Book 1 of the Magister Trilogy
Published by DAW
C.S. Friedman has been writing and publishing for twenty years now, and she is perhaps best known for The Coldfire Trilogy. Though that saga’s initial backdrop is science fictional in nature, the novels themselves fall more under the shadow of Dark Fantasy. Since the conclusion of The Coldfire Trilogy, she has published two very well-received Space Operas, one of which (This Alien Shore) was tagged with “New York Times Notable Book of the Year” honors. Feast of Souls is her latest work, a return to Dark Fantasy that has much in common with The Coldfire Trilogy, though it is a work that stands on its own. Having read much of Ms. Friedman’s work, I came to this book with some relatively high expectations.
The story begins with a mystery: what is ailing Prince Andovan Aurelius? The malady is not an easily diagnosed thing and soon, the Royal Magister (wizard-like advisors in this world) Ramirus fears the worst for the son of King Danton Aurelieus. The worst is indeed the truth of the Prince’s illness, for the Magisters have a dark secret: their sorcery is powered by the soulfire of living beings, and Andovan has become the power source for another Magister. For unexplained reasons (this is after all the first novel of a trilogy), Magisters rarely know the identity of the random power source, and once this Wasting of the Magister’s power source (i.e. the unwitting human) has begun, the only end is death. This is a small spark, but the entire novel gestates from this point and Friedman does well to craft the story in an organic and natural fashion.
The other primary storyline follows Kamala, a young woman who thirsts to be more than what she is – a prostitute. She wishes to become a Magister, something forbidden to women in this imagined world. Though it is not explicitly stated why women are precluded from being Magisters, it is a known fact of the world. If any woman wishes to practice sorcery, they must be a witch and use their own life-force to power their sorcery whereas Magisters draw upon the life force of random individuals rather than themselves.
So, the two driving forces behind the plot and the whole novel are a dying prince and a woman who has forbidden power. It is relatively difficult to go into too much more detail about the plot particulars without spoiling the many elements of the story Friedman throws into this novel. With
Andovan’s plight and Kamala’s “quest,” Friedman plays with many familiar elements of the genre: a crazed king, wild women, royal lineage, a monstrous threat, etc. Friedman also plays upon the role of gender throughout the novel; with women forbidden from becoming Magisters there is a very strong theme that can be spun into most elements of the story. At times I felt as if Friedman was trying to show a world where all men/males, save for those with more of their mother in their make-up than their fathers, are power-hungry, selfish, self-serving, egotistical beasts and women are the only redeemable characters. At times these gender games were subtle, other times not so much; but ultimately women's roles in Feast of Souls are a reflection of how our world was in the past, and still is in some places in the world today. Again, to reveal any of the scenes in their specificity would rob you, the potential reader of the book, of feeling the power of those scenes. This is not at all to say Feast of Souls is a feminist anti-male novel; just that the gender roles here are a strong pillar of the story.
This leads to another strong quality of this book, Friedman manages to throw powerful scene after powerful scene into the narrative. A lesser writer may rest their whole novel on just powerful scenes, but Friedman knows her readers and discerning readers in general better than that. The novel evokes, as I said, a very natural quality – between those powerful scenes are the more subtle and just as engaging scenes of character development and secondary world backstory development. This world (seemingly unnamed at this point) has a great deal of history; a history that blends myth with memory into a clouded truth obscured by great gulfs in recorded history. Like other writers who excel at imagined world fantasy (Greg Keyes, Tad Williams, Patrick Rothfuss, Robin Hobb), Friedman allows her world to come through the words, memories, and eyes of her characters, rather than simple dumps of textbook like information. Like those great storytellers, this lends a mythic, resonating quality to her world.
Back to one of my opening statements about the expectations I had for the book, were they met? Yes, at least so far. Feast of Souls was an intense novel and provided much food for thought on the sacrifices people make for what they want; what people will do to maintain power; and the potentially-volatile roles of gender. This has been a very good year for fans of Fantasy and Science Fiction – Friedman’s book deserves at least as much attention as some of those “internet darling” writers like Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and Patrick Rothfuss.
To be honest, I am tempering my complete judgment because I was left with some unanswered questions and unexplained intricacies of the magics and the world itself. Knowing this is only one part of a greater story, I have confidence, based on my experience with her earlier novels, that Friedman will provide some of those answers over the next two volumes. This however, shows that Friedman truly knows what she is doing as a storyteller, since she is following one of the great axioms: “Always leaving them wanting more.” I, for one, want more; especially after reading the last couple of exhilarating chapters.
© 2007 Rob H. Bedford
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