(a few) Reasons for Inclusion: Many gay characters. Tarma in Vows and Honor is asexual. The kyree species has three genders. The Shin’a’in and Tayledras are indigenous peoples that are queer-accepting. A equatorial African-inspired empire shows up in The White Gryphon and is mentioned in other books. Religious diversity is featured and discussed.
Long ago, Baron Valdemar and his people fled the mighty Eastern Empire and founded a new nation in the west. But soon the question of succession arose: how could he be sure future heirs and leaders were worthy? In desperation, King Valdemar prayed to all the gods of his people’s many religions, and his plea was answered with the appearance of pure white horses. Except they weren’t horses, they were Companions, magical beings that would Choose and bond to those with psychic powers and good hearts. These Heralds would serve the kingdom as leaders, diplomats, warriors, lawkeepers, and scholars.
The Heralds of Valdemar series spans over 2300 years of history in Valdemar and the surrounding lands. It’s a huge series, with over 30 books divided into (mostly) trilogies, each focusing on a different time period and set of characters. The main part of the series is composed of the Arrows, Mage Winds, and Mage Storms books, but parts of the Last Herald-Mage and Gryphon trilogies are crucial to the plot.
It’s one of my favorite fantasy worlds, full of interesting characters and settings, lots of magic, good-hearted heroes, and a lot of diversity. The Collegia in Haven train not only Heralds, but Bards and Healers as well, so you end up with a lot of different perspectives- and that’s before we even see the other countries. Ethical questions also come up often, from the proper use of telepathic powers to the troubles a magic sword causes when it sends its bearer to the aid of any nearby woman in danger, and even questions of good and bad parenting.
This might look like a “typical” “medieval fantasy” series, but from the beginning, it’s more than that. Arrows of the Queen opens with Talia, a girl living in an conservative border holding, secretly reading of her nation’s greatest hero: Herald-Mage Vanyel Ashkevron, who was gay. Talia soon finds herself in the capital city after escaping an arranged marriage, and learns that queer relationships aren’t that uncommon. And when we travel beyond the borders of Valdemar in the next books, there’s even more diversity, in sexuality, race, culture, and religion. (And most of the main characters are amazing women: leaders, warriors, mages, and more!)
The religious diversity is especially interesting. Valdemar itself has no state religion, and “there is no one true way” is something of a national motto. The Tayledras and Shin’a’in people worship the Star-Eyed Goddess and her four faces (Mother, Maiden, Warrior, Crone), the nation of Karse the sun god Vkandis, the Eastern Empire countless Little Gods. And some, maybe all, of these gods are real.
Vanyel’s legendary life is told in the Last Herald-Mage trilogy, which won the Lambda Award for Science Fiction in 1990 and is probably a lot of people’s introduction to gay characters in SFF. Rejected by his father for not being a “proper man,” young Vanyel expects nothing but pain when he’s sent to his aunt, Herald-Mage Savil, in the capital city. And then he falls in love with her protege Tylendel, and falls into the steps of his tragic destiny. They’re lifebonded (soulmates, t’hy’la, you know the drill) but it isn’t destined to last. A horrible disaster leaves Vanyel alone, with new magic powers he must learn to control.
The Mage Winds trilogy (which, along with Storms, introduces many more gay characters) features the Shin’a’in and Tayledras, who also appear in the Vows & Honor and Last Herald-Mage books. Both cultures are descendants of the indigenous Kaled’a’in people of western Velgarth, once targeted by a genocidal tyrant mage (in The Black Gryphon). The Shin’a’in are Plains nomads, relying on horses and rejecting the use of magic. The Tayledras, known as Hawkbrothers to outsiders due to their bond with specially-bred birds of prey, live in magically-shielded forest Vales, carrying out their Goddess-given duty to cleanse the wild forest of corrupted magic. And both cultures are queer-accepting, far more than most other nations.
One of my favorite things about the Tayledras is that they’re allied with a lot of other intelligent species: the lizard-like hertasi, the wolf-like kyree, the dyheli stags, the tervardi bird-people, even gryphons! Intelligence and magic are not limited to humans.
The worldbuilding in this series is amazing. The different cultures (always treated with respect) are vibrant and deeply detailed. Lackey is an expert in falconry and equestrian matters, so the horses and birds of prey are accurately portrayed, even the ones with magic powers. The history of the land fits together beautifully- there are subtleties and connections that take a second reading to notice. There’s six hundred years between Vanyel’s era and the main story, and the Gryphon trilogy takes place over two thousand years earlier. Borders, technology, and philosophy all change over time, and by the end of the Storms trilogy, the artificers in Haven are beginning to develop steam engines!
And there’s music! Many of the songs mentioned in the books have been written and performed- here’s the legend of Windrider, and here’s the song of Kerowyn’s heroics that she gets tired of hearing all the time.
The magic system is very well detailed. Mind-magic is split into distinct abilities (Mindspeech, Foresight, Firestarting, etc) and Heralds have one or more of these. True magic uses power from the earth, and different classes of mage have the ability to use different parts of it: ambient magic, leylines, the nodes of leylines. Mathematical principles even come into use when needed.
And there’s more that just what’s on the page. Lackey has mentioned having extensive notes on aspects that as of yet have showed up only briefly. An expanded map in the series encyclopedia reveals that the countries we know of are only a fraction of the world of Velgarth.
The series can get very dark and disturbing at times, and the characters face incredible challenges, but there is always hope. Goodness, justice, and friendship can triumph, even if evil extracts a deep cost. And it’s not always so clear-cut: good characters can still make terrible mistakes, and an enemy nation may one day be an ally.
I’d recommend reading the books in publication order, starting with Arrows of the Queen. Some books aren’t as necessary to the plot, but Vanyel’s trilogy and The Black Gryphon are important to developments in Arrows/Winds/Storms. The new Collegium series is very good, if less diverse, but some things will be confusing without the background.
There’s so much to talk about. I didn’t even get to mention flamboyant mage Firesong, cat-girl Nyara, lifebonded gay partners Starwind and Moondance, Captain Kerowyn with her mercenary company and living sword, Mags uncovering political scandal in the streets of Haven, outcast gryphon Zhaneel inventing a new style of fighting to fit her unusually-shaped body, Stefen trying to seduce Vanyel with the most amusingly cliche tactics, young priest Karal struggling to keep an international alliance intact as crisis looms.
This series is truly amazing, and I want to share it with everybody.
My favorites: The Black Gryphon, Magic’s Pawn and Magic’s Price, the Storms trilogy, Foundation.
(Note: The back cover copy on the most popular edition of Magic’s Pawn bears almost no relevance to the plot.)