Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book review: "Magician" by Raymond E. Feist

First, I just want to make a quick note to clear things. This book is sometimes split in two volumes "Magician: Apprentice" and "Magician: Master". I have the combined edition, so this post is about both volumes.

"Magician" is the first book of quite long "Riftwar Cycle", by Raymond E. Feist. Books in cycle are separated in sagas that usually consist of three books each. Currently, there are 29!!! novels in the cycle and I have read 17 in this cycle. I must admit, I read this book on computer several years ago (I did this with only one other series: "The Belgariad" and "The Malloreon" by David Eddings), so don't have all books in my collection. I have five of them now and I am buying sequel volumes as opportunity presents.

Feist is an uncommon writer. "Magician" is I think the only original work in this whole cycle, and even this book doesn't introduce much original fantasy elements. He is notorious for "borrowing" from others, and even more, from himself. He recycles his characters and plots. When someone dies and he was popular with the readers, you can expect one of two things: either he will be found alive in some other part of universe or he will be replaced by his grandson who bears a striking resemblance to his deceased ancestor in the way he looks, talks and thinks. If some characters is old, he will maybe get a potion that restore his youth. If the good guys have become so strong that no one in universe can even dream about defeating them, invasion from another dimension will occur. You get the picture... This is not rare: lots of writers do this when they have no more ideas and want to earn money on previous glory; mostly they will fail and loose audience (for example, Eddings for one, at least for me). What is strange is that I actually like his books. Sure, they are not the pinnacle of fantasy genre or writing in general, but they are very, very fun to read. Judging from some reviews I have read of Feist's books, other people have noticed this, but it doesn't stop them from enjoying his books. I have read "Magician" twice before, but didn't have any problems enjoying this book once again.

"Magician" is a fast book, so it's hard to describe plot without spoilers. You will not find long sequences where nothing happens, no multiple-pages monologues. The book starts with Pug, who is one of few characters that will stay in the series as a constant. I wouldn't call him a central character, but one of several such. He is an orphan kid, living in castle/town of Crydee as kitchen boy. After meeting with town's magician Kulgan, he will be selected as his apprentice, although as much from pithy as from talent. After saving Duke Borric's daughter, Princess Caraline, from some trolls, he will be promoted as Squire. His luck will rise in bad times, because they will find evidences of forthcoming invasion to their Kingdom, and even more unlucky, by invaders from another world! This is just a start of the book and we will follow him and other characters coming through different adventures. We will follow Pug as his luck falls and raises on both worlds, as slave, magician, scholar... His childhood friend Tomas will be very soon separated from him, but in his misfortune he will find a suit of armor belonging to long extinct and mythical Valheru, which will change him drastically; you will have to find out for yourself either to good or bad. Prince Arutha, son of Duke Borric, a youth more older that his years, will have to take responsibility and take charge of defense of Crydee will his father is fighting of the invasion by alien Tsurani... There are lots of other characters, many of whom get their own POV sequence; since flow of the book is fast, this is just description of start-up situation. We fill also meet pirates, crazy kings, mystic sorcerers, old dragons, and much more.

This was the first book that introduced Midkemia, the world that this whole humongous series will mostly take place. Here we are introduced to the Kingdom of the Isles, a classical medieval kingdom. East part is more populated and has been long tamed ago; it is a place of humans and cities. West part, with Crydee as major town, is much wilder place, where people are still in danger of nature. Except humans, here we can find dwarves, elves, goblin tribes, dark elves... Interesting fact is that humans and dwarves (and goblins, I think) are not native to Midkemia and have arrived only after elves have been freed from Valheru, the ancient masters of this world. Of course, Midkemia is much larger, but we will be introduced to its other parts in sequencing books. The world to Tsurani on the other hand, Kelawan, is based on Asian cultures, Chinese mostly, and is a lot less interesting place, but it has some important parts. Worldbuilding is one of Feist's strong-points. He didn't invent much and borrowed races and concepts from others, but Midkemia is very interesting place. He also took great care of details, invented a nice history and in general developed one of better settings in fantasy. A special plus that he didn't leave it static: through almost thirty books we will see it comes through some great changes.

Feist's characters, on the other hand, are at the same time his strength and weakness. They are great fun to read; they are funny, witty, honorable, good looking... On the other hand, they lack substance and depth. An elven prince will always behave as an elven prince should; the same is true for serious and responsible prince, pirate with foul mouth but good heart, loyal general, and so on. They are just too stereotypical and predictable; but there are so much of them and Feist puts them through such diverse situations, that they are never boring. Even Jimmy the Hand, one of my all-time favorite characters of all times (I would immediately buy a new book that features him) is basically just a witty scoundrel.

From technical side, Feist's writing is similar to his characters: nothing innovative or stunning, but easy to read and enjoy. His pace is fast and it makes an almost 700 pages book look like a longer one without being cramped.

Raymond E. Feist's "Magician" is a nice book for those who only want to relax and enjoy some good old-fashioned fantasy. It is detailed and complex in just right amount to be interesting without being tiring. A book that every fantasy-fan should read; rest of this series is more for fans.

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