Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey
Rating 5/5 stars
It is damn near impossible for me to have any objectivity about this trilogy in general, and about Magic’s Pawn specifically. There are books you will read during the course of your lifetime that so fundamentally alter who you are as a person that they become far more than a story to you. Magic’s Pawn was one of these books.
Somewhere around 1990/91 I’d given up reading kid’s books. YA wasn’t really a genre at that point–there were a few shelves at the bookstore devoted to things like Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike, and Lurlene McDaniels novels–so I transitioned to the adult section. My local bookstore (anyone else remember Waldenbooks?) had a fairly small Sci-fi/Fantasy section, and every week I would be there pouring over books, trying to decide how to best spend my allowance (and/or baby-sitting money). There were few enough employees that after a while we were on a first name basis. One employee, Bryan, was a fellow sci-fi/fantasy nerd and I took his recommendations fairly seriously.
In 1995/1996 (when I was 17 and a senior in high school) Bryan turned me onto Mercedes Lackey with her book The Black Gryphon. After reading it, I wanted to read more Lackey–but her catalog was so big that I was overwhelmed by which book to read next. Bryan offered me Magic’s Pawn.
Growing up in the part of Massachusetts where the line between suburban sleeper community meets rural countryside in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I’d never met anyone who was gay. Ellen hadn’t come out yet, and Will & Grace was years away from airing. I understood that being gay wasn’t socially acceptable–the tone people took, the slurs, and the messages I’d picked up from from pop culture and the people in my life had taught that to me. I was guilty of saying things like “Who cares who you sleep with, but why do I have to see two men kiss in front of me?”–as if I ever had, or even knew what I really saying–I was parroting what I was taught.
Vanyel was the first gay person I ever met. Magic’s Pawn took me on his journey, and in doing so changed who I was. After that book I would never say something like “why should two men kiss in front of me,” instead feeling infuriated that someone would dare question their love as less valid than mine. When I moved to Boston for college, my mind and heart were ready to meet and ally physical (as opposed to fictional) LGBTQA individuals. And when I went though my own realization and outing as bisexual myself a few years later, I found myself visiting with Vanyel all over again.
Mercedes Lackey is an infuriating author. She can write books like Magic’s Pawn, and then she can write just some of the worst Mary Sue filled, ignore your own cannon, why can’t I forget you ever wrote this in the first place dreck like Exile’s Honor and Exile’s Valor. These days I tend to avoid her new work as I’ve been disappointed far more often than I’ve enjoyed it. That said, her back catalog, particularly some of the Valdemar books remain some of my favorite books almost 20 years later. Someday I will give you my full rant about which books are good, which are okay, and which flat out need to be burned.
Vanyel has only one thing he’s ever dreamed of being–a Bard. Unfortunately he’s also the heir to his father’s estate, so music isn’t a career that’s in the cards for him. He’s too small and fine boned to sword fight like his larger bulkier brothers and cousins, but his swordsmaster feels that the fast feint and dash method that would match his build is “cheating.” Jervis promptly breaks his arm in punishment for “cheating.”
Apart from his older sister Lissa-who is sent away within the first chapter to become a guardswoman (there’s one girl in every generation who bucks tradition–and you always know who because they inherited the “Ashekevron nose)-he’s left without close friend or ally.
When he’s sent to Haven-the capital city of Valdemar-he’s told that he can’t even take his horse. Insult after insult is given–he’s taken to the city between two of his father’s guards like a common criminal. He’s so hurt that he decides
It was so simple–just don’t give a damn. Don’t care what they do to you and they do nothing.
But like every emotionally abused child who has ever thought that before or after Vanyel, all it does is serve to isolate him further.
Left in his aunt’s care, he has no clue what to make of his unexpected freedom, his lessons with the bards, or Tylendel (one of his aunt’s students.) His lessons, though, only serve to crush his one remaining hope–that he would be taken into Bardic Collegium and be made a Bard. He’s a beautiful musician, but he doesn’t have the bardic gift and he doesn’t compose–and he’d need one of the two for them to remove him from the position of his father’s heir. Vanyel is left without hope for the future.
Vanyel’s drawn to Tylendel, but has no words to describe what it is he’s feeling or why until a girl at court mocks ‘Lendel’s sexual preferences. It is a lightning bolt to Vanyel, who hadn’t even realized that such pairings were even possible. Watching them come together is powerful, as is the scene from the next morning when they sit down with his aunt to talk about what will happen now that he and Tylendel are a couple…
“The first problem and the one that’s going to tie in to all the others, Vanyel, is your father.” She paused, and Vanyel bit his lip. “I’m sure your realize that if he finds out about this, he is going to react badly.”
Vanyel coughed, and bowed his head, hiding his face for a moment. When he looked back up, we was wearing a weary, ironic half-smile; a smile that had as much pain in it as humor. It was, by far and away, the most open expression Savil had ever seen him wear.
“‘Badly’ is something of an understatement, Aunt,” he replied rubbing his temple with one finger. “He’ll–gods, I can’t predict what he’ll do, but he’ll be in a rage, that’s for certain.”
“He’ll pull you home, Van.” Tylendel said in a completely flat voice. “And he can do it; you’re not of age, you aren’t Chosen, and you’re aren’t in Bardic.”
“And I can’t protect you,” Savil sighed, wishing that she could. “I can stall him off for a while, seeing as he officially turned guardianship of you over to me, but it won’t last more than a couple of months. Then–well, I’ll give you my educated guess as to what Withen will do. I think he’ll put you under house arrest long enough for everyone to forget about you, then find himself a compliant priest and ship you off to a temple. Probably one far away, with very strict rules about outside contact. There are, I’m sorry to say, several sects who hold that the shay’a’chern are tainted. They’d be only to happy to ‘purify’ you for Withen and Withen’s gold. And under the laws of the kingdom, none of us could save you from them.”
Looking back, it’s pretty revolutionary that this scene was written in the late 80’s when homosexuality was a huge cultural taboo and AIDS was a death sentence. The Reagan administration was delaying research into HIV/AIDS because it was seen as a “gay disease.” It was written long before conversion therapy was debunked as dangerous and damaging. Lackey’s sex scenes are all off-page, but she was writing relationships like Tylendel and Vanyel (and even a potential all female triad relationship years earlier) long before we were having cultural discussions about LGBTQA representations in media and critiquing lack of representation.
While the spectre of Vanyel’s father looms over the relationship and has them playing a double game, the real danger to the relationship is from ‘Lendel. More to the point, Tylendel’s obsession with a family feud his family has going with the Leshara family. Lendel’s twin brother is the lord of their holding, and Lendel wants to take his side. Heralds must be neutral, and Lendel is anything but. When his brother is murdered, Tylendel’s control snaps, and he uses Vanyel to seek revenge.
—and that’s just the first half of the book.
Mercedes Lackey signs autographs at CONvergence (source wikipedia)
The book isn’t just noteworthy because it was before its time on LGBT characters. These are complex characters. Vanyel is hurting and emotionally damaged, but he can also be a jerk. He’s dependent on Tylendel and he never really stops to wonder if ‘Lendel’s plans are a good idea. He is self-centered and arrogant. He’s also starving for love, sweet, and deeply caring. Tylendel is obsessive, but doesn’t mean to use Vanyel in the way that he does. Savil is aware of Tylendel’s obsession but doesn’t take it seriously enough. Characters are imperfect and they screw up.
Her characters go on emotional journeys–they grow and they change and those moments are often painful. The first time I read the book, it had me sobbing. Rereading it over the past few days, even though I knew what was coming and what will happen in the next two books in the series, I was still blinking back tears.
If you like fantasy, I really can’t recommend Magic’s Pawn highly enough.