Character Dynamics: Feist’s Serpentwar Saga

(spoiler central my peeps)

I start this post not entirely sure whether I have enough material here.

The Serpentwar Saga is an adolescent favourite that I still have a good deal of time for but without feeling it’s so good that I should scream about it a lot, the way I do for Pratchett and Gemmell. I’m not sure it nails enough of what it does for that.

But what it did do well was two great protagonists in Erik and Roo. They are, in classic fashion, contrasts. Erik’s big, honest, maybe not the sharpest but methodical and hard-working, a real nice guy; Roo’s a small, cunning, quick-witted, corner-cutting sneak. The shared quality is being outsiders; Erik as a noble’s bastard whose master never registered him in the blacksmiths guild, Roo as a teamster’s son with a bad name. While their outsiderness creates a commonality to their experiences and a big tie of loyalty between these two boys that grew up together, it doesn’t give them the same ambitions; Roo wants to make it big, Erik just wants a forge and a decent life. When unfortunate events turn them first into fugitives, then ‘volunteers’ in a Dirty Dozen-esque company, it looks like neither will get their ambitions – but they survive, and life is never the same again.

One of the series’ features is that after spending the first book, Shadow of a Dark Queen, more or less in each others’ pockets, Erik and Roo take different roads and only briefly get to spend time in each others company. The character dynamics of the first book are mainly there to seed a whole different set of character dynamics for the books ahead. This isn’t that unusual; The Wheel of Time follows a similar model, there are similarities to how Kerr’s Deverry Cycle works, and so on. But it does change things a little.

Another feature of parts of the series – including most of Shadow of a Dark Queen – is that much of it is military fantasy, and military stories by and large doesn’t prioritise outstanding deep characters. They often need lots of characters who are enjoyable and interesting immediately, but the focus on that wide world of an army, the world it occupies and disrupts as it moves, and of course the physical action, means deep characters are down the priority list. So it proves in the first book with Erik and Roo the only two major characters of note. Other characters have qualities that help reflect a light on Erik and Roo but they are not key to them.

In truth, I’m not sure Erik and Roo are key to each other’s growth. And just like that, I’ve realised this essay is as much about how I think it should have been differently as to how it should be done.

Shadow of a Dark Queen is Erik’s book. He’s the first PoV character, his life sees the deepest changes, he grows the most. It turns out that Erik is good at war and not just as a fighter; he can spot what needs to be done and do it before the NCOs order him to do it, and get others to do it with him. His sense of responsibility and need to belong, something built as the apprentice of a drunk who had to manage the forge and as a bastard, find a fit. He becomes the best version of himself. But we only really need Roo to show what he was. We don’t really measure Erik’s progress by his interactions with Roo.

The next book, Rise of a Merchant Prince, is Roo’s book. His ambitions – good money and a good life – have only been put on hold by his stint in the army, and once free he goes to pursue them. I have to see, independent of anything else, I find his narrative here fascinating. It’s highly unusual in mainstream Epic Fantasy to watch a man simply doing rags to riches as a merchant. The shadow of the war he escaped from, which we see Erik preparing for, adds a piquancy. And, one thing that becomes apparent quickly is that while Roo has grown confident and strong from his time as a soldier, he has not grown as a person. As such he makes a string of risky and rash decisions, in both business and love. How often do we see a protagonist sleep with five different people in the course of one book, and as much in the name of plot and character development as wish fulfilment?

Rage of a Demon King and Shards of a Broken Crown end up addressing the war set up in the first two books, with Erik fighting a war and Roo scrambling to keep his business alive. They’re fun books, but the focus on Erik and Roo is diluted by events and a wider focus on other characters. It’s at this point I have to say I don’t think Erik ever really has a good, long-lasting foil for the rest of the series after Shadow of a Dark Queen. He’s in military fantasy; he doesn’t need one.

This, I think, was a huge missed opportunity. We see flashes of interesting character questions – a brief moment of sadistic rage, similar to the father he never knew; discomfort with the world of nobles he inhabits; growing romantic feelings (which should tie into his desire for a family and stability but don’t); the loss of several friends; the rapid growth of his strategic abilities and responsibilities – but none of it’s sustained and Erik soldiers on throughout. Part of this, I suspect, is deliberate; Erik is as steady and reliable as the forge he used in his youth. But an extra element could have been added without losing that. More could have been made of his relationships with his mentors Bobby de Longeville, Owen Greylock, and Knight-Marshal William; more could have been made of his relationship with Jadow Shati and Sho Pi, two of the survivors of the first book or with Kitty, his whirlwind romance; or even with Roo. They question each other’s path so little and while I love that, I also wish that if they’d gone that route, something more would have been done with the above. Feist created this interesting character and then just used him to anchor his war plot without developing him further. I think it’s a huge part of why there’s only so much I can recommend this series.

Happily, Roo does get some good character dynamics and development. What’s more, he has two sets of characters to riff off; the men in his life, and the women. The men are his close business partners and while they’re not heavily fleshed out, they are distinct enough to reflect parts of his character. Duncan, his cousin, shares Roo’s avarice and flighty nature most closely; Luis, a fellow veteran of Roo’s, shares Roo’s discipline; Jason, the accountant, shares Roo’s naivety (even if Roo tries to bury his). Watching Roo slowly lose trust in Duncan is a good sign that he’s growing but, given his cutthroat calling, it’s his relationship with Jason that tracks his real growth.

Well, that and the women. There’s Karli, his wife; Sylvia, his mistress; and Helen, the widow of an enemy he takes responsibility for and forms an attraction to. Yes, Roo is a sleazeball. Of course he is – he wants it all! Karli’s a fascinating mirror for Roo in that they have a great deal in common; physically not much to speak of and outsiders. Roo courts Karli for money, but agrees to marry her in one drunken recognition of that. It doesn’t work because once Roo sobers up, he knows he wants more than someone like him. Sylvia – beautiful, flirtatious, the daughter of an even wealthier merchant than Karli – is that someone he wants. Helen, arguably in the middle, ends up the one he’s most at ease with; not like him, but not so utterly unlike him he struggles to understand why he’s there. Those three relationships end up expressing Roo’s journey in themselves; what he doesn’t want to be, what he wants, and what he’s actually comfortable with. Eventually, he finds that last in Karli, or so we see at the end of Rage of a Demon King. That she’s barely mentioned in Shards of a Broken Crown is another huge missed opportunity. Despite being part of a four book series, Roo’s arc only really last two books.

To all extents and purposes, the main character of Shards of a Broken Crown is a character I haven’t mentioned here yet, which I think sums up everything I have to say about missed opportunities. He’s a good character, an important one, but it is part of why I’ve always felt like Shards of a Broken Crown was a good but superfluous book.

And part, therefore, of what made The Serpentwar Saga something of a missed opportunity. It has a great premise, in telling the tale of two close friends who live through a war in very different and important ways, some great plotlines, a pair of really interesting characters to begin it all… and Feist just forgets about them as he wanders off into the long grass of his already created world and epic plots. The character above, Dashell Jameson, is the grandson of a character from the first series, because of course he is. And hey, going after the epic and visiting more of the established world aren’t bad things, as long as you take the series’ major characters with you and keep providing them with characters that allow them to demonstrate themselves. He didn’t.

There’s a lot to learn from that.

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