Sunday, 16 March 2008

Recommended reading: Raymond E. Feist

In 2003 the BBC undertook a huge survey called the 'Big Read' to discover the UK's top 100 favourite books. The works of a number of fantasy authors appeared in the final list, such as Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis. To the literary world’s irritation (probably) the public voted The Lord of the Rings as their favourite book. But there was another fantasy author - somewhat surprisingly - whose book crept in at number 89.

The book was Magician, and the author was Raymond E. Feist.

Feist later stated that with Magician, his main aim was to simply tell a ripping yarn, and he certainly achieved that. Set in the world of Midkemia - created by Feist and a host of his role-playing friends - Magician on first glance seemed like dozens of other Lord of the Rings clones. The elves, dwarves and wizards were all present and correct, as was the classic ‘coming of age’ story arc.

But a number of aspects set Magician apart. There was no dark lord desiring to destroy the world; instead, the conflict was between two races of men. The elves and dwarves added a touch of flavour and depth but there’s no doubt that humanity - and all its flaws - was the main focus of Magician. Furthermore, the action didn’t just take place on one world, but two. This added an exotic element, as the second world - Kelewan - was far removed from the standard European quasi-medieval settings that proliferated the genre at this point.

Still, a story is nothing without strong characters, and this is another area where Feist delivered. From the likeable, young protagonists Pug and Tomas, to the amiable Amos Trask, the brooding Prince Arutha and the devious Jimmy the Hand, Feist created a rich cast of characters that readers could easily relate to and sympathise with, as they struggled towards an uncertain future.

To this day, Magician remains a classic epic fantasy. Feist set down a marker, both for himself and the genre as a whole. It was almost inevitable however that his subsequent works wouldn’t match the excellence of his debut. Silverthorn was a competent, if slightly under-whelming sequel, while A Darkness at Sethanon managed to complete the so-called ‘Riftwar trilogy’ in a satisfying fashion.

As the years passed Feist demonstrated his versatility, writing a number of solid stand-alone novels like The King’s Buccaneer that showed he could tell an effective story on a smaller canvas. Yet Feist has always had a flair for the epic, and his masterly storytelling was once again showcased in The Serpent War saga, a four-book series that was impressively ambitious in scope, and featured many of his earlier characters at later stages of their lives.

While the plot did become somewhat convoluted in the latter stages, the series remains a fine example of Feist’s epic storytelling and vivid imagination. Furthermore, the second book of the series - Rise of a Merchant Prince - moved away from the epic plot and instead focused on the double-dealing and treachery of the mercantile world, highlighting the fact that fantasy doesn’t always need to be about epic battles and political manouvering.

It’s not all been plain sailing however. After completing the Serpentwar Saga, Feist’s ability seemed to desert him (probably linked to troubles in his private life) and he turned out the worst work of his career - the trilogy known as the Riftwar Legacy’. These books are, in part at least, based on the earlier computer games ‘Betrayal at Krondor and ‘Return to Krondor.’

Unfortunately, it shows. The first novel, Krondor: The Betrayal is a terrible book, with a one-dimensional plot that plods hopelessly along, with dull characters and a general lack of the usual spark that permeates Feist’s work. The second novel, Krondor: The Assassins is better, but still distinctly mediocre. The final book, Krondor: Tear of the Gods is a considerable improvement, but isn’t able to salvage the trilogy.

There were suggestions, however hushed, that Feist had quite literally lost the plot. In 2002 however he returned with the first book in his new Conclave of Shadows trilogy. While the first novel in the trilogy, Talon of the Silver Hawk, didn’t reach the heights of his best work, it was nonetheless a real improvement on the awful Krondor series.

Having not read any of Feist’s books beyond this, I’m not able to comment personally on his most recent work, including his new Darkwar trilogy. It will suffice to say that his latest series has received largely positive reviews and seems to indicate that Feist has managed to recapture some of the magic that made his earlier work so popular.

If you fancy indulging in some more traditional epic fantasy, then you could do far worse than checking out Ray Feist.

Recommended first purchase: Magician

Feist’s best-known work and a classic fantasy novel. Epic in scope and masterfully crafted, Magician is an enthralling story packed with action and memorable, diverse characters.

Recommended follow-up purchase: Silverthorn

The sequel to Magician lacks the scope of its predecessor and is perhaps a disappointing sequel. Following Magician however was an almost impossible act, and Silverthorn at least manages to entertain and capably continue the riftwar story.

Wildcard purchase: Shadow of a Dark Queen

Despite being set in the same world and featuring a number of the characters from the Riftwar trilogy, you don’t need to have read any of Feist’s earlier books to be able to tackle the Serpentwar Saga. Epic and ambitious, Feist shows once again how skilled he is at creating diverse characters and interweaving complex plotlines.

One to avoid: Krondor: The Betrayal

Dire. It really is as simple as that.

For further info, check these links:

Wikipedia info with bibliography and general info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Feist

Official site: http://www.crydee.com/

4 comments:

T.D. Newton said...

Feist has quite a presence on the bookstore shelf but I've never picked up one of his books. I did some reading awhile ago about his work and seem to recall more than a few opinions saying it was cheeky, immature, and not worth much of a glance, so I didn't pursue it. If Magician is available at the library, though, I'm willing to give it a chance.

BTW, I'm starting Legend today. Pretty excited about that.

J.G. Thomas said...

Despite Feist being one of the old guard as it were, many genre fans have never checked him out which is why I wrote the article.

Cheeky? Not sure where that is coming from. Ditto for immature. You could argue that Feist's work (or at least his earlier work) is vaguely young adult in the sense that there is no swearing, gratuitous sex or violence but it's certainly not immature. I heartily recommend Magician. If you don't like that, then you won't like his other work.

Hope you enjoy Legend!

Sara J. said...

Feist's Empire trilogy with Janny Wurts is an excellent departure from European styled fantasy. It looks at some of the events from his Magician etc books from the other side of the rift, as it were, and is more involved in political intrigue than most books at the time. Very worthwhile read.

J.G. Thomas said...

Thanks Sara, I completely forgot about them! I've not read them myself, but have heard very positive things about them.