We’re back in the realm of very long medieval-fantasy series this month. The Riftwar Cycle comprises 30 books of varying length, broken down into various trilogies, duologies and quartets, most – but not all – set on the world of Midkemia. Some of them stand alone, others really need to be read in some sort of order. Feist has only written two books outside this cycle, a standalone called Faerie Tale and the beginning of a new series called King of Ashes; I haven’t read either of those.
Credit to my brother for first introducing me to these books, many years ago.
The key to these books is that there’s something for everyone. There’s magic – the magic system isn’t as developed as some, but it’s there and there are different types and different users. There are battles, and politics, and dragons, and dwarves, and elves, and goblins, and gods, and demons. They move along briskly, too – no long loving descriptions of every bit of scenery here, it’s almost all action. We have a variety of protagonist characters with distinct personalities. If you’re not keen on one arc, you’ll like the preceeding or following ones.
Let’s begin. This is going to be another long post, with so many volumes to cover.
The Riftwar Saga: Magician, Silverthorn and A Darkness At Sethanon.
Magician stands alone and manages to get an entire series worth of plot into its pages. The original version was cut quite harshly by the publishers, so if you first read this back in the 80s your experience will have been different; once Feist became well known enough he insisted on a reprint with the cut material restored. It’s published in two volumes in the US, for some reason – Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master.
The titular magician is a young orphan named Pug, who starts out along very traditional fantasy-hero lines by becoming apprenticed to the court wizard and saving the life of the princess before going off on an adventure. A strange ship is wrecked off the coast of the small dukedom where he lives that turns out to be from another world, Kelewan, and is followed by invasion and war.
Pug then ruins the plot by getting himself kidnapped and taken to that other world as a slave, whereupon the story gets divided between him learning magic there and the characters left behind, including his friend Tomas who goes off and meets elves and dragons, and their liege’s son Arutha who has to deal with the politics and war side. Eventually Pug makes it back to his own world and the war is resolved, but probably not in the way you’d expect. Unlike most of the books I’ve recommended so far, there’s no first-book-disclaimer here – Feist hits the ground running and maintains a pretty high standard of quality throughout the entire cycle.
Silverthorn and A Darkness At Sethanon mostly follow Arutha and the human-focused parts of the story, introducing and expanding on more side characters who remain very important for much of the rest of the series, as well as introducing some of the plot threads that drive the Riftwar Cycle.
The Empire Trilogy, co-written with Janny Wurts: Daughter of the Empire, Servant of the Empire and Mistress of the Empire.
These three are probably my favourites of the series. Remember the war with another world in Magician? Well, this is the story of the other side. Set on the world of Kelewan, within the Tsurani Empire, we see how and why the war began and unfolded the way it did (spoiler: it involves politics. Lots and lots and lots of politics) and learn about the ‘enemy’ society.
The protagonist is a young woman named Mara, of House Acoma. Political scheming kills her father, her brother and most of their House, leaving her suddenly the ruler, and the books follow the changing fortunes of her family throughout the war. During the first book she’s mostly concerned purely with her own affairs and in keeping her house alive through all the scheming. In the second book she acquires a number of Midkemian slaves and begins to learn more about the ‘barbarian’ world her people are waging war against, changing her view of life quite drastically. The third book follows the pattern of the first trilogy by building on the plot threads hinting at the course of the entire saga.
I like everything about these books. The Empire is vaguely Chinese, vaguely Japanese, and entirely alien – the native wildlife is all six-legged (including a sentient race of insectoids), the sky is green, there are two moons and a much hotter sun, and it all works. Every character, no matter how minor, is fully developed, and Mara herself is smart and believably flawed. Female protagonists are rare in the series as a whole, though not unheard of, and she’s by far the best of them. The endless politics are fun even if you don’t usually enjoy that sort of thing, and often take some unexpected and dramatic turns.
Brief content warnings – Mara’s life is a little rough in places. Her first marriage is abusive and she loses more than one child. The Empire is a brutal place with widespread slavery and violence. The books don’t dwell on the gory details though.
The Riftwar Legacy: Krondor: the Betrayal, Krondor: the Assassins, Krondor: Tear of the Gods and Krondor: Jimmy and the Crawler (novella).
Back on Midkemia, we start setting up a lot of themes for the rest of the saga. Our main protagonist is a thief-turned-noble-squire named Jimmy the Hand, who met and befriended Arutha in the early books. Jimmy himself is a great character I loved reading about, whose arc continues through much of the series, but his descendants keep showing up everywhere and something about it just starts to irk me after a while – possibly because most of them are near-identical to their ancestor only less interesting. But that’s for later. In these books, Jimmy deals with a cult of assassins, a rival thief known as the Crawler, and invading armies from the continent of Novindus. He’s helped by Pug’s son William, who is sadly just not as interesting as all the characters around him and never really gets a chance to shine.
For years I never realised just what it is about these particular books that didn’t quite sit with the rest of the series. I found out a long time after first reading them that Betrayal and Tear of the Gods are actually novelisations of computer games set in Midkemia that were not written by Feist originally (Betrayal at Krondor and Return to Krondor, respectively). He took the plot of the games and made it canon, and did it well enough that it’s hard to tell the original story wasn’t his, tying it back to his existing plot almost seamlessly.
Krondor’s Sons: Prince of the Blood and The King’s Buccaneer
These two books follow the adventures of the three sons of Arutha. I tend to skip over these on re-reads, I have to admit. Not that they’re bad books, at all, but none of the recurring cast feature very heavily and most of the action takes place in different lands. There’s some nice background worldbuilding, and some of the bad guys are working on behalf of the Nameless One who is now the established overall villain of the series, but for me they’re a little forgettable.
The Serpentwar Saga: Shadow of a Dark Queen, Rise of a Merchant Prince, Rage of a Demon King and Shards of a Broken Crown.
Despite what I just said about Krondor’s Sons, these four are my second favourites of the cycle though they don’t really feature most of the recurring cast either. The first book follows two lads named Erik and Roo who get into trouble and are conscripted into a very different kind of army, ending up stumbling into the main plot thread despite having no ties to anything connected to it. The action mainly takes place on the continent of Novindus and gradually ties all the new characters back to the main plot arc as we learn more about a new villain gathering an army of their own. In charge of this little group is Calis, son of Pug’s friend Tomas. Erik is our protagonist for this book and he has absolutely no idea what’s going on or who the main characters are, so we get a complete outsider’s perspective on things and grow to understand the connections as he puzzles them out. It’s a neat way of summarising and clarifying the events so far without feeling repetitive.
The second book takes a step back to focus on Roo. Both lads survived their campaign in Novindus: Erik stays with Calis’ men but Roo leaves to make his fortune as a merchant in the city of Krondor. We still see enough of Erik to know how the war is going but most of the book deals with Roo’s increasing wealth and status and all the mistakes he makes along the way. Roo is a very flawed character who really shouldn’t be as likeable as he is; he cheats on his wife, he screws over his business partners, he chases petty grudges and he’s utterly selfish, but he’s also a lot of fun to read, and he’s saved by his ability to learn from his mistakes. This side story lets you catch your breath before returning to the main plot.
Following the pattern, the third book delves deeper into the overall story arc and we find out that the nameless villain behind it all seems to be a demon. War comes back to the main continent and drags more of the primary cast back in, and Erik and Roo step back a little as their side plots begin to wrap up.
The fourth book focuses on the aftermath of this latest war, dealing with the remainder of the demon’s minions and the politics needed to deal with the last of the ‘enemy’ army. Erik and Roo are still here, along with two more characters – Jimmy and Dash – whose entire family irritate me slightly. They’re the sons of Jimmy the Hand, and are nowhere near as interesting as their parent. Nor will any of their descendants be.
At the end of the book Pug gathers up all the named characters who are going to be important later and they all withdraw from human society to form an organisation called the Conclave of Shadows, whose purpose is to fight against the real villain behind all the enemies and armies we’ve seen so far.
Legends of the Riftwar: Honoured Enemy (with William R Forstchen), Murder in LaMut (with Joel Rosenberg), and Jimmy the Hand (with S M Stirling).
These three are standalone novellas that fit into various places in the timeline. I’m mentioning them here because this marks the point where the plot threads all start gathering together into a single story with far fewer side digressions. The first takes place during the first war with the Tsurani Empire, focusing on two groups of soldiers fighting one another. The second takes place shortly afterwards, following three mercenaries. The last is a side adventure in Jimmy’s life between his meeting Arutha and joining the nobility.
I don’t have much else to say about them. They’re well written and provide more worldbuilding details but they’re fairly forgettable.
Conclave of Shadows: Talon of the Silver Hawk, King of Foxes and Exile’s Return.
The pattern is well established by now. In the first book we step away from what we learned in the previous series and meet a new character from a new background: Talon, or Tal, is a vaguely Native American boy whose entire tribe is slaughtered. He’s found by agents of the Conclave, who decide he’s useful and train him in enough skills to turn him into something of a Gary Stu before he goes after the men who killed his people. There’s been a considerable timeskip from the end of the Serpentwar quartet, of at least twenty years.
Following the pattern, we deal with the ones directly responsible first, then the man behind them, then the one manipulating that man, and then find out he was another pawn of the Nameless One. The formula is getting a little bit predictable now, but the characters in this particular arc are fun. Tal himself isn’t anything too special but the things he sees and does make for a great story, and the second and third books deal more with Kaspar, a far more interesting pawn in the revenge chain who’s a little miffed at what’s been happening to him and how he’s been manipulated. We meet a few more side characters too, including Pug’s two sons from his second marriage.
We’re going to look at the remainder of the cycle in one go.
The Darkwar Saga: Flight of the Nighthawks, Into a Dark Realm and Wrath of a Mad God.
The Demonwar Saga: Rides a Dread Legion and At The Gates of Darkness.
The Chaoswar Saga: A Kingdom Besieged, A Crown Imperilled and Magician’s End.
I’ll be honest, this is usually where I stop when I re-read the whole cycle. The books are still very well written and they’re still entertaining enough, but for me personally Feist tries to do just a little bit too much. The main plot thread deals with exploring the nature of the Nameless One, and – since this is an epic fantasy series – finally defeating him for good. There’s enough material there for that to be a very satisfying conclusion to a great series.
But we also have demons, gods, other dimensions, space elves (yes, really… in a less good series that would be the jump-the-shark moment), people being reincarnated as demons (some of whom have died and been reincarnated previously), and it’s all just a bit too much this late in the cycle. Your mileage may vary, a lot of fans enjoy these later books as much as the early ones, but to me it feels like Feist wanted to use a few discarded plot threads and threw them all in at the end, when the stories are complex enough that he could have saved them for other books.
I didn’t like the epilogue either, but then I very seldom do. I can’t go into why without spoiling it, but to me it was a cop-out that invalidated a lot of the drama of the finale.
That said, the books are still very good, and it’s a piece of technological wizardry to manage to tie all the disparate plot threads – some of which go back twenty-odd books – into a single mostly-coherent story that builds and builds at a terrific pace before reaching a pretty strong ending. Most of my issues with the later part of the cycle are purely a matter of personal taste.
It occurs to me that I suppose Feist reminds me somewhat of Brandon Sanderson, except the characters don’t use modern American slang all the time. Give the books a try. You’ll like ’em.