I’ve read approximately thirteen novels by one Mr. Raymond E. Feist, making him, along with Piers Anthony, the most read author of my life. This is somewhat of a disturbing realization on my part. I would note here that while I’ve read thirteen novels set in Midkemia and Xanth respectively, I’ve read even more set in Krynn. . . well over thirty. For the uninformed, Krynn is Dragonlance, the role playing game novelizations that I (and Jared Shurin) would argue as the face that launched a thousand ships in the hearts and minds of budding fantasists. I’m not really selling myself as a connoisseur of literature am I?
While my memories of the Xanth and Dragonlance novels feel accurate, namely that they are by and large unreadable to an older audience, I have continued to feel adequately warm and fuzzy about Raymond Feist’s work. So much so that I’ve actively waited for the day that his older novels would cross the electronic divide so that I might re-avail myself of them. Don’t everyone go running off to their favorite eBook retailer to pick up their copy though because I got tired of waiting and just ordered them in mass market paperback, which, by the by, feels like a horribly archaic way to go about reading backlist titles.
I think this is what we in the industry call ‘writing my way into things.’
It all goes to say that I read Raymond Feist as a teenager and I loved it. I really fucking loved it. I loved it so much I had to find everything just like it and read that too. Which leads me to today, where I consume genre literature with abandon and feel the need to tell everyone what I think about the things I read. So, I suppose I should send Feist a thank you note (or you should send him an angry one). Instead, I’m going to spend quite a few paragraphs telling readers how many things he does wrong while still managing to present pieces of fiction that have stood the test of time.
It begins with Magician: Apprentice, which begins itself in a castle keep with an orphaned kitchen boy destined for greatness. If that sounds familiar, I could be talking about David Edding’s Pawn of Prophecy or Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, proving once again that when attempting to connect with a young audience it’s best to provide them with a path to efficacy that involves almost no hard work. What young person can resist such a sirens song? Not I, even at the tender and vulnerable age of thirty-one. Apprentice grabbed me quickly, investing in Pugs rise from kitchen boy, to magician’s apprentice, to princess minder, to squire of the court, to slave, to the most powerful wizard alive.
Like any good fledgling wizard, Pug has a companion — Tomas. Tomas is everything Pug is not, easy to get along with, confident, strong, and not orphaned. Unlike Pug who has to work for his gains in stature and power (although almost all that hard work happens off camera, greatly lessening its impact, but then who wants to read that boring stuff?), Tomas stumbles across a dragon’s horde and is subsequently bequeathed the nearly limitless power of an ancient race of dragon riders. There’s no journey for Tomas, one day he’s a teenage dream with a sword and the next he’s Ashen-Shugar, the last Valheru (who were the beings that created all the other beings and made them slaves until they got bored and tried to kill the gods and then killed each other). As the novel progresses, moving into Magician:Master, then Silverthorn, then A Darkness at Sethanon, Tomas is forced to deal with what that power does to his humanity. It’s the only time he presents anything of interest to the reader beyond how kick ass he is with a sword. But, by that time, it’s become clear that Tomas is necessary to defeat the novels’ villains, thus robbing any tension such a conflict might engender.
Oddly, despite the novels beginning in Crydee with Tomas and Pug as the focus, both share the stage with two others as the series’ primary characters — Arutha, son of the Duke to whom Pug and Tomas owe fealty, and Jimmy the Hand, erstwhile thief of Krondor who doesn’t even show up in the first installment. Both are clear archetypes, easily as identifiable as Pug and Tomas, the cold and calculating commander and the ruffian scoundrel each with a heart of gold only eclipsed by their sense of honor. Feist structures the novels so that anytime Pug or Tomas might start doing something boring like being a slave, learning magic, dealing with his godlike powers, or developing emotional attachments to things, he quickly jumps to Arutha, who never seems to stop fighting off assassination attempts or fleeing from wicked dark elves through forest of such and such filled with bad things.
While I’m on the subject of what Feist does poorly, I should mention the deus ex machina upon which the whole series hinges. Macros the Black. Macros is Feist’s stand-in for Allanon, Gandalf, Belgarion, and Fizban. In fact, in the early eighties it seems almost impossible that a fantasy novel of any great success exists without an all powerful wizard who can show up, wave his hand about, and solve all the heroes problems. Like the nature of the effortless rise to power (see Pug and Tomas), I can’t help but ponder this plot device as another tantalizer for the young adult — even when shit gets really bad as it’s wont to do in those teenage years have no fear because someone much older and wiser is sure to have the answers you require! This relationship is so clear that by series end, Macros has fundamentally robbed most of Feist’s character of any agency.
Macros does manage not to rob any of the female characters of agency. Of course, that’s entirely due to the fact that there isn’t a female character with agency to begin with. Feist almost completely ignores women other than to provide his male leads with love interests or motivations to become more heroic. That’s not to say all his women are doting house wives. At least in one case he writes a ‘strong’ women, but she never steps out of the shadow of the men around her, becoming someone’s wife and fading quickly out of focus. I should note here that in Feist’s future work, female character play a larger role, particularly in the Empire Trilogy co-written with Janny Wurts.
While I’m being critical, there’s something inherently silly about massive conflicts that are resolved by a small group of individuals who can infiltrate the bad guys lair, kill of a couple of them, and things are okay. This is the fallacy of, ‘a few people can get places an army cannot.’ I buy the basic tenet. . . two people can fit through a door that three people can’t. But, in the middle of a massive conflict the notion that removing two or three key influencers is enough to end a conflict is, to quote Nick Swardson, “a Grand Canyon made out of dreams and whispers.” Oh, especially when there’s some prophecy that supports it all.
Now, all of those criticisms I’ve just made, and I think they are all perfectly legitimate and appropriate, almost have to be examined through the lens of when they were written. And, in that respect, Feist doesn’t do anything objectionably unique. Nearly all of his contemporaries fall into the same pitfalls. With that in mind, and everything I’ve already said, Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Saga is one of the most enduring stories of its time, and one that continues to be readable and worthwhile for modern readers. I’m sure the question on everyone’s lips is why?
BECAUSE I LOVE IT AND I SAID SO!
Or, because unlike Dragonlance and its ilk, Feist’s novels aren’t written in crayon. The Riftwar Saga is readable, and well paced, and perfectly structured. There’s little unnecessary exposition and the narrative flows from one action scene to the next. The recent decision by Feist’s UK and Australia publishers to release the series in young adult versions seems incredibly wise to me. Not only does it capitalize on a new readership (and one that has likely not been exposed to Feist yet), but it sets expectations for the series where they belong. The themes and styles contained in Magician: Apprentice, Magician: Master, Silverthorn, and A Darkness at Sethanon, are those best served to be absorbed by teenagers who won’t notice all the hand waving and conveniences on which the stories rely.
In other words, approach with caution yon adult reader, but do approach nevertheless. To understand some of the places today’s fantasies have arrived, there’s value in reading what’s come before. Raymond Feist stands as one of the real forerunners of fantasy’s expansion and acceptance in the 1980’s, albeit one that is too often forgotten next to Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan.