I was assured I would enjoy this book. I was highly sceptical, and you know what? Turns out I was right to be.
Magician is, we are informed, the first book in the Riftwar Saga. It tells the tale of Pug and Tomas, two young boys growing up in the provincial stronghold of Crydee, in the land of Midkemia. (Midkemia? Really? It sounds like a name I would have made up when I was about seven and trying not to refer to The Lord of the Rings too obviously.) Pug is apprenticed to a magician (hence the title), while Tomas becomes a soldier. When strange armies from another world are seen in the Kingdom, war breaks out and they are both required to fight for their land.
Already I'm bored. High fantasy - great deeds and battles - aren't really my thing, despite my love of The Lord of the Rings; I prefer my speculative fiction more character-driven. But a friend lent this to me, so I was kind of obliged to give it a try.
And within I found more legitimate reasons to dislike it. The early chapters are very Tolkien-reliant, to the point of ridiculousness (oh, of course there's a journey through dangerous mines. Why not?), but, to be scrupulously fair, it departs from him quite quickly. I found myself much more uncomfortable with the way in which it depicts a) other cultures, and b) women.
You see, the Kingdom looks very much like the medieval West. Names like Tomas, Lyam, Roland, Jimmy crop up. They fight with horses; they have a very English system of dukes and earls and princess; troubadour minstrels, Gothic castles, ale and good hearty bread abound.
This is all fine until we consider the kinds of things we find in the invading world. Names like Minwanabi, cho-ja, Turakamu. An honour code that involves ritual suicide. Sliding doors on houses. Sound familiar? It does to me; to me it sounds quintessentially, or perhaps stereotypically, Eastern: it makes me think of China, or Japan, or Korea. Again, this might be - barely - fine, if it weren't for the fact that everything about the invading culture is cast as inherently bad. They keep slaves! They have arena games! They didn't even think about trading before invading! Feist's epic looks from here uncomfortably like an encounter between an inherently good, Western culture and an inherently evil, Eastern culture.
What about the women of this saga? Well, for a start, out of a cast of approximately 20 main characters - characters, that is, who have speaking parts and who influence the action in a significant way - exactly four are women. Four.
We have Princess Anita, who breaks down at the first sign of trouble because It's. All. Too. Much! (Needless to say, none of the men do this.) and whose part in the action is pretty much incidental anyway.
Then there's Katala, who has literally no personality. Bearing in mind that she is the main love interest for one of our heroes, I can tell you nothing about her that is not connected with Pug or her station in life.
Next up is Queen Aglaranna of the elves. Again, we see very little of her, and, again, what we do see is exclusively characterised by her love interest. In the cliched position of Torn Between Love and Duty, she is more or less a plot device to allow Tomas to Fulfil His Dreams.
And, finally, the Princess Carline. Possibly the strongest female character in the whole saga, she is at least allowed a stroppy teenage stage and some actual character development. But her impact on the action is again minimal, and she functions primarily as a love interest.
C'mon, Feist. Even Tolkien had better female characters than this.
None of the characters are particularly engaging, if I'm brutally honest. More than once I found myself thinking, "Well? Are you going to react to this world-changing event as if it is actually happening to you?" That was until I stopped caring and just wanted to finish the damn book. Any narrative drive is lost among endless battles and politics. There's a good bit near the middle, when Pug visits the invaders and does some actual magic, but this is unfortunately brief. And what I'm sure is meant to be a dramatic and believable denouement just falls flat because...well, it's not believable.
This is one of the worst books I've read this year. This is the reason fantasy gets a bad name. Books like this: long, ponderous, characterless, misleadingly titled, relentlessly Western, highly derivative...do you need any more reasons not to read it?