Magic's Pawn by Mercedes Lackey (Last Herald-Mage Trilogy #1)

One problem with long running series, is that authors don’t always write them in chronological order, interspersing books set at one time period with books set earlier on, then confusing matters by including details from the later earlier books in the later later ones.

Thus even though the conflict against Hardorn at the end of Arrow’s Fall hadn’t exactly had a conclusive ending, my lady assured me that I need to catch up with a few details from Valdemar’s history BEFORE RESOLVING It. Indeed, Lackey herself doesn’t’ seem to have been too quick in returning to the time of the previous series either, given that she wrote five Valdemar prequels between finishing Arrows Fall and going on to the chronologically next offering. Less prosaically, it’s always nice to catch up with the tales of those who are heroes to OUR heroes and find out just how human they are, and Talia’s fondness for the stories of the legendary mage Vanyel were tantalising enough for me to want to learn more about him.

Magic’s Pawn takes place at a time when mage gifts were far more common among the heralds than they would become. Thus, in addition to their mental powers and the psychic link to their horse like companions, in this era many heralds were also herald mages, able to draw upon a spring of personal power to command a diverse range of magics in their peace keeping duties around the kingdom of Valdemar. For Vanyel Ashkevron however, all of this is academic. Heir to the Forst reach estate, Vanyel wants nothing more than to become a bard. Unfortunately, his father Lord Withen has other ideas and is bent on forcing Vanyel to be the type of man Withen sees as a worthy successor. When however it becomes clear even the harsh and bullying arms master Jervis can’t make Vanyel into what is father wants, Withen; in a fit of pique exiles Vanyel to Valdemar’s capital at Haven to be cared for by his aunt Savil, herself a herald mage. Here, Vanyel will find love, discover truths about himself and (eventually, awaken his powers.

As the book opened with Vanyel as a mistreated young man in untenable circumstances, I thought we were in for essentially a repeat of Arrows of the Queen, the abused child suddenly discovering they have untold power and being whisked away to a magical destiny via companion, basically like the first Harry Potter book with a horse filling in for Hagrid. Lackey however is a more nuanced writer than that. Where teenaged Talia was guilty of nothing other than a little bit of shyness and reticence around others, Vanyel is a far more complex character.

Right from the start of the book in which one of his cousins compliments him on a more nuanced fighting style than that taught by Jervis, and Vanyel simply goes on thinking that all his cousins hate him, it becomes clear that despite enduring bad circumstances and being basically a decent lad at heart, Vanyel also has a streak of self-obsession which is likely to get him into trouble.

Similarly, any fears I had that Vanyel might suddenly discover his magical gifts were set to rest when Vanyel recalls a previous meeting with Savil in which she casually reveals he has no innate power, just untapped potential which he has no inclination to explore.

It is this nuance in Vanyel’s character that made him an interesting protagonist, especially given one major fact about his character, the fact that he is gay.

Unfortunately, it is a little disappointing that Lackey ticked so many of the typical “gay” boxes with Vanyel, especially considering the wonderfully offhand way she handled some of the gay ladies who were background characters in Arrows of the queen. Vanyel is small, slight and of course astoundingly beautiful, he’s more interested in music and performance than manly things like swordplay, he takes intensive care with his dress and appearance, he’s also a favourite among the ladies, even earning his own circle of admirers despite the fact he’s not romantically attracted to any of them. Then again, Vanyel is such a diverse character in terms of his emotions and relation to others, that the fact that Lackey made some of the window dressing a little standard matters far less than it might HAVE DONE OTHERWISE. Plus of course, there is the argument that since his father is such a total dinosaur about rigid gender lines that he thought flanking opponents and dodging in battle were unmanly, Vanyel’s interests taking a categorically alternative direction makes sense. It is also possible that since Lackey was writing a gay protagonist at a time when gay characters in any medium were pretty thin on the ground, Lackey wanted things to be blindingly obvious to the Lord Withens’ of the real world, a fact which I doubly applaud given that the book is so free of generalised preaching, the one “it’s okay to be gay” message we do hear later in the book is definitely delivered in character and is something Vanyel himself very much needs to understand in the course of his journey.

Another major difference between Magic’s Pawn and Arrows of the Queen is that where Arrows of the Queen was almost entirely conflict free, here Lackey was able to take the plot in some quite unexpected and tragic directions. The way that Vanyel’s powers are eventually awoken was quite an eye opener, since it proves Lackey is not above doing horrible things to her characters when necessary, just as she did with Talia’s torture in Arrow’s Fall. Indeed, it is the very safety of the world of Valdemar which makes nasty surprises all the more of a shock when they do occur.

The one major issue I had with the book is that Lackey spent far too much time telling us about Vanyel’s emotions, not only from his own perspective, but from that of everyone around him as well. Whether love, loss or pain, everything was treated in excruciatingly slow detail with far too many sections of characters telling us how Vanyel feels, just before Vanyel tells us how he feels at protracted length himself; frequently whilst sulking.

This unfortunately not only made the overall pace of the book decidedly draggy, but began to make Vanyel a slightly unlikable character, reading about someone wallowing in self-pity is bad enough, reading about someone wallowing in self-pity who proceeds to be a bit of a git to everyone trying to help him, only to then have the viewpoint flick to said helpful characters talking about how the protagonist is wallowing in self-pity and is only being a git because they are wallowing in self-pity became downright irksome. It equally did not help that while several characters appeared to be preparing to give Vanyel a much needed boot up the behind, this literally never happened.

From being introduced as a tough old battle-axe who we are specifically told does not have empathic powers or much use for feelings, Savil rapidly becomes far too caught in pussyfooting around Vanyel’s emotions, the hard as nails no nonsense arms master of Haven only appears once, Vanyel’s sister who loves him unfortunately doesn’t do more than ring her hands over him, and the same goes for another tutor for Vanyel whom we meet later.

That being said, when Lackey actually lets her characters act on their feelings, or describes her world according to those feelings she can genuinely make you sympathise for her characters, indeed several sequences, from detailing how Vanyel realizes the truth about himself (and his father’s homophobia), how he finds romance, and the way he eventually overcomes his lingering resentment over Jervis’ bullying were wonderfully described. Indeed, writing style wise, Magic’s Pawn was a definite step up from the previous Valdemar books. Though still written in Lackey’s brief, relaxed readable style, she definitely started displaying her gift for short, apt phrases used to pick out details of the landscape or of certain characters to give her worlds the colour and immediacy that I’d previously noticed in her online podcast novel, Secret World Chronicle.

Speaking of the world, it was also really great to see both a little more beyond the bounds of Valdemar (including some wonderfully nasty monsters), and to get to know another culture later in the book. I do rather wish said other culture had had a little more bite to it, or some cultural misunderstandings, rather than simply going along with the “let’s talk about Vanyel’s feelings” motif, but still it was definitely nice to see somewhere else, especially given how safe the collegium where the heralds train feels.

While I appreciate that Lackey jumped perspectives far less than the previous series, one thing I do wish, is that she had spent a little more time showing antagonistic perspectives from viewpoints other than the good guys. We are told for example that some at the collegium view Vanyel as an arrogant peacock, and that some even worry for Vanyel’s lover fearing that Vanyel is simply a playboy out for quick flings. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to give credence to many of these perspectives, since all of the views we have are if anything over sympathetic. Similarly, the occasion in which someone attempts to embroil Vanyel in a conspiracy came off as a little half hearted since all we hear is Vanyel’s observation that certain lies were quite convincing, rather than seeing the lies in person, indeed I get the strong impression that examining two sided perspectives is not one of Lackey’s skills.

That being said, while the conspiracy was a little lack lustre, and while many of the characters basically are just what they appear on the surface, with her touches of language and her occasionally wonderfully real sense of place and dialogue, you couldn’t have characters presented any more vividly.

I also greatly enjoyed the descriptions of Vanyel’s various dreams and how these impacted on what we already know of Vanyel’s story, especially when his capacity for the “for telling” gift is introduced, indeed rereading the book and trying to attach Vanyel’s visions to possible future events could be an interesting plot exercise.

I will say, for all that I rather lost sympathy for Vanyel’s self-obsession, and everyone else’s obsession with him not too far through the novel, the final couple of hours of the book’s fourteen hour length were pure awesome. That Vanyel needed to basically toughen up and take charge was obvious, but that the person who actually was responsible for this was Vanyel himself was something I definitely appreciated, even though I wish that this final section had happened sooner in the book and we had more time of Vanyel learning to be terrific and less of him learning to be tragic. Also, while some people might count the ending as an easy get out, I liked the fact that Vanyel finally stood up and got to be a big damn hero, especially because even though he was only introduced later on, the villain of the piece was wonderfully hate-worthy and someone we wanted to see get what for. It was also to Lackey’s credit that Vanyel’s victory occurred through a previous setup bit of magic rather than through a sudden convenient combination of enchantment and angst, as is sadly all too common in fantasy these days.

Though often slow in pacing (mostly due to the too intensive elucidation of emotions), I generally enjoyed Magic’s Pawn. Vanyel was a nicely complex protagonist, even if one who was occasionally annoying, and seeing more of the world of Valdemar is always welcome, it’s also obvious that several darker plot elements of Magic’s Pawn have been setup for exploration in the next volume which should make Vanyel’s career as a herald mage an interesting one to follow.

7/10 Why must I be a teen mage in love

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