Magician is the first installment in Feist’s highly popular and lengthy Riftwar Cycle, a 30 (!) -book saga that has its own, hard-earned place in the annals of fantasy. Riftwar Cycle had been only recently – in 2013 – ended with, nomen omen, Magician’s End. A fantasy cycle written over a period of 31 years… well, we’ve already seen something similar, even more than once, and I guess we should just be very thankful Feist is still in a good health.
Magician’s End has met with less than a hearty reception, and in this aspect is no different from several other recent Feist’s works. Magician, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. It is THE book in Riftwar Cycle: the book which had started Feist’s career, which had introduced readers to the worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan (apparently, there are even computer games set in Midkemia, which Feist then novelized and incorporated into his cycle), and last, but not least, the book which has become a fantasy classic and has inspired many other writers.
To be fair, Midkemia was not created by Feist alone – it was a product of many Thursday and Friday nights spent by Feist on RPG gaming with his university friends. Feist claims the inspiration for their imaginary world came mostly from D&D, but for me, a non-gamer, Midkemia smacks mostly of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (just as D&D does, actually). Here we have a world on a curiously medieval development level, hardly aware of its ancient history, but at the same time filled with magic, elves, dwarves and goblins, last dying dragons and feisty magicians (yes, I had to use this pun!).
The main character is an orphaned boy, Pug, who is raised in Crydee – a frontier outpost of the very Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of the Isles. His idyllic life and evenly paced, almost organic evolution from a simple keep boy to a magician’s apprentice and a ducal squire change irrevocably when a strange host of alien invaders attacks his land. Pug and his childhood friend Tomas are in the thick of things from the beginning, since they are the first to discover the enemy. A complex adventure unfurls, with many difficult journeys through wild forests, over high seas, under mountains… and even through a rift – a tear in the space-time dimensions, allowing travel between separate worlds.
Although Magician is chock-full of war and politics, it’s essentially a coming-of-age story of two main characters: Pug and Tomas. They both have a bright future before them, but the roads leading to it are long and winding. Maybe a bit too long and too winding, at times even excruciatingly long and winding, but still – per aspera ad astra! Pug and Tomas’s story serves as a focus for a world-encompassing epic narrative, which in turn creates a colorful, but at the same time rather lethal, background for their adventures. There’s a war between two worlds, and we get to know the peoples, cultures and beliefs of both. Both worlds are in flux; and that means a lot of political intrigue on both sides of the rift, which gives us a chance to appreciate all the differences and nuances of making war “a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means”. There’s also a literal host of supporting characters, some of which later on get their own books (prince Arutha and Jimmy the Hand, for example).
I read the over-700-pages story with interest. It wasn’t a thrilling read; it wasn’t even an intellectually demanding read, to be honest. It’s a nice, rather slowly paced and predictable book, in which the reader encounters several sudden bursts of activity. Most of the events are grouped together, then there’s a long lull, and then comes another short set of action-filled pages. However, even the action-filled parts are not very gripping. As a declared military fantasy fan I’m quite sad to say that the war shown in Magician is flat. There are no emotions, almost no descriptions, nearly no thought given to the conflict itself. The adventures are very generic – revolving around meetings in forests with good elves and bad elves, going through abandoned dwarves’ mines, encountering dark and mysterious magicians as well as dying dragons, stupid trolls, and so on, and so forth. We’ve had it before, we’ve had it better. Feist’s strengths clearly lie elsewhere. Where?
Worldbuilding, for sure. The worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan are Feist’s opus magnum. They are full-fledged, thought through in every painstakingly painted detail, shown to the reader with care and flare. We step into a fully developed world, with its unique lore, history, customs and beliefs. The characters may have a distinctively Western worldview and do not grow in any credible, realistic way (Magician is visibly lacking in the area of character development. Tomas’s story was completely unconvincing to me and while reading it I was rather unpleasantly reminded of the connection between words “fantasy” and “fantasize”), but hey! The worldbuilding is superb. And the idea of a rift between two worlds, a gate of sorts, which can be magically stabilized, is very simple and brilliant at the same time.
Magician is a very pleasant read. It is written quite well; unevenly, with serious deficits in the departments of psychological and sociological analyses, but it has its moments of extraordinary imagination, creativity and poetry. It also has heart. Almost every character shown on the pages of Feist’s book has some redeeming qualities. Most of them are straightforwardly likeable, but even those that are not are, in one way or another, justified to some extent. It may be interpreted as naïve; for me it was refreshing, and humane.
I believe I was a tad spoiled by reading the Empire trilogy first. It’s a rarity, really, when a book written in a collaboration is actually better than the first, original installment. This is the case here. Magician is not much worse, but the differences lie in those areas that are dear to me: psychological evolution of characters; political intrigues; in-depth analysis of imagined societies. But let’s give Magician its due: this was, after all, the first book set on Midkemia and Kelewan, the first to introduce Pug and Arutha, Marcos the Black and the Shinzawai family, Amos Trask and Tully, as well as some other memorable characters (definitely, there are not many women on Midkemia’s soil, and almost none worth mentioning). I will go back there, if only to finish the first series, consisting of Magician, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon. According to the popular belief, these are the most worth-reading. But after this journey I may not be going back there anymore.