Of the many small but great delights in life, writing a review where you’re not quite sure what you’re going to say is well worth its place on the list.
As such, writing this review of Raymond E Feist’s Prince of the Blood promises to be a joy.
Note – while I am generally sticking to small spoilers for this particular book when I can, it is a sequel to The Riftwar Saga trilogy and as such, will give some big spoilers there.
Let’s start with the premise. The good guys won the Riftwar but there is a next generation. Borric and Erland are the oldest sons of the Prince of Krondor, a pair of spoilt hellions with little patience for their royal duties or appreciation of why they matter. When their father sends them off to Great Kesh to act as ambassadors for the Empress’ jubilee, they treat it as somewhere between a lark and an inconvenience, even after an assassination attempt.
But then things go really south when Borric is lost in the desert – presumed dead but captured by slavers – and the young princes have to grow up double time.
Prince of the Blood is fascinating on several levels and I think I’m going to have to break this review up into non-spoilery and spoilery chunks to do it justice, but let’s start with a non-spoilery appreciation of the book for now which I can boil down to:
It’s decent enough.
Prince of the Blood is a competently done fantasy thriller with a number of fun riffs and ideas that help elevate it past the shaky moments. The shakiest come in the opening quarter as Feist sets up the scenario with some logic that is best sped right past, although I think there’s a few others here and there where either the logic or the prose bring me up short. I would love to give your more details but right now, only the impression really remains.
What does it do well?
It makes me turn pages. That is its biggest signal gift. The prose stands back and the events come quick and furious.
There’s a pleasing contrast between Borric’s and Erland’s plot lines. Erland lives in luxury but is assailed by grief over the loss of his brother; he is shown great respect, but that comes with expectations and a certain level of fear. Great Kesh could eat the Kingdom quite easily if it was willing to put up with the broken teeth it would acquire in the process. Borric gets to see society from the underside and yet his experience feels quite a lot less alien, possibly because of the amount of times he spends dodging threats to his life. Not getting killed is truly the lingua franca of adventure novels.
The different experiences create a well balanced novel too. One arc is social exploration and intrigue, one is more action based. It is smart storytelling.
Prince of the Blood is not a book I’m rushing out to tell people about. It’s not that good. But if someone asks for a book rec that sounds like this story, I’d have little hesitation in making it.
That said, I think most of its value lies in thinking about its place in time, space, and Feist’s works, so let’s take another pic break…
There is a certain image a lot of people have in mind when it comes to 80s fantasy. Virtuous people go on quests to fight objective evil. Non-human races abound. The world is very Caucasian, the groups very male, the morals very mom, god, and apple pie.
Feist’s books are part of why that image exists. His first trilogy, The Riftwar Saga, is that in spades. That is not to dismiss characters like Carline and Katala, or the importance of the Tsurani, or the at times mercenary ethics or Amos Trask or Jimmy the Hand, along with the antihero Guy du Bas-Tyra. All of these things matter, but they are accent notes that do not change the main thrust of the image.
Prince of the Blood, Feist’s fourth book, is, well, different. I have already made some of the case by calling this a thriller. I’ll stand by that part. This isn’t a quest to retrieve the artifact and go home. It is a mix of action and intrigue aimed at uncovering a conspiracy aka a thriller.
The majority of the action takes place in Great Kesh, ruled by what feels like something analogous to the peoples of North Africa, and with cultural/ethnic archetypes comparable to Arabs, various parts of East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Europe. The fair skinned redheaded Borric doesn’t look radically out of place. Nor does a black or brown person look radically out of place in Krondor. There’s an in-character piece of internal monologue to that effect, and the prince’s main advisor is black. The boys see Kesh as exotic; Keshians see the Kingdom as exotic. The people of the Kingdom, by and large, admit that Kesh is the greater power, the older culture, and all the rest of it. One can read something into the princes being the ones who save the day but the ultimate prize for doing so arguably goes to Nakor the Islani (vaguely East Asian).
A great deal of it is rather masculine. The princes’ party is entirely male, until Baron James suddenly marries en route (more on that later). Borric speaks about five lines to someone who’s not a man between his capture and his triumph, tops. However, the court of Great Kesh is rather matrilineal. The Empress is, well, an Empress. Her heir is her oldest born – in this case a princess. Many of the people Erland deals with are women, most notably the Empress’ granddaughter, Sharana. He has sex with quite a few of them. The Keshians view sex rather differently to the people of the Kingdom. This is mostly just accepted after initial awkwardness. Erland sleeps around and we’re expected to feel a bit envious. Sharana sleeps around and, well, okay the mainly male audience isn’t expected to feel envious, but there’s very little if any judgment.
The morality is less black and white too. The conspiracy is simply over who sits on the throne of Great Kesh, nothing more and nothing less. No black magic, no fate of the world. The antagonists form a mix between the ruthless and the easily led, and while the protagonists have their share of idealism, it isn’t universal and overpowering. Team Good Guy has its share of mercenaries (the wonderful Ghuda) and scoundrels.
In short, this book, published in 1989, by a major commercial fantasy author, lacks many of the commonly considered hallmarks of the 80s fantasy book. It actively rejects some. It is multicultural, accepting of promiscuity, and all about dynastic power struggles rather than good vs evil. The women, admittedly, are virtually are powerful, beautiful, and primarily narratively subordinate to the men, but they’re there and wield power. One book doesn’t change a narrative, but it should be remembered. We cannot accept or create unnuanced views of the past that forget the diversity that really occurred (just like how, assuming a little here, we probably shouldn’t forget the man born Raymond E. Gonzalez from the list of fantasy pioneers from non-Caucasian backgrounds).
From a different angle, this book is very interesting to fans of Feist, and just of writing craft in general, for the evolution is very interesting.
It should be noted here that I read the revised version, in itself a good sign that the author didn’t have the easiest time writing the book. I don’t think I’ve ever read the original; Feist says he fixed the ending, and made the twins more likeable. I can think of other things he should have maybe fixed. The whole kerfuffle of Borric not being found because he’s wearing the wizard’s robes he “won” gambling is very far fetched. He also uses a few significant characters from the first trilogy in significant roles, and they just feel squashed flat by the plot. Baron James aka Jimmy the Hand has none of his wit and bravado; Locklear might as well be a horny speaking lamp post. Anyone who’s read Feist’s later novels featuring the two knows he improved substantially in writing the two as adults.
Transferring writing a good book into writing a lot of good books is a problem for many authors. Very few of them fail to make the leap publicly, but we hear a lot about it. Feist’s second and third books, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon, are fairly simple quest narratives building off of established characters and situations. Easy books to write.
Prince of the Blood pivots the world in a new direction in terms of setting, puts a spotlight on new characters, and uses a new type of story. It’s like a guy doing a nice job baking some out of the box brownies and cookies, so deciding to try a souffle. Of course he needed a revision. If I had unlimited time, I’d read both for the sake of seeing an author editing in front of our eyes. It’s worth considering too what else could have been revised. As said, I think the opening needed more finesse. It might have made sense for the bad guys to have a bigger plan that worked, rather than relying on the good guys being stupid. The characters in Erland’s arc don’t pop quite as much, and arguably it needed to be bigger and maybe even have another PoV. All of this leads to a far bigger book though and therein is a problem.
I know a lot of people who say ideas are the easy part. Maybe, but after a certain point, you can’t unravel idea from execution. In this case, it looks like Feist, like many a fairly green author, had eyes bigger than his stomach and came up with an idea bigger than the book he wanted to write. It’s not the end of the world, but it is the difference between his stronger efforts and this, which is merely intriguingly fun.
It’s also very interesting to note what remained from Feist’s pivot here and what didn’t. He did mostly return to good and evil after Prince of the Blood, albeit in more conspiracy-driven ways than the clash of great armies. He routinely wrote adventures in lands other than the Kingdom, but rarely with the same level of attention paid to those who lived there (Exile’s Return is a good exception). Sexual promiscuity continued to be fairly non-shocking, but women in power reached a highwater mark here. Yet, we can see a love of a focus on the matters of the mundane world, on intrigues and ambition. Prince of the Blood was a far boundary marker, but things moved closer to that boundary.
We also got Nakor the Islani, the part-clown and part-badass who would steal scenes for the next twenty books. I wonder if Feist knew that would happen when he included him.
One final coda. While the book takes a broad view of humanity, a lot of the solutions are squarely in favour of working with the majority. The Kingdom nobles accept the savagery of Keshian punishments as a result of having to rule a far more diverse population in terms of distinct cultures. Sharana is partly/totally disinherited as a concession to the sexist cultures who fear a matriarchy. She will be Empress, but it is her husband to be who will be Emperor and the main power. Partly that is a result of Sharana simply not being ready to wield the power of her elderly grandmother, just like Borric and Erland were not ready to take up their princely duties at the start either. The solution is, nevertheless, a loss of power for Sharana. Are we supposed to agree with that? It doesn’t feel like we are meant to be angry.
It’s an odd note, mildly at odds with the thrust of the book. I wish it had been further developed.
I wish too that we’d seen more about what James’ sudden marriage says about love for men. James was a ladies’ man prior to that, just like Locky was, just like Borric and Erland hoped to be. Now it’s made explicit that James had a fear of commitment based on his mother’s death and painful childhood, and that what allowed James to fall in love was sharing his mind magically with Gamina, who could make clear that fear wouldn’t happen. Gamina comes along for the adventure because she’s afraid that without her there, James will backslide. James doesn’t disagree. There’s a wonderful little lesson there, but it’s not developed.
It’s a shame Feist doesn’t fully develop the themes in his thriller, because I think it would have taken it from good to great. But such is life. Feist became a bestseller with a book he then revised – who am I to say he’s doing it wrong?
7 thoughts on “Prince of the Blood by Raymond E Feist”
I love how in-depth your posts are!
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I don’t, that was meant to be a nice thirty minute review and ended up an evening eating monstrosity…
Ahem. What I meant was thank you! That response is exactly what gets me going 😀
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It’s a great monstrosity!
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Great review! I appreciate your non-spoilery summary and your insights into the evolution of Feist’s writing. It’s interesting to see how Prince of the Blood differs from the typical 80s fantasy novel. Do you think the lack of emphasis on the classic “good vs evil” theme impacted your enjoyment of the book?
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I think for me going with good vs evil doesn’t impact me much one way or the other, it just comes down to how it’s done. I thought it was handled pretty well here.