Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey – Retro Review by Megan Mills
The first gay person I met was a character in a book *.
Like many kids who loved to read but couldn’t quite find what they wanted in their school libraries, I made the fantasy section of the bookstore—filled with epic destinies, page-turning plots, and worlds that sometimes made more sense than reality—my second home. My favorite was Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, which I devoured trilogy by trilogy. These books (30 and counting) follow dozens of characters from different times and kingdoms, letting us explore this compelling universe from several angles.
The world Lackey builds fits perfectly into the daydreams of a precocious, angsty teenager. In the land of Valdemar, citizens who possess Gifts (such as telepathy, foresight, firestarting, or true magic) and a good moral compass are Chosen by Companions—mysterious white spirit-horses—to become Heralds. No matter their station in life, Heralds are trusted leaders and servants of the people and form intense lifelong bonds with their Companions.**
Vanyel Ashkevron, however, doesn’t have any of this. When we begin Magic’s Pawn, he’s the neglected and abused black sheep of his family. The heir to a tough former-soldier father, Vanyel is a “vain peacock” who dreams of being a Bard. When he dares to stand up to his family’s expectations, he gets sent to the capital city under the guardianship of his aunt Savil, a brook-no-nonsense senior Herald, in hopes that this exile will straighten him out (in more ways than one, it turns out).
Vanyel can’t figure out this new life. He’s given freedom to learn with Bards, but finds his musical dreams dashed. Though Savil and her trainees offer cautious kindness, he remains untrusting, holds himself icily apart. At the same time, he finds himself surprisingly attracted to Tylendel, the shay’a’chern (gay) Herald-trainee living next door.
Up until this point, Vanyel—and the reader—didn’t even know that homosexuality was a possibility in this world. His family had purposefully hidden the concept from him out of fear and suspicion. That didn’t stop them from falling in love, though.
As their romance blossoms, Vanyel’s walls begin to come down and he sees a chance at happiness. Alas, it doesn’t last for long. When tragedy strikes, Vanyel is left bereft, depressed, broken—and with frighteningly strong newly-awakened gifts to accompany his brand new Companion. Thus begins his dark hero’s journey, one involving attempted suicide, social and familial struggles, deep introspection, monsters, and, ultimately, a chance at redemption. And that’s just the first in the trilogy!
I’ll admit that this book isn’t perfect. Some have criticized the depiction and treatment of the gay characters or the melodrama of Vanyel’s extensive internal monologue. However, I related to Vanyel’s pain and loneliness as an adolescent, and the revelation of his sexuality nearly a third of the way into the book didn’t distance me from him at all. For better or worse, this, flawed, lovable, relatable, and fictional character was the first gay person I’d known, and the injustice of his plight stuck with me.
I’m not sure if today’s teenagers would have the same reaction to this 1989 Lambda Literary Award winning book, considering how much more visible LGBT people and characters are in the media and in YA nowadays. It would be easy to say that it was a great step forward for its time and leave it as a historical footnote.
I think it’s more than that, though. One of my favorite aspects of Magic’s Pawn is that, though homosexuality plays an important role in the story, it’s not the defining aspect of the book or even of Vanyel himself. From the cover design to the summary on the back to the fact that it isn’t mentioned for almost 100 pages, you’d never guess that the main character’s struggles would turn out to include his sexuality. This is not a book about a gay boy coming of age; it’s a book about an epic, magical struggle and a boy’s need to accept himself, just a part of which is his homosexuality.
This fantasy hit all the right notes for my younger self and, to be honest, I quite enjoyed rereading it at the ripe old age of 29. The fact that it just happened to have been an excellent introduction to the struggles that LGBT people face in our world is a wonderful bonus and an excellent reminder of the power of fiction in our lives.
*To be technical, I’m sure some of the people I knew were gay, but they weren’t out at the time.
** What could be more appealing to an adolescent? If you’re a good person with special powers, you get not only a great position, but a best friend for life!
Megan Mills (@readwritemills) is currently an 8th grade English teacher in northern Virginia and a writer in search of a story. Swarthmore College showed her the power of communities of inquisitive people learning together, which led her to the Northern Virginia Writing Project (where she’s now a teacher consultant) and the Nerdy Book Club (where she discovered she’d always been a member).