Friday, December 4, 2015

Magician: Apprentice Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Raymond E. Feist
Publisher: Bantam
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Riftwar Saga Book One
Pages: 485

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Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga is another fantasy trilogy that’s been split into four books. The split occurs in the first book, Magician, which was split into Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master.

Riftwar is a series that is rooted in traditional Tolkienesque fantasy: an ordinary orphan becomes a powerful figure in a war against evil.  What surprised me was how this book could have easily deviated from traditional fantasy story structure. Unfortunately every time the opportunity arises to take the series in a different direction, Feist puts on the brakes, and the story resorts back to old fashioned fantasy cliches. This led to a reading experience where I appreciated some of the newer concepts, but it left me frustrated with the author’s inability to create something that could have been truly unique.

Pug is an orphan boy living in the coastal town of Crydee.  He becomes the apprentice of the magician Kulgan, but struggles to retain the magical the knowledge that is being taught to him.  The land of Midkemia soon sees the appearance of a strange new group of people that have entered the land through a rift. Pug, his best friend Tomas, and Kulgan are eventually sent on a quest with the Duke to prepare for the coming war with the alien invaders.

There is so much potential in this series.  A clash between two different fantasy worlds could really be turned into something distinct … something unique.  Once I got halfway through Magician: Apprentice, those became my expectations: a unique story could be at hand here.  At times those expectations were fulfilled, but when it came to major plot resolutions, Feist resorted to a lot of traditional tropes.  Seeing a war between two different cultures get turned into a good vs. evil type of fantasy never really sat well with me. It’s not that one side is good and the other is evil, it’s that the narrating protagonists always resort to being good.

There is a tease with one major character changing direction morally, but other than that, these characters are straight up good guys. I normally don’t have a problem with this, especially in a more traditional fantasy setting, but Riftwar isn’t exactly a traditional fantasy setting.  With two warring fantasy worlds there is a lot of room for culturally related conflicts that could thoroughly explore morality, values, and power. Ultimately the exploration of these issues can’t reach its full potential because the story is told through characters who are morally infallible.

Another major issue I had was with the characterization of women. Feist’s women suck.  This is a book written in the 80’s, and it takes female characterization one giant step backwards from where Tolkien left it in Lord of the Rings.  There is potentially one strong female character, and that is the Elven Queen Aglarrana, however, she’s merely a sideshow and does nothing of significance.  Carline, Pug’s romantic interest, is simply used to incite a love triangle with himself and his friend Roland.  As a character all she seems to care about are the guys.  Every female character in this story easily fails the Bechdel test. If you like strong female characters, look elsewhere.

Pug is a likeable enough character. His coming of age journey feels somewhat authentic. Younger readers will probably appreciate him a lot more. Prince Arutha, the Duke of Crydee’s younger son, becomes a more prominent character towards the end, and he has potential to develop into something significant in later books. Tomas eventually gets his own side story, one that starts out with little promise, but eventually takes a nice turn.

It’s the setting that really makes this a decent book, and the conflict between two cultures is definitely its hook. Even though this area is under explored, it’s still a real neat idea to see it being the center of a fantasy story. As this is only half a book, it ends rather abruptly and chaotically.  A number of years go by towards the end, as the author appears to rush things along. I understand why this book is highly regarded in the fantasy genre, but it could have been so much more.

Score: 7.3

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