At Crydee, a frontier outpost in the tranquil Kingdom of the Isles, an orphan boy, Pug, is apprenticed to a master magician – and the destinies of two worlds are changed forever. Suddenly the peace of the Kingdom is destroyed as mysterious alien invaders swarm through the land. Pug is swept up into the conflict but for him and his warrior friend, Tomas, an odyssey into the unknown has only just begun. Tomas will inherit a legacy of savage power from an ancient civilisation. Pug’s destiny is to lead him through a rift in the fabric of space and time to the mastery of the unimaginable powers of a strange new magic…
Magician is the first book in the Riftwar Cycle. First published in the United States in 1982, it has since been republished numerous times and published in over 25 countries. It’s also been published in two parts, Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master, in a revised, author’s preferred and a special 20th anniversary leather-bound edition, one of which resides in my bookcase. The fact that I went and bought the anniversary edition, despite being a perpetually short-on-cash university student, should be telling about how much I love this book. Still, it had been at least a decade since I’d read Magician and in that decade I’ve become far-wider and well-read in the genre. I finally read The Lord of the Rings, for one, and I discovered the online genre community, which has broadened my genre horizons immensely. So, taking that into account I was quite curious to see whether the book would hold up to my memories of it. Strangely enough, it both did and it didn’t. On the one hand, I recognised much more of its influences, while on the other I recognised its influence on what today we know as staples in the genre. And tossing all that aside, I still cared as deeply for its protagonists as I did the first time I read it.
However, I cared deeply for very different characters than the first time around. The main favourites are still the same – Pug, Arutha, and Jimmy the Hand – but there are others which stood out far more clearly this time – Laurie and Martin – while previous favourites didn’t have as much as an impact (I’m looking at you, Tomas). This means though that of Feist’s four central characters, Pug, Tomas, Arutha, and Jimmy, three remain compelling. And while Tomas on the whole didn’t impress me as much as twenty years ago, I did think the internal struggle between him and Ashen-Shugar is fascinating and very well done. Pug’s journey from unassuming orphan boy to one of the most powerful men in known Midkemian history is equally fascinating. And while thirty years on, the trope of the farm boy (or kitchen boy in this case) having a Destiny has rather a long, grey beard, at the time it wasn’t as basic and clichéd a plot. Several of the others are just as clichéd – hello, boy thief with the heart of gold – but they remain fascinating. Admittedly, I have a huge soft, blind spot for boy thieves with a conscience and brooding princes, so it’s no surprise that I still adore both Jimmy and Arutha.
Feist’s world-building is great in some places and meh in others. Its D&D roots are somewhat identifiable in the large swathes of generic, medieval western European-like world. It’s also here where Tolkien’s influence was most obvious, in both the races that inhabit Midkemia and in its geography. The elves are the glorious, long-lived creatures of yore, though they do develop away from those of Rivendell and Lothlorien. Also, at one point Pug, Tomas, Arutha, and company travel south and they need to take a shortcut through the mountains. At which point they head into the Dwarven mines; all I could think was Moria! Of course, what they find in these mines is completely different, but that moment where they need to decide to go in just stuck in my mind. My favourite bits of Feist’s world-building are the city of Krondor, the world of Tsuranuanni, its culture and the political morass of the Great Ones. Based on what seems to be somewhat of a samurai society, very honour-bound and rigid, the world is fascinating and at that time it was the first time I’d encountered such a different (i.e. non-western European) fantasy setting. Krondor is and was one of my favourite fantasy cities: it’s big; it’s lively; it has both dark places and light; and most important, it has the Mockers, who are still one of my favourite thieves’ guilds I’ve encountered in fantasy.
Magician is a big text. My hardback edition can easily maim one of our cats if it was to topple on top of them and even the paperback version is very hefty. Plainly spoken, it’s a long-ass book and I can see why in some editions they split it in two. Despite its heft, the story has relatively few dragging parts and they never last long, but there are some parts that just didn’t work as well for me, mostly the parts in Elvandar and some of the later parts on the battle field. The writing is competent and quite identifiably Feist with its very short first sentences in every chapter and the even lengths of all the chapters; most of them are around 18-25 pages. The portrayal of women in the book was a bit double-edged. Aglaranna, Katala, Carline, and Anita are all strong characters in their own right, but at the same time only seem to serve as love interests for our protagonists. Magician definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops in future books and to see whether it is somewhat shaped by the time the books were written. And the biggest problem I had with the plot of the book is the Macros ex Machina. No matter how bad things get, the world goes to hell and enemy is approaching, we can count on Macros to save the day, or may to have manipulated events so the day gets saved, either one will work.
Despite all of the above, Magician stood the test of time for me, as even if there are things that are very common place, this book was first written thirty years ago and then these tropes weren’t tropes yet. It’s a good book and a ripping read. For any fan of the genre, but definitely epic fantasy fans, Magician is a must-read as part of the history of the genre. And it was an excellent way to kick off my return to Midkemia!
This review is part of my Midkemia Reread, in which I read all the books Raymond E. Feist wrote, set in the world of Midkemia. For more on the why and how of this series of reviews, check out Midkemia Reread: An Introduction.