I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Mercedes Lackey’s books. I first read 2/3s of her Enduring Flame trilogy (with James Mallory) and gave up at the end of the second book because it was so generic I probably could have replaced random passages from books in the same genre and it would have still made sense.
Then I read Gwenwhyfar: The White Spirit, perhaps the most blatant attempt to cash in on the popularity of The Mists of Avalon ever (protip: Authors, you will never top The Mists of Avalon, ever. Stop trying). However, I enjoyed it enough that I was willing to give Mercedes Lackey another chance to impress me.
Hence, Magic’s Pawn….
Right, now before I get into the review, I need to put the obligatory SPOILER warning up top, because it’s difficult to talk about this book without spoiling anything. (In all honesty, does it even count as a spoiler if most people have probably read it by now?) So, yeah, SPOILERS, read at your own risk.
Our main character is Vanyel Ashkevron, the spoiled eldest son of Lord Withen and Lady Treesa. Vanyel dreams of becoming a Bard, much to the displeasure of his father, who wants him to learn swordplay like a “proper” man, while his mother only really cares for him when it serves her to do so. In fact, the only friend Vanyel has at home is his sister, Lissa, who is being sent away for fostering. Eventually, the metaphorical shit hits the metaphorical fan and Lord Withen sends Vanyel to foster with his aunt Savil, one of the few Herald-Mages of Valdemar. Heralds do the kinds of things that you would expect from other elite forces: they keep the peace, and, if necessary, they use deadly force to keep the peace.
Its while he’s fostering with his aunt that he meets the love of his life, and it all goes downhill from there.
Is this sounding formulaic yet? Well, get ready for the biggest not-spoiler ever.
Vanyel is gay.
You see, if Vanyel were heterosexual, this would probably be the most formulaic book ever: main character is inexplicably different from his siblings? Check. Is sent to live with super awesome people with super awesome powers? Check. Eventually gets super awesome powers of his own? Check. Fights villains that are supposed to be waaaaaay out of his league? Check. But it’s okay, because he’s actually very powerful, he just hasn’t been trained properly? Check, check, and check, and I would probably have finished this book thinking “Man, I just read the most generic fantasy ever….” with zero desire to read the second one. Most of the characters are flat: Lord Withen? Asshole. His training master, Jervis? An even bigger asshole. His mother? Constantly described as shrill and/or hysterical, and of course, there’s Lissa, who is the kind older sister who is the only one who really gets Vanyel, of course. Even Tylendel, his lover, can be described by the short phrase “really cares about his twin brother”. Vanyel himself is a spoiled, selfish little shit for most of the book, until he drops the act around Tylendel, then he picks it right up again. Suffice it to say that it’s not the most stellar characterization I’ve ever seen, as I said, everything about this book just screams formulaic, all that’s needed is Vanyel and Tylendel riding off into the sunset, and–
–and then Tylendel dies.
At this point, I put the book down and swore a whole bunch, because, as typical as I found the story to be, I had grown attached to these characters. I liked how Vanyel and Tylendel were so easily affectionate with each other. I liked this new Vanyel who wasn’t such a spoiled brat and was learning to accept his sexuality. I really, really liked this pairing, and for once I didn’t have to resort to something as drastic as writing slash fanfiction just so they could be together.
Needless to say, Vanyel does not take Tylendel’s death well, at all. In fact, he spends the rest of the book grieving, and not even being Chosen by a Companion can heal those particular wounds, most importantly, he doesn’t just “get over it” and come back two pages later with a new (interchangeable) love interest, which is an annoying trope no matter the genders of the people involved, and while he does eventually get super cool awesome powers (in fact, the most powers of any Herald-Mage), he gains so much power that he’s pretty much a live nuclear bomb unless he learns to control himself. (Take note: If Vanyel were a girl, how long do you think it would be before the accusations of “Mary Sue” came about?)
I think what it really comes down to is that this book is as much about love, loss, and healing from emotional wounds as it is about people who get to bond with cool horses and do magic. Even when I found Vanyel to be an insufferable little shit, I didn’t think it was entirely unwarranted (especially in the second half of the book) and I certainly know what it’s like to have to live in the closet, as Vanyel had to do before he was Chosen. In the end, this went from the most formulaic book ever to one that I just couldn’t put down, as if it were made of chocolate and the words were that whispering in my ear that says “Just one more piece….” and even though I keep saying I need to lose weight, I just can’t resist taking another bite.
Now, before I close saying that anyone who is interested in fantasy with LGBT+ characters who hasn’t read this should read it, I’d just like to make a few notes regarding the portrayal of the gay characters in the novel. The reason I didn’t jump on them right away (as I usually would) is because this book was written in 1989, so it gets one of those “product of its time” passes. Suffice it to say that every gay character is pretty, really really pretty. Vanyel really likes clothes, and looking good in clothes, and just clothes, and the major villain (who is introduced quite late in the book) is so ridiculously camp that it’s just ridiculous (and I stopped at one point to just laugh my ass off, that’s how ridiculous he is). Also, it’s implied that he’s bisexual (or perhaps just evil enough to do terrible things to women regardless of his orientation) because I have no fucking idea. So if you can handle the utter ridiculousness of the villain and the cast full of pretty boys, I’d say give this a shot. While I’m at it, I should also note that the sex is the very tasteful, fade to black kind, so don’t worry about getting an eyeful of graphic sex scenes. There’s just kissing and cuddling and mushy stuff.
Overall, I went into Magic’s Pawn expecting it to be formulaic, and now Magic’s Promise is sitting on my desk waiting to be read. Why am I still writing this when I could be reading it? Bottom line: If you can get past the stereotyping (this was written in the 80s) and the fact that it really isn’t all that groundbreaking (aside from the fact that OMFGs there’s a gay main character!), pick this up, seriously, you could do far worse than this.