Favourite Fantasy Books
Part 1 : Magician by Raymond E Feist
This is a series of posts about fantasy novels that I love, or loved, and that really got me into fantasy. Some of them have not really stood the test of time, some I grew out of, and others are still great. But all of them fed into how I came to love fantasy and how I perceive the genre.
Magician by Raymond E. Feist is the first book of the massive Riftwar Cycle, although back when I read it, all those years ago, it was simply Magician and book one of a trilogy, the Riftwar Saga. Something a great deal more manageable than the 30 book ‘cycle’ it is now. I was probably 12 or so when I picked it up in my local Waterstones bookshop. It wasn’t the first fantasy book I ever read, but it has certainly been one of the most influential on my early fantasy reading tastes (even though they have evolved over time) and it really consolidated my love for fantasy.
For those that don’t know it, spoilers abound below, but let’s face it when a book is published in the early 1980s and has been republished many times since, you can’t really call foul on spoilers. At some point you have to admit that a story is fair game particularly after 30 years. But the warning is there regardless.
The story is split into one main thread, Pug’s story, with two mirroring plot threads, those of Tomas, and Arutha. The book itself, originally published in two volumes was re-released as a single volume in the UK and then in 1992 on widespread release as ‘the author’s preferred edition’. So when reading it as a single volume there is a clear dividing line halfway through the book that allows the narrative to jump several years and pick the story up again.
Each of the plot threads follows a young boy, or in the case of Arutha an argument can be made that he is a young man, as they each follow a different classical fantasy path. For Pug it is the journey from young orphan boy to master magician. For Tomas it is of a popular young keep boy who becomes a powerful magical warrior and essentially an Elf king. For Arutha, the young princeling grows into a man and becomes a ruler and leader. All the typical plots of wish-fulfilment that any young, Anglo-European boy could want rolled up into a single narrative. In fact, if there had been a fourth thread about a young boy becoming an assassin then I think Feist would have all the standard fantasy plots essentially covered… but Jimmy the Hand only edges into that in the next volume, Silverthorn.
What intrigued me most about this book was that it didn’t feature a quest. Up until that point, the vast majority of the fantasies I had read were about heroes going on quests and adventures. This book focused on an invasion, a slave storyline, a siege, and a confrontation between two cultures. So, at that time, it felt original to me. There wasn’t really a grand prophecy, there wasn’t a Dark Lord™, and the heroes weren’t out seeking a massively powerful magical object that would save the day. If you had been fed a diet of Tolkien, Brooks, Eddings, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, this would have seemed original to you too.
Also, at that age, the idea of a story featuring three different young guys that I could maybe identify with a little, all growing up in different paths, facing hard choices, but ultimately overcoming, was, of course, appealing to my developing adolescent psyche. I didn’t really need sophistication or exceptionally complex and morally ambiguous characters at that age. I wanted heroes. Flawed ones, yes, but heroes none the less.
The setting itself, Midkemia, is nothing particularly innovative, and as a result I was imminently comfortable with it at the time. The Kingdom of the Isles is your usual Anglo-European feudal society with a pseudo-medieval feel to it. There are castles, Dukes, Kings, Princes, lords and ladies aplenty. There are warriors and knights, cavalry and sappers, and, of course, archers who would never use anything less than a longbow. Therefore slipping into imagining the world and the setting of the story was relatively effortless. But it also had some staples from Tolkien (or more accurately from Tolkien via D&D given Midkemia’s origin as a homebrew D&D campaign world) of Elves (and their Dark Elven brethren), Dwarves, and Dragons. There is even a set of magical armour, complete with sword and shield that Tomas picks up from a dragon’s horde after exploring long forgotten caves in a mountain. There were enough small changes that even these oh so familiar fantasy tropes were different enough that I could recognise them but also enjoy them anew.
The enemy invaders were a heavily Orientalised race of humans from the Tsurani Empire on the planet Kelewan who invade the Kingdom of the Isles (and the rest of Midkemia) via magical rifts. Kelewan as a setting is a shameless copy of M.A.R. Barker’s Tekumel from his book The Empire of the Petal Throne (1975… and a setting that became one of the very first D&D based standalone settings) but the lack of originality didn’t strike me at the time as I hadn’t yet read Barker, and I only knew about D&D from the franchise novels and D&D computer games. Interestingly, Quag Keep by Andre Norton was the first outright D&D novel, but it was published in 1978, so Barker’s work, although developed independently of D&D, predates Norton in terms of publishing a RPG ludic narrative… a book based on a gameworld. Also, the very idea of Orientalisation and ‘Othering’ was also far in my future, so it was enough for me back then that the enemies were some sort of Japanese/Chinese amalgam, the heroes were Anglo-European, the north was a frigid realm with snow and tundra, and there was a ‘dark continent’ with deserts, savannah, and jungles, far to the south. So, in terms of setting, my more jaded modern eye and world-weary cynicism shudders to think about how excited I was about this story and world, but back then it was brilliant.
Of course, it was Pug’s story that really captured my youthful imagination. Growing up to be a mage, to wield all that power, to do the really cool things, to have obscure and arcane knowledge (yeah… that may have had something to do with me becoming an academic), and to be a good guy who wasn’t perfect but did his best. He starts out with basically nothing, and by the end becomes one of the most powerful beings on two planets… what’s not to like? Added to that, he was pretty awful with girls, a bit clumsy, not sporty, not the most handsome, but smarter than a lot of his peers… hmmmm are we perhaps seeing who Feist was aiming this novel at? Feist even points out that Pug was of smaller stature than his friends and seemed small for his age. His dark hair and lack of classically handsome features made him so much more relatable to me than the idea of a handsome, blonde haired, and blue-eyed hero (incidentally, there are far fewer of those in fantasy than you might think). Pug was also a fairly active character and tried to do things, not merely react to them or take credit for his friends’ work like some more famous dark-haired wizards with lightning scars on their forehead that I might mention.
Added to that was his best-friend and foster brother Tomas. Tomas was the golden boy; good at sports, handsome, good with girls, and yet fiercely protective of Pug. He looked out for Pug, included him and accepted him, encouraged him and was happy for Pug’s successes. He was the ultimate best-friend. Although he was more athletic and had better physical prowess, he respected Pug’s intellect and strengths. There is even a scene in which the two of them get drunk with a fellow squire on ‘appropriated’ ale to mend fences, and cement and celebrate their friendship. It is a scene sure to strike a chord with many a teenager’s experience. Fights to the bitter end with grievous enemies resolved and suddenly fast friendships develop. Tomas’ journey to become a Valheru, a Dragon Lord, has him plumb the depths of losing yourself to power and ambition. His journey mirrors the dehumanising effect of constant violence and war. He becomes cruel and uncaring, before his human side eventually wins through by remembering the love of family and friends. The descent into violent rage and cruel command is softened, and there is an optimistic end to his story as he gains control of his power rather than letting it control him. He also embodies the drifting away of friends, and the promise that such friendships, though they change, can be reclaimed and made strong again. They might never be quite the same, but friendship, camaraderie, and the love of friends and family is not something so easily snuffed out.
With Arutha a different story emerges. His more politically focused storyline brings in the ruling classes, organised crime elements, and the skulduggery of a corrupt city state. He even rescues a princesss, who, surprise surprise, falls in love with him and they get married to eventually live happy ever after… sort of. So he has chases through the streets, hides out in sewers and secret basements, and does all those things an adolescent assumes spies do… or we find in D&D games set in a fantasy cities… which clearly all have thieves’ guilds. Arutha does all this before becoming a leader of men, and a wise and canny prince of the realm. He matures over the course of the book from a slightly aloof and quick to anger noble princeling, to a mature and reasoned man who has been seasoned by the world, by hardship, and by war to realise the value of friends, family and the duty of being a good leader. So again, there is a strong sense of the optimistic journey and coming-of-age story.
Each of these stories, while they might seem stereotypically young adult, were told in ‘grown up’ language with none of the condescension or simplified linguistic choices that I had become all to accustomed to in YA work and other books that were deemed ‘suitable’ for my age group. There is nothing particularly fancy or overly complicated about Feist’s lexical selections, but he treated the reader as smart enough to know what the words meant, or, at the very least, smart enough to know how to look them up in a dictionary. So really, this was the first book that was both accessible to me in terms of story and characters, and yet the language challenged me to read smart. In effect, this was my first introduction to adult fantasy that I could truly get to grips with. I had already read Tolkien, but even I will admit that much of the nuance of Lord of the Rings passed me by and I may have skipped over the occasional poem or song… but Magician was a book that also had ‘grown up’ language, interesting characters and stories, cool settings, action, adventure, and nary a long poetic lay in sight. While Tolkien’s work is a masterpiece that requires thought, analysis, and deep appreciation in order to tease out all the nuances, Magician was a rollicking, coming-of-age, fantasy adventure that I could revel in with ease and comfort. It had a moral centre. It espoused lessons about friendship and loyalty. It talked about honour and respect as concepts that shouldn’t be considered outmoded, but rather things to emulate and aspire to.
From my older perspective I can see the nostalgic and idyllic qualities that Feist has written into the boys’ early lives and adventures. I can see the blatant Orientalism and cultural imperialism of the narration. I can see the jarring inconsistency between having characters espouse gender equality in one scene and yet never question the patriarchal system of primogeniture that Feist blindly included as part of the pseudo-medieval setting. I can see the casual sexist bias that Feist was clearly trying not to include but that slipped by him. There are deep flaws in the world-building and
outrageous … emmmm… unacknowledged literary borrowings throughout the novel, in addition to the suspect racial and cultural politics. I am also aware of the initially rather black and white morality of the story, which, in Feist’s defence, does become a lot more complicated and grey as the series develops. The roots of the story as part of a RPG game and set of scenarios are also fairly obvious in places. And, as much as I enjoyed a lot of the characters, a fair number of them are paint-by-numbers stock fantasy clichés readily familiar to anyone who has read a couple of fantasy works.
Yet, despite its many flaws, and, from my current perspective of how the genre has evolved over the last three decades, its use of quaint and simplistic tropes and clichés, Magician remains one of my favourite fantasy novels. It stands out in my mind as a brilliant example of the core of the genre. It exemplifies almost all the elements that made up epic fantasy in the 1980s and ‘90s, and still have an impact and place today. It was the first fantasy book to really show me the storytelling potential of the genre in a way that wasn’t too adult or too childish. It had moral lessons without being preachy. It had heroes who had flaws I could understand. It explored relationships in a way that my 12 year old brain could grasp. It granted me a portal into fantasy that wasn’t tinged with allegory and religion. It had D&D in its blood and bones, rather than bearing an uncanny resemblance to Tolkien. It is the fantasy of my youth. And for that, it will always be a favourite of mine.