(spoilers, spoilers everywhere)
And so on to the third of the 80s-90s authors I perceive as major commercial successes, and who I know well enough to spout on endlessly.
(For those playing along at home, I don’t like Brooks, Donaldson, Williams, or Weis & Hickman enough; I don’t perceive Lackey or Kerr as big enough, although if someone wants to sway me otherwise on Lackey I’m open).
Feist is an interesting part of this canon as he wanders away from the Tolkien-esque model quicker than many of his peers. He puts his D&D influences on his sleeve and probably told the most different types of stories over the course of his great epic compared. Arguably only Lackey compares if I add her in, and even then The Riftwar Cycle probably wins. Maybe? Feist’s storytelling is in many ways happy to play in genre, but in some respects is very ambitious.
Let’s talk the departure point. There’s a humble orphan in a rural place – Pug. There’s a kindly wizard. There’s a long establishing shot, maybe departing a little. Pug’s home is threatened by strangers from another world rather than strangers in a black cloak, maybe departing a little more. They go off – back on track – but as part of a major party to seek the king’s home. It’s all split up, per Tolkien, but as they split, so does the narrative. And a lot of Magician, the first book in Feist’s Riftwar Cycle, is spent watching a siege of those left behind. A lot of The Riftwar Cycle is spent in the Kingdom of the Isles, and in characters’ homes; the Kingdom is invaded three times in the opening nine books.
This emphasis on protecting one’s own rather than questing outwards is even louder in The Empire Trilogy, the outrigger trilogy on an alien world co-written with Janny Wurts. There, the main character is Mara of the Acoma, and her main objective throughout is the preservation of the Acoma family and name. Yes, there are quests and journeys, but the emphasis on a ‘home front’ throughout Feist’s works is a major point of difference, and maybe a narrative popularised by Feist.
Does this equate to a thematic difference? Let’s examine some other points. Many of Feist’s wizards act more as manipulative recruiters than fellow questers – Macros the Black in the first trilogy, echoed in part by Miranda in the second. Wizards help, but it is many books after Magician before Pug is again the main character. Many of his heroes after the first book are ordinary men with no magical powers, who are reliant on organisations and comrades to equal the odds against the supernatural forces they face, starting with Prince Arutha in Magician (and Mara is similar-ish).
In many ways, Feist’s work feels less like a flowering out from Tolkien than a merging of Kurtz’s medievalism with the adventures against horror of Swords & Sorcery. Temples are powerful, trade matters, financing wars are expensive; meanwhile wars are fought by sword and sinew, magic creates many horrors, and warriors can’t expect much magic support against them. While we do often see wizards and magical warriors battling each other, it’s something of a background activity.
The Riftwar Cycle is no tale of messiahs or central protagonists crackling with power; it is too varied. It is a tale of people defending and avenging their own, often hampered by the people they’re struggling to protect. The greatest threats come from the past, from divine powers, and from a lack of good and balance. There is, albeit a little small in the most part, a sense of advancing time and chance.
In many ways, Feist’s work is similar (if far paler) to the stance Alan Moore took on superheroes; he seeks to humanise the whole thing. That this is combined with adventures of Moorcockian scope is an odd and at times, not altogether effective mixture. But this attempt to really focus on the human and hive magic off is part of a strain that’s done well since the start of commercial fantasy. Is Feist part of that? He certainly hasn’t hurt it.
Is he truly part of a similar movement to Eddings and Jordan so on? That’s a question for the next article.