The main example on the dissection block is the Valdemar series by Mercedes Lackey. And okay, yes, this post did have its origins as an essay about how creepy Valdemar actually is, until I realized that it's also a good example of worldbuilding and face value.
This post is all Alz, btw, since Krispy only read a few of the Valdemar books, whereas I read all of them many years ago, all the way up to Exile's Honor before I gave up. Possibly I simply became more critical as time passed and I read more widely, but I'm also pretty sure that the later books started going downhill too. I used to love love love Valdemar and while I still do, my love is now tempered by my ever-present
|Didn't read this one and am afraid to|
after what I heard about it.
Let's take a look at Valdemar, a kingdom whose entire system of governance is bound up in the intelligent magical semi-divine horselike Companions who Choose certain estimable, honorable, good people to become the Heralds that serve in all manner of capacities from arbiter to police to messenger. The King by law must also be a Chosen Herald. Companion and Chosen are bound together for the rest of their lives, and the various series typically follow this or that Herald in his/her efforts to save etc. good thing from etc. evil thing, or a newly-Chosen Trainee getting the hang of the Herald ropes and incidentally overcoming various obstacles in order to uphold truth and justice.
We are asked to believe that the Companions Choose true--that they only Choose inherently good people, so even if one Chooses a thief (such as the character Skif in Take a Thief) or someone on the way to the gallows (a random mention in one book, I forget which), it must mean that said person is still somehow good. Questioning the Companion's Choice is brought up very briefly in Brightly Burning, in an instance where the King explains they have to hold a public trial in order to defend a Herald from an accusation of murder because the Valdemaran people absolutely must believe that the Companions always Choose true since their entire government revolves around this fact.
There's a Collegium adjoining the Palace where the newly-Chosen Trainees attend classes and graduate into the uniform Whites of a Herald. Yes, the series does semi-gratuitously capitalize a good many things, but that's a gripe for another post. Anyway!
We've got a premise: The Companions and their inherently good Heralds serve and protect the land of Valdemar.
We've got rules: The Companions Choose certain people and are bound to them as partners and advisors; the King/Queen must also be a Herald; Choosing is permanent; etc.
We've got a reasonable system: Heralds serve in a variety of governmental roles and are generally trusted by the population at large due to their reputation.
That's all a good basic foundation for worldbuilding. Let's move on!
I buy the Companion-based government. I mean, it's the concrete basis of the entire series. It's laid out pretty simply and is easy to grasp. I accept the Heraldic system. I accept the land of Valdemar as it is presented.
This is typically a necessary qualification of enjoyment and, in this case, is dependent upon the taste of the reader rather than the skill of the author. The world can have a good foundation, be totally plausible and believable, but maybe you just can't accept the premise that our society somehow devolves into the virtue-based dystopian society of Divergent, or that a "virus" is responsible for boys dying at 25 and girls dying at 20 in Wither, or that faeries are actually plants a la Wings. If you can't accept it, maybe you can overlook it, but if you can't do that either then you'll probably start banging your head against the wall if you continue reading.
Since Valdemar is set in a magical world, the whole Companion/Herald thing is magically plausible. The kingdom still has a judicial system, guard force, army, and other assorted governmental bodies that are separate from the Heraldic system; the Heralds are basically a multi-tasking quasi-military force answerable to the King and devoted specifically to protecting the people and fostering peace.
Despite how disgustingly helpful and happy-dappy people are in the very first Valdemar book, Arrows of the Queen, the world eventually develops enough to mention that not everyone loves Heralds--for instance, in other kingdoms and countries, Heralds are regarded as mystics or weirdos. The King (or Queen in some books) and others have remarked that Heralds are not perfect because they are as human as anyone else. For instance, in Magic's Promise, there is a Herald who beats a Companion with a whip because he believes the Companion is a demon despite the fact that his own Companion was freaking out all the while. As I recall, he didn't exactly feel bad after he was stopped because he was still convinced there was shady business going on. See? Not perfect. But the guy was still a Herald.
The point here is that the worldbuilding is complex but also reasonable. It makes sense, it follows its own rules, allows for imperfection, and it explains the inevitable anomalies and exceptions. And that, my friends, is 90% of the plausibility rating.
Here's where you get two breakdowns of Believability: Young Innocent Past Alz and Jaded Curmudgeonly Current Alz.
Young Innocent Past Alz says: Yes! I believe in Valdemar! I accept it all, it's plausible, and I believe without question the storylines and characters and the world!
Jaded Curmudgeonly Current Alz says: Yes. I believe in Valdemar. But now I'm cynical and analytical enough to realize how damn creepy the entire system is, so although I believe the storylines and characters and world, it's only because I'm taking them the way they're meant to be taken: at face value.
To explain, we have to go back to the whole Companions thing. The Companions are the ones who Choose people, and the pair are then bound together in a deep bond of love and companionship (harhar) for the rest of their lives. As is mentioned and exemplified more than once throughout the various series, Companions and Heralds don't really outlive each other because of the depth of their mental/magical bond.
Companions serve Valdemar and Valdemar alone, and therefore their Chosen are bound to serve and live in Valdemar for the rest of their lives--regardless of what their lives were like before. Without spoilers, there is one character in one book who wasn't of Valdemar but ended up Chosen, and therefore had two choices: stay and become a Herald, or leave and also leave the Companion behind. The character couldn't bear the second choice because omg! the bond! the unconditional love and mental link! And anyway, the character felt that Valdemar needed him/her, so staying was really the right choice after all.
So--this is where the believability begins to fail me. The Companions are essentially the creepiest-ass emotional manipulators/blackmailers in their entire world. A person cannot (so far as is shown) refuse to be Chosen, though there is one instance in one of the Owl Mage books where a girl doesn't want to be Chosen because she's her village's only healer and thinks very hard at the approaching Companion that she does not want to be Chosen and the Companion appears to understand and Chooses someone else. But this is the anomaly; the norm seems to be that Companions pop up and Choose whenever and wherever and whoever they damn well please.
In another instance, a character on the verge of suicide was Chosen. The character wanted to die, but the Companion thwarted one attempt and roused help to prevent another. I mean, I'm not saying that this character should have committed suicide or suggesting that the Companion is bad for stopping suicide, I'm just using this as an example of how the course of Heralds' lives are dictated by their Companions.
The Companions hold all the power, both to make and break their Heralds. The Companions can also repudiate their Heralds and break their bond--something whispered about in Herald lore because it only ever happened once, after a Herald went mad and did something unforgiveable. His Companion repudiated him and then promptly committed suicide, and the former Herald wasn't far behind.
So Companions Choose people to serve the country whether or not the person is willing, coerce them to stay through emotional manipulation (our bond! we love and understand each other!) and guilt-tripping disguised as an appeal to sense of duty and responsibility (the kingdom needs me! these people need my help!), and if that person does something they deem unforgiveable, they essentially kill themselves and their Chosen. (Mind you, the unforgiveable thing in the one instance of repudiation was pretty bad. But still.)
Once Chosen, Heralds have no other choice of job. Old Heralds can "retire" and teach Trainees and stuff, but now that I think about it there aren't really that many old Heralds mentioned in the series. This would seem to indicate that being a Herald doesn't leave you with a long life expectancy.
Come on, I mean, look, the Companions even dictate who rules the freaking country! The Regent, be it King or Queen, must be a Herald too, by law. Not to mention the creepy fact that the sole exception to the Companions-don't-outlive-their-Heralds rule is the Companion Roland, who is always the Companion to the King's main advisor, the King's Own. Also, Roland is a special snowflake because he's always male and always born out of the magical Grove that spawned the very first Companions ever during the Founding of Valdemar.
At face value, even the apparently unwilling/ambivalent Chosen are still so duty-bound and good that they don't mind being forced to become a Herald. But the fact that any of them still have doubts is troubling.
Valdemar's first books started off a little shaky, especially considering the fact that the first trilogy features in large part a secret longstanding code Heralds use to communicate with each other by breaking certain bits out of the feathers fletching arrows, a code that is never mentioned or used again in subsequent books.
But it's probably a mark of good worldbuilding that the author ditched the arrow-code because it becomes obsolete in face of the fact that many Heralds can communicate mind-to-mind, not to mention the fact that the arrow-code itself seems kind of unreliable--for only one example, what if the arrows got banged around and a bit of fletching got knocked off? That'd totally change the message.
The Companions and their Heralds remained though as the highlight and main factor in the world. As the series goes on and becomes more detailed and complex, the relationship between Herald and Companion is explored, as well as between Heralds and non-Heralds. Questions about the origins of the Companions and what they are arise and are eventually answered--and this falls into the realm of worldbuilding because finding out these things are not the focus--the focus is usually the characters and their personal journeys in relation to the plot.
Because the author had 25+ books to explore Valdemar and its concepts (and is still writing more), you can see the evolution of ideas and concepts as well as the abandonment Although many of the books (especially the later ones) are lackluster and even the good ones have their issues, Valdemar's worldbuilding is both interesting and problematic due to its organic nature, developing as the books develop.
Is Valdemar unintentionally creepy? Yes. But it's still interesting.
I recently saw one of the new Valdemar books at the library. The fact that I've read bad things about it and know that I'm way more judgmental now stayed my hand from borrowing it, but I must admit that I am morbidly curious.
Should I borrow the book anyway? What do you think about organic/evolving worldbuilding VS doing all the worldbuilding beforehand and having it concrete? Have you read any Valdemar books?