This week we’re looking at the opening chapters of Magic’s Pawn. This takes us hundreds of years backwards from Talia’s time to examine the life of Vanyel Ashkevron, the Last Herald-Mage, the guy whose great personal sacrifice saved Valdemar from northern invaders, and whose ghost continues to guard Valdemar’s northern border, which is located where he put it.
Vanyel is so vitally important to Valdemar’s history that his story IS the world-building. The first book in the Last Herald Mage trilogy only mentions plumbing arrangements ONCE. There’s also no mention of road surfaces or tax policies.
We already know a bit about the end of Vanyel’s life from Talia’s daydreams and questions back at the beginning of Arrows of the Queen. Magic’s Pawn deals with Vanyel’s stormy adolescence. Fittingly, the cover of the book looks like a Valdemaran version of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Vanyel is moodily clutching a Companion’s neck while a storm rages behind them. The central illustration is surrounded by thorny rose bushes and ghost-like images of key characters, including a prostitute, Death, and Vanyel’s mother. This is not a cover that leaves a lot of unanswered questions – it’s more like the illustrated Cliff Notes.
In chapters 1-3, we meet fifteen-year-old Vanyel. Although he is the heir to his father’s holdings at Forst Reach, he dreams of being a Bard. His father seems distant and disapproving. His mother is focused on her own interests. Vanyel is embroiled in a conflict with his father’s weapon master, Jervis, that results in a broken arm. Only Vanyel’s sister understands him, and she leaves Forst Reach early on. In an effort to resolve the conflict, and possibly at the urging of Father Leren, the menacing family priest, Vanyel’s father decides to send Vanyel to be educated in Haven, under the supervision of his aunt, Herald-Mage Savil.
This plan allows Vanyel to escape his strained relationship with his parents and his feud with Jervis. And it promises to put Vanyel in close proximity to the Bardic Collegium, where he hopes to pursue his personal ambitions. However, Vanyel’s only previous meeting with Savil did not go well, and his father seems bent on humiliating him. Vanyel worries that his father may be plotting to disinherit him and pack him off to a remote monastery. Lacking other choices, he puts on a brave face and rides off to Haven. Feeling utterly alone in the world, Vanyel dreams of ice.
Vanyel’s critics tend to point out that he’s whiny. This issue is particularly notable in these first chapters, when Vanyel is struggling with a particularly adolescent set of problems. I can see the validity of this criticism, but I think it ignores the cultural history of the late 80s and early 90s. At the end of chapter three, Vanyel hasn’t yet realized why he’s such a misfit. He’s headed for a revelation about his sexual orientation. But not having figured it out yet doesn’t mean that it hasn’t had a profound impact on his life so far. The impacts and implications of such revelations would have been far more profound for readers who found themselves in Vanyel’s shoes. They didn’t get to live in Vanyel’s fantasy world. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a protagonist to take on the problems facing gay teenagers in 1989 with a heart full of sunny optimism.
And so, after declining an offer of services from a very assertive prostitute, Vanyel heads off to Haven wondering what’s wrong with him and obsessing about ice. He’s not at his most charming. He’s got a lute, a gift for picking a tunic that matches his eyes, and some serious emotional baggage.
What is most about Vanyel? Tell me in the comments and tune in next week for chapters 4-6, where Vanyel attempts to put down some of his baggage.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.