I picked this book up late in April when it was chosen as a Sword and Laser book club pick. As I had only read the first half – Magician: Apprentice – previously, I thought this would be a good chance to re-read that part and then go straight for the second. To clarify, depending on which edition of the book you pick up, it is sold in either one or two volumes. The experience was both wonderful and a great reminder of why SFF if such a brilliant genre these days. Those Tolkien-inspired fantasies have some real problems…
by Raymond E. Feist
Published: Harper Voyager, 1982
eBook: 865 pages
Series: The Riftwar Saga #1
Opening line: The storm had broken. Pug danced along the edges of the rocks, his feet finding scant purchase as he made his way among the tide pools.
The world had changed even before I discovered the foreign ship wrecked on the shore below Crydee Castle, but it was the harbinger of the chaos and death that was coming to our door.
War had come to the Kingdom of the Isles, and in the years that followed it would scatter my friends across the world. I longed to train as a warrior and fight alongside our duke like my foster-brother, but when the time came, I was not offered that choice. My fate would be shaped by other forces.
My name is Pug. I was once an orphaned kitchen boy, with no family and no prospects, but I am destined to become a master magician…
Pug and Tomas are two teenage boys who live in Crydee, where there is a Lord, a magician, a priest, and a princess. They are looking forward to the annual choosing ceremony with trepidation, because this will decide their future. Both boys dream of becoming great warriors in the military and conquering the heart of a beautiful princess – maybe even their own princess Carline, who knows? But, as you can expect, the ceremony arrives and everyone is chosen except for Pug, who is then picked by Kulgan, the magician, almost like he’s taking pity on him. But we, well-read in fantasy as we are, know that Pug has great powers slumbering deep inside him and is destined for Great Things. What really kicks the story off, however, is the arrival of a strange ship at the coast. We soon learn that a people from somewhere else is invading the country and this starts a very, very, VERY long war.
I understand why this book was split in two by certain publishers. While it does tell one larger story – that of the war mentioned above – it clearly feels like two books. The first one was pure comfort for me. I had read it before, although many years ago, and I only remembered a few key scenes. Following Pug and Tomas as boys was a charming experience, not only because everything is so quaint, but because I knew exactly what I was going to get. They even go on a quest with a group of people – among them a dwarf lord and an Aragorn-like master of the hunt. Their journey leads them into dwarven caves, over mountains and over sea. It’s your basic Tolkienesque quest story and I was happy to be in it. Whenever they encounter trouble, something or someone conveniently appears and saves the day. You never get the feeling that there is any real danger for our protagonists but that doesn’t mean the more thrilling scenes were boring. I enjoyed the writing style and actually breezed through the first half of Magician very quickly. It was the second half, the one that was new to me, that dragged on…
Feist made some interesting decisions about how to tell this story. At the beginning of the second part, the war between Midkemia (Pug and Tomas’s home world) and the invading Tsurani has been going on for five years. In the second part, we finally get to learn more about the Tsurani, sometimes even from their own point of view. My problem was more with the pacing and the POV changes than with the story or content itself.
We’d get one, sometimes several, very long chapters from one POV without hearing anything from the other protagonists. And as the list of POV characters increased, that meant even more time away from the people and settings I was actually interested in. There was one sequence in particular that felt super unnecessary to the plot as a whole and also just Didn’t Want To End. It involved prince Arutha and a pirate captain and a long journey there and back again that only served the purpose of setting up a plot line for the next book. I’m serious, it had no bearing on this book. All the information and set up it conveyed could have been done much more quickly and would have saved me 100 pages of an okay but somewhat tedious “adventure”.
As for the characters, they are mostly cardboard. Pug and Tomas are the ones we start out following, but the cast grows and grows as the story goes on. And nobody really has much personality beyond what they’re first described at. Kulgan is the wise elderly magician, Pug and Tomas are both super nice and honorable and just want to do good things, the princes differ only insofar as one is shy and one more outspoken and the Tsurani are all about honor, although some of them are pure evil and others more morally grey. The most interesting character, and incidentally one that was dropped almost completely in the second book, is princess Carline. She is a difficult person with her own head and you can never be sure what she’s thinking or even what she wants. I don’t think she even knows herself what she wants, which made her all the more believable as a teenager, especially a royal one. I liked Carline. 🙂
As for other female characters, there is a disturbing lack of them. But I also knew that going in. This is Tolkien-inspired fantasy from the early 80ies so my expectations were low to begin with. Carline was a positive surprise, though, and raised my hopes for other female characters. Alas, no such luck. There is one other princess who is only there to be pretty and both childlike and womanly elegant (the way she was described was actually quite creepy, but either way she was only seen as an object, both sexual and for power because princess) and a Tsurani woman who barely gets to say anything and only shows up as an understanding spouse and mother who leaves the men to do the serious business. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d brought them freshly baked cookies into the war tent, to be honest. Oh, and let’s not forget the elf queen Eglaranna who is… beautiful, and a queen, and exists to become the wife of a male character who gets a way more interesting story than she can even dream of. So yeah, it’s not good.
I had decided to try and ignore most of these “old timey” fantasy book issues and just roll with it, to enjoy the story mostly for the plot and hopefully cool magic, maybe a dragon or two, and some epic battles. Sometimes, that’s all you need, and as I started reading this during the height of the pandemic (at least here in Austria), Magician gave me a sense of nostalgia and made me feel somehow safe in its world. I knew all the important characters would survive, I knew Pug would become a magician – I mean, it’s in the title – and evil would be vanquished.
Well, Feist may have started out basically re-writing Tolkien but he threw his own ideas in eventually and delivered a book that was entertaining enough. Not groundbreaking, not even really something I’d recommend but something that was like a warm, cozy blanket during a difficult time. And for that I am grateful, despite all the book’s flaws. And there are plenty of them.
Not just the characters are lazily written, the world building – at least for Midkemia – is even worse. It’s your basic medieval Europe fantasy where nothing needs to be explained, the world doesn’t even need to be built because it’s your basic blueprint for most fantasy from that time period. Take Middle-Earth, change the map around a bit and you’ve got Midkemia. At least with the Tsurani, Feist had to make up his own race, his own world with its own customs. Making the Tsurani a people of war wasn’t super original but at least it’s a step up from Orcs. The Tsurani do have a culture, and customs, and a social order, and that was easily the most interesting aspect of the entire book. The way they revere their magicians made for great reading, especially compared to how Midkemians view their own practitioners of magic. But that’s just one of the differences between our two warring factions and they don’t make Midkemians look good.
The Tsurani culture is disrespected wherever possible. The entire story is set up in a way that makes us believe the Midkemians are the forward thinking, modern folk while the Tsurani, although they produce powerful magicians, are stuck in the past. They have slavery and gladiator games, after all. They have to commit suicide when honor demands it. They are, in short, very different from our protagonists. I mean… the nerve ! Our glorious heroes from Midkemia live happily in a monarchy where the king can decide on a whim whom to give a title and lands, after all, while the lower classes toil away without a chance of moving up in the world. Those are clearly the good guys, right? As I mentioned, I had made a conscious decision to let most of those issues go and just read this book for the story. Of course it’s impossible to completely shut off the part of your mind that questions things and while I tried my best to not let this influence me too much, it certainly did.
I mean… the Midkemians accept a Tsurani into their military and the first thing they do is change his name (Tchakachakalla) to Charles! Why? Because it was too hard to pronounce! Yeah, it sure is if you don’t even try. It’s just a small scene but holy shit, did it make me angry. As someone who loves learning new languages, I know all too well that words can be hard to pronounce but – as with most things – with a little practice you can get close enough. And people usually are happy when they see you try, even if you don’t get it perfectly right. And it’s not like they were talking about the Tsurani word for “bread” – it’s someone’s name!
I was also really disappointed in the ending. As I don’t spoil books, I’ll have to vaguely talk around what I mean but I’ll do my best so you can understand why I’m so annoyed. A sort of resulotion is in grasping distance, all pieces are in place for the story to end. Then someone does something for a reason “that will be revealed later” and that makes no sense whatsoever, which drags the whole thing out and creates problems for (I’m assuming) the next book. Okay, fine, I like a good twist, now give me those mysterious reasons why things had to happen this way. Don’t worry, this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, we do get the reasons. Except they are flimsy at best and ridiculous when you think about them for a second. I mean, maybe Feist had this whole series planned and it will all somehow make sense in the later books after all. But it didn’t in this book and without that added extra plot, the book could have been another 50 pages shorter.
As you can see, this is a tough one for me to rate. I would give the first half – the one that was the predictable Tolkien-clone and didn’t do anything original – a 6.5 out of 10 because despite all its flaws, it was also fun and it had Carline in it and it had limited POVs which made it super readable. The second half, although that’s where the original ideas start coming in, will not stay in my mind as fun. It took me ages to finish because I didn’t care enough to find out what would happen to most of the characters. Just like the people of Midkemia, I was tired of this long war and I didn’t want to have to follow so many people I didn’t even like all that much. With some POV changes, cutting unnecessary scenes and plot strings, it could have been good. And now I have to combine these two into one rating for the whole book. I don’t know, you guys. It’s one of those books that keeps showing up on “the most important fantasy books you have to read” lists so that makes it sound important. But having read the whole thing, I disagree. Read The Lord of the Rings and then move on to someone who does something new and original with fantasy.
I didn’t really get anything out of this book except some comfort and the ease of not having to learn about a fantasy culture or magic system. I had fun for the first 400 pages, I enjoyed some of the rest, but in reality, the reading experience got worse and worse for me the closer I got to the end. And because I don’t see why this book should be important for the genre as a whole, I’m going to go ahead and and rate it accordingly.
MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh