Chirps of the Reading Canary

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

After the Serpentwar saga, Ray Feist’s career went a little off the rails. I don’t intend to dwell overly much on the circumstances since they’re personal to Feist and he’s laid them out himself for those willing to dig into the matter; suffice to say that the progression of the Midkemian timeline stalled a little. Feist busied himself with two series which are generally considered to be not his best work, and aren’t really mainline entries in the core story of the saga anyway. The Riftwar Legacy, starting with Krondor: the Betrayal, actually kicked off as a novelisation of the video game series beginning with Betrayal at Krondor, and ended up stalling half-finished until Feist penned the recent novella Jimmy and the Crawler to replace the last two books in the series, which were never completed. Didn’t like the game, don’t expect to like the books, cannot be arsed to review. Legends of the Riftwar series was a set of collaborations with other authors detailing side-stories from the era of the first Riftwar, including one volume written in collaboration with Steve Stirling and ahahaha, no, as longterm Ferretbrain readers who remember his brief stint as a commenter here will know Steve and I have the sort of history where it’s best we stay out of each other’s way.

Happily, over time Feist was able to put his life back together to the point where he felt able to actually pick up the threads where he’d left them at the end of Shards of a Broken Crown and continue where he left off. As you may remember, at the end of that book the godlike Pug set up the Conclave of Shadows, a sort of magical spy agency dedicated to fighting a covert war against the agents of the Nameless One, the ultimate god of evil who can steal your soul and enslave your mind if you find out his name is Nalar.

Shit! Sorry about that.

Anyway, this next trilogy is entitled Conclave of Shadows and gosh, I wonder what overbearing magical conspiracy for good will feature prominently here?

Talon of the Silver Hawk

Talon of the Silver Hawk commences with our teenage protagonist sat out in the wilderness waiting for the gods to give him a vision to let him know what his adult name is going to be. Talon, you see, is part of the Orosini, a mountain culture drawing heavily on Ray Feist’s conception of what Native Americans are like – there’s a loooooooot of Noble Savage/aren’t-they-delightfully-primitive stuff going on here – with a layer of “huh?” added when it turns out that these pseudo-Native Americans tend towards pale skin and red or blonde hair. (It’s sort of inversion of the Picts in Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, who despite the Scottish-themed name read more like Native Americans.)

So, Native Americans by way of Ireland or Scandinavia, then. OK, Feist, what are you going to do with these guys? Answer: exterminate them all. Talon returns from his “oh, hey, my name’s Talon of the Silver Hawk” trip to find his village under attack by genocidal mercenaries, hired by a Duke from off to the south. (These pseudo-Irish Native Americans have lived on the same continent and within easy travel of a major city-building pseudo-European culture since time immemorial – in fact, they’re in pseudo-Europe itself, just beyond the eastern border of the Kingdom of the Isles – and seem to have maintained an incredible level of cultural isolation up to this point. It’s like they’re Amish Irish Native Americans or something.) Anyway, genocide happens and when Talon wakes up he discovers that he is the last surviving Orosini, so far as his rescuers can make out.

His rescuers, as it turn out, are agents of the Conclave of Shadows, the wizardly CIA Pug set up at the end of the Serpentwar. Cue over 200 pages of Talon being trained to be a super-spy. Here, Feist seems to lurch into self-parody. The man is absolutely hooked on bildungsromans and seems to start more or less all of his significant books or series with a bit where the protagonist or protagonists ends up learning important lessons about life through working at an inn or going to Hogwarts or similar. Here, Feist crams in as many variants on the theme as he can, as Talon is moved from Kendrick’s (an inn-fortress which, so far as I can make out, is designed solely to give young agents important character-building experiences) to various training posts on Sorcerer’s Isle, and eventually agrees to join the Conclave of Shadows and work for them once they convince him that icing the people who genocided his people would not only be compatible with the Conclave’s goals, but would positively aid them.

The training parts of this book are downright bizarre. To be honest, they drag on for a little too long – I don’t think they should have been cut completely, because they do illustrate just how manipulative the Conclave has become over the years and the extent of its power and influence, but some editorial trimming would not have been unwelcome. In particular, Feist attaches masses of importance to Talon learning over and over and over again not to get overly attached to women simply because they prove willing to have sex with him. This provides Feist with an excuse to have his male characters yet again shake their heads and declare that they don’t understand women – he loves that – but it gets weirder. The culmination of this comes with Alysandra, a startlingly beautiful student at Pug’s Super Secret Spy School that all the dude students go apeshit for but never get to lay. Talon, naturally, is the exception to this, but that’s because his superiors have ordered him to do so in order to then dump him and crush his heart in doing so, so that he can learn how to deal with that. Then one of Talon’s trainers shows up to explain that whole deal, and also to mention that Alysandra is a sociopath who sees other people as toys to play with and break as she wishes and the Conclave took her in mainly to make sure the forces of evil didn’t recruit her first.

Er, excuse me? If I were running an intelligence agency, even one in fantasyland, it would be rather odd of me to recruit someone who would literally not give a fuck if I and everyone else in the agency were killed and would have no compunctions about betraying us if that seemed like the best way to get what they wanted. Call me paranoid, but personally, I’d feel that this was a little bit of a liability. In addition to this, the relish with which Feist reels out Alysandra for us to simultaneously hate and pity as a heart-crusher who can’t feel love is positively alarming – as, indeed, is the number of women in the Conclave who seem to be specifically skilled in seduction, almost as though the Conclave has an official policy where male spies are to get the confidence of their targets through dangerous derring-do and violent action and female spies are to get close to their targets through the medium of sex.

About the whole spy thing: the last third of the book has Talon actually beginning his mission by establishing his cover story. Taking on the identity of Talwin “Tal” Hawkins, minor noble, he goes to the independent island nation of Roldem in order to participate in a grand tournament of swordsmen there, the purpose being to establish him as the World’s Greatest Swordsman in the hope that this will be the start of him getting into the good graces of Kaspar, the Duke of Olasko, who along with the necromancer Leso Varen is the Conclave’s primary enemy. Tal’s lifestyle of visiting glamorous prostitutes (who get killed when random assassins show up after Tal’s hide), seducing classy ladies, being a good sport at the casinos and establishing himself as a damn fine duellist makes him reminiscent of a sort of fantasy James Bond. The end result is, as with Bond, unabashed straightdude wish fulfilment, though at the same time it’s also easily the most entertaining part of the novel: the idea of a mashup of high-action low-realism spy novels and generic fantasy is a fun one, just as the idea of a mashup of The Dirty Dozen and generic fantasy was fun when Feist did it in Shadow of a Dark Queen, and despite the clumsy acceptance of all the spy genre’s least appealing features I found it remarkably fun.

Feist clearly hasn’t lost his knack for writing a good old-fashioned page-turner, and for the most part did a good job of keeping me excited and engaged enough to keep turning the pages, even if I did regularly have cause to flinch at the treatment of women and race. (Although most of the story takes place in fairly diverse and cosmopolitan regions of Midkemia, Feist will still call dark-skinned women “exotic” as a means of making them sound sexy.) This should not be taken as constituting an actual recommendation of the book – although I enjoyed reading it, I’m fairly sure many Ferretbrain readers wouldn’t, and to be honest they’d have excellent reasons not to enjoy it. I feel Feist is slipping into my “second hand only” list of authors again, in the sense that whilst I do enjoy reading his stuff, I’m not thrilled with the idea of giving him money for it because in many aspects it is kind of offensive. Still, I’m hooked despite myself, so let’s press on and see whether Feist manages to stop grinding those ugly axes of his before his storytelling talents dry up and I can’t bear to keep reading.

King of Foxes

Tal’s mission to bring down the Duke is related in King of Foxes. This one is a joy to read compared to its predecessor because it’s a fast-paced page-turner crammed to the gills with action and with no time wasted on backstory. Tal joins the Duke’s service, masquerades as a loyal servant of his until such time as he is inevitably betrayed, and thus freed from his oath of fealty to the Duke is liberated (after a quick jailbreak) to set in motion plans to bring about the Duke’s destruction. Feist barrels through these events at a breakneck pace, like a runaway train or an author who has been told in no uncertain terms to write to a particular word limit.

One point where Feist does economise is in the actions of the Conclave themselves. The wizards make only occasional appearances in the novel and when they are present they are playing a game on an entirely different scale from the one Tal is navigating – and it’s a game Feist offers the reader almost no insight into until the very end of the book. This is a good and effective way to solve the “only the wizard plot really counts” problem that previous Feist books (Shards of a Broken Crown especially) had suffered from: by shunting the wizard plot completely offstage Feist makes sure that we only get emotionally engaged with the mortal-scale plot.

It’s not all good news, though; the treatment of women in the novel is shocking even by Feist’s standards. Let’s see, we have:

  • Alysandra, the sexy sociopath from last time, who gets chained to a wall and sliced to ribbons with a knife by a necromancer for her trouble. She literally accomplishes nothing else this time other than being noticed by Tal, who remembers how she boinked him back in the day.
  • Natalia, the Duke’s sister, who takes a shine to Tal due to his general amazingness and kaboinks him regularly.
  • Princess Svetlana, Feist’s attempt at a “strong female character” – a domineering woman who controls her husband and therefore the affairs of his realm absolutely. She is apparently able to exercise this control – and indeed attempts to subvert Tal’s mission – through her mastery of kaboinkadoink. (She is murdered by Tal for her trouble on the orders of the Duke.)
  • Teal, a fellow survivor of the Orosini and Tal’s childhood friend whom Tal eventually saves from a life of slavery and rapery and goes off with him to re-establish their way of life at the end of the book. Presumably their relationship will eventually entail some amount of boinkery (they’re married in the next book).
  • Various minor characters who exist to have varying levels of casual boink with Tal to remind us that he’s Fantasy James Bond.

That’s more or less it as far as named female characters go. (Miranda is still around but never actually makes an appearance.) At one point Feist has Tal and his band of escapees from the Duke’s prison-island rescue a bunch of youths, both male and female, who were about to be sold into sex slavery. (There are off-colour comments about how Keshian merchants are likely to want to bum the boys, because apparently Brownland = creepy molesty homosexual land. This is what happens when you hang out with Steve Stirling, Ray – he draws out all your stupid and leaves it dangling out for show.) Tal makes a point of not raping any of them, not letting any of his pals rape them, giving them ample and explicit opportunities to leave as and when they want to, and recruits the best and the brightest of them – male and female – to be part of his mercenary army. None of them get names and to be honest they don’t really add much to the numbers when the big battle goes down because Tal is able to put in a bulk order for mercenaries from an old friend and the Conclave provides wizardly support and arranges for military help from both superpowers and the major local kingdom on top of that. It’s almost as though Feist just cooked this incident up to point to in order to prove he isn’t sexist – look, both men and women are taken as sex slaves, and both men and women get to fight! – but the experience of these lads and lasses seems at odds with the handling of gender throughout the rest of the book so as far as fig leaves go it isn’t very convincing.

On top of all that, the end of the book really irritated me when it turned out that Pug isn’t actually a very good Machiavellian manipulative spy agency chief, for all that the series has tried to build him up as one. Yes, Tal forgiving the Duke and allowing him to go into exile is probably a good thing in terms of him weaning himself off his lifelong quest for bloody vengeance, but that doesn’t mean the Conclave can’t kill off the Duke out of Tal’s sight and cover up what they did in order to eliminate the loose end; teleporting him to Novindus and leaving him to his own devices is just asking for trouble later on, even though Novindus is half a world away. On the other hand, if they hadn’t done that they wouldn’t have been able to set up the next book…

Exile’s Return

You see, Kaspar the now ex-Duke of Olasko is the protagonist of the next book, which picks up the action more or less immediately after Kaspar is dropped off in Novindus. At first, Kaspar’s main motivation is to survive, somehow get back to Olasko, and get bloody vengeance on Tal; however, a couple of things force him to change his mind. Firstly, the more time he has to think about it, the more he realises that for much of his reign he was behaving dangerously, irrationally, and abhorrently, and it all seems to have started when he took on the mysterious Leso Varen as his court magician. Secondly, he encounters a group of traders who are lugging a cursed suit of armour across the continent, and soon finds himself bound up in the same geas which prevents them from leaving it behind or deviating from their course. Eventually, Kaspar discovers the terrible secret behind the armour, and realises that if he or anyone else is going to survive the disaster it portends he needs to make his peace with Tal and get this vital information to the Conclave of Shadows.

So, yeah, this is where we find out that the entire Conclave of Shadows trilogy was constructed as a three-book prequel to the Darkwar trilogy, the Darkwar being the third of the five Riftwars in the overall saga of Pug, in kind of the same way as The King’s Buccaneer acted (and Return of the Buccaneer was intended to act) as a prequel to the Serpentwar quartet. The good thing is from this point on Feist doesn’t bother with these irritating interstitial trilogies and just gets on with narrating the Riftwars. The bad thing is that I’m still left sat reading this one for the review.

In some respects this is an improvement over its predecessors in the trilogy. Feist quietly drops the “fantasy James Bond” stuff in favour of a more traditional fantasy adventure narrative, so he is at least playing to his strengths. Of course, that brings with it its own problems; if you were at all invested in Tal’s story (or the hypersexualised tone it had), you’re going to be massively disappointed in the way his narrative just kind of judders to a halt. Yes, he gets a cameo here, but he doesn’t do an awful lot beyond reveal that he and Teal, reading between the lines, utterly failed to rekindle the Orosini way of life in the mountains so just moved back to the city to get a job running a restaurant with some old friends of Tal’s. Oh. and Teal is apparently never, ever, ever going to know real, sustained happiness because of all the times she was raped whilst a slave, so here we’ve caught Feist pulling off the classic high fantasy rape trope wherein whilst a dude who undergoes a traumatic experience ends up having an exciting life of adventure and romance, a woman who undergoes the exact same traumatic experience just has it followed up with rape, more trauma, drudgery and depression. Slick going, Ray, that’s a really fun and exciting fantasy to peddle to your reader base.

At the same time, this is the volume where the real dirt on the wizard-level plotlines for this trilogy comes out, which in practice means that the latter part of the book is overwhelmed by Pug and Tomas once again doing their superhero act and Kaspar getting lots of lectures about Feist’s increasingly trite metaphysics. Several major gods show up in the plot at this point and are just as glib and lacking in mystique as any of the wizards in the Conclave, but since the Conclave wizards are basically tossing around power comparable to that of a demigod these days that doesn’t feel surprising. Big shit goes down – including a massive attack on the elven homeland – but since no major character that we actually care about dies it feels less like a cataclysmic assault and more like a fudge to keep the elves from being especially involved in the Darkwar. In fact, out of the massive cast the only really significant death of a character who we’ve known for more than one book is that of Alysandra the sociopath, who I suspect dies because Feist either couldn’t think of anything to do with her or got over whichever failed IRL love affair inspired her creation in the first place. In short, Feist here is writing the sort of fantasy that George R.R. Martin, for all his faults, saved us from – cheap, safe, low-stakes fantasy where the bad guys aren’t allowed to hurt any character who has earned a certain level of plot immunity.

In the end, we are left with a cliffhanger where the main characters discover that there is a massive stash of unstoppable killbots buried under a mountain in Novindus. Why they couldn’t get Kaspar, who has a magic ring that lets him command these things, to come out and use the ring to command them to destroy each other is a plot hole which is never addressed, in much the same way as the text still hasn’t addressed the question of “if the Nameless One can control the mind of anyone who learns his name, why doesn’t he get one of his agents – such as Leso Varen, who is explicitly presented as being a fragment of the Nameless One – to run around yelling ALL HAIL NALAR in a crowded city?”.

That’s a trite and reductive and not very interesting way to approach magic and metaphysics, but it’s also the way that wizards and gods talk about it here so it’s not as though Feist doesn’t invite the reader to think about this stuff from that angle. Feist, sad to say, has become one of those authors who think that exciting revelations about their fantasy multiverse’s cosmology can carry a plot and no, Ray, really no, it doesn’t work for Michael Moorcock and you’re certainly no Michael Moorcock. I’m sure there’s a fanbase for this sort of stuff – a fanbase who will gladly spend centuries of man-hours codifying everything into fan wikis to their heart’s content – but personally, I need a little more from a novel than yet another summary of the metaphysics section from your Dungeons & Dragons campaign notes.

The Shrinking Ambition of Raymond E. Feist

The main trouble I had with this review is to come up with much to say about the material here. Ray seems to have made a conscious effort to tighten up the word count a bit and slim down the pages on these books, but that’s at the consequence of losing what richness and depth his fantasies ever possessed – and that wasn’t much to write home about, to put it mildly. Feist’s forte has always been light page-turner adventure fiction that doesn’t demand too much of the reader, but I detect a cynicism to this project which wasn’t there in Magician; whereas Magician at least had the charm of Feist enthusing about his friend’s Dungeons & Dragons campaign world, here Feist seems to be going through the motions because it’s what’s expected of him. At this rate, you’d soon be able to code a generator that would churn out a Ray Feist novel without too much trouble.

2 thoughts on “Chirps of the Reading Canary

  1. Pingback: Dungeons & Dragonball Z – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: Fuck Off, Feist – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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