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.

Family of Lies: Sebastian

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Family of Lies: Sebastian
Sam Argent
Difficulty: Medium
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This is my guilty pleasure book. It’s like a concentrated shot of angst, humor, and romance in a fantasy setting with no frills and I love it. Sebastian Orwell is the youngest son of a disgraced noble family and he just wants to be left alone. But when he finally gets a break from his incorrigible relatives, he chances upon the wounded Prince Turrin and knows his vacation is doomed. He tries leaving the prince in a nearby inn, where he’ll be someone else’s problem, but of course the prince insists on tracking him down to thank him in person. Now Sebastian finds himself unwillingly involved in combating a conspiracy against the Turrin, made all the more frustrating by the prince’s relentless romantic designs on him. Somehow, Sebastian will need to handle all of this without revealing his own powers, or the true reason he hides his face

For me, the chief appeal of this book lies in its dialogue. Every line in it is dripping in wit, and each character seems to have their own special brand. Sebastian and his improbably dysfunctional family share some of the most blistering exchanges, and it quickly becomes apparent why the title is Family of Lies, and why he’s always eager to get away from his relatives. Although this is a fantasy book, Argent doesn’t devote much time to initial world-building. Instead, much like a science fiction novel, she gives the reader information on the go, usually revealing it through interactions and dialogue between characters. This helps set a brisk pace that I found very engaging, but I could see as being a bit bewildering for some readers.

I know that the dynamic between Sebastien and Turrin is not particularly realistic or maybe even healthy (you probably shouldn’t go racing from town to town after someone who treats you with contempt), but it sure is fun to think about. It’s a bit heartwarming to watch Sebastian thaw towards Turrin over the course of the story, and as we learn more about both of the characters (and their families) their respective behaviors and attitudes start to make a lot more sense. For me, Family of Lies pushes all the right buttons so I don’t have much bad to say about it, but it’s definitely not a traditional romance or a traditional fantasy, so be prepared for something a little different if you decide to give it a shot.

Greenwode

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Greenwode
J Tullos Hennig
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:

“When an old druid foresees this harbinger of chaos, he also glimpses its future. A peasant from Loxley will wear the Hood and, with his sister, command a last, desperate bastion of Old Religion against New. Yet a devout nobleman’s son could well be their destruction-Gamelyn Boundys, whom Rob and Marion have befriended. Such acquaintance challenges both duty and destiny. The old druid warns that Rob and Gamelyn will be cast as sworn enemies, locked in timeless and symbolic struggle for the greenwode’s Maiden.

Instead, a defiant Rob dares his Horned God to reinterpret the ancient rites, allow Rob to take Gamelyn as lover instead of rival. But in the eyes of Gamelyn’s Church, sodomy is unthinkable… and the old pagan magics are an evil that must be vanquished.”

I love retellings of classic stories and fairytales, especially when they’re tweaked or expanded to focus on different types of people (especially when those people are like me!). But to call J Tullos Hennig’s Greenwode a simple retelling would not communicate the depth and substance of the book. Hennig’s version of the Robin Hood myth is much more like Stephen Lawhead’s than Disney’s: complex, meticulously researched, and vividly realized. The culture and conflicts of the middle age setting plays a major role in the plot, and Hennig devotes plenty of energy developing Gamelyn, Rob, Marian, and others into believable, sympathetic characters instead of leaving them as mere mythic archetypes.

It’s important to know up front that Greenwode is on the longer side and ends in a cliffhanger. The sequel, Shirewood, is worth reading regardless, but I understand why the necessity of reading a second book might be frustrating for some. I found Greenwode to be an enjoyable historical fantasy/coming of age story on its own, but definitely a bit grim. The spectre of religious conflict seemed always to be present and gave even happier or funnier scenes a darker tone and sense of foreboding, and hit a little too close to home for me. But maybe I’m just not cut out for forbidden romances. The prose is pleasant and easy to read, and though the phonetic accents sometimes gave me pause I think they helped flesh out the setting in a meaningful way. Recommended for fans of high fantasy, forbidden romance, and myths or fairy tales.

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 Lightning-Struck Heart

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The Lightning-Struck Heart
by T.J. Klune
Difficulty: Easy
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TJ Klune is an absolute machine, somehow churning out at least four reasonably well-developed romances every year. While they are always romances, Klune tries to write in as many genres and with as many types of characters as he can. The Lightning-Struck Heart was Klune’s first stab at high-fantasy and comes off fairly well partly due to his decision to take a comedic approach to the genre.

Sam of the Wilds is an incorrigible apprentice wizard in the kingdom of Verania, and he’s been mooning after the dreamy knight-commander Ryan Foxheart for years. But of course Ryan ends up getting engaged to the ill-tempered Prince Justin instead, crushing Sam’s long-cherished dreams. But when Justin is kidnapped by an apparently very horny dragon, Ryan, Sam, and his friends Gary the hornless gay unicorn and Tiggy the half-giant, set out to rescue him, all while Sam tries to ignore the growing closeness between himself and Ryan.

It’s cute and funny, and absolutely relentless with the punchlines. There’s pretty much no downtime between the jokes, which to some might be a little exhausting, but it’s largely in keeping with the characters. Much of the book’s humor is on the outrageous and over-the-top side, but there’s also a steady stream of banter mixed in with the more pronounced jokes. I still find Klune’s habit of continually retelling certain moments from the story to be tiresome, but it’s easily solved by skipping ahead to the next scene. The Lightning-Struck Heart is a welcome reminder that it’s important to laugh and have fun, especially when gay literature is so often depressing and tragic.

Luck in the Shadows

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Luck in the Shadows
by Lynn Flewelling
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Around the age of 14 or 15 I was chewing through the entire Fantasy section at Barnes and Nobles, shelf-by-shelf, when Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows made its way into my pile. It is, to the best of my memory, the first book I ever read containing openly gay or bisexual characters, and as protagonists at that! Of course it took me a while to figure that out, as it’s rather subtle until the second book, and I was very stupid. And very closeted: when I finally figured it out I hid it under my bed and didn’t look at it for a week. But I did go back eventually because, gay or otherwise, it’s an excellent book.

A swashbuckle-y adventure in classic fantasy style, Luck in the Shadows tells the story of Alec and Seregil, two men imprisoned by a local tyrant on false pretenses (false for one of them, at least). Together they escape, and Alec, young and recently orphaned, agrees to accompany Seregil as his apprentice in the art of nightrunning which, as the name suggests, involves burglary, lock picking, spying, and other roguish shenanigans. The two soon find themselves ensnared in a sinister political plot endangering not only their lives but the lives of many others as well.

Luck in the Shadows was published in 1996 and bears many hallmarks of the fantasy genre from that era, so expect lots of world-building and a patient plot. Characters like Alec and Seregil have since become a little cliché, but they are still well-developed and fully realized. Though this is the first in the Nightrunner series, it is a complete story and does not end on a cliffhanger. As previously mentioned the protagonists’ sexuality is not very prominent until the sequel, but a variety of sexualities do exist in the world. To produce a successful fantasy with LGBT characters in the 90’s was no mean feat, and Luck in the Shadows is still worth reading today.