt, a Herald-Mage named Savil. Hooray! Vanyel is one step closer to finally getting his very own talking horse!
So Vanyel literally spends all of chapter two crying about how he's going to be sent away, but we get his POV helpfully explained by an 18-year-old outsider named Joserlin, who explains to Vanyel's brothers that the armsmaster really is a jerk and poor Vanyel isn't stuck-up, he's just a scaredy-cat who puts on airs. Joserlin is then promptly never heard from again, so Mercedes Lackey is 1. so insecure about her characterization that she has to use one-time minor cast members to explain their inner worlds, and 2. apparently doesn't understand conservation of cast. (Sorry, Lackey. I hope you're not reading this. Then again, you wrote this book over 20 years ago and are probably quite financially comfortable, so what do you care about my opinion?)
However, on the day of, Vanyel responds by putting on his best black riding leathers, insisting on taking his lute, and demanding that he ride his own horse to Haven. At this point I began to think that this book would make a rather good anime. I mean, check this out:
Vanyel patted the proudly arched neck of his Star, a delicately-boned black palfrey with a perfect white star down her nose. He ignored his father for a long moment, giving him a chance to absorb the sight of his son on his spirited little blood-mare instead of the homely old pony. Then he nudged Star toward the end of the yard where Lord Withen stood; by his stunned rexpression, once again taken by surprise. She picked her way daintily across the gravel, making very little sound, like a remnant of night-shadow in the early morning light. Vanyel had had all her tack dyed the same black as his riding leathers, and was quite well aware of how striking they looked together.
Studio Madhouse, get on this shit!
Meanwhile, in Haven:
Tylendel, a tall, strikingly attractive, dark blond Herald-trainee of about sixteen, frowned with concentration as he considered Savil's question.
VANYEL'S FUTURE BOIFURENDO. CALLING IT NOW.
Vanyel spends the journey to Haven throwing himself a pity-party, including a scene where he gets hit on by a maid/prostitute at an inn, panics and throws her out of the room, and then gets drunk while wondering why he doesn't like girls. When he finally gets to Haven, Vanyel discovers that he will never ever ever be a rock star, because he doesn't have the Gift with a capital G, which is a magic thing. Predictably, this sends him into a deep pit of despair, which he alleviates by making himself pretty and going to Court.
He forgot all his apprehensions about being thought a country bumpkin; all he could think of now was the admiration his wit and looks used to draw at the infrequent celebrations that brought the offspring of several Keeps and Holdings together. He needed a dose of that admiration, and needed its sweetness as an antidote to the bitterness of failure.
He flung himself off the bed and rummaged in his wardrobe for an appropriately impressive outfit; he settled for a smoky gray velvet as suiting his mood and his flair for the dramatic.
So Vanyel is basically a teenage girl, which I realize is a sexist/misogynistic thing to say, but it does explain why so many teenage girls like this book.
However, while at court, Vanyel learns from some fine young ladies that Tylendel is--you guessed it--
"Shay'a'chern," supplied Cress. "It's some outland tongue."
"What's it mean?" Vanyel asked.
Reva giggled, and whispered, "That he doesn't like girls. He likes boys. Lucky boys!"
I will say that I was kind of baffled here that the Valdemarans don't seem to have a word in their own tongue for teh homos. I'm no linguist/anthropologist, but surely any culture that even has a concept of homosexuality--and I don't mean our modern-day concept of people of the same sex/gender who want to, like, form life partnerships and raise families together, but even just, you know, the act of boning someone with the same plumbing--has a word for it. Maybe Lackey was trying to make a point here that homophobia is so embedded in Valdemaran culture that they don't even have a word for it, but I should think even cultures that don't approve of it have a word for it, if only to describe why they're stoning you to death.
I would've been more annoyed at the presence of homophobia in a fantasy book solely as a soapbox for an author to preach from, except that this book was published in 1991, when that was possibly kind of progressive. Also, I don't have any memory of societal homophobia being present in any of the other books I read, so possibly it was just this one, where Lackey was trying to make a point.
Anyway, it turns out Tylendel has a crush on Vanyel too, and literally 20 pages later, they end up in bed. Not without a little resistance of course, since Tylendel has had his heart broken before.
"Then dammit, Vanyel, what do you think I'm made of?" Tylendel cried harshly, his face twisted and his eyes reflecting internal pain. "What do you think I am? Marble? You're beautiful, you're bright, you're everything I'd every ask for--you think I can stay here and not want you? Good gods, I won't take advantage of an innocent, but what you're asking of me would try the control of a saint!"
"You don't understand, I know what I'm asking," Vanyel replied, catching his wrist again before he could get up and stalk off into the dark. "I do know."
Tylendel shook his head violently and looked away.
At this point I was smiling at the pages I read, not because I was thoroughly enjoying myself or I approved of what was going on; picture instead the helpless, affection that spreads across one's face as they're watching a toddler do something stupid.
Savil finds out almost immediately because she has mindreading powers. (No, actually, she does.) Tylendel seems remarkably unfazed to be caught in the act by his teacher/mentor, and Savil is thrilled because maybe this means Vanyel will stop being such a twit. She does admonish them, however, that they have to keep it a secret because of reasons, and so Vanyel and Tylendel pretend to hate each other in public and even stage a mudfight.
:Oh, probably I'll make it a major confrontation, with as many witnesses as possible. But not with blades, teacher-love; he's too good for me, and we figured he should lose so he gets the sympathy of his flock of doves. Bare-handed, we think. Wrestling; we'll try to keep fists out of it as much as possible too. We had some vague notion of trying it the next time it rains, in the mud. It should be lots of fun.:
He also rips off Vanyel's shirt, "for verisimilitude." Savil takes the opportunity to ground Vanyel and keep him in his room, where presumably he and Tylendel have as much sex as is physically possible for two teenage boys.
Hilarious as this was, it irritated me from a writing standpoint because Tylendel explains the plan to his teacher first, via Mindspeech--as illustrated by the italics and bracketing colons in the above quote--which actually led me to believe that it wasn't going to happen, like maybe they'd be found out first or lighting would strike or whatever. Then, a bare three pages later, it actually did happen, and I was like...what? So why did you explain the plan to me first? Wouldn't it have been more surprising and effective if you'd just...DONE IT? Would've saved me three pages of reading, anyway.
So, things are great, Tylendel introduces Vanyel to his talking horse Companion, Gala, they profess their love for each other (no, they actually do; Vanyel says he'd die for Tylendel), and Gala says she'd love to watch them have sex sometime (no, she actually does; she tells Tylendel that she wants to "eavesdrop" via Mindspeech sometime, but Tylendel refuses because he doesn't want to share Vanyel). At this point I'm pretty sure that Tylendel is going to die, because there's no way this relationship is going to be so sickeningly perfect for two more books.
Vanyel also gets a great letter from his mom. No, it's actually great:
Dearest Son: I Pray with all my Heart that this finds you Well, and that you were not Hurt by that Brutal Boy. I Feared that something of this Nature would Occur from the Instant your Father Told me of this Foolish Scheme and have had Dark and Fell Dreams from he moment you Departed. Savil is plainly Not To Be Relied Upon to keep her Creatures in Order. I pray you, do not Provoke the Barbarian further; I am endeavoring to Persuade your Father to fetch you Home Again, but thus far it is All In Vain.
It's twice as long as that, but you get the idea. A genuinely funny moment in this book.
At this point, we're fed some info about a blood-feud that's occurring between Tylendel's family, the Frelennyes, and the Lesharas. The Frelennyes killed a Leshara, the Lesharas retaliated by killing a Frelennye, you know how it goes. Tylendel's not allowed to interfere because he's a Herald-in-training, but his twin brother, Staven, with whom he has a deep bond, wants him to interfere, ta-yada. This becomes relevant when Vanyel and Tylendel are sitting under a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, and Tylendel suddenly goes berserk and then passes out. Turns out he just felt his twin brother get assassinated. I was honestly surprised at this point, because I expected Staven to turn evil and be the villain of the book. Evil twin seemed par for the course, but I guess not.
When Tylendel wakes up, he's consumed by the desire for revenge, which Vanyel goes along with because he just Loves Tylendel That Much, and not because he's codependent or anything. He helps Tylendel steal a magic book, agrees to let Tylendel use his energy to fuel a magic Gate that'll teleport them to the Lesharas, and at no point seems to wonder whether or not he should tattle. They do manage to pull off the Gate, and Tylendel summons some monsters to kill the Lesharas, whereupon Gala shows up to wreck everything.
"Gala!" Tylendel cried in anguish, his voice breaking yet again. "Gala! Don't--"
She turned her head just enough to look him fully in the eyes--and Vanyel heard her mental reply as it rang through Tylendel's mind and heart and splintered his soul.
:I do not know you: she said coldly, remotely. :You are not my Chosen:
Gala then proceeds to charge the magical beasties that Tylendel just summoned. They tear her to pieces, but not before she takes one down with her (it was actually a pretty good scene, and a little heartbreaking; I wasn't expecting Lackey to really go there). Some actual Heralds show up to save the day, dispersing the summon monsters--though not before one of them actually kills a Leshara--and rescuing a very shocked Tylendel and Vanyel. Vanyel explains as best he can what happened, they go back through the Gate, but when Savil tries to shut the Gate down, it fries Vanyel. Meanwhile, Tylendel breaks free, runs up a belltower, and throws himself to his death.
Of course everyone's totally stricken by what just happened, and in the confusion Vanyel somehow manages to run away, fall in a stream, and crawl to safety on the other side, where he's found by a Companion, and halle-fucking-lujah, Vanyel finally gets his very own talking horse. It's about goddamn time.
That's hardly the end of Vanyel's problems, of course. He's eventually found and rescued, sick with fever and also, apparently, every magical power except Healing, because that would just be too convenient.
Each channel she tested--with the exception of Healing--was open; most of them had been forced open to their widest extent. The boy had Mindspeech, Fetching, FarSight, ForeSight, as much Empathy has Tylendel had shown, even enough Firestarting to ensure he'd never need to use a tinderbox again, and the all-important Mage-Gift. His Mindspeech was even of both types, Thought-sensing and Projecting.
He even has the Bardic Gift! Hahaha funny. Too bad Vanyel can't control any of it, and also he's still Kentucky Fried Mind from the Gate (which is presumably what gave him all this magic in the first place), so really he's just a danger to everyone in a 5 mile radius. Also, he's convinced Tylendel being dead is his fault and that everyone hates him--especially when he accidentally psychically eavesdrops on a homophobe sitting by his bed. This actually leads him to crawl out of bed, enlist his new talking horse's help in getting him to the place where Tylendel is lying in state, and actually tries to slash his wrists using Tylendel's dagger, Romeo and Juliet style. Fortunately, he's rescued before he actually bleeds to death (it helps that he actually doesn't know how to slash his wrists correctly: remember kids, it's 'down the road,' not 'across the street'!)
After that they just start keeping Vanyel drugged with a fantasy version of morphine. Okay, it's not actually just to keep him from offing himself; Vanyel's new powers means that sometimes he tries to destroy the entire city when he's having a nightmare, and none of the Heralds really know what to do other than let him use his talking horse as a pillow, because she makes him feel better. Vanyel's father and sister come to visit at one point, and we get this kind of cool scene:
Twice more Withen tried to get to his feet, and twice more Vanyel flung him back. He was crying now, silent, unnoticed tears streaking his white cheeks. "How's it feel, Father? Am I strong enough now? How's it feel t' get knocked down an' stepped on by somethin' you can't reason with an' can't fight? You happy? I'm as big a bully as J-J-Jervis now--does that make you bloody happy?"
Which just goes to show you, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
However, Vanyel isn't getting any better; he's just getting addicted to morphine. At a loss, Savil finally decides to take him to see the Tayledras, her wise brown friends who live in the mountain forests.
I was actually super stoked about this, because I remembered really liking the Tayledras when I was a teenager. They were wise brown people (or possibly wise yellow or red people; they always struck me as being kind of Native American in nature, and I'll leave you to mull over cultural appropriation in fantasy settings) who lived in the forest, talked to birds, lived in balance and harmony with nature, and were totally accepting of the homosexual lifestyle. So basically they're perfect, and I wanted to see if they were what I remembered.
But before I can get to that, I have to share this really irritating bit of writing:
"So why else don't you like Gating?" Andrel asked, while the Field around them glowed under the sun.
"Because when I get there, I'm going to be pretty damned worthless," she replied dryly. "And I'd better hope the Talisman performs the way Starwind claimed it was supposed to, or we'll be a pretty pathetically helpless pair, Vanyel and I."
"Why don't you do what Tylendel did, use someone else's energy?"
"Because I don't really know what he did."
Andrel is another Herald-Mage, at least Savil's equal, and he's asking her questions that he probably knows the answers to because he must have learned them in the same wizard-school. This conversation existed solely for Lackey to impart information that her reader already inferred (at least, I had), never mind that it was out of character and made her characters look stupid. But after that thoroughly unimpressive exchange, Savil and Vanyel finally get going, along with their talking horses (Vanyel's tied to his saddle), and Savil uses a magic talisman to let her friends know that she's in the neighborhood.
The sword of ice, she had called him when she'd first seen him. Flowing silver hair still reached past his waist when he put back the hood of his white cloak and let the silky mass of it tumble free. There still were no wrinkles in his face, no even around the obliquely-slanting, ice-blue eyes; he was still tall and unbent, still slender as a boy. Only the cool depths of his eyes showed his age, and the aura of power that pulsed about him. No mage would ever have any doubts that this was an Adept, and a powerful one.
Oh yeah, and they have names like Starwind and Moondance. Seriously though, why isn't this an anime? Or at least a manga adaptation drawn by CLAMP.
Starwind and Moondance immediately figure out what is wrong with Vanyel, and fortunately Moondance is the best Healer in the business. They manage to get his mind unfried and teach him some basic stuff in his sleep, like how to shield himself, but they can't teach him how not to be a crybaby. So Vanyel still curls up in his bed and cries and feels guilty, and Moondance has this lovely piece of advice:
"There is a fear, a shame, placed there by your own doubts and the thoughts of one who knew no better. I tell you to think on this: the shay'a'chern pairing occurs in nature. How then, 'unnatural'? Usual, no; and not desirable for the species, else it would die out for lack of offspring. But not unnatural. The beasts of the fields are innocent as man can never be, who has the knowledge of good and evil and the choice between, and they do not cast our of their ranks the shay'a'chern. There was between you and your shay'kreth'ashke much love--only love. There is no shame in loving."
Hey, you know what else occurs in nature? Rape and infanticide! Nice try, Lackey, but the biological argument is a horrible argument.
So now that Vanyel's awake and not in immediate danger of incinerating the entire valley, they start trying to teach him how to control his magic. Vanyel's more interested in feeling sorry for himself and wondering why everyone wants to tell him what to do, and he also has recurring nightmares that are obvious to anyone with any genre awareness are portends of the future: himself, as a Herald-Mage, standing off against three wizards, one of whom appears to be a clone of himself. HEY, THIS SERIES IS CALLED THE LAST HERALD-MAGE TRILOGY, WONDER WHAT THAT MEANS.
After one of these nightmares, Moondance comes to him and tells him an obviously autobiographical story of a young man who grew up in a farming family, tried to run away with his circus boyfriend, accidentally killed his circus boyfriend when they got in an argument, then tried to kill himself, but was fortunately rescued by Herald Savil, who brought him to Starwind. Sound familiar? Now he and Starwind are happily gay-married! Isn't that nice. Vanyel interprets this as Moondance trying to play the oppression olympics with him and closes off, and after Moondance leaves, runs away. Again. Because that worked out so well for him all the other times he did it.
Also, this gem:
Moondance's moods could be read from his eyes; they were a murky gray-blue.
That's right, Moondance really does have mood ring eyes. I wonder if you could make a drinking game out of this book somehow.
Starwind, Savil, and Moondance receive word of a pack of colddrakes in the area, possibly eating people, and go to deal with them. Not coincidentally, Vanyel's wandering around in the woods, lost, after realizing that he's an idiot and should just go home to where people are nice to him. He gets knocked out by some Gate power, and when he comes to, is just in time to see a cold-drake eat an old grandpa who's trying to protect his daughter and grandchildren. This rouses him enough to explode the colddrake using his brain. Then he passes out, and when he wakes up, the grownups are there to tell him that he was very brave (they killed the rest of the colddrakes). Vanyel then realizes that With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility, and that this is what Tylendel was trying to tell him all along.
Omedetou, Vanyel. (clap clap blue sky)
So now that Vanyel is willing to not be the center of attention all the time, our Grownups, Party of Three decide that they'd better check out who's been causing all this ruckus in the mountains. It's an evil wizard, of course, and they find the village he's been using for his homebase, deposit Vanyel there to order the townspeople while they go after the bad guy, and assure him that he should not, under any circumstances, have to engage the evil wizard. Because they're going to take care of him. Really. Vanyel just has to build some barricades and keep the townspeople safe, in case any monsters show up.
So naturally, the evil wizard shows up. He's an evil bishounen in gaudy, pointy armor, so I picture him looking kind of like Nakago from Fushigi Yuugi, only not blonde.
"My goodness," Krebain breathed. "Silver eyes. Rare and beautiful, Vanyel Ashkevron. How wonderful, and how strange, that you should be here, at this moment. And I wonder now--given what I know of Tylendel Frelennye--were you only the friend of Tylendel, or were you something more than friend?"
Still ignoring everyone else, he leaned forward and kissed Vanyel passionately and deeply.
Vanyel naturally refuses to bottom to an evildoer, so there's a mage battle. Vanyel wins, the grownups turn up just in time to catch him as he falls over, and Vanyel learns that he's going to stay here for a few more months and learn some more magic, then go back to Haven and become a Herald for realsies. Oh goody.
I've already requested book two from the library, because I'm a glutton for punishment.