The first in Feist's Riftwar Saga, Magician has the air of a pulp fantasy novel. First published, abridged, in 1982 and unabridged a decade later, this book oozes nerds in the '70s playing D&D and I love that. It has it's bona fides as a fantasy novel and that's what made me pick it up in the first place. Unfortunately, I could never find myself truly getting into Magician in a way that I have with more contemporary fantasy series (like Brent Week's Lightbringer, or Peter V. Brett's Demon Cycle). The piece was paced oddly, the characters undeveloped and shallow, and as a whole it felt too broad and unfocused. There's a fine line between telling an epic story with a sense of something larger than what the reader is being shown, and having an author move endlessly along a chain of "and then"s. Unfortunately, this series hit the wrong side of that line and I was never given anything good enough to forgive it.
The book starts with two boys (one orphaned, naturally) growing up in a medieval-setting fantasy castle. I expected us to stay there a lot longer, a la Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice series (a 4⭐ series btw). Strong but cliché start. Almost immediately Feist whisks us off somewhere else, and before long we've covered seemingly large spaces of time and personal development in just a few chapters. This might speed up the pacing, but when you're writing fantasy you have to educate your readers, which is why "undiscovered genius" is a common and useful trope in fantasy: our protagonist can learn about the world with us, but do all the hard work (like studying for all those pesky magic exams). Instead, Feist introduces Pug and Tomas (our young keep boys) just before they start their apprenticeships and then comes back to them years later in the middle of their studies. We're not much wiser about their day-to-day lives, their skills, their character development. Later we spend seemingly endless pages on board a boat with characters who phase in-and-out of importance, and then maybe a dozen pages are given to Pug after he has his memory wiped and goes through an entirely new magic training in a parallel world. The pacing was way off - I could never infer importance from length or attention.
This isn't even a review about Feist's book anymore. I don't want to spend time dissecting what I don't like about something if it doesn't lead to a productive understanding about what I do like, and how it could be better. Unfortunately I just don't think I like this kind of book. That also means I did not like this book very much, which is a shame because it seems like such a beloved classic.
But I do like fantasy. So let me explain to you why both these things are true.
There is a feeling that Feist has already go to the end of this book and is relaying it to you, almost haphazardly in the pub when really you'd rather be talking to the cute boy or girl you've been making eyes with. Good storytelling is joint discovery, you and the story teller are stumbling across things, surprising things, unexpected things, at the same time. Feist's writing in this book lacks that feeling, and it's a shame. A good plot, a rich political ecosystem, an interesting magic system are the core ingredients to a good fantasy epic, but there's nothing holding them together. Croissants might just be butter, flour, yeast, and milk but so are a lot of things - the art is in the mixing and waiting.
As much as I want to love good old pulp fantasy, I don't know how much I actually enjoy it. A lot of my favourite fantasy series are more modern. It's only a forty-year gap, in the scheme of writing it's really not that long. Orwell's 1984 was published over seventy years ago, Steinbeck's East of Eden a few years after that, and Atwood's The Handmaids Tale a few years subsequent. All books that remain remarkably readable and excellently rich for modern readers.
Reading this book acted more as a counter point for contemporary fantasy (things published in the last 10-15 years). Fantasy has become less of a distinct entity, separate from fiction. Writing fantasy isn't a necessarily a decision about niche or genre, it is a stylistic or world-building aspect. Sure, some modern writers are going deep on the epic and high fantasy (see: GRRM), but a lot of others are writing good books, with crafted characters, set in a world that has magic and swords and dragons. And that's great, I love swords, and magic, and taverns.
More people can write and publish their books, and more people can find and access them. The barriers to everyone in this equation have gone down, and the result hasn't been the dilution of quality we probably feared it would be forty years ago. This means that if I want to read a book about men who make potions or women who can make magical illusions with their art, I don't have to pick the writer just because they're a fantasy writer.
I like good books first, and fantasy second. I love good books written in a fantasy setting, but I (personally) cannot forgive a bad book because its characters inhabit a world where there is magic. No matter how well explored the consequences, or certain aspects of the political and economic ramifications of there being magicians.
With so many new, creative voices in fantasy, many of who are women and People of Colour, I would rather spend my time exploring what's new in the genre. Our attention and our conversations are two of the best tools that we have to make meaning and change with out brief lives on earth, and I think those things are better spent on emerging and under-represented artists (if I was made to chose, which I am not).
I'm glad I read a classic of the genre, but not because of the book itself - rather to get a better lay of the land. I'm glad I read it but I won't be reading the rest of the series. 1.5⭐