Mercedes Lackey, Exile's Honor (DAW, 2002)

As a fan of military science fiction and epic fantasy, I've discovered something interesting. While most people will happily focus upon the heroes of the piece, those brave knights or soldiers or sword-swinging mercenaries or valiant champions who go forth to fight the enemy and save the day, no one really thinks about the people who train these heroes. That's right, how often do you think about the Drill Intructors, Staff Sergeants, Armsmasters and the like who stay behind to train hero after hero, watching their students sally forth to risk or give their lives for the cause? These people have to be meaner, tougher, rougher, harder, more experienced, stronger, more capable, and more determined than any one of their proteges. They have to steel their hearts, never showing pity or mercy or favoritism. They have to seal themselves off from emotion, never admitting when they care for someone, because inevitably, anyone they treasure will die, probably in battle, leaving them behind.

Yes, when you look at it that way, our hypothetical D.I. or Armsmaster becomes a tragic hero in his own right, doesn't he?

I've been reading Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar series ever since Arrows of the Queen debuted in 1987. While my heart went out to pixie-like, vulnerable young Talia, the heroine of that first trilogy, it was one of the supporting characters who grabbed my attention and chewed the scenery whenever he appeared: the gruff, unconventional, fierce Alberich, Armsmaster to the Heralds of Valdemar. Here was a guy so badass that he could get away with wearing any uniform he wanted. Here was a guy who could slap around any Herald, highborn trainee, or student in the land without breaking a sweat, and still work with a shy girl's timid nature like one might charm a wild creature. Here was a guy who hailed from Valdemar's traditional enemy, the land of Karse, and yet was one of the most trusted Heralds around. Here was a guy responsible for training the Heralds who kept the peace, carried the messages, dispensed justice, led the Army in times of war, and even ruled the country. Alberich wasn't just any supporting character, he was a force of nature. Admittedly, he was slowing down a little, and looking to train a replacement sometime in the near future, but even so, the odds were good that he could singlehandedly whip anyone he wanted. And then tell them what they did wrong, and how to fix it. Without a sweat. Cool.

In Take a Thief, itself a prequel to the Arrows trilogy, we learn more about Alberich's role. Not only was he the Weaponsmaster, he was a spy, an assassin, a master of intrigue and disguise who did the dirty work few others had the talent -- or taste -- for. In short, Alberich was 007 for the Valdemar set. How cool is that? Finally, we get his story, from the beginning. And oh my, is it a good one.

Anyone who's read the Valdemar series will know certain things: how the Tedrel Wars of a generation previous nearly ripped apart Valdemar, how they claimed the life of Valdemar's King and left an untried young woman on the throne as Queen, how the seeds of treachery were planted even then. This is backstory by the time Talia comes into the scene. But Alberich was right there in the thick of it all. And so some of those unseen moments of Valdemar history finally come to light.

Exile's Honor is essentially divided into three parts, plus a prologue. In the prologue, actually a reprinted story from the Horse Fantastic anthology, we see how Alberich, once a trusted and talented young captain in the Karse army, was given a magifnicent white stallion as a prize. We learn how his curious and unpredictable talent for precognition both saved the lives of others and doomed him to execution on charges of witchcraft. At the last moment, his horse saved him, and brought him across the border to Valdemar, and Alberich's life was changed forever.

Chosen as a Herald by the magical Companion (blue-eyed white horses with telepathy and some veeeeeeery interesting secrets, and a direct line to the Powers That Be), Alberich was forced to make some very hard decisions involving honor, loyalty, life, and death. Ultimately, he chose to stay in Valdemar, but that was only the beginning. The first part of this book concerns his introduction to the ways of Valdemar, a land quite different from the country of his birth. It deals with his rocky reception, the incongruity of placing a grown man with young teenagers, and the wisdom of letting a Karsite into Valdemar's heart. Luckily, Alberich finds a kindred spirit in the old Weaponsmaster, and a calling as his assistant.

In the second part of the book, we skip forward to the chaotic years of the Tedrel Wars, the time during which Karse hires an entire nation of mercenaries to destroy Valdemar once and for all. Alberich must struggle again with honor and loyalty as he sends his pupils off to fight his former home, a place he's never forgotten. Worse yet, Karse is a theocracy, following the demands of the vicious priesthood who nevertheless represent a diety Alberich has never renounced nor ceased to venerate. Can he continue to aid his new home against his old? As the Wars heat up, he chafes at remaining behind to train new Heralds and soldiers, when he could do so much more. Which brings us finally to the last part of the book. The Wars are nearly over, but much remains unfinished. The Tedrel mercenaries are not yet defeated, and untold numbers of Valdemarian and Karsite civilians remain enslaved. This is the time when heroes will fall and a King will be murdered, and Alberich will face his greatest tests to date.

There is a lot I could say about Exile's Honor. This is, without a doubt, one of the best Valdemar books Mercedes Lackey has done. Not only does it showcase the maturation and growth of her skills in the past fifteen years, but it ties together loose ends and pulls old stories seamlessly together. I'm not sure how she can top this one, given that Alberich is one of her most compelling and complex characters, and she's fairly well mined the recent past, present, and future of Valdemar, but damned if I don't hope she tries.

You don't need to have read other books in the Valdemar series in order to understand or enjoy this one. It stands on its own quite nicely -- but it fits into the mythos just as well. Alberich's ongoing struggle to reconcile loyalty, honor, faith, duty, obligation and expectations drives the book, without sacrificing a compelling plot. So if you like fantasy, and especially if you enjoy military fantasy, you'll likely enjoy Exile's Honor. (Sidenote: I've learned that a sequel is in the works, entitled Exile's Valor. Huzzah! More Valdemar, says I, more Heralds! Okay, I'll put my personal preferences back in my pocket....)

[Michael M. Jones]

Other Mercedes Lackey books you might enjoy are The Valdemar Companion, Take a Thief, The Black Swan, Brightly Burning, and Spirits White as Lightening, which was co-authored with Rosemary Edghill.

Her official website is, naturally, www.mercedeslackey.com.