So, after last week’s rather heavy topic, here’s the post I had initially intended to do in Week Two…
I recently reread two books I last read in my mid teens, Magician and A Darkness at Sethanon (both by Raymond E. Feist). They are respectively the first and third books in Feist’s bestselling Riftwar Saga, the trilogy that launched his Riftwar Cycle of 20-odd high fantasy novels, which will conclude with the publication of Jimmy and the Crawler and Magician’s End this year.
Now, when I read Feist’s work in my teens I loved the Riftwar Saga and some of the other books, notably Krondor: The Betrayal (Volume One of the Riftwar Legacy trilogy), and A Darkness at Sethanon was my favourite in the entire cycle. Unfortunately, after that the rot set in pretty quickly.
Taking the books in reading order (rather than publication order, this is what the series looks like:
- The Riftwar Saga – The First Riftwar. The Kingdom of the Isles must deal with enemies from within and without, including an alien invasion, a mad monarch, a dark-elf uprising and the return of an ancient evil force.
- Magician – the western Kingdom is invaded by the Tsuranni, a pseudo-oriental empire from the planet Kelewan.
- Silverthorn – a princess is accidentally poisoned on her wedding day by the dark forces who seek the death of her fiance.
- A Darkness at Sethanon – Murmandamus, a legendary Moredhel (dark-elf) chieftain returns from the dead to lead his people against The Kingdom of the Isles.
- The Empire Trilogy – co-written with Janny Wurts and set on Kelewan, this series overlaps with the events of The Riftwar Saga.
- Daughter of the Empire – Mara of the Acoma must lead her followers through terror and peril while surviving the ruthless political Game of the Council.
- Servant of the Empire – After buying a group of Midkemian prisoners-of-war, Mara discovers one of them is a noble, who reveals himself as a great asset in regards to the Game of the Council.
- Mistress of the Empire – After rising to power Mara of the Acoma must now face the power of the brotherhood of assassins, the spies of rival houses and the might of the Assembly, who see her as a threat to their power.
- Legends of the Riftwar – Set during the events of Magician, Feist co-wrote these three books with other authors he was friends with, effectively giving them a chance to “play with his toys”.
- Honored Enemy – During the first Riftwar, a group of Midkemian soldiers and Tsurani form an uneasy alliance to survive a moredhel assault. Co-written with William R. Forstchen.
- Murder in La Mut – Three mercenaries deal with a conspiracy in a town on the front lines of The First Riftwar. Co-written with Joel Rosenberg.
- Jimmy the Hand – The titular boy thief gets mixed up in a conflict with a mad nobleman and his pet magician. Co-written with S. M. Stirling.
- The Riftwar Legacy – set ten years after A Darkness at Sethanon.
- Krondor: The Betrayal – a dark elf chieftain joins the side of the humans to warn them of the rise of a new Moredhel chieftain who has united the clans by claiming that Murmandamus is still alive. The novelisation of the first Riftwar video game (Betrayal at Krondor), which made its events canon.
- Krondor: The Assassins – Another manifestation of the Guild of Death is dealt with.
- Krondor: Tear of the Gods – The titular artifact is captured by the villains for evil ends and the heroes must retrieve it. The Novelization for the second Riftwar video game (Return to Krondor), which was not nearly as well received as the first.
- There were another two books planned, Krondor: The Crawler and Krondor: The Dark Mage. Reportedly, they have been put on-hold due to rights issues involving the original games. Instead, this year will see the Riftwar Legacy finish as a quartet with Jimmy and the Crawler.
- Krondor’s Sons – Two books centering upon the adventures of Prince Arutha’s sons. Covers a period of time 20-30 years after the end of the First Riftwar.
- Prince of the Blood – Two spoiled princes become heroes in a foreign land.
- The King’s Buccaneer – The sons of the Riftwar’s heroes must deal with a new menace from across the western seas.
- The Serpentwar Saga – The Second Riftwar. Midkemia is invaded by lizard-men, fleeing a demon invasion of their home-world. Begins nearly 50 years after A Darkness at Sethanon, 20 years after The King’s Buccaneer.
- Shadow of a Dark Queen – A dark queen is gathering armies across the Western Sea. Desperate men of the Kingdom of the Isles are sent on a suicidal mission to confront this evil.
- Rise of a Merchant Prince – Newly pardoned for his crimes, a young man begins his quest to become a rich trader in the capital city of Krondor. Notable for the central role of high finance.
- At the time it was refreshing to see an epic fantasy novel try and explain how its society worked aside from all the war and sorcery. How successful it was is subject to debate.
- Rage of a Demon King – The Emerald Queen’s army – and the demonic power behind it – moves upon The Kingdom of the Isles.
- Shards of a Broken Crown – The Kingdom forces struggle to oust the forces of two nations that now lay siege to the ruins of their capitol.
- Conclave of Shadows – Set 30 years after Shards of a Broken Crown, this book shows us the work that has gone into establishing a group capable of fighting the various dark forces seeking the destruction of Midkemia, through the eyes of one young man who is recruited into the Conclave.
- Talon of the Silver Hawk – A young barbarian, the last survivor of his destroyed clan, is adopted into The Conclave of Shadows and slowly molded into an agent for their use.
- King of Foxes – Now in the service of the man responsible for killing his clan, Talon of the Silver Hawk (aka Talwin Hawkins) must play a dangerous game in order to get his revenge and serve the interests of The Conclave of Shadows.
- Exile’s Return – Exiled to a foreign land, Duke Kaspar suddenly finds himself in possession of a device which could spell doom for Midkemia.
- Darkwar Saga – The Third Riftwar. Details the Conclave of Shadows’ efforts to stop an invasion by The Dasati; a race from a parallel plane, ruled by evil and destructive forces.
- Flight of the Nighthawks – A new evil threatens Midkemia, its web stretching from the deepest criminal underworld all the way up to the highest seats of power in ancient Kesh.
- Into a Dark Realm – Chaos threatens to overwhelm two worlds as the most dangerous force ever encountered threatens to invade Midkemia, while the most treacherous magician in history – the madman Leso Varen – begins to wreak havoc on the world of Kelewan.
- Wrath of a Mad God – The Darkwar has fallen upon the worlds of Kelewan and Midkemia; a time of heroes, trials and destruction. Following their dangerous mission to the realm of the alien Dasati, Magnus and the other members of the Conclave must now find a way to use what they discovered to help save their own people from the Wrath of a Mad God.
- Demonwar Saga – The Fourth Riftwar. Details the invasion of Midkemia by a group of war-like world-conquering elves, who may have inadvertently brought the demonic forces they were fleeing with them, as they came to Midkemia.
- Rides a Dread Legion – The taredhel (star elves) return to their native homeworld of Midkemia, ready for conquest despite the demonic threat that nips at their heels.
- At the Gates of Darkness – In the face of the demonic threat and the questions it poses, the Conclave find themselves on a perilous search for some much-needed answers even as their enemy forces them to take action.
- Chaoswar Saga – The Fifth Riftwar.
- A Kingdom Besieged – The Empire of Kesh moves to invade The Kingdom of the Isles as The Conclave of Shadows and their allies investigate the disappearance of their spies, discovering that enemies long thought dead have returned.
- A Crown Imperiled– As The Conclave of Shadows seek the homeland of the Pantathian serpent priests, three Kingdom princes try to slow the Keshian invasion and prevent a new civil war.
- Magicians End – Not yet released. Expected in 2013.
So I’ve never read Legends of the Riftwar or Krondor’s Sons and I only got as far as Into a Dark Realm before giving up. Why?
The original trilogy was good. It turned most of the well-worn tropes and expectations of high fantasy upside-down. There is no racial or physiological difference between Light Elves and Dark Elves (Eledhel and Moredhel), the elves and the dwarves don’t hate each other, the orphan boy didn’t turn out to be the illegitimate son of the King, warriors who rushed in blindly against the odds tended to get killed and for the entirety of Magician the enemy was another human civilisation. The Riftwar Saga and the Empire Trilogy included a lot of political intrigue and pseudo-history, and spent time dealing with characters who didn’t wield swords, cast spells or decide policy. A Darkness at Sethanon and Krondor: The Betrayal were more typically ‘fantasy’ in plot (indeed, the latter is pretty much an extended epilogue to the former) but Krondor: The Assassins – and later Rise of A Merchant Prince, Shards of a Broken Crown and Flight of the Nighthawks – also were pretty heavy on intrigue, assassination and spying. Feist – like Terry Pratchett – was refreshingly upfront about subverting his audience’s expectations, often having a naive character assuming things will unfold in a certain way (which is how they would do so in a stereotypical fantasy book) only for something different to happen because this is ‘real life’, so to speak. He also had a pretty damn firm policy of ‘anyone can die’ – codified when the cycle’s only consistent protagonist, Pug, is told halfway through the series that he will live to see everyone he loves die. Indeed, on opening the first chapter of Shadow of a Dark Queen, the reader is informed that a popular and powerful character from the early books has recently died at a ripe old age after falling off a horse (!) while at least three characters’ love interests are killed off (in A Darkness at Sethanon, Krondor: Tear of the Gods and Shadow of a Dark Queen) with the latter two also being raped (one implied, one shown).
In fact, those last two deaths are part of the problem. As the series progressed (and the overarching plot had been planned out to begin with) it degenerated pretty rapidly into stereotypical fantasy. Lots of swords, magic, sex, demons, violence against women and children just to show how evil the bad guys are and bad guys who all serve and/or are manipulated by a mad chaos/death god who basically wants to destroy everything. It occasionally showed flashes of the old brilliance: the Conclave of Shadows books included a baddie who wasn’t serving the mad god and who switched sides, Rise of a Merchant Prince was an entire novel devoted to a young veteran who becomes a rich merchant (in subsequent books, people read his memoirs and assume that he can’t have been as important as he claims simply because he was involved in a bunch of top secret black ops missions and became so inconceivably rich he single-handedly funded the defence of the Kingdom in the following two books), Flight of the Nighthawks had some interesting stuff on what happens when the ‘good guys’ use torture and Wrath of a Mad God apparently had Pug destroy an entire world to save the multiverse. Unfortunately, however, it became everything I hate about fantasy, those reasons why I read only certain authors. So I gave up on it at the age of 16 and it was with some trepidation that I returned to the original trilogy.
It’s actually quite good, perhaps even better than I remember it because I didn’t recognise all Feist’s ironic nods to tradition and subversions of his readers’ expectations back then when I was less widely-read in the genre. There are well-drawn, sympathetic characters (both protagonists and antagonists) and a convincing world with a convincing history that is revealed slowly and carefully, so that there are no clunky, LOTR-style infodumps (and I say that as someone who likes LOTR). I won’t read much beyond the original trilogy though!
So, has anyone else read these books? Or has anyone had similar experiences with series that jumped the shark or rediscovered favourites?
Debate, discuss… oh, you get the picture!