Friday, January 13, 2012

Magician by Raymond E. Feist

The 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels challenge returns! I moved away from this last year when the TBR pile started to reach alarming proportions, not helped by a trip to Worldcon in Reno where books cost about half of what they do in Australia. I decided to shelve the challenge for a while. I always wanted to go back to it, and the new year seemed like the ideal time, so I present to you my review of the 2nd of the F novels: Raymond E. Feist's superlative fantasy epic Magician.

Feist was one of the wave of new epic fantasy writers that emerged in the late 1970's and early 1980's. For the time Magician was quite a tome, these days it would be published as a duology or maybe even a trilogy (I believe it was published in 2 separate volumes in the US; Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master), the paperback I read was over 800+ pages and that's big for one book back in the early 80's.

At first glance Magician appears to be a pretty standard generic epic fantasy, drawing on the significant legacy left by Professor Tolkien. The land of Midkemia is a pre industrial society, analogous with medieval Europe, even the name evokes comparisons with Tolkien's Middle-earth (which was based on the Norse mythological term for Earth of Midgard), and Midkemia was also populated with rather Tolkienesque elves and dwarves, there was even a treasure loving dragon, not unlike a benevolent blind Smaug. That's largely where the comparisons end, though. There's no quest here for a magical ring or item of power, and the Midkemians aren't battling an all powerful sorceror. There is a magical suit of armour and weapons, although with what they do to their bearer; the former trainee man at arms Tomas, they're more of a curse than a blessing. There's also a sorceror; Macros the Black, but he mostly aids the Midkemians, although his motives for doing much of what he does are not really adequately explained. I actually felt that Macros was based on John Brunner's Traveller in Black, he of the many names, but only one nature. Macros even had an ever present staff, which seemed to amplify his natural magical ability.

The game changer for Magician is Kelewan. Feist was not content to create one world for his epic, he created two. There was a magical rift opened between the world of Midkemia and that of the feudal Japanese influenced world of Kelewan. There was very little Asian influenced fantasy around in the early 80's and giving Kelewan a Japanese influence was a master stroke. For me the scenes in Kelewan that follow the journey of Pug; the orphan from the Midkemian coastal frontier town of Crydee, from his days as a captive slave to become the Kelewanian magician, a Great One known as Milamber, and commanding near godlike power, are amongst the best and most effectively written in the book.

Magician is the story of the Riftwar, the battle between Midkemia and the Kelewanian invaders, who want to take over Midkemia and exploit it's vast natural resources of metal, something that is rare and highly prized in Kelewan. It tells the story as it follows the experiences of Pug and Tomas, best friends who are torn apart by war and follow very different paths in life. Pug becomes the Great One Milamber and Tomas dons magical armour and is in part taken over by the ancient rulers of Midkemia, the Valheru warrior known as Ashen-Shugar, he also marries Queen Aglaranna of Elvandar, Queen of the Elves.

There is also a third story and that is the one of Prince Arutha, the youngest son of Duke Borric ConDoin of Crydee, he's also in line to one day inherit the throne through his father. It is Arutha's story as he fights to keep his world and people free on the field and in the halls of power, he even takes to the seas and the mean streets of Krondor, that introduces two of Magician's most memorable characters; the roguish former pirate Amos Trask and the enterprising young thief known on the streets of Krondor as Jimmy the Hand (Jimmy was popular enough among readers to be the focus of his own books later on).

Magician and the two books that came after it; Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon, are generally referred to as the Riftwar trilogy, although I find Magician self contained enough to be read as a standalone book. The other two really just tie up a few loose ends concerning Pug and Tomas, but cover their own separate story.

Feist does make a few debut novelist mistakes in Magician. At times there's far too much exposition and the book could have been edited more ruthlessly, yet in the introduction to the 1992 edition of Magician, which was reedited by the author to include material that he had to take out of the original published version, he says he removed something like 50,000 words. The other thing that I found a little hard to take were the love scenes and the way they were handled. The dialogue in these was pretty clunky at times and the relationships seemed to move a bit quicker than they should have in relation to the rest of the story, which explained where it was going and how it got there.

Magician is a thoroughly enjoyable fantasy epic, which was rather original for it's time, holds up well even now and stands up to repeated reads, I've lost count of how many times I've actually read it and my copy is rather well thumbed. Tolkien's masterwork is in the same vein when it comes to the Midkemian sections of the text, and Tad Williams homage to Tolkien; Memory, Sorrow and Thorn has that vibe as well. Feist wrote a number of Midkemian related novels, I think the cycle is up to around 30 now, there was also the Empire trilogy co-written with Janny Wurts, which is set on Kelewan, and is outside of Magician the best related work he did in my opinion. Interested readers could also seek out Faerie Tale, a rather Stephen Kingish horror that Feist did in an attempt to break away from Midkemia. It's well regarded now, but didn't seem to sell well enough at the time to allow for more work in a similar vein.

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