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Fantasy’s First Openly Queer Hero Is Getting the TV Adaptation He Deserves

The character Vanyel Ashkevron on the cover for fantasy novel 'Magic's Promise' by mercedes lackey

I have been waiting all my life—or at least since sixth grade—for an adaptation of bestselling author Mercedes Lackey’s wildly popular Valdemar fantasy novels. Now comes the news that Radar Pictures has secured the rights to the Valdemar literary universe, and they are developing an ongoing TV series.

The initial season is set to adapt Lackey’s Lambda Award-winning “Last Herald-Mage” trilogy, which features a young man named Vanyel Ashkevron who eventually becomes one of the most powerful magic-users in history. Radar’s press release describes Van as “the first openly gay heroic protagonist in the fantasy genre.”

The first Vanyel book, Magic’s Pawn, was published in 1989. While queerness had been present in fantasy and science fiction prior to this—including sympathetic depiction in Lackey’s debut trilogy “The Heralds of Valdemar” and Ellen Kushner’s gorgeous and groundbreaking 1987 mannerpunk novel Swordspoint—Vanyel was a character most of us had not encountered as young readers (or older ones). His sexuality is always in the foreground and unflinchingly part of the story and characterization that he grows with for three novels.

He is a fully-realized queer protagonist who must confront homophobia both internal and external, but falls madly in love, has a sexy sex life, overcomes many traumas, and is every inch the hero. I can close my eyes and still recall how it felt to first meet Vanyel and experience what he did. As an adolescent, Lackey’s books meant more to me than any other, and I “lived” in them for years. At an early age, through Vanyel, I learned about queerness and tolerance—and that the queer lead could love deeply and be loved, and also save the world.

This profound realization was not unique to me. I have several friends who felt the same way about Valdemar and Vanyel, and I used to hook yet more friends into reading them. Readers on forums like Reddit still discuss how essential Vanyel’s books were for them. There appears to be a similar case amongst the creatives who are adapting Lackey’s work, Kit Williamson (Netflix’s EastSiders) and Brittany Cavallaro (the “Charlotte Holmes” book series). Per Radar’s press release:

“Vanyel in “The Last Herald Mage” series was one of the first gay characters I encountered, and as a recently out 16-year-old I can’t stress enough the impact that these books had on me. The “Valdemar” series was far ahead of its time in the portrayal of LGBTQ characters, and Lackey’s writing afforded them a level of depth and complexity that is still very rare, especially in genre storytelling,” Williamson said in a statement.

Of their longtime friendship and love of Lackey’s universe, Cavallaro shared, “It’s an absolute dream to be adapting the Valdemar books alongside Radar Pictures and Kit Williamson. Twenty years ago, Kit and I became friends at boarding school, and bonded over our love for Mercedes Lackey’s work, and we’re so excited to begin the process of bringing it to the screen.”

It’s extremely exciting to hear that there’s a pair of lifelong Valdemar nerds at work adapting Van’s journey. Since we’re told that the first season is about Vanyel, it stands to reason additional seasons could follow characters with their own popular Valdemar-based books further down the line.

Will we see Talia’s tale? Elspeth’s? Tarma and Kethry? Kerowyn? (Please give us Kerowyn.) Skif? Karal? There are so many excellent characters to be uncovered here, not to mention the witty telepathic horses, that it’s shocking to me Lackey’s world wasn’t one of the first ones to the screen. But the runaway success of adaptations like Game of Thrones, The Witcher, and Shadow and Bone has shown studios how hungry audiences are for immersive, multi-season fantasy TV. It’s more than Valdemar’s time.

There are a few caveats worth mentioning. While Lackey’s portrayal of queer characters was nuanced and light-years ahead when it was published, in many ways—happily—some of Van’s struggles feel outdated. Though it’s an important narrative to affirm, the arc of a character realizing their queerness, dealing with self-loathing and familial shunning, and eventually finding reconciliation is a very ’90s plotline. And there’s some extremely disturbing sexual assault in Magic’s Price that it’s difficult to imagine could make its way to the screen. There will also need to be sensitive, informed, and thoughtful treatment of the Tayledras, a clan of magic-users who play a large part and that the Valdemar fandom wiki describes as “strongly analogous to the native peoples of the more wooded Eastern United States.” I hope that “The Last-Herald Mage” adaptation will stay true to the heart of the books while also updating some of the elements for our current era.

Though I’m dearly attached to Valdemar as a whole, this news is big for other reasons. The commitment to develop an entire season of a fantasy show that revolves around a queer protagonist whose queerness is a massive part of the plot is extraordinary. Queer characters, when they’re on fantasy TV series, tend to be more minor characters or sidekicks. No longer.

As for Mercedes Lackey herself—well, she’s ready:

As the first adaptation of her work gets underway, Lackey beamed: “I have hoped for decades that “The Last Herald-Mage” would be adapted for television. Now that Radar has optioned the trilogy, I am nearly breathless with excitement! I could not have chosen a better organization to take my work in hand, and Kit and Bri, the producers, absolutely know both their stuff and the material. I love the fact that this is going to be a longform series: episodic TV gives the story all the room it needs. I hope our fans will be as thrilled to see their favorite characters come to life as I am.”

In addition to Williamson and Cavallero, who will write and produce the series, Anthony Tringali, Maria Frisk, and Michael Napoliello will produce for Radar, and Ted Field, a longtime producer and executive producer of the upcoming Wheel of Time TV series, will executive produce.

OK, let’s talk dream casts. I think they should get some up-and-coming fresh faces for Van, Tylendel, and (eventually) Stefen, but Vanyel’s aunt Savil should be an incredibly badass long-established actress. Same for the voice of Yfandes. Who would you want to see populating Vanyel’s Valdemar?

(image: DAW Books)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.