It’s been a strange year, I actually started it reading at pace but then lost my inspiration for writing about what I’d read. Going to try and make up for that now by reviewing my trip back to Midkemia! Raymond Feist’s fantasy world, based on the D&D game he and friends played, is always a solid read. It’s a richly detailed fantasy epic comprising inter-related shorter series and actually came to a conclusion in Magician’s End many years after the first books. I’ve revisited the first (and for me, still the best) trilogy this year to see if it’s still as good as I remember. This one’s known as the Riftwar Saga.
The first book in the series is a great entry point and tells the tale of 2 young boys growing up in a rustic castle by the coast. One dreams of being a great warrior and marrying the beautiful elf queen, the other (an orphan) dreams of having the power to rise above his station.
Raymond Feist revisited this book in later life and expanded some of the details and this was my first reading of the extended version (my original copy is that old skool cover over there!). The added detail I feel brings the story of Tomas and Pug more to life adding a little bit of richness to the details. It’s a simpler story than later ones but doesn’t skimp on politics and the reality of war, seeing teenagers having to grow up when faced with an invasion of their home is always sobering, even in a fantasy setting. And to follow that they see that the king won’t be saving them because he’s insane and paranoid and being preyed on by other nobles who would be happy to see you dead.
It’s a classic fantasy with elves and dwarves that feel very Tolkien and medieval style monarchy. But then thrown on top of that is the idea of multiple worlds linked by rifts, an invasion from a Japanese influenced world (Kelewan), physical gods and immortals who went crazy with power, and different schools of magic. It created a world in a clear way that allowed for practical expansion in later books without feeling too artificial. In addition in creating Pug (a magician who belongs to two worlds) and Tomas (a resurrection/merger of an ancient godlike being thanks to the armour he wears) he established characters who provide a through line across 27+ books.
Having re-read I’m still a fan of the book and the characters it introduces. They stand the test of time and in characters like Tomas, Pug, the young prince Arutha, the even younger thief Jimmy the Hand, the pirate Amos Trask, and others such as Lord Kasumi he creates people who instantly appeal and engage.
The second book in the Riftwar Saga continues the trend of interweaving story strands. There is the core story in which Prince Arutha and companions have to go on a quest to find the legendary silverthorn, and then the overarching story in which the magician Pug realises there is a darker force at work behind what is happening.
Silverthorn is probably my second favourite book in the series and if I’m honest it’s because Arutha is a focal character and he was always my favourite. I first read the books as a teenager and the brooding and sensitive prince was always someone I was going to like. But as a character he still holds up today, he’s not perfect and he makes hard decisions, but he will always hold himself to the standards he sets for others.
This story focuses on his relationship with the Princess Anita who is mortally wounded on their wedding day and can only be saved by the magic of the silverthorn. The relationship between the two does show it’s age a little in the Anita is considerably younger than Arutha – but was raised in court to realise they would marry to strengthen the line (they fall in love anyway). Arutha will do anything to save Anita and that includes heading off on a dangerous quest to the heart of the enemy lands. In secret because he’s not stupid…
In parallel to this Pug realises there are greater forces at work and ends up returning to Kelewan to learn more about it. This is at great risk to his own life as he was outlawed at the end of the last book when a seeming betrayal ruined a peace treaty. Pug goes through his own trials and comes to realise ‘The Enemy’ is behind the events happening (a force that raged through the multiverse and nearly destroyed everything) and is trying to return.
We wrap up Arutha’s quest in this book but leave Pug with the greater story still to be solved. It’s a classic middle novel of a series in that it has a good story and conclusion but leaves the big plots for the final part of the trilogy. Harder to read as a standalone for these reasons but definitely a good book.
A Darkness at Sethanon
The final book in the Riftwar Saga works both as a conclusion to the trilogy and a further opening of the underlying universe and broader story – it’s also my favourite in the whole series. It continues the tale of Arutha’s fight against the dark elves and assassins and expands the world by taking us further north in the world of Midkemia. In parallel it also reunites Pug and Tomas on a quest across the universe to find the sorcerer Macros the Black (responsible for events in the first book) in an attempt to prevent the return of the enemy.
The story here with Arutha, his brother Martin, and Jimmy heading north is my favourite part of the whole series as it reintroduces the character of Guy du Bas Tyra who was exiled as a traitor in the first book for his attempt to take the throne. The beauty of this storyline is that it make Arutha realise how much he and Guy have in common – they would both always make the decision to do what is necessary whether that was regarded as ‘good’ or not. This moment of introspection in the midst of a war is a key thing I like about these books.
Pug and Tomas’s quest is where we see the multiverse nature and are properly introduced to the concept of levels of existence. This is then expanded in later books but can be simply regarded as creatures from lower levels of existence are trying to break into our plane but if they do so life will die. In saving Macros our heroes defeat a ‘Dreadlord’ a concept that becomes important later but provides a thrilling battle even at this point. Where Macros is trapped is also a glorious concept – a city on the edge of existence that may have been spontaneously created during the Big Bang.
This book does a great job of wrapping up the trilogy with an epic battle taking place in 3 planes of existence and risk to all life on the planet. It cements Pug and Tomas’s heritages as supernatural protectors of Midkemia and provides scope for the future direction of the series. Later books move forward in time in leaps so change supporting casts but in these boys we met in the first book we have our solid foundation.
This first trilogy for me is still the best in the entire series, in the middle there are a few books that wander but these 3 tell a tightly controlled story with a strong narrative. It’s definitely worth a read if you like epic fantasy – could do with more strong female characters but still does a better job than most similar books.