Mark ruins his childhood, part 1: Raymond E. Feist’s Magician
For reasons I cannot fathom, I recently re-read this book, which was a favorite of mine when I was about fourteen or so. Sure, it’s one of many Tolkien-via-D&D fantasy pastiches, but I was already a die-hard gamer back then and had yet to make it all the way through LotR, so I guess it seemed fresh to me. I even re-read it in my twenties, and as far as I remember twenties-me still considered it a great read.
Forty-five-year-old me realizes that it is not a great read.
Feist is, at best, a competent writer, though for most of the novel his prose is quite leaden, and he has an annoying tendency to tell you exactly what is going on. And by that I mean almost no moment passes without either the author or a character explaining exactly any and all subtext. The meaning of a given passage will be patently obvious, but nonetheless, someone will pipe up and say, “You’re feeling [X], aren’t you?” just in case the reader lacked the ability to discern that there was indeed a nose right in the middle of their face.
And for all implication that this book is the zero-to-hero story of Pug/Milamber and Tomas/Ashen-Shugar, it’s really more the story of Pug, Arutha, and maybe a handful of other characters. Tomas’ story — which is basically awesome boy finds awesome magic armor and becomes awesome warrior who gets to bang the awesome elf queen and… wait, he might be evil… no, it’s cool, he’s still awesome — gets comparatively little page-count. Which is fine, really. Magciain is really about the war with Kelewan, and everyone of note who is affected by it.
It’s also astonishing how nice everyone is in the book. Almost every character we meet is basically a good person, and everyone who asks for help gets what they need. No one questions the idea that Midkemia is being attacked by invaders from another planet, and everyone bands together with near-zero hesitation. And even when we shift to the other side of the war, we learn that most of the enemy are all basically good folks who are the victims of political maneuvering. Oh, and the rare sex scenes are pretty much G-rated, so HBO isn’t going to be adapting this book any time soon.
Really, anyone used to the constant horndoggery, murder and betrayal of Game of Thrones is going to feel like they’re reading about Mayberry.
There are really only two villains in the novel — the Warlord of the Tsuranuani and Guy du Bas-Tyra — and they primarily appear only in reference. The Warlord gets a few lines in one scene, and Guy literally does not appear in the book at all; all we see are the effects of his actions.
And, as one would expect, there are few women of note in the book, and Carline is the only one whose story reaches beyond “stoically stands by her man”. Even so, she is almost entirely defined by her relationships with various men.
That said, Feist seems to sort of figure out how the whole novel-writing thing works about 60% of the way in. The story of Pug’s life on Kelewan and Arhuta’s struggles to escape Guy’s reach are pretty page-turn-y. And the side-effect of everyone being so nice is that, by the end of the book, I do generally care about them, so I am happy to find out how they fare. (And almost tempted to keep reading more of the books in the series.)
I want to give teenage-gamer-me some credit for loving this book. The current edition in print is the “author’s preferred edition,” which adds something like 20,000 words to the manuscript. I’d like to think that the edition I read back in the day was maybe a little tighter, and thus was more compelling. But I have a feeling it was mostly fantasy nerdery and my identification with Pug. (Pug and Tomas, as boys, were very much like me and a good friend of mine.)
While it was rough going at first, I basically enjoyed this re-reading exercise. I don’t know if I’ve forever destroyed my nostalgia for the book, but I at least feel like I’ve gained some perspective upon it. And I feel comfortable selling off my hardcopies.
Lastly, let me say that I am really surprised that Professor’s Barker and/or his estate never went after Feist for ripping off Tékumel so hard. We know the book is based on Feist’s old D&D campaign, and his DM was obviously mashing up D&D and EPT. Kelewan is very obviously Barker’s creation with some of the serial numbers filed off. (And the further Feist stays from Barker, the less interesting and more culturally-confused Kelewan gets.)