Raymond E. Feist’s Magician remains, to this day, one of the finest examples of traditional epic fantasy that I’ve read. When I started out reading epic fantasy/space opera back in freshman year of high school, it was one of the very first books I read, soon after J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and soon after Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles. That was a really great time for me, because I was discovering so many great books one after the other, and there was something about the adventures of Pug and Tomas and their friends that really drew me in to this world that Feist had created.
Magician is primarily the tale of two boyhood friends’ rise to power from extremely humble beginnings, one the son of kitchen servants to a frontier (but politically powerful) Duke, and the other an orphan with none to claim him. Tomas and Pug experience some really extraordinary adventures in their rise to power and together they become embroiled in some really amazing and epic events that date back to thousands of years in their world’s past. Full of exciting action, interesting characters, a really epic plot and a truly wonderful setting, Magician is a must-read massive novel as far as I’m concerned.
When I first read Magician, I read it in the consolidated version that combined Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master and the way I see it, Pug is the true hero and the absolute main character of the novel, since the subtitles reflect his journey from being an orphan in a frontier town to becoming a magician’s apprentice to being a slave on an alien world and then eventually rising to mastery of his magics on that self-same alien world, when he eventually becomes the saviour of his world along with his many friends and adopted relatives. But, the way that Feist writes the novel, there are many heroes in this setting, heroes like Tomas himself, Arutha ConDoin, Jimmy the Hand, Princess Carline, Princess Anita, Katala, Kasumi Shinzawai, Macros the Black, King Dolgan, Prince Calin and many, many more. There are so many characters here that it would be really easy to get lost in their individual stories and how they relate to the larger story, but with Feist at the helm, there is never any moment of confusion. He gives each character his or her due, and he never ignores one at the expense of the other.
I’ve thought often about just why I love this novel so much, and I have never received a satisfactory answer that pinpoints the exact reasons, and that is the real charm of this novel. Like I said above, everything about this novel is fantastic and great. It has a really great and epic plot that starts off humbly enough but which gets ever-more complex as the story goes on and we meet new characters and visit new locales. From the kitchens of a frontier Duke’s castle, we go to an alien world populated by a martial nation and along the way we visit a sorcerer’s island, we visit the Elven homeland, the halls of magical power on an alien world, several different fields of battle and much more. In all the characters that I’ve mentioned above, the novel also has some really awesome characters, each of whom is strong and badass in hir own way and that’s pretty damn awesome. Arutha ConDoin, the straight and narrow prince of Crydee smuggling into and out of Krondor, the second capital of the Kingdom of Isles. Princess Carline charging at enemy sappers. Tomas in battle-mode in the second half of the novel. Pug manifesting the full power and strength of his magical abilities. Kasumi and his father Kamatsu engaging in one of the most daring and complex games of political power on the world of Kelewan. King Dolgan of the dwarves showing off his wisdom and his aged experience all the way through. I just couldn’t get enough of it, despite the fact that Magician is really two novels in omnibus format.
And so on and so forth.
To date, I can make the claim that I’ve never read a novel like Magician, for it is in a class of its own, truth be told. It has many of the traditional hallmarks of epic fantasy and it doesn’t exactly do something radically different in the genre. but the fact is also that it is steeped in those same hallmarks and tropes and they are all executed extremely well, thanks to Feist’s incredible writing. The story is built-up in good chunks of different perspectives that inform on all that is happening at that moment in the various locales that are a part of the full plot. There are crests and troughs aplenty and each twist offers something quite different from the norm. Magician is a richly-layered story that is told from many different perspectives from both sides of the war that becomes known as the Riftwar, with the series itself being called the Riftwar trilogy. It has been a long, long time since I was so lost in a story and setting like I was with Magician when I first read it or all my re-reads ever since.
However, thing is that time often gives you a lot of perspective. What you loved once may become something that you don’t so much anymore because all the flaws creep up on you and become glaringly obvious. There are some moments in Magician when I felt like this, reading it again after so many years a couple weeks back. But at the same time, I was also able to recognise that this is also a novel that fit the genre culture at the time it was written. The 70s and 80s were definitely the time for grand epics like the Riftwar trilogy and for me, Magician is a sterling example of traditional epic fantasy. It has elves and dwarves, trolls and dragons, massive battles between huge armies vying for control of the known world, alien cultures and heroic characters, the battle versus good and evil, some truly entertaining humour moments. And in the midst of all of this, Feist never loses sight of the ultimate object and the point of the story in the first place.
And that’s where the novel really comes together. For a massive tome like this, Feist definitely plays things close to his chest. Not until the very end do you ever really find out what the purpose of the Riftwar really was, and that is the moment when you really wonder at the brilliance of the writer. He pulls something off that I have rarely seen other writers imitate or execute as well. A few names do come to mind, especially some older masters of the genre, but alongside all of them, Feist still distinguishes himself.
One thing I haven’t yet mentioned is the emotional impact of the novel on me. The scene where Pug and Tomas are split up following their flight through the Dwarven tunnels of the Mac Mordain Cadal is one of the most gut-wrenching scenes I’ve read in fantasy. But Feist doesn’t stop there. Although the way that he ever so briefly captures the grief of both characters is really well-executed, he soon tops it when Pug and his master Kulgan lead a raid behind Tsurani lines intending to acquire as much information as they can about the enemy. Riven with an intense horse-ride that is full of some great action, the result of that particular battle is even more significant because of the loss to the reader. That was the scene where I did cry.
But again, Feist didn’t stop there. Two more amazing scenes followed that really made me feel for the characters involved and has also provided me with one of the absolute best quotes in fantasy. The scene where Tomas uncovers his incredible heritage, a heritage bestowed upon him by a man with grand designs on how to safeguard the world of Midkemia, that’s when I cried a second time in the course of reading this novel. And this isn’t something new. This was simply a reenactment of what I went through back in 2001. This entire scene, between Tomas, Prince Calin and Martin of Crydee stands as one of the most pivotal moments in the entire novel, and all because Feist really exposes the boy that Tomas is and how far he has come, he has Tomas regain his humanity, and it is a most painful experience indeed. For the second of these amazing scenes, we have Pug who now lives in Kelewan as a Tsurani Black Robe, a great practitioner of magic. In this scene, Milamber finally gains full access to all the power that is locked within him and this scene is a mirror of Tomas’ scene with Martin and Calin. In this scene, we see an extremely badass moment as Milamber shows everyone just who he can be, even as he says the words: “Tremble and despair, for I am Power”. The words obviously need the context of the scene, but to put that into words here would be a disservice to how well Feist has written this scene.
I just marveled and goggled at that scene. And it has stuck with me through all these long years. I certainly would never discount the emotional impact of the novel, for it is one that really touches you as a reader and it really gets you to feel for these characters.
What you really have to keep in mind though is how great Magician truly is. It is, after all, the novel that launched the rest of the Riftwar trilogy with Silverthorn and A Darkness At Sethanon. Each novel has a very natural start-point and end-point that comes together for a greater whole but can also be read independent of each other despite the sequential nature of trilogies. And all the other novels that followed as Feist dealt first with the primary characters of Riftwar and then their first-generation descendants and then the second-generation descendants. The incredible success of Riftwar and Magician really is astounding in that context as far as I am concerned.
Magician simply has everything that I’ve ever looked for in a novel: magic and adventure and a really, really fun time. Sure, it is a tad overlong and is one of the biggest novels I’ve read, but all of that only adds to the entire experience. Feist keeps everything clear for the reader and never complicates things to the point that any of it becomes unreadable.
Magician is simply a novel that I can never get tired of rereading, same as it is with Michael Stackpole’s X-wing series or Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It is simply one of the best novels I’ve read to date, and one that I would recommend far and wide to all sorts of readers. It is a great entry-point into the epic fantasy genre, and one of the finest examples for sure.
More Raymond E. Feist: A Kingdom Besieged (Chaoswar #1).