Thursday, 22 August 2019

Forgotten Classic Review: The Serpentwar Saga by Raymond E Feist

When most people talk about Feist, they talk about Magician. A BBC survey had it as one of people's 100 favourite books a few years back. People are still picking it up and trying it nearly forty years later because of its reputation. A lot of people bounce off its old fashioned approach - it's not in close third or first, it's got an idealistic tone, it's slow to get to the action. It also has a few first time author flaws to it too. But for those who don't get put off by those things, Magician is a monumentally epic and ambitious story with a heart the size of the Pacific. No wonder people still love it.

After Magician, a lot of the talk is about how Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon lacked the same oomph. I like both books a lot but I totally understand why people say it. Magician is a mad as hell gonzo trip that was virtually unique at its time and even now. The other two could be any fantasy book.

And I think that's why people don't really talk about the Serpentwar Saga, when maybe its the best thing Feist did.

Shadow of a Dark Queen, the first book in the saga, starts in familiar enough fashion. There's two young boys from humble beginnings in a tiny town. From there, things take a left turn and instead of a quest, or adventures with the elves, Erik and Roo find themselves in the army, training for a probably suicidal mission to infiltrate the horde of said dark queen. I don't want to give away too many spoilers so I shall speak in generalities here; the Serpentwar Saga does have it's share of big showy magic, but most of its about war, politics, trade and being human. It takes this series a bit closer to Parker and Kay than it does to Brooks and Eddings; it's almost like a less extreme Wheel of Time in places.

A big part of what makes it for me is the relationship and differences between Erik and Roo. Best friends and fellows in not belonging, their lives take radically different approaches after their enlistment. Erik finds a place he belongs and a feeling of responsibility, and climbs the military's ranks. Roo by contrast sticks with his dream of getting rich and leaves to become a merchant. And while Erik's genial company to read about a war with, Roo is a gem. A self-aggrandising, unscrupulous, greedy and short of empathy gem. Seeing his cunning is fun - and Rise of a Merchant Prince is one of the very few fantasy books I've seen to concentrate on a merchant - but watching him try to make sense of his life, trying to find a sense of belonging and very slowly growing up while blunder into life's traps? Golden. And he's just vulnerable and moral enough for it to work. There's so few characters like Roo, and twinning his narrative with that of the super solid, ever conscientious Erik gives it the right light needed.

As for the rest of it? It has a fun supporting cast. My particular applause goes to Duke James, the closest thing to Vetinari outside of Discworld, and his grandsons James and Dashell, who sort of mirror the Erik-Roo contrast. It's rammed full of memorable scenes, particularly of the "ordinary person in the presence of superhuman prowess" and "moment of personal triumph/tragedy". They're not the absolute best I've ever read, but they more than satisfy. It casts a decent light on some of the forgotten in fantasy, its victims and everyday inhabitants; Helen Jacoby and Kitty are my favourite minor characters of that kind.

It is better written than the Riftwar too, and delves deeper into the characters' frustrations and hopes. I don't think this series is less idealistic than its predecessor, but it does admit that sometimes the idealists aren't and can't be where they need to be in terms of power. The nobles of the Riftwar Saga are, by and large, decent and reliable eggs. The nobles of the Serpentwar Saga aren't bad people, by and large, but they can't be trusted to put aside their egos and do what's needed. And the theme of responsibility vs ego is a fairly big one in here; it not only helps keep the disparate threads together, it adds a pleasing sense of tension and realism to the largely human concern based plot. And that's true of no one more than Roo.

After The Serpentwar Saga, Feist never really returned to this sort of story, going back to adventure plots, a focus on magicians other politics, and hugely gonzo world-hopping adventures. There's some good books there, but nothing I'd ever really recommend to somebody else. 

It's a shame. This and the Empire trilogy (which deserves a review of its own) showed that Feist could really pull off this sort of Epic Fantasy - probably better than he did quest fantasy. He doesn't stand at the absolute pinnacle of this art form, with Jordan and Martin and Kay, but he stands close. I feel like there's probably people out there who have a soft spot for this sort of fantasy but who haven't heard of the Serpentwar Sage. Hopefully this corrects that and brings a few of those people some extra pleasure.

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