As someone who read an untold number of fantasy, science fiction and other speculative fiction I knew of Mercedes Lackey but had never read anything by her. That changed when I finally picked up a book of hers to read a few weeks back. While more accurately books as it is the trilogy of the Last Herald-Mage in one. From what I have read about the books online since when the books were first published in the 1980s they were very progressive. They had a gay main character, Vanyel who throughout the course of the series becomes a hero to his country and people. There are also gay supporting characters throughout the story such as Tylendel, Moondance, Starwind and Stefen. So how does a story about a gay man who becomes one most powerful Herald-Mages hold up. Has it aged well or is it a product of its time? Thankfully the answer is more the former then the latter but there are still some things that could have been handled better. Let’s start with what the series did well and then get on to what could have been better. I will be taking this book by book. If you have not read the books then I’m warning you now for spoilers. Also going to add a trigger warning for suicide and attempted suicide.
The first book is Magic’s Pawn published in 1989. For starters, I really do love the character of Vanyel. Considering he is our main character it is important that he is likable in some way. When the reader first meets him, he is a boy of only sixteen, the eldest son of Lord Withen and Lady Treesa. However, he does not measure up to what his father wants in an heir. Vanyel is too feminine, sensitive and prefers music to combat. However, he is more than just a stereotypical gay man. In the first scene of the book he outsmarts his arms master by adopting a different form of combat then the one he has been thought. This shows that if the arms master and his father could instead of punishing Vanyel for his differences accept them Vanyel might not just be good at combat he could excel. Vanyel is also perceptive analysing other people’s behaviour and understanding what it means with ease. It is not the resourceful and perceptive Vanyel at fault but his father and Arm’s Master Jervis.
Vanyel’s home life with a homophobic father and a brutal arm’s master has caused him to adapt to the situation like many real-life abuse victims do. He hides his real personality behind a mask of arrogance and cockiness. Throughout the first third of the book I honestly just want to give the poor boy a hug. All that being said Vanyel is not just some perfect gifted misunderstood boy. Indeed, he is far from perfect, he is vain and snobbish. But these more negative traits only serve to make him more well-rounded, and indeed he does get enough character development out of these flaws as the books go on. So, for a protagonist Vanyel ticks just about every box that I like to see ticked. Part of the reason I would recommend these books is just to enjoy watching Vanyel grow and develop.
The other important characters in the first book include Tylendel, Savil, Gala, Yfandes and Lissa. Tylendel serves as Vanyel’s love interest and is an interesting character in his own right. Caught between his responsibilities and a feud his family is wrapped in Tylendel is impulsive and passionate. Savil after Vanyel proved to be my favourite character. Savil is snarky, experienced, and perceptive. Gala is Tylendel’s campion. Yfandes is the only campion in the book without a chosen. So far, I’ve done my best to write this without spoilers. But after the jump it won’t be possible. But as the title itself tells you this is not a happy story. In fact, the story of the Last-Herald Mage is a tragic one. But of course, any title with the word ‘last’ in it is going to be. Which bring me to my first problem with series overall and that includes the first book. Gay characters are tragic very often. It is rare to find a gay character who gets a happy ending. And our Protagonist Vanyel is doomed from the very outset by the very title of the series.
Vanyel is a tragic figure even from his childhood. He comes from a dysfunctional family that abuses him. At the start of the first book his arm is broken and his older sister, the only relative to treat him with kindness, is sent to the guards. So Vanyel is left alone. Soon after this he is shipped off to the Capital city of Valdemar, Heaven. It is here for the first time he gets a taste of real happiness. Because he falls in love with another young man, Tylendel. Their relationship is almost sickly sweet something they themselves acknowledge. The scenes leading up to their relationship were Vanyel tortures himself over how his father will react and facing up the fact that he is gay. While the idea of the self-conflicted gay is a cliché it doesn’t last long. As soon as Vanyel realizes Tylendel feels the same way about him he forgets the whole inner conflict and spends his nights with his boyfriend. He also decides he doesn’t care what his father thinks which is good for him. Up till this point the book is fine and enjoyable but remember that thing about this being a tragic story? By the last third of the book Tylendel is dead and Vanyel heartbroken.
While there is another gay couple that of Starwind and Moondance introduced soon after Tylendel’s death, it is not enough to make up for the young man’s death. How he dies is a violent and gut-wrenching suicide. Why is this a problem? After all there are plenty of fictional straight couples who go through the same thing. There are plenty of dead heterosexual fictional characters so why take issue with this? Well, because LGBT+ characters have a higher chance of death, ending up miserably or alone. There a simply far more straight character so when this does happen to them while it may be just as tragic there is still many counter examples not so much with LGBT+ characters. This wasn’t just a problem back in 1989, it continues to be one today. For example, take a look at tv tropes.com page on the Bury Your Gays Trope. There is actually a trope because of how often LGBT+ characters end up dead. Of course, counter examples do exist but social trends are not mathematical equations. A exception does not disprove the rule. In this way, the passage of time has actually helped Magic’s pawn because back in 1989 there would have been fewer LGBT+ characters and even fewer happy endings. Now there are plenty of counter examples and more happy endings.
Before anyone asks the story could still have worked without Tylendel’s death. He could have tried killing himself only to end up in a coma. Vanyel would have gotten all his character development that way and Tylendel life would have been spared. The first third of the story could have ended happily even if the very last of it had to be tragic. Happiness is so rare for LGBT+ characters and with everything Vanyel goes through he deserved happiness. Now with all that being said would I still recommend this book? The answer is actually yes. It is a testimony to Lackey’s writing ability that she is still able to keep me engaged with good characters and a wonderful if not happy story. I would say to pick up Magic’s Pawn if you enjoy Queer characters and if you enjoy fantasy but brace yourself because it is not a happy story.
I’ll be reviewing Magic’s Promise in the next post.
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