Yesterday was the 69th birthday of author Mercedes Lackey, a woman whose work literally changed my life. I want to tell you why. It is a story touched by tragedy, but with a silver lining of hope.
I first wrote a version of this essay back in 2014, in response to the civil unrest in Ferguson, MO, but the events of the intervening years—the Pulse nightclub massacre, countless school shootings, and everything else that’s happening every day in our crazy world, too connected world—have robbed it of none of its relevance. And despite the sad occasions that prompted me to write this in the first place, I’m delighted to revive it in honor of Mercedes Lackey on her 69th birthday. Valdemar has held such a special place in my heart for so long. In building a world in words and pictures, Mercedes and her partner Larry Dixon gave me, and countless readers the world over, a beautiful and timeless gift.
I was born in Florida and raised in a small town in South Carolina. I went to a primarily white private school. My parents are hard-working, blue collar folks who felt that making sure their child had a good education was paramount. Back then, I was a poor white kid going to school with a lot of rich white kids. I didn’t know many people of color, and I didn’t know anyone who was openly gay, or otherwise different from the homogeneous group of people I knew. Those who were different—like me—were bullied because we made good grades or read “weird” books or doodled dragons and gryphons on our notebooks.
Back then, I was always extremely excited to receive the school’s book club catalogue. When I was 14, one particular book in that catalogue had a cover that caught my eye. I had no idea what I was in for when I placed an order for a three-book set, sold all together. What I saw was a nice looking guy and a pretty white horse. What I bought was Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, and Magic’s Price: The Last Herald-Mage trilogy by Mercedes Lackey, set in the world of Valdemar. What I read in those pages forever changed my life.
These were the first fantasy novels that really stuck with me. For first time I read stories about someone who was very different from me, but had problems I could relate to on some level. Vanyel, the protagonist, is very young but has already realized he’s different from other men. He is bullied for loving music and not wanting to practice fighting. His father never truly bonds with him because they don’t understand each other. Vanyel is sent away to school, and that’s where he discovers he’s shay’a’chern, or a homosexual.
As I said, I did not know any openly gay people at that point in my life. I think I barely knew what “gay” meant, outside of a few hushed discussions in health class, other than that it was an insult slung at kids who were different in any way. With no queer peers, there was no real way for me to know what it meant to be gay. This trilogy did that. It opened my eyes to a whole new world, and not just in a fantasy sense. Particularly in the time when they were written, Lackey’s use fantasy terminology helped readers get past emotionally charged words like “gay” and “lesbian” and “homosexual” to get straight to the heart of the matter, which is to show us a person who is different from many in his world, and to illustrate the very real emotional struggles that result from that.
In school, I was bullied for being different. I was called a “lesbian” by my classmates, though I’m not one. Very few people reached out to me to find out who I really was as a person. Vanyel struggles with life or death situations with people he loves, as well as the internal struggle we all face when trying to figure ourselves out. I could put myself in his shoes and see what it was like, at least a little bit, to be gay. And I could see that compassion for other human beings, regardless of who they love, is how we survive in this world. I could also see that being bullied is a survivable situation, and that I can be strong and cherished and successful, regardless of what people said about me. After high school graduation, I did the one thing my parents had hoped for: I received a scholarship to a small public college that was vibrant with diversity and has a strong liberal arts program (I majored in English). Getting that scholarship was the only way we could afford college. Vanyel helped me believe I deserved it.
When I moved to New York, I started working at a prominent publisher of sci-fi and fantasy, and I met an avid reader of the Lackeys’ books at New York Comic-Con. We became fast friends, and shortly after, he came out to me and a mutual friend. We were among the first people he had come out to in the city, and he had only just prior to that come out to his family. He was in his early 30s and had never revealed his sexuality to anyone before then. He spent his entire life up to that point hiding his true self because he was afraid of judgement, afraid of what his church would say, and afraid of how his family would react. Shortly thereafter, I gave him the Last Herald-Mage trilogy, partly because I knew he could identify so strongly with Vanyel, and partly because I wanted him to understand that I could be empathetic to his situation. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t going to judge him, and that I fully accepted him for who he is, no matter what. I wanted him to know that he deserved the same happiness as all of the other human beings on this planet. Today, he remains one of the brightest lights in my life, and one of the happiest people I know. I have never met someone who has struggled so much and still ended up such an optimist.
Science fiction allows us to imagine possible futures. It gives us hope we might have a future, despite the fact that sometimes our species can be so full of darkness. Fantasy allows us to understand the world through the eyes of people who are very different from us: a different race, sex, orientation, or even species. And all of this, to me at least, is why fantasy and science fiction matter. So, for Mercedes Lackey’s birthday, I invite you to remember a science fiction or fantasy novel that helped open your mind, and I want you to donate it to a library in a struggling community. I think we can all make a difference in the world one book at a time, just as Vanyel and the wider world of Valdemar did for me.
What SFF book changed your life?
The post Happy Birthday, Mercedes Lackey: An Ode to Valdemar, and the Books That Changed My Life appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.