Magic’s Pawn

Magic’s Pawn
Mercedes Lackey
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from the Amazon page:

“Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wasn’t no part in such things. Nor does he seek a warrior’s path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his, if left untrained, may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the fame Herald-Mages of Valdemar.

But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil cannot master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin’a’in Adept, Vanyel’s wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone’s ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril.”

I gave Magic’s Pawn a bit of short shrift in my write-up for Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, so I hope to do it a little more credit here. I initially implied that this book is a gay tragedy, but as I reflect on it, it seems very unjust to reduce it to that label. Just because a tragedy may be present doesn’t mean that a work needs to be defined by it (though plenty are). Lackey’s depiction of homosexuality is sophisticated and reveals a deeper understanding of real-world issues which she reflects onto the land of Valdemar. Modern fantasy novels with queer characters often present worlds in which gender and orientation are a non-issue, and while that’s nice to imagine, it’s too far removed from reality to carry much impact. Lackey’s more realistic approach grants the story a lot more weight, which is perhaps why it was so difficult for me to read when I was younger.

Vanyel’s journey to self-acceptance is a long one chock full of angst and melodrama, just like real ones often are. It’s probably most enjoyable (and useful) when the reader is at a similar stage of their personal development or if they’re in the mood to feel sorry for themselves (that’s not a dig, everyone needs a pity party sometimes!). Subject matter aside, it’s an excellent work of fantasy and easily stands alone on those merits. Mercedes Lackey is a household name in fantasy world after all, and she’s published a ridiculous amount of books, many in the same world of Valdemar. I’ve read several others by her and found them all of equally high quality, with Foundation being a favorite. I still think that Magic’s Pawn is too tragic for me, but I suppose the late ‘80s were a pretty tragic time and it’s only natural that the book would reflect that. And of course not everyone will feel that way about tragedy. I think my aversion to it comes from spending too much time immersed in classic gay literature, which is invariably depressing. Anyways, it’s worth a read so be sure to give it a shot.

The Motion of Light in Water

The Motion of Light in Water
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Hard
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Oh boy it’s Delany again! My bias should be pretty clear by now, but I can’t help it if the man is responsible for so many essential texts in gay literature, and in so many different genres. This time around it’s a Hugo award-winning memoir covering portions of Delany’s childhood up through the early years of Delany’s extensive writing career. The book offers a fascinating window into both the author and his environment, a newly bohemian, pre-Stonewall East Village. Among the numerous experiences he recounts are his marriage to the lesbian poet, Marylin Hacker, his foray into folk music, a nervous breakdown, and brushes with famous personages such as Bob Dylan, W. H. Auden, and James Baldwin. And of course, descriptions of New York’s homosexual underworld (the memoir is subtitled Sex and Science Fiction Writing after all).

There are a lot of reasons to read this book. The obvious reason is, of course, to gain a greater insight into the mind of a popular science-fiction writer, but that’s only one dimension of it. Interracial marriage, open relationships, pre-Stonewall gay life, mental health, the writing process, civil rights, hitchiking, these are only some of the topics covered by Delany’s memoir. By the age of 21, Delany had already written and published three science-fiction novels and was an active participant in the city’s avant-garde art scene at the time. Perhaps the overflowing creative forces around him contributed to the nervous breakdown that serves as the centerpiece of the memoir. Delany is quite open and matter of fact about it, as he is about everything, from the reality of being a professional writer to the ins and outs of anonymous sex in the city. It’s this frankness which forms much of the book’s appeal.

Besides it’s subject matter, what sets The Motion of Light in Water apart from other memoirs is the intense open-minded gaze Delany brings to bear upon himself. He is unafraid to criticize himself, or to plumb the depths of unpleasant and even traumatic memories. And he does all this with the skill of a grandmaster storyteller. The events and people he depicts are every bit as vivid as those in his science-fiction and makes the memoir feel more like a novel. There are moments throughout the text where Delany descends (or ascends) into the abstract and philosophical, usually when discussing art, and these can feel a bit confusing. But I found that as I read more of Delany’s experiences, I gained a better understanding of what he was talking about. In sum, Delany’s deft depictions of complex and wide ranging issues during a time of significant social change makes The Motion of Light in Water a seminal and essential work for any reader interested not just in gay history, but in 20th-century American history as a whole.

Queer

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Queer
William S. Burroughs
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Queer’s Amazon page:

“For more than three decades, while its writer’s world fame increased, Queer remained unpublished because of its forthright depiction of homosexual longings. Set in the corrupt and spectral Mexico City of the forties, Queer is the story of William Lee, a man afflicted with both acute heroin withdrawal and romantic and sexual yearnings for an indifferent user named Eugene Allerton. The narrative is punctuated by Lee’s outrageous “routines” — brilliant comic monologues that foreshadow Naked Lunch —yet the atmosphere is heavy with foreboding.

In his extraordinary introduction, Burroughs reflects on the shattering events in his life that lay behind this work.”

Where to start with Queer? It’s a short novel originally written as a loose sequel (though it can be read alone) to Burrough’s 1953 debut novel Junkie, because publishers thought the latter was too short and uninteresting on its own. But Queer wouldn’t be published until 1985 as American censorship laws likely would have prevented it before then. On the surface it’s a typical, semi-autobiographical story of an author/protagonist lusting after an unobtainable young man, but there’s something raw about this one. You could even say that it’s self-hating, which may be because it was written right after Burroughs accidently murdered his wife. Lee is narcissistic, self-centered, and overtly lecherous, and Burroughs makes no moves to justify or excuse any of it. It’s like he’s saying: ‘Look at this pathetic, disgusting old man (Burroughs was almost 40 when writing this). Isn’t he vile? Who could ever love him? Doesn’t he deserve what he gets?’

So why should you read this? Well, honestly it’s not for everyone. It’s not very graphic or explicit, and it doesn’t give that soul-crushing depression vibe that older gay literature can. Even if Burroughs is intentionally exposing himself to ridicule, Lee’s perspective is still authentic. It’s still a story raw homosexual desire, and it’s still interesting from that point of view. And I find it a bit fascinating to watch a man hate himself, but I’m a voyeur in that way. It’s short and easy to read, and maybe it’s that plainness that would have gotten it censored. Naked Lunch was written in the same decade and was very explicit, but it was all filtered through the hallucinatory paranoia which made the novel famous. It’s always funny to see what is and isn’t okay that way. Anyway, it’s still an early work by a famous gay author, so anyone interested in gay history and culture should give it a shot.

Jack the Modernist

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Jack the Modernist
Robert Glück
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the inside cover:

“Set in the early 1980’s, Robert Glück’s first novel, Jack the Modernist, has become a classic of postmodern gay fiction. Bob is excited and lonely. He meets and pursues the elusive Jack, a director who is able to transform others without altering himself. Bob goes to the baths, gossips on the phone, goes to a bar, thinks about werewolves, has an orgasm, and discovers a number of truths about Jack. A paean to love and obsession, Glück’s novel explores the everyday in a language that is both intimate and lush.”

This is probably one of the edgier novels on this website. Robert Glück was one of the founders of New Narrative, a 1970s literary movement that aimed to depict subjective experiences as honestly and candidly as possible. In the case of Jack the Modernist, that means a lot of graphic sex. I admit I’m deeply skeptical of New Narrative–‘honestly depicting subjective experiences’ doesn’t seem very unique to me–but I do find something interesting about Glück’s pornography (though he might resent that label). In a way we’ve been scared of sex since the AIDS crisis, and our literature reflects that fear through our unwillingness to depict it in detail. So where should people go for honest, authentic portrayals of the act? The modern porn industry isn’t exactly the best place to learn about it, so books like Glück’s definitely have a purpose to serve in the culture.

I had a pretty lukewarm response to the actual story. A fairly typical tale of unrequited love in a promiscuous, pre-AIDS gay community. Very reminiscent of other ‘halcyon era’ books like Dancer from the Dance. Glück’s prose is pleasant, and the book is full of little postmodern flourishes which keeps it fun and flexible (some conversations are carried out like plays, for example). It’s also fairly short, which is to its benefit as I can only read about shallow gay men fucking each other for so long before I start to get bored. I don’t usually comment on the actual physical book itself, but the copy I own (linked above) is a nice little piece. Great cover, french flaps, with full page (black and white) images that complement the story’s events. All in all, while Jack the Modernist probably isn’t going to blow your mind, it’s interesting enough to warrant a look, and it’s low-commitment enough to probably be worth the time.

Swordspoint

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Swordspoint
Ellen Kushner
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

A blurb from Swordspoint’s Amazon page:

“On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless—until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye.”

I confess I initially passed over this book several times because I thought the cover identified it as being from that strain of gay fiction in which beautiful men meet tragic fates (à la Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn), and I was and still am sick of those. So I felt pretty silly when I finally got around to reading it and it was nothing like that at all. Kushner identifies her book as being a “fantasy of manners,” a term she herself appears to have coined, meaning that it foregrounds high society and all its formalities and intrigue in place of traditional fantasy elements like magic or monsters. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it definitely worked for me.

The most interesting thing about Swordspoint to me is the overall structure of the narrative. The entire book feels like a small part of some other novel, one in which St. Vier and Alec are only minor characters. This other novel is a political thriller, a Game of Thrones-esque tale of courtly intrigue and treachery starring characters who enter and exit the scene while the reader watches mostly from St. Vier’s limited perspective. I found something calming in this temporary involvement in other people’s’ problems. Because St. Vier and Alec played little to no part in their creation, it’s easy to be wholly on the protagonists’ side although they of course possess their own flaws and foibles. Alec’s self-destructiveness and St. Vier’s cold efficiency make them a volatile pair, but that’s just one more way in which the book leaves me cheering for them.

I also want to mention that I find it remarkable that Swordspoint was published in 1987. I think the book has aged extremely well and should appeal to the Game of Thrones crowd, as alluded to above.

The Swimming-Pool Library

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The Swimming Pool Library
by Alan Hollinghurst
Difficulty: Hard
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Alan Hollinghurst’s debut novel was considered by many to be a gay modern classic upon its publication in 1988, winning both the Somerset Maugham Award and the E. M. Forster Award. Though Hollinghurst has since outdone himself, winning the coveted Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty (2004), The Swimming-Pool Library still retains a well-deserved place among the best of gay literature.

William Beckwith is an attractive, promiscuous, and exceptionally privileged young man. He is the grandson and heir of the very wealthy Viscount Beckwith, who has already bestowed much of his estate onto Will. As a result, Will does not need to work to sustain himself, and instead spends his time swimming at a prestigious club and cruising men in the locker room (and everywhere else). By chance, Will saves the life of an aging aristocrat, beginning a friendship between the two which ultimately leads to Will reassessing his perspective on the world.

To be entirely honest, I didn’t much care for this book when I first read it. Will is rather difficult to like, being an extravagantly wealthy, pre-AIDS fuckboy (still hot though), and the book has a narrative arc so shallow I didn’t even realize what it was about until I’d already finished it. By shallow arc, I mean that the events constituting the plot are not immediately obvious as being so. But over time the book grew on me. It is delightfully erotic, though rarely explicit, and modern, pre-AIDS stories are uncommon at best, and reveal an era before the intense sexual paranoia we are still recovering from today. It’s also, as you’ve probably already noticed, the place from which this blog takes its name, proving that it does have some staying power.