‘All eyes turned to see Kuglan the magician step forward. ‘I have need of an apprentice and would call Pug, orphan of the keep, to service.’’
Last summer I read the entirety of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, devouring book after book in quick succession. I wanted to watch Game of Thrones, as I was curious to see what all the fuss was about, and I hate watching things before I’ve read the book. As a result I ended up on a bit of a fantasy kick, and so while waiting for the long-time-coming Winds of Winter I decided to read Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga to get my fantasy fix, and recently finished the last in the trilogy; A Darkness at Sethanon.
The series follows the fates of a group of characters from Crydee, a remote outpost of the fictional world of Midkemia. The main characters include Pug, a kitchen boy and his friend Tomas, and more so in the second and third books, Arutha, the Duke of Crydee’s younger son, Martin the Huntmaster of Crydee and Jimmy the Hand, an orphaned boy from the city of Krondor.
Set in the medieval-esque world of Midkemia, and populated by the usual men, dwarves and elves, at first sight this trilogy would seem like normal fantasy fare. However, Feist has a twist: Midkemia is not the only world in the saga. In the first book, Magician, we are introduced to a second world, Kelewan, which becomes accessible via a rift in time and space, and ends up at war with Midkemia (hence the title the Riftwar Saga).
This was in my opinion, the best thing about the series. The concept of multiple worlds and the moving between time and space keeps this from being the average fantasy. Whilst there is all the antiquated medieval elements you would expect – swords, knights, horses, castles – the multiple worlds added a sci-fi element that really mixed things up. Whilst there is always an element in fantasy of ‘anything could happen’, due to the presence of magic, the multiple worlds meant that literally anything could happen, with characters at certain points even venturing into the Halls of the Dead or walking through a corridor lined by doors to infinite worlds.
I also liked the way elves are portrayed in the series. Whilst representations of elves since Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings have tended towards the tall, impossibly beautiful and inherently good, there are two kinds of elves in Feist’s world (technically there’s four but only two are commonly featured). There’s the typical ethereal elves of Elvendar, but also the dark, evil elves, called the Brotherhood of the Dark Path or the moredhel. There is essentially no physical difference between the two races, only the path they have chosen, good or evil, and I really liked this as it eliminated the idea of elves as a race that is good by default, and kept me from groaning exasperatedly at their clichéd presence.
However, one thing I felt the series lacked was enough strong female characters, which unfortunately is often the case in fantasy. It appears as if some effort has been made to do this, but it is rather half-hearted. For example the audacious Carline at first glance could be seen as a strong female character, but as her storyline, particularly in the first book, seems to involve falling in love with various men and little else, this is somewhat negated. Similarly Brianna in the last book, as a female commander at Armengar, could have been a great female character if not for the sappy love-at-first-sight story she seems to have been invented for the sake of.
The trilogy also sometimes lacked enough emotional charge due to the fact that it quickly became clear that despite the supposedly dire situations the characters face, they are never truly endangered, being pretty much guaranteed survival. Perhaps I have simply been spoiled by George R.R. Martin’s willingness to kill off dearly beloved characters, but in The Riftwar Saga, there is significantly less tragedy. Not only is most of the characters’ survival guaranteed, but they will also come out of it spectacularly well, to the point where it can seem a little cheesy eg. they receive a dukedom/earldom/rich wife.
Feist’s writing certainly lacks the edge of Martin’s, with the violence and cruelty of the fantasy world significantly toned down. In fact, there is something almost fairytale-esque in my opinion about the Riftwar Saga, where A Song of Ice and Fire is grittier and feels almost as if it could exist. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing: it has its own quality which is distinctly different from any other fantasy I’ve read, and the added sci-fi element of the rifts in time and space was a major selling point for me.
Whilst Magician (the first) is generally considered the best of the trilogy, I actually enjoyed the final book the best (I do like to be contrary!). I found the time changes of Magician, which covers a great number of years, jarring, with the main characters jumping from children to adolescents to men in quick succession. The events of A Darkness at Sethanon however happen over the course of weeks, or months at the most, and there’s never a dull moment or a character at a loose end as there sometimes is in Magician, the lengthiest of the three.
In all though, I thoroughly enjoyed the series. Although it caved to many of the cheesy trappings of the fantasy genre (for example a few lacklustre love at first sight incidences), and seemed a less real, and cruel world than Martin’s Westeros, the time and space elements and the reinvention of fantasy conventions like the elves made for an interesting and extremely satisfying read. This was my first encounter with Feist’s work, and it is immediately clear why he is such a popular author within the genre, the series combining interesting (male) characters and a highly original concept. I will definitely be reading more of his work!