Magic’s Pawn is the first in a fantasy trilogy written by Mercedes Lackey. I found this one in a random Barnes & Noble search a few months ago, when I was on the hunt for LGBTQ+ fantasy. I don’t read genre fiction all that often, but I do occasionally enjoy a good fantasy or sci-fi novel. This time, though, I wanted to see if I could find a fantasy novel with openly and explicitly gay characters, maybe even a centered gay romance/couple. I wish there were more of this in mainstream fantasy fiction, but I have to say I lucked out in finding Lackey’s series, at last.
Magic’s Pawn was published in 1989. As a scholar of LGBT literature, I have to say this is remarkable. Not only is this an openly gay text with positive representation, but it’s also mainstream and was printed by a large fantasy press. It’s not surprising that it was written by a woman, as that was rather typical of accepted (“acceptable”) gay fiction up to the ’90s, when it began to be more and more common to see gay men writing and publishing their own stories more successfully (although — well, nevermind, that’s a rabbit hole I won’t go down here.) Lackey even mentions in her wonderful introduction to the trilogy that she and her agent had serious discussions about the likelihood of this story ever seeing the light of day. Fortunately, they both took the courageous steps to get it out there, and obviously it worked.
The story follows young Vanyel, a beautiful but different nobleman and heir to his father’s throne. At home, he is constantly bullied, persecuted, and even abused because he is beautiful and soft, the opposite of what a leader should be. His father, his tutor, his brother, all seem determined to grind Vanyel down; only his sister and his overbearing mother show him any love. Eventually, Vanyel’s inability to grow into the masculine noble that his father demands, is met with punishment: exile to Haven, where he will be tutored by his hard-as-nails aunt, the Herald Savil.
Surprisingly, however, this punishment turns out to be the greatest blessing. In Haven, Vanyel learns much about whom he really is, what makes him different, yes, but also what makes him great. He finds companionship that develops into true love; he learns the secrets of his once dormant magical abilities, he gains respect from even the most begrudging family and teachers. But all of this comes at a cost.
When Vanyel’s lover is drawn into a terrible battle and suffers a loss beyond consolation, Vanyel goes to his aid without question. The choices these two young, talented lovers make will bring about the end of their relationship, but also a great and painful transformation in Vanyel.
While Magic’s Pawn didn’t have quite as much magic and fantasy as I would have liked and expected from a “fantasy novel,” what it did have was sensitive representation of a young gay man’s coming-of-age experience, including the difficult pillars of coming out and of falling in love. The very human elements of family and friendship, grief and loss, are also important details to the story. Add just a touch more wizardry to it all, and I would’ve been over the moon about this one.
Just a final note. At the end of the introduction, Lackey mentions the readers who have written to her to express their appreciation to her for writing and publishing this story. She mentions that many have called her a hero for daring to do that work, and for helping them to see themselves and understand themselves for the first time, through her fiction. It encouraged many to come out. And here is her response: “You are the real heroes. I am proud and thrilled to have been part of your journey, but you began the journey, and you kept up with it until you came out on top. It was all you. I’m just glad to have been a part of it.” Remember, this was the late-1980s/early-1990s, height of the AIDS epidemic, and here is a writer reaching out to a devastated, terrified community, giving them hope, place, and purpose. This note alone was enough to encourage me to give these books a read.