The Valdemar Reread

Follow Your Arrow: Let’s Talk about Vanyel

Welcome to the Valdemar re-read! This week, we’re taking on chapters one and two of Arrows of the Queen, the first book in the Heralds of Valdemar trilogy. We’ll be meeting some major characters and taking an educational trip through Valdemar’s southern half. And although he’s been dead for a couple hundred years, we learn a surprising amount about Vanyel.

The Summary: Our first look at Valdemar is a long, hard stare at Talia Holderkin, carding wool and reading a book under a tree. Look! It’s me! Carding wool and actively reading are not activities that mesh well, in my limited experience with wool. You can’t turn pages while carding, and if you put the wool down it gets dirty. Talia seems to have read this book so many times she has it memorized. She has good taste—she’s reading about Vanyel, the historical hero whose saved Valdemar from certain destruction.

At a pivotal moment in the story, her stepmother calls her to the house to face her father and all of his wives. It’s her thirteenth birthday, and they want to know what kind of marriage she would like them to arrange for her. She can be a First Wife or an Underwife. Or, in a pinch, a nun. Being born in a creepy polygamist cult has major downsides.

Talia freaks out and flees to her secret cave to daydream about being rescued by a Herald and becoming a Herald herself. Talia has no idea how Heralds are chosen, so she’s shocked when a Companion appears. Talia stares deep into his eyes, and hears his voice in her head proclaiming her his Chosen . . . and then forgets about all of that, because the Companion tells her to. On the assumption that she’s returning a lost animal, Talia climbs onto the Companion’s back and plans to ask his Herald for a job scrubbing floors as a reward. Equipped only with a friendly horse, an unexciting career plan, and her sweet personality, Talia rides off for parts unknown.

Fascinating Valdemar Trivia: Talia is one of the Holderfolk who live near Valdemar’s southern border. In addition to being polygamous, they’re misogynistic and isolated and a lot of them are killed by raiders every Spring. Because of her origins, almost everything in the rest of Valdemar is new to Talia. She spends most of these chapters thinking about all the strange and different things she sees. Valdemaran society appears to be primarily agrarian and pre-industrial, but the roads are paved. There are LINE AND LINES of description of the mysterious hard surface covering the roads and the chiming sound of the Companion’s hooves on it. WHY? HOW? HOW DID THESE SIMPLE AGRARIAN PEOPLE PAVE THE ROADS? I vaguely recall that the answer is Vanyel, but it’s not in these first two chapters.

Vanyel is, though.

This is not a Vanyel book. This is a Talia book. Vanyel has a whole trilogy of his own, later. But Vanyel appears on page 6. His gentle lifemate, Bard Stefen, appears on page 7. Which is actually the third page of the text.

I don’t want to make too big a deal of a gay peripheral character. Vanyel wasn’t the first gay peripheral character in YA—there were gay dads, brothers, friends and teachers in young adult “problem novels” in the 70s and 80s. Nancy Garden’s 1982 novel, Annie on My Mind, is widely regarded as the first YA lesbian romance. But Vanyel was the first gay character I read about.

Arrows of the Queen was published in 1987, a year not remarkable for its tolerance. The AIDS crisis started years earlier, but unwillingness to address a “homosexual issue” meant that President Reagan was only just publicly acknowledging it for the first time. It was the year bullets were fired through Ryan White’s living room window. It was also a year of increasing acceptance—Barney Frank came out, and an estimated half a million people participated in the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Now, in 2014, it’s still hard for writers to include gay and lesbian characters in YA fiction. I can only imagine what it was like in 1987. Arrows of the Queen was Lackey’s first novel. An editor could have demanded that Vanyel be straight, or single, or not in the story. Making Vanyel who he was had consequences. Lackey took a stand on Vanyel.

Later, in his own books, Vanyel would face an anguished struggle to reveal himself to his family, but he didn’t have to come out to readers. Lackey was never ambiguous about his sexual orientation and she never hid it. Later, in his own books, Vanyel would face intolerance, but never from Heralds. Talia is going to take a little while to figure out what’s going on in her own story, but even she already knows that Heralds don’t do intolerance.

Tell me what you think in the comments, and tune in next week for chapters 3-5!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.


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