Although Mercedes Lackey has trilogies in the Valdemar world in which she explores mages and tribal earth healers and gryphons, I’m always happiest when we get back to the actual kingdom of Valdemar, watched over by Heralds in white uniforms to match their all-white Companions, divine spirits that look like horses. Yes, the Herald/Companion bond is enviable to readers. But even better is the Heralds’ mind magic, known as Gifts. Each person is different: Gifts can be Empathy, FarSeeing, MindSpeech, FireStarting, EarthSense, and Fetching, to name a few. Gifts tend to have rules and limitations, whereas mages do whatever suits Lackey’s plots. Blech. Thus, with the return to Valdemar, Lackey has taken me to my happy place.
We first met weaponsmaster Alberich in the Heralds of Valdemar trilogy (1987), Lackey’s first published Valdemar books. We know he’s not from Valdemar but was Chosen by a Companion and thus is a Valdemar Herald. Alberich’s students know him for his relentless training that often ends in bruises and strained muscles, so the trainees believe he is a hard case and try to get out of practice. In Exile’s Honor (2002), Lackey takes readers back to Alberich’s life before he was Chosen and move forward in a duology of novels, Exile’s Honor and Exile’s Valor. Today, I’m reviewing Exile’s Honor.
Alberich was born and raised in Karse, a nation bordering Valdemar. Karsites speak their own language, believe in one Sunlord, burn anyone witchy, and currently is run by corrupt Sunpriests who aren’t carrying out the true word of their Sunlord. One of their best soldiers in the cavalry, Alberich’s skills are mostly due to weapons training and practice, but sometimes he knows where bandits will strike just before they do. . . and clearly that means he’s a witch. Readers know it’s a Gift. The Sunpriests gather a small mob of Karsites to burn Alberich alive, but he’s saved at the last moment by a strange white horse. This is where fans of Valdemar know Alberich has been Chosen to be a Herald by a Companion, who high-tails it (literally) to Valdemar where Alberich can recover and learn of his new responsibilities — as a another Herald trainee who will become a warrior for Valdemar.
Where the author deviates from previous Valdemar novels is we have a character who 1) isn’t from Valdemar and 2) isn’t convinced being Chosen is great. Most Chosen are in their early teens and know and love Herald tales, but Alberich is a grown adult. While the Heralds and Healers assume he’ll be thrilled, Alberich says, “And when was there asking on my part, for this Choosing, this so-called honor?” In his mind, a crazy horse demon kidnapped him and took him over to the enemy.
Why are Karse and Valdemar enemies? Karse can’t stand that Valdemar lets the people worship in whatever religion, freely have sex, don’t discriminate on sexuality, believe in justice and courts, and have these Companions with divine spirits to prevent corruption in Heralds. But questioning the ethics of not having a choice in a kingdom that toots its own horn for its freedom adds depth to Lackey’s series.
Alberich does come around to accepting his Companion, a male named Kantor. This takes time, and Lackey uses humor to show Alberich adjusting from assuming Kantor is a demon, which Alberich was taught in Karse, to learning Kantor is a heavenly being. Worried at first that he will be crammed into tiny classroom desks next to pubescent Herald trainees, Alberich eyes his books — in the Valdemar language — skeptically. Thanks to MindSpeech, Kantor helps Alberich learn Valdemaran, which alleviates some of the struggles with reading. Yet Alberich wonders, “how something that looked like a horse could come to know how to read — or have any reason to — was beyond him.”
And that was the first line in Exile’s Honor that struck me as rather funny, because it’s so out of line with DIVINE horses and TWINKLY love between Chosen and Companion — and I wondered what Mercedes Lackey has been holding back. In Exile’s Honor, she lets loose! I found myself laughing repeatedly, a first for me with #ReadingValdemar. When Alberich dons a disguise and searches the capital for people in the underbelly of Valdemar, he realizes he’s quite hungry because “you just didn’t eat what was offered in, say, the Broken Arms. Not unless you wanted to have an intimate and detailed knowledge of the inside of the privy . . . Granted, the indoor water closets at the Collegium were fine things, but not as a place for an extended stay.” Okay, okay, I know it’s toilet humor, but when you think about heroes running around doing cool hero stuff, it’s nice to be reminded they have intestines, too. And a stomachache without a smart phone? No, thank you.
But Exile’s Honor isn’t just about Alberich leaving Karse, getting used to Valdemar, and working as the arthritic old weaponsmaster’s second-in-command. Karse is still mad at those Valdemaran hippies next door! Karse capitalize on the Tedrels, a vagabond group without a home looking to steal a kingdom. Tedrels are so wild the mercenary guild won’t hire them. What if Karse paid the Tedrels to destroy all the people in Valdemar with the promise of the Valdemar’s land and infrastructure in return? The Tedrels are into it.
The Tedrel Wars go on for over four years, so when Karse runs out of money, the Tedrels go rogue on both sides. In a massive final battle, Lackey takes readers into the smells, sights, and emotions of war, never romanticizing it nor writing characters fighting for glory. My eyes misted twice in these scenes as swords found gaps in armor and screams died on the battlefield. Young Heralds pushed quickly through their training see the realities Alberich has known for a decade.
Because Alberich’s story is a prequel, readers have an idea of who will live but no inkling of which new characters will die, so it was pins and needles for several chapters. Woven in is the excitement of also knowing what comes next in the Heralds of Valdemar trilogy. We know Alberich, a stranger who won’t wear the white uniform and is heartless in training, becomes head weaponsmaster. Yet, after the final battle of the Tedrel Wars, as he reflects on the last day of the week of mourning, he shows his true personality under the insufferable teacher:
“Tomorrow, Alberich the Grim I shall again be.” . . .
“Is that what the Trainees call you?” Talamir asked with interest. . . .
“Oh, that they call me, other things among,” Alberich replied. “And ‘Great Stone-Face,’ or ‘Herald Stone-Heart.'” He permitted himself a sardonic little smile. “They take me, perhaps, for granite.”
Exile’s Honor by Mercedes Lackey is one of my favorite books that I’ve read and in the same style of battles, strategy, logic, and heart as By the Sword, which was the top book for Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku and me in 2019.