When I was in my late teens I went through a spell when I hardly read any books at all. Literature classes at the time seemed to be aimed at forcing the most boring reading material on you, or else books that were way over the head of your average teenager, making reading seriously unappealing. I’ve always wondered how many people never got back to reading again after going through those classes. I returned to reading in 1996 when I entered college, mostly to take my mind off the more technical stuff I had to read as part of my education. Raymond E. Feist‘s novels had first started appearing in Dutch translation back then, and he is in part responsible for my reading habits these days.
Feist was quickly followed by other big names in fantasy and science fiction. It didn’t take me that long to figure out he isn’t a very good writer in most respects. What he used to be very good at, though, was holding the reader’s attention. Even if his stories are straightforward, fairly stereotypical D&D material, there is something in there that keeps you reading. In the late 1990s, my access to English language books was limited, so I ended up with a whole stack of Feist’s novels in translation. He is one of the few authors I never read in English. In hindsight, maybe I should have. The translations contain some annoying inconsistencies, especially in the names of characters. Then again, I suspect Feist’s prose isn’t the kind that loses much in translation.
Magician’s End (2013) is the final part in Feist’s CHAOSWAR SAGA and also the larger RIFTWAR CYCLE, a series that started with the publication of Magician: Apprentice in 1982. As of 2013 there are 29 novels in the series, one novella and several shorter pieces. Personally, I think that Feist hasn’t really produced anything decent since the third volume of the SERPENTWAR SAGA: Rage of a Demon King. Most of the work he’s produced since 1998 has been sloppy; it’s riddled with continuity errors and frequently feels rushed. I seriously considered dropping the series at one point, but by then, he had almost reached the end of the cycle. And it must be said that while his most recent books aren’t his best, they have been a step up from the real low he hit in the early 2000s.
Magician’s End is meant to tie up all the loose ends in the series. Pug and his companions are faced with the ultimate threat to their world, while on the mortal plane, Feist presents us with another difficult succession in the Kingdom of the Isles. Among other things, Magician’s End resolves the prophecy in which Pug has to see everyone he cares for die before his work is done, and reveals another layer in the cosmology of Midkemia.
Over the course of the series, the cosmology of the Midkemian universe has been revised and added to several times. Marcos in particular has revised his truth so often that nothing he says can be taken without a grain of salt anymore. In this novel, Feist expands his analogy between quantum mechanics and magic. It is something that has come up a number of times before — Nakor’s view on magic is particularly compatible with quantum mechanics — but I don’t think Feist has gone into it in so much detail before. It is almost like he is agreeing with Arthur C. Clarke on technology and magic. Of course, I don’t think I know anyone able to manipulate matter at the quantum level with their mind. When you think about it, the Midkemian universe has an interesting structure to it. Unfortunately, the way it is presented in the novels is mostly to serve the story. When Feist needs the rules changed or an even more dangerous enemy introduced, he adds another layer.
While the magical side of the story was decent, I really can’t say the same for the events in the Kingdom of the Isles. As usual, the sword part of Feist’s sword and sorcery is boyish wish fulfillment. He rarely includes female characters that are more than the love interest of whatever boy happens to be the main character (a notable exception being Mara, the main character in the EMPIRE trilogy co-authored by Janny Wurts; these are some of the best books in the cycle). The victor of the war of succession is never in much doubt, and the observant reader will probably have already guessed the outcome in the previous book. The whole plotline and the characters involved are predictable and cliché. There doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between the events in the Kingdom and the magical struggle that Pug and his companions are facing, either. The outcome of the war is essentially irrelevant to whether or not the universe Midkemia is part of can be saved.
Feist’s work displays a lot of problematic elements that were common in the sprawling fantasies of the 1980s and 1990s. These works have a certain appeal, but in recent years I have drifted away from them a little. The overused pseudo-medieval settings; the feudal societies; the messiah-like prophesized one; the stereotypical elves, dwarves and dragons; the traditional roles of men and women; the problematic borrowing of non-western cultural practices to represent foreign kingdoms and empires — Feist is guilty of pretty much all of it. Considering how deep a hole he dug himself over the course of the series, I think he manages reasonably well with this final volume. It is not a masterwork of epic fantasy by a long shot, but compared to much of his recent output, he ends the cycle on a positive note. I read the final volumes in the series mostly because of an odd sense of nostalgia, but in a way I’m glad I did finish the series. It’s not a series I would recommend to anyone new to the genre these days, as it is likely to confirm any preconceptions about fantasy they might have, but Feist did get me reading again and I’m probably not the only one who started to explore the genre through his books. I suspect a lot of other fantasy authors owe Feist for the very accessible books he wrote in the 1980s. I would not be surprised if he is responsible for dragging many more readers into the genre. The genre has moved far beyond this type of work, and as a reader I think I have developed a taste for more challenging work. Feist was the entry point, however, and I think I can forgive him a bunch of mediocre books just for that.