magic's pawn coverRating: 5 stars
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Length: Novel


Fifteen-year-old Vanyel Askhekvron has spent all of his life trying to please his father, who sees nothing of himself in his son. Vanyel is slender and graceful, light-boned, and both too pretty and too smart for his own good. But his best is never good enough. No matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, he can never gain his father’s approval. Instead, Vanyel has become an ornament in his mother’s court, playing music and courtly games of love, doing his best to avoid his father’s attention

After a fight with the swordmaster leaves him with a broken arm, his father seems to wash his hands of Vanyel completely. He sends him away to the city of Valdemar where he will be placed into the care of Savil, Vanyel’s aunt and Herald Mage of Valdemar. It’s exile, and for all that Vanyel knew his father didn’t like him, he never thought, not even for a moment, that his father hated him.

Once in Valdemar, Vanyel’s world turns upside down. Instead of being the smartest student, he’s one of the worst, constantly having to catch up. Instead of hating his weapon lessons, he delights in them. And instead of being ignored, he finds a court of admirers who hang on his every word. And in Valdemar, Vanyel meets Tylendel.

Tylendel is a year older and a Herald-Mage in training. He’s light to Vanyel’s dark, laughter to his silences, and Tylendel arouses in Vanyel feelings he never knew existed. However, the two have to keep their relationship a secret. If it came out that Vanyel was sleeping with another man, his father would call him home, lock him away, keep him from Tylendel forever. But it’s only three years until he’s of age.

However, betrayal and disaster lead to huge changes for Vanyel. If it weren’t for Yfandes, the Companion who Chose him, Vanyel may have been ready to give up and move into the next life. Instead, he is asked to live, and find a new way forward.

Challenge Month 2021I have read this book many times before, but I haven’t read it for a few years and so with the dual prods of finding a book to read for the TBR Pile Week for Reading Challenge Month, and with the television rights for the Last Herald-Mage being optioned, I decided to re-read the series. I was nervous, because the books we love as children might not be what we remember them. They might not be as good, the characters might not be as engaging, the writing that caught us as children might be simplistic or painful when read as an adult … and I am so happy to say that this book, Magic’s Pawn, is everything I remember. I honestly believe it’s the author’s best work.

Vanyel is melodrama personified, as many 15-year olds are. He’s thoughtful, self-centered, sensitive, and artistic. He loves music, loves admiration, loves to be the center of attention, and wants so badly to be loved. The only role models in his life have been his father, who favors brute strength, and his sister, who favors tactical strength, neither of which suit him. His father expects him to fail, his sister expects him to always need his help, and he has internalized both of those points of view. He looks to others to make the decisions, to tell him who he is supposed to be. He can feel when it’s wrong, but he doesn’t trust himself enough to know when he’s right. His love for Tylendel is all-consuming, with it being his first love, his first crush, and all the adolescent hormones. Tylendel is older and steadier, and Vanyel is wiling to give him everything and anything, both so Tylendel won’t leave him and because he just loves him so hard and so deeply.

At age 12, Tylendel’s magic gifts were awakened. It wasn’t for several more years, years of fits, of being called possessed or cursed or evil, that his Companion Gala came for him, one of the magic and divine horse-shaped beings who determine whether someone is suited to become a Herald of Valdemar. She Chose him, controlled his magic, and overnight his world changed. Now he’s one of the heroes of Valdemar (albeit in training, at the moment) with a welcoming society, friends, support, and a teacher who adores him. Tylendel is confident, strong-willed, aware of his looks and his power, and emotionally is the dominant in his relationship with Vanyel. He is the protector, the caretaker, the knower and decider of all things. Unfortunately, his last affair ended in shame and scandal as the other young man claimed to anyone who would listen that he was seduced by Tylendel and didn’t even care for men. So, when Van reaches for him, someone beautiful and sheltered, someone who Tylendel wants but never thought he could have, he can’t resist and doesn’t even try.

For a year, they are happy, but Tylendel still holds onto his devotion to his twin brother. He’s supposed to be above emotional connections, to be a mediator and arbiter of justice no matter the family involved, but he can’t — and won’t — stop supporting Staven. When his brother is murdered, Tylendel’s obsession and rage drive him to madness and, helpless to resist, Vanyel is pulled along with him. And when Tylendel’s madness takes away his bond to his Companion, his stability, his heart, the lifelong bond that was supposed to support him through the rest of his life, it leads to disaster for him and for Vanyel. Vanyel’s struggle of choosing to survive, of choosing to open himself up to the people who love him is heartbreaking. And I loved it.

Even as much as I love this book, I can acknowledge its flaws. A major character death feels a little like the “bury your gays” trope to advance Vanyel’s story … because that’s exactly what it is. The world building is somewhat lacking in this book, giving only vague hints to the world of Valdemar and the Tayledras, who themselves fall somewhat into the “noble savage” trope. The situation with Staven’s murder is never dealt with, and the villain of the second half of the book is so comical and ridiculous that he becomes cartoonish. This book also goes hard on the tormented and tragic hero aspect, and it can get a little wearing to see Vanyel wallow in his pain, for all that the pain is honest and real for him. Yes, this book is melodramatic and super gay. Yes, Vanyel is an emo brat who is always the victim, but the book shows, when the POV shifts to other characters, that Vanyel is an unreliable narrator. He doesn’t see the bigger picture because he’s focused on the part of the picture that has him in it.

Written in 1989, this book was one of the earlier fantasy novels published by DAW featuring the coming of age for a main character who is a gay man who has cannonical sex. It is made very clear in the book that his relationship with Tylendel is more than handholding and smiles. Neither Vanyel nor Tylendel are played for laughs. They are complex and nuanced characters who can be and are hurt, who stand up and save the day and became heroes regardless of their sexual identity. You could say Vanyel is a stereotype — being pretty, into clothes and music and art and fey — and yes, he is. But back in 1989, he was groundbreaking, especially 1989 when the AIDS crisis was hitting hard and gay rights were very much a divisive issue.

For me, Vanyel’s story was my first introduction to a gay character and I am so pleased at how well the book holds up. Again, I think writing-wise and character-wise this book is the best thing the author has written. Reading the section where Gala, Tylendel’s Companion, faces down a pack of monsters, alone, knowing it will kill her in order to buy them time … I have no shame in admitting it still makes me tear up. Other than the cartoonish villains, no character in this book is only black or only white. That doesn’t make them good people or bad people. It makes them people. I love this book. It deserves every one of the five stars I am giving it. If you haven’t read this book yet, because it is 30 years old, please reconsider. Magic’s Pawn is, very simply, a good book.

This review is part of our 2021 Reading Challenge Month for TBR Pile Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of two fabulous audiobook bundles from Tantor Audio (you can see the details on the bundles in our Prize Preview post)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing Grand {rize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! And don’t forget if you read along with your own challenge book this week, you can earn ten contest entries for writing a mini-review on our wrap up post on Friday! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on TBR Pile Week here