Many of us had some sort of media that we first fell hard for and likely contributed to a lifetime of satisfyingly obsessive tendencies.
I’m sure I was already inclined toward liking genre media—I never missed the yearly Star Trek and Twilight Zone marathons on TV, and I spent most of middle school immersed in mythological stories and folklore. But if it weren’t for Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, I’m not sure where I would be in life. Not only did these books make a huge impact on me, but they led me into a world of fantasy and science fiction from which I never returned.
You don’t forget meeting your first book loves, and I can still see my 12-year-old self perched unmoving during recess with a Valdemar novel in my hand clear as day. A fantastical world where all kinds of magic and intriguing creatures were real, my entry point was through Lackey’s first book, Arrows of the Queen, recommended by my voracious reader of a best friend. It followed a shy young woman named Talia who escapes a bleak home and is “Chosen” by a Companion—a sort of very special, hyper-intelligent horse—to train at an elite school as a Herald.
The Heralds were basically Valdemar’s border guards, diplomats and peacekeepers, and they were, to a fault, excellent people, Chosen because they were worthy. They possessed in Talia’s time what was termed “mind magic,” each having a special Gift like seeing the future, telepathy, and teleportation.
Talia was unique in being an Empath, a Gift the Heralds hadn’t trained in a long time, an ability that both aids and ails her. The Arrows books, under the series name The Heralds of Valdemar, handle Talia’s coming of age and coming into her own power. I would still hand this series to fantasy-inclined adolescent (or adult) readers that I met today, with the caveat that the last book, Arrow’s Fall, is quite violent and tragic. But reading it so young did, I think, give me a kind of empathy.
Lackey has written dozens of books, many in Valdemar’s land of Velgarth, others set in different worlds and historical eras. I could probably write an essay about each and what they meant to me. For a space of my early teenage years, I felt like I spent more time in Valdemar than I did in reality. I wrote stories set in Valdemar starring original characters of my creation, found fellow fans to talk to on the nascent Internet, and lent copies to everyone I liked in the hopes that they would join me in my obsession.
I’m often hesitant to revisit the media that I adored when I was young, afraid that it won’t hold up under the scrutiny of my grown-up brain. I wonder sometimes about representation in Lackey’s series The Last Herald-Mage, which follows a character named Vanyel Ashkevron centuries before Talia’s time. There are likely elements in Vanyel’s characterization as a gay man that would seem outdated today.
But Lackey published the first Vanyel book, Magic’s Pawn, thirty years ago in 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis, and at the time he must have seemed like a revelation to fantasy readers. A strong and sensitive hero, Vanyel was the first LGBTQIA protagonist I ever read and he single-handedly taught me—and many of my friends—that love is love is love beyond borders and definitions. To say that these books changed lives is an understatement, and that they still resonate with fans is evident by the way we yell happily at each other upon realizing that Valdemar was a shared experience. The last time I was at Comic Con, I met a baby named Vanyel Ashkevron.
Once I went into Valdemar, I never stopped loving and consuming fantasy and science fiction of all stripes, and it’s likely a good part of why I’m writing this right now. Tell us in the comments about the first thing that you remember absolutely consuming you and setting you up for a lifetime of nerdery. Was it a movie, a TV show, a cartoon, a book, a comic, a toy? What was that first geek love that you can’t forget?
(images: DAW Books)
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