Magic's Pawn

by Mercedes Lackey

Cover image

Series: Last Herald Mage #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: June 1989
ISBN: 0-88677-352-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 349

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Continuing my (very slow) re-read of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series. I've read all these books before (this series several times, in fact), but long before I started writing reviews.

Vanyel is a legendary hero by the time of Talia (the hero of the first Valdemar series, starting with Arrows of the Queen). Talia was reading stories about him at the start of her story: the mage Herald who defended Valdemar against its enemies in the distant past. This is the first book of the trilogy that tells his story, starting (as Lackey's books often do) from rather inauspicious beginnings.

Vanyel is the son of a border lord, and about as poorly suited for it as possible. He's small, pretty, entirely uninterested in the hammer-and-tongs sword fighting the arms master wants to teach him, and also gay, not that he has any idea that's even something that exists and has a name. His only ally was his sister, who is now off serving in Valdemar's military. Most of his life is spent hiding, feeling utterly lost and out of place, and wishing he could be a Bard.

This is a Valdemar story, so if you're familiar with the series, you know what's coming next. What might come as a surprise is that "next" is quite some time into the story. Vanyel does not get rescued from his situation by a Companion. Instead, his father decides to exile him to the capital under the care of his aunt, who he's only met once and who didn't think highly of him. He expects to be even more miserable, and shuts emotionally down in anticipation.

This is one of those books that I remembered as being better than it actually was, and one of the reasons why I enjoyed it less than I expected is that far too much of this book is devoted to describing Vanyel's mental state. This usually involves various elaborate emo analogies (which can be a failing of this series in general), and it's quite hard to maintain sympathy for Vanyel. Lackey gets us to feel for him at the start of the book, when he's really in a bad situation. But once he gets to the capital, he's his own worst enemy, and it's hard to avoid the desire to shake him.

I also didn't remember just how much I disliked Tylendel. I'm sure it will come as a surprise to no one that Vanyel eventually meets someone who draws him out of his shell and gives him a reason to want to live. Unfortunately, that person, despite a positive surface impression, is self-obsessed, unstable, and not above manipulating Vanyel into actions that are so obviously catastrophic that it makes one want to yell at the book. I disliked this part of the book so much that even a Companion's choosing was overshadowed.

The book does get a bit better after that truly awful middle, but it never hits the emotional stride that other Valdemar books hit. Lackey does introduce the Tayledras, which will be hugely important in later books in this series (and who are some of my favorite characters), but there too I prefer their later appearances. Vanyel's inability to see a good thing when it hits him in the face, punctuated by being occasionally cruel to the people who try to help him, makes it quite hard to enjoy his slow path to becoming a better person.

I remember really liking this trilogy, so I think it gets better. But I also remembered liking Vanyel's claiming, and it didn't do much for me on a re-read. I can only recommend this one as a necessary preface to the later books in the trilogy, and expect to need a high tolerance for constant woe-is-me despair.

Followed by Magic's Promise.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-09-18

Last modified and spun 2015-09-19