Completed 10/17/2019, Reviewed 10/18/2019
Magic’s Pawn begins a trilogy set in the Valdemar universe, of which there are now many installments. Not having read any of the other books in the series, I found this book to be self-contained. It tells the story of a gay teen who is at odds with his macho, elitist father who wants a son to take over the family legacy. Vanyel, the teen, wants to be a Bard, but turns out to possess powerful magical powers that have not yet been awakened. This is my first Mercedes Lackey book and I loved it. It was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 1990 and was quite deserving of the honor.
Vanyel lives on the family estate with his abusive father who is trying to make him a man’s man. He never compliments his son, discourages the boy’s love of music, and forces him to train with a sadistic military trainer. After an incident where the trainer breaks Vanyel’s arm in a particularly vicious attack, and not taking Vanyel’s side, the father decides to send him to his aunt who runs a boarding school where he thinks Vanyel will get more discipline and more serious fighting experience. While this is true of the school, it also features academics and magic training. Vanyel goes unwillingly, but soon realizes that this school, and his Aunt Savil, are much more liberal than he expected. At the school Vanyel falls in love with Tylender, a herald-mage in training. With Savil’s blessing, they pursue a relationship. Vanyel excels in his academics and in love. But a tragic turn of events seems to destroy everything in Vanyel’s life while at the same time, awakening the powerful magic which lay dormant within him.
This is the first high fantasy I’ve read in a while. It features the classic trope of a school for magic. When this book was published in ’89, it wasn’t quite the trope it has become since Harry Potter hit the market. At first, Vanyel doesn’t like the school, believing he is there for punishment. However, he soon comes to love it for its wide “liberal arts” academia and its supportive, non-sadistic combat training program. Unfortunately, while being a decent musician, he is deemed not to have the gifts necessary to become a Bard. This is the first of several incidents that throws Vanyel for a loop. The other major incident of course is falling in love after repressing his true orientation. Aunt Savil, who at first has no time him, begins to take a liking to him and becomes supportive of his scholastic and burgeoning sexuality. She realizes the terrible childhood Vanyel’s father provided and tries to nurture him back to being a normal teen.
I loved the character of Vanyel. He’s a bit whiney, but at the same time, I think his emotions and expression of himself is very typical of a gay teen who has been repressed for so long by a belligerent father. He does a lot of second-guessing of himself, and is full of self-doubt. It takes most of the book to work through his self-esteem issues. But hence, we get some pretty phenomenal character development. I also really liked the characters of Tylender and Aunt Savil. Savil is Tylender’s mentor. She is a great person, though it his hidden by the toughness necessary to run the school. It is in her relationship with Tylender that we see her humanity. Tylender is an all-round nice guy with one major flaw: he is obsessed with the feud his family has with another family, and it is the one aspect of his personality Savil cannot seem to break. But I just cheered when he and Vanyel finally get together.
The world-building is excellent. Despite having been the sixth (I believe) book published in the series, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much. There were a few times when a situation came up where I didn’t understand the reference, but it was explained a further in the book, namely, the colddrakes. I have a feeling they appeared in an earlier series.
I give this book five out of five stars. I deeply connected with Vanyel’s character, despite his being kind of whiney. His self-doubt tries to sabotage so many things in his life, but between Aunt Savil and Tylender, he has the support and encouragement to work through the pain. There is some real tragedy in the book, which I did not see coming, and it made me want to weep. Lackey writes emotions really well. This is the kind of book where emotions take priority over the action. The action is there to accentuate the character development. I will be reading the rest of this series, as the third book in the trilogy is on my LGBTQ list on WWEnd. I’m really glad I started with this origin story of Vanyel and not just jumped right into the third book.