A Delectable Duology.
This was a much needed meat and potatoes fantasy.
I rediscovered my love for pleasure-driven reading this past Spring when I received a Kindle for my birthday. Being swamped with work, I decided to forgo the edifying classics and attack my increasingly growing fantasy reading list.
I first dipped my toes in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Little did I know that I would have to receive a PhD in Steven Erikson’s work to enjoy them: dropping you in the middle of multiple conflicts, it’s up to you to untease the sprawling subplots over hundreds of characters. While I appreciated the immense depth and detail, I wasn’t up for the challenge and put it on hold after book three.
Magician by Raymond Feist was always something that floated around my periphery. I’d seen it displayed in every book store that had a fantasy section and saw it included on multiple “top 100” lists of fantasy series. While I wasn’t happy to enter a series that has over 20 books (I feel like I have to finish them all!), seeing the fervent positive reviews and knowing Magician was an enclosed story in and of itself made me take the leap.
This was exactly the kind of book I needed.
This novel has a bit of a weird publishing sequence. Originally released in 1982 as one novel, it gets released as two volumes in the USA (Apprentice and Master). Then, when they become popular, they were rereleased under the moniker of author’s preferred edition in 1992. I read the latter and, per the author, nothing significantly changes between the two editions other than more added detail.
The novel is set in Midkemia, a world that grew out of Feist and Friends’ weekly D&D games. The story starts with two boys of the small keep of Crydee: Pug and Tomas. Pug, an orphan, is raised by the entire town but receives extra attention from the keep’s cook who is Tomas’s father. They become best friends and grow up together.
After starting their apprenticeships (Pug is training to be a magician while Tomas a fighter), they investigate a shipwreck on the shores of Cyrdee. Here, they find a foreign race with advanced magical skills. There is a lone survivor, and they save him along with a scroll before the ship sinks losing all its contents to the sea.
The survivor dies from his wounds, but not before being mind touched by one of the Magicians at the keep. From this, they learn the foreigners are a warrior race called the Tsurani and are planning on invading Midkemia. The scroll opens up a portal to the Tsurani’s home world with Kulgan, Pug’s Master, narrowly closing it before being pulled to the other side.
With the knowledge of an impending invasion by Warriors buffered by magic greater than their own, a sortie of Cyrdee royalty and warriors (including Pug and Tomas) leave to warn the rest of the Kingdom and bring them to arms.
What I expected to be a simple bildungsroman actually turned out to be a tortuous story involving several people. While Pug and Tomas are no doubt the drivers of the initial story, their importance ebbs and flows as the novels progress which was a welcomed twist. I was afraid the book was going to turn into a basic retelling of the Hero’s tale, and while of course that happens (which fantasy novel isn’t about a farm boy who saves the word?), there are plenty of other things going on underneath the hood.
Given how the Malazan Empire series went, I really wanted something I could sink my teeth into and understand. Running to wikipedia and personal notes can be fun, but I just don’t have the brain power right now. Magician was a perfect mix of complex while still being accessible.
There were about ten to fifteen characters of importance. It was a blessing to be able to see a name that was not mentioned for some time and still be able to recall them from the depths to continue reading. Their backstories were clear and concise and it was easy to feel like you understood them.
There were shallower moments, though, particularly when it came to the details of magic in this world. While you get some division and categories, it is hitherto unclear how any of it works. A significant plot point, the climax of the novel, was a deus ex machina where magic is able to solve all. Normally, this would make me run rampant with anger, but given how I felt this novel was more about exploration, different worlds, and the characters, I was willing to give this a pass.
Where the book really excels is building a world worth exploring.
Now, the first novel is full of fantasy tropes with your elven forest and dwarven mines, but once past the stereotypical settings, Midkemia is full of interesting places because of the people in them. Take for instance Krondor, your typical medieval town. While not initially too imaginative, here lives a thieves guild and a secret police ferreting out political dissenters. When our party finds themselves trapped, it is a riveting race to escape before found as we see the underbelly of city life.
Not to mention the foreign Tsurani. With a completely different culture surrounding class and honor, Feist creates a “what-if” scenario of a society that puts weights on different values. Navigating this space is one familiar and different: sure, they are human, but at times they act completely alien. It’s within this space where Magician is at its best.
Every fantasy novel should have moments that are unforgettable — the whole point of the genre is to launch you into an otherworldly experience. This book is chocked full of those whether it is Pug’s ascension to master, Tomas battling his inner demons, or the intrigue of political court.
Without exposing too much, the final pages evoked some of the strongest feelings I have had in some time. A slight twist involving a swashbuckler, it reminded me that I was saying a momentary goodbye to a wonderful world before realizing this: the adventure is never truly over.
Accessible and enjoyable fantasy.
Other People’s Takes:
- Shadowhawk’s Shade: “Raymond E. Feist’s Magician remains, to this day, one of the finest examples of traditional epic fantasy that I’ve read.”
- Samuel Colborn: “If you love fantasy and want to lose a year to reading then pick this up, you will not be disappointed!“
- From Cover to Cover: “I guess I’m just not cut out for retro high fantasy. Didn’t grow up reading SFF or playing RPG and didn’t start reading Tolkien until the movies came out. So I have zero memories connected to these genre classics and absolutely no appreciation for chosen farm boys with extravagant destinies to fulfill and/or empires to save.”