Monday, September 19, 2011

Magician: Apprentice (Raymond E. Feist)

Magician: Apprentice
(The Riftwar Saga, Book 1)
Raymond E. Feist
Bantam Spectra
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The orphan Pug and Tomas, the cook's son, have been as brothers since their earliest memories. At the rustic court of Crydee, on the western frontier fringes of the Kingdom, they fought and ran and played as boys do, each dreaming of a future filled with glory as each holds a private affection for Princess Carline, daughter of the Duke - an affection shared by most every other castle boy, including their friend Squire Roland. But now their childhood comes to an end, as they stand before the Craftmasters who will decide their futures. Tomas is taken under the wing of the castle Swordmaster, to become a soldier in the Duke's garrison. Pug finds himself with a more unusual master, the magician Kulgan. The old man has never taken an apprentice before, and Pug is determined to live up to the man's trust... but, while the book learning comes easy enough, the practice continually eludes him. The boy has talent - even Father Tully, the castle priest, can determine that - but his magic resists the usual paths of expression.
When a strange shipwreck washes onto the rocks near the castle, thoughts of elusive magic and would-be glory are swept away. The lone survivor dies days afterwards, but not before revealing a terrible truth: the ship traveled from another world, a world already gaining a foothold in Midkemia. They do not come in peace, but under a banner of war - and their strange magicks are far superior to those wielded by Kulgan and other native mages. Even as the Duke calls upon allies among the dwarves and elves, the alien Tsurani strike.
Pug, Tomas, and Roland used to dream of becoming brave heroes. Now, each is set upon a path far greater, and more dangerous, than any they dreamt of, a path that leads through foreign intrigue, intra-Kingdom political squabbles, mountain deeps, elven glades... possibly beyond the doors of Death itself.

REVIEW: I often wonder if there are other worlds intermingling with our own, if the Earth experienced by other people is perhaps an entirely different planet than the one I inhabit. This book would be a prime example. It's considered a fantasy classic, even appearing on the recent NPR list of top 100 fantasy and sci-fi novels of all time. After reading it, I can only conclude that there is another book of the same name by the same author that earned these accolades.
The story starts slow, poking and meandering through Pug's young life in the carefree wilds of Crydee. Along the way, we meet a number of fantasy chestnuts posing as characters, including the Friendly Forest Ranger, the Good Duke, the Beautiful Princess (who, despite being introduced as a kindly person with a smile for all, treats Pug worse than a dog until he saves her life from a pair of stereotypical trolls), and more. Later, we encounter elves of unearthly beauty who live in treetop homes amid uncanny magicks, steadfast dwarves of the mountain mines, primitive bands of raiding goblins, a band of dark beings who - shock of shocks - are bad-blood cousins of the elves... I think you get the idea. Not an original idea on the page, save the notion of otherworldly travel, and even the Tsurani become more of a racial stereotype than an intriguing presence. Pug himself becomes something of a cliche, the Orphan Hero who elicits unnatural behavior in those around him, in order that he might find himself at the center of attention. At one point, an elven prince arrives to consult with the Duke about the Tsurani threat - a very big deal, as elves have never left their forest fastness to treat with men in living memory. This most honored and ancient of beings, however, happily makes a side-trip to talk to Pug, not only about his unusual magic but about his girl troubles! Enemies from another world invading the land, and the elf prince smilingly listens to an orphan boy whine about a girl... a girl who, quite frankly, comes across as such a selfish, game-playing twit, gleefully pitting two friends against each other for the dubious prize of her heart, that I couldn't give a rat's tail about which way she'd cast her regal affections.
Meanwhile, the plot wends its way along, hitting stereotype after stereotype. Months and years pass in the blink of an eye, while short trips draw themselves out painfully. There's a battle here and there to keep things interesting, and a death count consisting almost entirely of "red shirts." (To borrow from the classic Star Trek, the nameless hordes of red-shirted extras were always the first to fall in any given conflict.) The story doesn't so much end as run out of pages; nothing comes to any sort of conclusion, nor does it end on a cliffhanger. It was as if Feist just decided to stop writing.
What was I missing? What, in this collection of illogical characters and stale chestnuts, made this one of the top 100 speculative fiction books of all time? This was even the author's preferred edition, wherein Feist, with fifteen years and several other successful titles under his belt, went back to revise his first published work. To be fair, the saga as a whole earned the honors, but having read this, who would pick up a second book? Why return to the bitter well hoping for sweet water? I've done that one too many times, myself, and wound up with a second choking cup too often to waste more time and money here. The only possible explanation is that which I first surmised: I must be living in a separate dimension from the rest of humankind. In your world, wherever it may be, perhaps this is a sterling example of fine fantasy fiction, but not on my side of the rift.

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