Friday, 26 September 2014

Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist

What to say about this book? I get why it has been popular. It's well-written, the characters are good, the story bounces along.... Except for the part where there's nearly nothing really striking about it. It's good, but I can't think of a single category in which it ascends to greatness. So I'm left having enjoyed reading it, but not in any way enthused about Feist's writing or reading more. (I will read the second half, so I can check this off on the BBC Big Read, though.)

It's hard to write about a book that is really very skillful generic fantasy, but still absolutely generic fantasy. I get that this may have been one of the groundbreaking works - was it? - but now this is ground that has been retread so many times that all I'm getting from reading it is a Tolkien-homage. Not as close a Tolkien homage as some others, but Tolkien's world drips all over these pages.

The idea of a fantasy world being invaded by another fantasy world is interesting, and that's the premise of the books, as warriors from another dimension keep popping up and attacking, possibly trying to create beach-heads for a full invasion.

There are courtly politics around this, and a young emperor who is sitting happily in denial about anything going on for as long as he can.

The two viewpoint characters are two young men, one a warrior-in-training, the other a magician-in-training. The magician has magic the likes of which have not been seen in ages, or perhaps ever.

He's in love with the princess of the place where he lives, or rather, she's in love with him, and he's not quite sure how he feels.

I am running out of things to say already. There isn't an urgent dramatic push in this book. It meanders through an invasion, and the tension is rarely high. In fact, as far as I can remember, no named characters die, so the stakes are certainly not as high as they are in, say, a George R.R. Martin book, which has perhaps spoiled this kind of high fantasy for me.

The female character gets to be tempestuous and spoiled, and later to mellow, and discover that she likes it when the guy she has feelings for orders her around to keep her safe. Even if she doesn't always listen. 

There are dwarves, and elves, and a dragon sleeping on his hoard. There are master magicians. The evil all comes from elsewhere. It's a fun read, but it doesn't seem to have anything more to say.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read


  1. There is one really striking thing about it: the publication date. 'Magician' came out in 1982, when the fantasy genre we know now didn't really exist. There was Tolkien and CS Lewis, and the Wizard of Earthsea, and there was Sword and Sorcery, mostly in the form of short stories (Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, etc) and there were a few odder things on the SF/fantasy borderlands (Jack Vance). And there was Pern. But there wasn't the massive genre there is now.

    The key year in fantasy was 1977. That was the year the Silmarillion came out. It was the year Star Wars came out. It was the year that fantasy roleplaying games took off with the release of AD&D. It was the year the first two bestselling fantasy series began: Shannara and Thomas Covenant.

    So if you were a teenager in 1982 and you wanted to read fantasy, what could you read? You probably weren't interested in the old Moorcock and Vance pulp magazine stories, which were too weird and old for you. Maybe you'd read Shannara, and probably found it too simplistic and derivative; maybe you'd read Covenant and found it too hifalutin and depressing. You probably didn't want to even try your sister's Pern novels, because you're not a girl, and you're not into reading about magic sexy-ponies in space. Magician was what was new to try - more accessible than most of the older authors, but more mature than Brooks (or Eddings, whose first book also came out in '82). Dragons of Autumn Twilight and the horde of D&D novels that would follow wouldn't come out until '84, and even when they did they looked a bit shallow next to Feist.

    Feist's great selling point, then, was that his novels existed, and most fantasy novels didn't exist yet, which made them much harder to buy.

    So yeah, in an environment filled with the last 32 years of fantasy novels that to a large extent are at least partly Feist-imitations, Feist has nothing new to offer. But in a fantasy environment of old pulp magazines, Narnia, Thomas Covenant and the Shannara novels, Feist stood out a lot more!

  2. [I suppose to give a few specifics: one of the big things Feist did was give you a world filled with ordinary people, that was meant to work like an ordinary world. It was just a mediaeval kingdom but with magicians in it. Gondor never felt like a place with thieves' guilds and brothels. Sam and Frodo were sort of common people, sure, but a very particular type of common person who teenage boys didn't necessarily identify with much, and in any case nobody else they met (other than the innkeep in Bree) was a common person.Fantasy up until Feist had always felt a lot more... fantastical. Whereas Midkemia is the sort of world where an author could (as Feist later did) set an entire novel about stock market manipulation without it seeming out of place. The price of wheat and the feasibility of long-distance shipping-underwriting never factored in to the plots of Sauron or Lord Foul or the White Witch.

    Feist also broke away from traditional European settings by including the Tsurani (and later other parts of his world, encouraging the later 'wander the world seeing all the cultures' trend in fantasy). 'Literary' fantasy had always been very alien, but in terms of what was available for teenage boys at the time and for a while after, a magician-dominated asian warrior culture was innovative.
    There's also a greater degree of moral complexity in his work than in a lot of his contemporaries. It's not a great deal, to be sure. But some characters are roguish, some characters do things that they later feel guilty about, and at least one character seems at first like a baddy but then may actually be a gooddy although it's a bit complicated.

    I wouldn't say Feist is great fiction (although the Empire trilogy he co-authored with Wurts is still worth reading), but for what it was, and importantly for when it was written, it did have something to... well, OK, it didn't have anything to say, but it did have a distinctive way of saying it, which is sometimes more important at the birth of a new genre.]

    Having said all that, though: the first half of Magician is, iirc, the least interesting and most conventional bit of Feist's writing for a long time to come. [Iirc, the high point, other than the Empire trilogy, is the first three installments of the Serpentwar series].

    Oh, and if you want named characters dying, don't worry, Feist is definitely the author for you. Martin is a wimp compared to Feist. But do bear in mind that this first book was never even intended to be a book: it's just the first half of the first novel of the first trilogy. You can't expect TOO many character deaths already!

    (Iirc, the rest of the trilogy isn't great but does have some great moments. Then there are two interstitial novels that are basically pulp filler but iirc were enjoyable enough in their way, and then there's Serpentwar, which is three good books and one not so good one. And then it all gets out of control and there's another dozen highly repetitive money-milking volumes.)

    [Hope you don't mind me cross-posting this reply to your blog.]