At the Gates of Darkness is the second book in the Demonwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist, and while his work is some of the first fantasy I’ve read and enjoyed enough to purchase, over the years my appreciation of his work has waned somewhat. This is partly because I have discovered books that are qualitatively much better, and partly because I have developed my taste as a reader of fantasy. I do have fond memories of his first dozen books, however, so every time a new one hits the shelves I find myself reading it against my better judgement.
At the Gates of Darkness continues the story that began in Rides a Dread Legion and chronicles the efforts of Pug and his Conclave of Shadows to deal with the threat of an invasion by an army of Demons. The story has three main story lines: One that follows Pug and the Conclave, one that follows the Knight-Adamant Sandreena, and one that follows the elven brothers Laromendis and Gulamendis. Each of them unveils useful information about the nature of the threat posed by the invading demons and the role which the Conclave’s nemesis Belasco plays in all this. After pooling their resources, a plan is conceived to deal with Belasco once and for all.
Feist’s body of work covers a total of five riftwars: The Riftwar, the Serpentwar, the Darkwar, the Demonwar and the yet to be published Chaoswar. At the Gate of Darkness is the conclusion of the Demonwar, and Feist’s 26th novel in the Midkemia/Kelewan setting. With such a long-running series, reader fatigue is always a risk, and Feist’s books seem to suffer from this a lot. Personally, I think the last good book he wrote was the third book in the Serpentwar Saga, Rage of a Demon King. I consider the fourth part in that sub-series, Shards of a Broken Crown, to be mostly superfluous. After that Feist seems to lose interest in his own creation. The books start to feel rushed; less attention is paid to the setting and the development of societies of Midkemia or to the secondary characters. The plots follow the course of a fairly simple Dungeons and Dragons game. After reading the Darkwar Saga books I was optimistic that Feist was trying to raise the level again. Although these books suffer from many of the problems I just mentioned, they feel more inspired than the books that preceded them. I’m afraid the Demonwar Saga books are not cause for further optimism.
Feist’s books have always had a high D&D-style content. This is not surprising given the fact that Midkemia was originally a D&D world. In earlier books, Feist takes a lot more time to flesh out his world, however. With characters such as Arutha and Eric von Darkmoor, these books have a connection to the world of ordinary Midkemian citizens. No matter how privileged these men were, they did not possess magic or extraordinary long lifespans. How they dealt with the presence of magical threats to their country was one of the interesting aspects of the story. A combination of worldly concerns and supernatural influence on the world made these books a lot more readable than the later ones. At the Gate of Darkness is almost completely focused on the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. There is barely a glance at how the arrival of yet another elven tribe will impact Midkemia, very little on how Pug deals with the loss of much of his second family, next to nothing on the politics of the Kingdom of the Isles look like these days, etc. Midkemia has been relegated to a battlefield and a useful pool of magical talent, with much of the struggle completely detached from whatever world it is taking place on.
The Demonwar itself is also a rather confusing affair. Over the course of the series Feist has added layer upon layer of knowledge about the structure of the Midkemian universe. It has become quite a complex structure but, as usual, we find out that our view of it is still not complete. The Demons stem from another plane of existence referred to as the fifth circle. They’ve shown up on previous occasions (in the Serpentwar Saga, in particular, they play an important part) but their nature and the forces that are driving them to enter the Midkemian plane of existence are still largely unknown. In the Demonwar Saga, a duology that aims to explore the conflict between the Conclave of Shadows and the Demons, one would expect a little more detail to be introduced, and Feist does hint that the fifth circle is not the chaotic environment Pug and his companions always assumed. That’s all it is, though. A hint. Before we’ve even begun to unravel what the door is actually about, Pug rushes off to some remote location and slams the door (or rift if you prefer) before it is good and well opened. Game over.
Although Feist’s books have never been at the high end of the scale when it comes to literary quality, his early work was my first step into the fantasy genre. His novels gave me a taste of fantasy before tackling the heavy-hitters of speculative fiction. At the Gates of Darkness, however, is nowhere near Feist’s best. The story is more or less what we’ve come to expect from him but the execution is sloppy and feels rushed. From the Demonwar Saga I really get the impression that Feist can’t wait to get to the end of this series. With three more books to go — assuming Feist will not write two additional Krondor books — I certainly hope he does better in the Chaoswar trilogy. It would be a shame to let the series fizzle out in a number of uninspired novels.
The Darkwar Saga — (2005-2008) Also takes place in Midkemia. Publisher: The Conclave of Shadows faces two challenges, finding and destroying the evil magician Leso Varen, and neutralizing an army of ten thousand magical warriors hidden in a cave on the other side of the world. On the world of Kelewan, Pug’s son, Magnus, and the master magicians of Kelewan study one of the warriors, called a Talnoy, and discover that it is acting as a beacon for a vast army of alien invaders, one so formidable that even the might of the Tsurani Empire could fall before its fury. Three other agents of the Conclave — Kaspar, Talwin, and Caleb — are sent deep into the heart of the Empire of Great Kesh charged with uncovering a new nest of Night Hawks who are plotting to overthrow the imperial government; a scheme so dark and twisted it implicates even the highest ranking nobles of the Empire and members of the royal family itself.
The Demonwar Saga — (2009-2010) A sequel to The Darkwar Saga. Publisher: Ten years after the cataclysmic events of Wrath of a Mad God took place, Midkemia now faces a new danger thought buried in myth and antiquity. Laromendis is a conjurer from another world — a world inhabited by a race of high elves whose home is being ravaged by the Dread Legion of the Demon King. The elves’ only hope lies in finding the lost homeworld — Midkemia — and now they must reclaim it, at any cost! Pug summons the help of a warlock and a holy demon-taming cleric, but in doing so, he has unwittingly reunited two former lovers whose parting was bitter… and who just might have secret agendas of their own.