Magic’s Pawn (The Last Herald-Mage #1)
by Mercedes Lackey
349 pages (mass market paperback)
first published June 1989 by DAW Books, Inc.
We first hear of Vanyel Ashkevron in the first few pages of Arrows of the Queen, Mercedes Lackey’s debut novel which had been published just two years earlier. In a snippet from a ballad popular in Talia’s day, we hear of the last stand of Vanyel, a legendary mage, and his poignant good-bye to his lover, Stefen.
But every legend has a beginning, and The Last Herald-Mage trilogy gives us that story. Vanyel does not begin his life as an incredibly powerful mage. In fact, when the story opens he seems to have very few talents aside from music and an excellent fashion sense. Neither of these traits is in his favor in his home on the border, where the men of his noble family fulfill every masculine image of his time and place- they are tall and brawny, blunt, have a healthy sex drive, and frown upon traditionally ‘feminine’ pursuits of education and music. With his good looks and love of music and books, Vanyel is an outcast in his family. His father neglects him in favor of his brawny younger brother, and for all the fluttering attentions his mother gives him, she isn’t much more helpful. Vanyel is different, and he doesn’t know why. He puts on an air of indifference to keep from feeling hurt by his family’s treatment, which makes them see him as a snob.
When his father has finally had enough and sends Vanyel to the faraway capital city of Haven to be instructed by his ill-tempered aunt Savil, Vanyel’s despair deepens. He discovers that, compared to his fellow students, he is almost ignorant, and his dreams of becoming a Bard are utterly dashed. What’s worse, is that he feels a strange attraction to one of Savil’s students, a beautiful young man named Tylendel.
Things come to a head when Vanyel realizes that men can actually be attracted to men and that he is falling head over heels for Tylendel, who returns the feeling.
As Vanyel has been emotionally abused and neglected for so long, his relationship with Tylendel quickly becomes co-dependant, which leads to tragedy when Tylendel’s family is attacked. Thanks to ill-advised magical manipulations, Vanyel’s latent magical gifts are blasted open, creating a powerful young mage with no control over his many new Gifts. Will Vanyel learn how to control his powers before he destroys himself and those around him?
I could write about how Magic’s Price is as entertaining now as it was when I first read it more than twenty years ago. Or, I could discuss how Mercedes Lackey’s writing improved from Arrow’s Fall, showcasing her growing skills of character development, pacing, and plot. But I’m not going to. Magic’s Price, and indeed the whole of the Last Herald-Mage trilogy has a special place in my heart because of how it helped me grow as a person.
Let me take you back to the 1990s. Not so dreadfully long ago calendar-wise, but eons ago when it comes to representation of the LGBTQIA community. When I was growing up in my little town on the prairie, it was still possible for parents and authority figures to keep things entirely hidden from their kids. There were no gay characters in middle-grade or YA books, on kids’ television (or really, on television in general). The internet was not in every home, and it was nearly impossible to find anything before Google came along. We had heard of AIDS in my school, but not how it devastated the gay community. There were ‘Defense of Marriage Acts’ being discussed across the country and ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ in the military. Until a little show called Will & Grace came along, there were virtually no gay characters in any pop culture venues I came across, and I never watced Will & Grace. So there were no positive LGBTQIA characters in any of the books I read. Mainstream publishers seemed to be doing their best to keep it that way.
Enter Mercedes Lackey. With pretty white horses on the cover and talk of magic in the synopsis, Lackey’s Valdemar books passed under the radar of parents and librarians who might otherwise have vetoed the purchase of the books. Since they didn’t know what the characters were all about, teens who might never have seen a positive representation of a gay character before got Vanyel, a misfit teenager, possibly like themselves, who felt unloved and could not figure out why he was different from everyone else around him. Once he meets Tylendel, however, he realizes that love can be different from what he’s always been told it was.
For some young readers, this was a revelation and helped to explain the feelings they were having, but could not explain. For some like me, Vanyel and his struggles put a human face on an idea that had been all but demonized in the media of the time. Because Vanyel is such a relatable and flawed character who is good at his core, I had someone to counter the negative stereotypes I had been given. And so, when a friend came out to me in high school, I was able to take a step back, realize that they were still the funny and friendly person I’d known before, and continue a rewarding friendship that lasted for years.
That is the power of quality representation. Fiction has the ability to open our minds to new ways of thinking and increases our empathy. When we encounter characters different from ourselves in books, we can get into their heads, see their reasoning and their perspectives, and potentially change our minds.