Magician is the first novel in what is now a 21 book series. It introduces us to the world of Midkemia and the primary protagonists, Pug (the eponymous Magician) and Tomas ( the uber-warrior), and kicks off the Riftwar Saga. Emerging from the Midkemia gaming “Friday Night Sessions” when Feist taught at U.C.L.A, Magician was originally published in 1982, as two separate novels (Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master) and became a more-or-less instant best-seller. I’ve a feeling that this had as much to do with the fact that it was a male American writer who really looked the part, as it did to the fact that it’s a cracking good read. Incidentally, Pug and Thomas are the only ones who feature in all the other books, granted as they are if not true immortality then at least a very long life-span.
Almost two decades later, Magician was re-published in 2001 as a single book, and, according to the foreword, re-written with more colour, verve and clarity by an author in his prime. The new edition was also considerably longer, with Feist now calling the shots and restoring much of the dialogue originally edited out by his editor and publisher, around 50,000 words. A lot of people wouldn’t agree with me, but I personally believe that Magician and the other Midkemian Sagas ( the Riftwar Saga, the Riftwar Legacy, Krondor’s Sons, and the Serpentwar Saga) rank up there along with The Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time series as a great classics of 20th century Manichean fantasy. Well, at least up until the end of the Conclave of the Shadows Saga. Everything after that is a re-hash of what went before, and reads like Feist just drew the outlines and left the colouring in to others.
Like most Manichean sagas, there is little that is truly original about Magician, in a more uncannily than fantastical or marvelous sense in terms of world-building and character and peopling. Tolkien-esque elements are clear and present; the Elves are tall, beautiful, magical forest-dwellers who live in a breathtakingly stunning city of trees, the Dwarves are ale-drinking miners, and the heroes are honorable feudalists in a pre-industrial medieval world – The Kingdom of the Isles -. Dragons are intelligent and magical, and, naturally, there’s the mystery shrouded ‘Black Sorcerer’. No slaves, of course. Only the orientals keep slaves. Even the magic is nothing novel, with your standard greater-path and lesser-path magicians. Todorov calls this our accustomization to the marvelous*, when magical things happen without being anything of a surprise to the reader.
In its time though, Magician was original for using the clash of civilizations in a reasonably novel way, with two disparate worlds, separate in time and space, coming together in conflict. Two separate worlds, not two distinct races and/or cultures on the same world. Of course, this is typically pro-western, The Tsurani people on the world of Kelewan, clearly modeled on pre-industrial China and Japan, are trapped in a vicious cycle of never ending civil conflict and bloody internal strife. While the Emperor is theoretically supreme, real power rests in the hands of the Warlord, and the five great families, constantly maneuvering for greater power in what is called ‘The Game of the Council’. To maintain power, and keep the other families in check, the Warlord needs war. So his magicians create a rift through to the world of Midkemia. Locked as the Tsurani are into a twisted sense of honour, the kind that makes you die under orders without question, where loyalty to your lord and master is an absolute given, the Tsurani military culture means that they will invade the Kingdom on Midkemia, not attempt trade, as they are, to quote a remark by a character in the book ” a bunch of seriously war-like bastards.” And so the Riftwar kicks off. While the Tsurani have an army big enough to overrun the Kingdom in a matter of days, only a small portion is sent against the Midkemians, as political intrigue back on Kelewan means many powerful family lords choose to stay out the conflict in the hope of weakening the Warlord enough to overthrow him. Politics on Kelewan are far more complex and intricate than on Midkemia, or at least in the Kingdom on Midkemia. Midkemia’s a big place, and the Kingdom is only one of the major nation-states. The others, though, don’t feature prominently until later series.
The story opens with Pug, an orphan of the keep of Borric, the Duke of Crydee, having a chance meeting with the Duke’s magician, who takes him as his apprentice. His best friend is Tomas, who becomes apprenticed to the Duke’s Swordmaster. Then the Tsurani appear, clearly preparing for a military invasion. Deeply concerned, Borric takes council with the elves, and they agree to ally should war come. Pug also develops feelings for Carline, the Duke’s stunningly beautiful but somewhat petulant (could she possibly be anything else?) daughter. This leads to adolescent squabbling of the ‘She loves me! No she doesn’t! She loves me!” type with Roland, the squire of Prince Arutha, the Duke’s younger son. While Pug struggles with his feelings for Carline and Tomas falls in love with the Elf queen Aglaranna, they grow into their skills and manhood, resolve their differences, and pledge lifetime friendship. Having fleshed out his characters somewhat, established the hierarchies of power and confirmed the broad value-system, Feist kicks off the ‘Cycle of Adventure’, the bread and butter of any fantasy story, with one of its primary elements, the arduous journey. Borric, along with his younger son Arutha, decide to journey to Rillanon, the capital of the Kingdom, to beseech the King for aid. Pug and Tomas go along and the typical hair raising adventures occur – extreme weather, skirmishes with the Moredhel (bad elves who, in my opinion, are a much more interesting and well thought out villainous race than Tolkein’s Orcs) goblins, and monster wraiths in underground tunnels etc. The two boys get separated, and their individual journeys towards world’s greatest warrior and world’s greatest magician begin as the plot develops situations which only their own untapped potential can resolve. Naturally, Pug is kidnapped, taken through the rift to Kelewan where he becomes a slave. Later of course, he’s the greatest magician on Kelewan and is responsible for jumpstarting the kind of social reformation that only the white man can bring to the Orient, or in this case, the Tsurani Empire. Back on Midkemia, the high nobility, like Borric and Arutha, are also military commanders, and to them falls the more mundane task of fighting the war against the Tsurani on two different fronts. Personally, I find the parts of the book where military and political realism dominate much more compelling. The character of Prince Arutha is most people’s favorites, including mine, and the name-play on Arthur should give you a good idea of what his character is like. While physically different, Arutha has the same sort of charisma, a natural leader men don’t love (unlike his older brother Lyam, who is beloved by hs troops) but would respect and follow into battle without a second thought. Feist’s character writing is by far at its best when the non-magical characters are involved; the writing is uncanny and follows the ‘sword and sandals’ style. The lack of magic and the gritty realism of military and political intrigue lend to a much better and deeper narrative. The bond of family is very strong, and it’s almost impossible not to become deeply involved with the conDoin brothers, Arutha, Lyam, and Martin. Even later on in the series, when the large scale battles have a much stronger magical element, it’s still very good indeed.
Feist’s style, while not as stilted as Tolkein, is still very much classical high fantasy, albeit blended with enough modern colloquialism to avoid being a complete rip-off in terms of semantic functionality. The heroes are phenomenally courageous, with little or no self-doubt in themselves or the men they command. Still, he has a style that utilizes the best elements of classical fantasy and weaves them into an entertaining and often gripping fantasy. Magician is definitely among the books that will leave you bleary-eyed and feverishly turning pages at 3 in the morning, and thus, in my opinion, is far superior to Lord of the Rings which I was able to put down quite easily. It also doesn’t have any irritating songs in the middle, and the characters talk in narrative cliches as opposed to literary ones. It also has no annoying characters like Tom Bombadil, who would’ve had his face torn off by a Sauur if he’d dared to show his face in Midkemia.
What the book lacks, especially when compared to contemporary high fantasy (like Robin Hoob or George R.R. Martin) is moral ambiguity, visionary darkness, and the reality of cruelty and the capacity for failure and inadequacy innate in humanity. The Good Guys are just too good, and hence are difficult to relate to on a marvellous level as it is the attitude of the characters that sets up the plot more than the nature of events. Only the love interests temper these, but again all the characters find absolute, true love without having to compromise in any way. In Magician the characters all go through their ‘cycle of adventure/coming of age’ experiences without suffering very much, with the possible exception of Tomas, who has to grapple with total insanity in a schizophrenic sense. But even he too has the love of a good woman to keep him anchored in reality. In a broader sense, the invading Tsurani people are also the arch-typical ‘misunderstood’ empire, in need of the values and ‘Great Freedom’ that only an exposure to western ideals of service and ruling can provide. This becomes apparent in a later trilogy in the series (co-written with Jenny Wurts), when the setting switches to the world of Kelewan, where the Tsurani come from.
Having said that, there is no denying that Feist does has an easy yet puissant style, particularly in the new edition, which will definitely keep you coming back for more. If you like high fantasy you’ll definitely want to read the rest of the books, and since there are quite a lot of them, they only get better. The Serpentwar Saga in particular is terrific, written by an experienced author in the prime of his career and at the height of his narrative ability. All in all, Magician is highly recommended as an entertaining introduction to fantasy, and an excellent time-pass story for seasoned readers.
* It’s worth noting the three types of this genre; the marvelous, the uncanny, and the fantastic. This has been explained in a previous review, but since a lot of my subsequent reviews will be of fantasy, I’ll first review Todorov’s The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre to explain the terms used.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org