The Reading Canary On: The Riftwar Saga

by Arthur B

Arthur B reviews Ray Feist's Riftwar Saga and tries to establish a pretentious new Ferretbrain tradition.

What's this Reading Canary Business Then?

As our esteemed editor pointed out in my last review of books in the Vlad Taltos series, I'm the canary of genre fiction, flapping about in the uncharted territory of fantasy/SF/whatever series and letting you know when something stinks. So I thought "Hey, why not make a thing of it".

Reading Canary articles are those which deal with reviewing series of books - whether the article covers the entire series or just a handful of books - with the intent of letting the reader know exactly how far they can read (and what spin-off books they should experiment with) before things inevitably start to smell a bit off. (I wholeheartedly encourage other Ferretbrain contributors to write articles like this. If it becomes a thing maybe we can actually set up a commumal account for the Reading Canary with an adorable canary-with-glasses icon to publish the articles under or something.)

Why I Like Ray Feist's Riftwar Saga

There are few things more boring than a roleplayer telling you about the cool weekly Dungeons and Dragons game he was in a couple years back. RPGs are not a spectator sport; nobody buys tickets to watch six people sit around and throw dice, nobody logs into World of Warcraft just to watch other people play. They are designed to be fun to the participants (as they should be), not to disinterested outsiders.

It is therefore an especially bad sign for a fantasy novel if it begins to read like the aforementioned roleplayer yabbering on intolerably about the aforementioned game. Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara is especially bad for this: a brick-sized riff on themes hoiked from Tolkein, the book simply lacks merit. If the action and story of your novel resemble something I could have come up with when I was 13 and running D&D for my school friends, I'd say you've failed horribly. Of course, if your books were actually based on a D&D game, chances are they're an utter trainwreck.

Which is why Ray Feist's original Riftwar Saga - the trilogy of Magician, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon - is so surprising. Based on a game he participated in, Feist somehow manages to write an engaging and exciting adventure story that's entertaining to read. It is not great literature, doesn't stand up to the likes of Tolkein or Wolfe, and the prose is competant and readable and absolutely not special in any way, but the books are a fun read regardless. Observant gamers will notice the D&Disms, and will also realise that Feist has pulled a rare trick: he's talked about a campaign he played in and made us interested in it. If the books do occasionally make me think I'm listening in on a D&D session, it's at least a totally awesome D&D session.


One of the problems I have with Terry Brooks' stories is that I keep getting the impression we are meant to take them seriously. Probably that's the publisher's fault, saying that The Sword of Shannara is meant to be literature on a par with Tolkein, but at least part of it is because Brooks adopts this serious tone throughout the books which seems to say "Hey, quit sniggering guys, this is important."

Magician, conversely, has no illusions of grandeur. Its hero is a kitchen boy who becomes a magician's apprentice and goes on to decisively end a battle between two worlds, Midkemia and Kelewan, caused by the sudden opening of an interdimensional rift, and the whole affair is consistently presented as a fun adventure story, nothing more.

But what an adventure story! Magic dragon armour that controls your mind! Tribes of migratory dark elves! An invasion of an utterly generic Tolkeinesque fantasy world by a far more exotic and original place! Big towers that wizards have to stand on top of to pass their final exams! Thieves' Guilds! Plucky Princesses and exciting battles! Magician is truly packed, so much so that the brief summary of the action at the start of Silverthorn takes over a dozen pages.

The weakest aspect of Magician is the coming-of-age stuff, which Feist mainly circumvents with a simple formula: he spends a handful of pages showing life at court, then he throws a crisis at the characters, then he devotes a handful of pages showing life at court again and letting us see how the boys have grown thanks to their experience, then he throws in another crisis, and so on. D&D players in the audience should be able to tell at which points the characters go up in level.

(Note: in some editions Magician is split in half and sold as Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master.)


As I understand it, this one shouldn't really exist: Feist wanted to cover the Riftwar in two books, but once Magician sold well enough to merit a sequel his publishers wanted a trilogy. As such, this is the shortest book in the trilogy - it's only half as long as Magician - and acts mainly as a prelude to the third book. The essential concept is that there's a sinister dark elf who's united all the dark elf tribes off in the north, and he's planning an invasion, only he needs to assassinate Arutha, Prince of Krondor, in order to fulfil an auspicious prophecy. Shenanigans happen, supporting character Jimmy the Hand returns from the depths of book 1 to foil the assassination, only Arutha's betrothed is in a coma and he needs to race to find the antidote - and, incidentally, learn more about the threat to the realm. Inevitably, a lot of this book is devoted to foreshadowing for A Darkness at Sethanon, but Feist successfully manages to make the action of Silverthorn seem relevant and exciting. While it isn't quite as packed with momentous events as Magician is, important things do happen, and it does help that Feist is forced to sit down and tell a fairly linear story from beginning to end rather than juggling dozens of strands at once.

One thing I did notice while reading Silverthorn is that Feist actually writes pretty excellent fight scenes. A lot of the time I find fight sequences in genre novels of all sorts muddled and confusing, but Feist does an excellent job of informing my mental picture of what is going on. This is possibly one area where his Dungeons and Dragons playing actually helps his prose: a large part of RPG sessions involve verbal descriptions of complicated combat sequences, so if you can get to the point where you can improvise clear and unmuddled descriptions on the spot it's obviously going to be helpful when you are trying to compose such scenes on the printed page.

A Darkness at Sethanon

Although Silverthorn didn't suffer too much from being ripped out of A Darkness of Sethanon and published separately as the second book of the trilogy, Sethanon itself is hurting for the lack. The plot segments dealing with Arutha and Jimmy the Hand - the central characters in Silverthorn feel like they are treading old ground, pretty much because they are - here's the discovery of Nighthawk assassins in Krondor, there's the raid on their HQ, and look! Here's a contrived plan to allow Arutha to slip out of the city and go adventuring! Additionally, it is galling to note that most of the characters - except for Pug - seem to have made no preparations to battle the Enemy, despite having been aware of him for well over a year. Feist provides limp excuses for this (I'm sorry, Ray, but in any feudal kingdom formal matters of state could and did fall by the wayside when there's a war on), but really the reason is that there wasn't meant to be a gap of a year between the discovery of the Enemy and the great war against his forces - but for the interference of the publishers.

Although the early parts of Arutha and Jimmy's strand are repetitive, Tomas (who in the first book had his essence fused with a Dragon Lord's) and Pug have plenty of fun - because, of course, the only way to unite the forces of two worlds against the enemy of mankind is to go on a world-hopping adventure riding a dragon through rifts in spacetime. This tour of worlds is a) totally metal and b) shows just how imaginative Feist can be when the mood takes him, and provides a welcome break from the sub-Tolkein milieu of Midkemia in much the same way that the Kelewan segments did in the earlier books (although he does slip into imitating Michael Moorcock instead - especially with the City Forever, a pale imitation of Moorcock's Tanelorn). And to be fair, Arutha and Jimmy's storyline improves greatly once it starts breaking into new territory, and shows a harder edge to the characters that Feist hasn't really delved into before: they have to do things like kill captives in cold blood so that said captives can't betray their mission, and look their family's arch-enemy (and a traitor to the Kingdom) in the eye and agree to put past differences aside and work with him.

The main problem with A Darkness At Sethanon is that the ending is abrupt. Slightly too much time is spent covering a long seige in the middle of the book, so the conflict at Sethanon and the massive backstory to the entire Saga has to be quickly resolved in the last hundred pages. While the backstory is interesting, it could have benefited from being distributed more evenly over the course of the trilogy.

In the final balance Magician remains the best book in the Riftwar saga. Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon are merely good, not great, but Magician is an excellent and unpretentious adventure story, and (at this stage of his career at least) that's what Feist is best at.

Why I Only Buy His Books Second-Hand

The thing is, while I do enjoy Ray Feist's books, I just can't bring myself to give him any money because he's a thief.

Specifically, the parallel world of Kelewan is a direct rip-off of somebody else's work. It is apparent that M.A.R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne, a very early roleplaying game, was used as source material for the Dungeons and Dragons campaign the Riftwar Saga is based on. The parallels between Kelewan and Barker's imaginary planet of Tekumel are many - some Tekumel fans claim to have amassed lists of similarities ranging in the hundreds - but here's a few of the more galling ones:
  • The major empire of Kelewan is the Tsurani Empire. The major empire of Tekumel is the Tsolyani Empire. Just to the north of the Tsurani Empire is a city called Yankora; just to the north of the Tsolyani Empire is a nation called Yan Kor.

  • Metal is rare on Kelewan and most soldiers use hardened leather armour. Metal is scarce on Tekumel and most soldiers use hardened leather armour.

  • Most native creatures of Kelewan have six limbs. Most native creatures of Tekumel have six limbs. For example, Tekumel has no native horses, but they do have various six-legged beasts of burden. Kelewan has no native horses, but they do have various six-legged beasts of burden. Also, Kelewan is home to a number of intelligent, non-human species, including a race of six-limbed insect people. Tekumel is the same.

  • Society in Kelewan is based on a clan structure, with the so-called War Party influencing the politics of the Empire, and the Emperor living in deliberate isolation. Society in Tekumel is based on a clan structure, with the so-called War Party influencing the politics of the Empire, and the Emperor living in deliberate isolation. In both settings arena combat is popular.

  • The pantheons of Kelewan and Tekumel are precisely the same size, and are split into 10 greater and 10 lesser gods.

  • Both Kelewan and Tekumel draw on a heavily Asian-Indonesian-Pacific aesthetic.
The list goes on. According to people who claim to have corresponded with Feist, he's admitted that Kelewan was heavily, heavily inspired by Tekumel, and stated that he wasn't aware that the Dungeon Master in the game which inspired the Riftwar Saga had been using Empire of the Petal Throne for inspiration. This is fair enough; I can accept that Feist acted in ignorance. However, he cannot now be unaware of what he has done, and yet - to my mind - he's not done enough to make amends.

Ray Feist is damn lucky that DAW Books - who published some Tekumel novels by M.A.R. Barker in the mid-80s - never considered it worth suing over the unattributed use of Barker's work. Barker himself, on the Tekumel mailing lists, has stated that while he's far from happy with the situation, he considers it dead and buried and doesn't want to make a fuss about it - he can't afford to fund a lawsuit himself, so without the support of a publisher he's got no recourse.

On the one hand, maybe it's slightly arrogant of me to take up a grudge which one side has already abandoned. On the other hand, Feist's failure to attempt to make things right on his own initiative shows a certain dishonesty which I find galling; he's effectively gotten away with plagiarising Barker, and who's to say he won't get try it again? It's incredibly hypocritical of him to admit to people in private correspondence that Kelewan was influenced by Tekumel, and then to speak of Kelewan as his own innovation in public.

It will take two things for me to buy first-hand copies of Feist's novels:
  • Feist needs to apologise to Barker. Mealy-mouthed acknowledgements that you've used someone else's works tied up with pleas of ignorance don't cut it.

  • Feist needs to acknowledge Barker's influence (however indirect) on his work. A mention in the acknowledgements section of one of Feist's novels would be enough for me.
Until that happens, I'm not giving the man a penny.

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Comments (go to latest)
Guy at 05:14 on 2007-07-06
I went to see Feist speak many years ago at a writer's festival, before I'd read any of his books, because I had friends who were fans. In telling his life story he explained that he'd learned his deepest lessons about human nature from a stint as a car salesman. This made me feel somewhat disinclined to read his books, but perhaps if I see these secondhand I'll give them a burl. :)
Arthur B at 08:55 on 2007-07-06
Luckily for the likes of us, Feist's books tend to fall into the category of "things which pop up in second-hand book shops over and over again". :D
Wardog at 11:45 on 2007-07-06
Moral issues of acknowledgement aside, I think the one thing you can safely say about Feist is that's completely unpretentious. I think it was Dan who said that he read an interview with him in which he said he basically wanted to write exciting adventure stories of the sort he'd loved as a kid. Given that the genre is stuffed with people trying to make a bid for Literature, I find this rather charming of him - ditto the car salesman comment! I did make an attempt to read Magician but I failed. I found the way every chapter started with a ominous pronouncement about the weather distraction ("It was raining" / "The sky was dark" etc. etc.)

I like the Canary idea very much, although if people keep referring to me as the esteemed editor my head is going to explode with pride :) I'm going to see if I can bear to re-read Dragonlance!!!
Arthur B at 13:49 on 2007-07-06
The unpretentiousness is really what's charming about Feist, which makes the Tekumel issue so baffling. It would seem (to me) to be the easiest thing for the world for Feist to just say "Well, Barker ended up being one of many people who influenced me, and I happened to draw on him heavily for the Kelewan segments accidentally; I'm sorry I didn't acknowledge it earlier". As far as the ominous sentences at the beginning of chapters go, I think that's a deliberate device of his (and yes, it is kind of annoying). I don't think anything is lost if you go through and just cross them all out, however.
Jen Spencer at 14:26 on 2007-07-06
I support the institution of the Reading Canary. Let me know if logo pondering is desired.

Hmmm... unfortunately I can't find enough of a pattern in my few articles to make a reviewing animal. Obviously I shall have to contribute more until one develops!
Wardog at 12:14 on 2007-07-09
Well, we'll have to wait until we get image-support before we can go with full implementation but I was talking with Arthur in noodle bar and an iconic rating system showing a canary in increasing states of distress would be great. Like it could start with a perfectly healthy canary looking cute and vulnerable and the canary could get increasingly toxic and unhappy until it was just a little pile of feathers and goo on the floor of its cage. I'm sick.
Rami at 08:28 on 2007-07-10
I like this idea! Implementing it correctly might be a bit complicated, though. We will have to talk about it when I'm in town :-)
Arthur B at 13:24 on 2007-07-10
Heck, we can get image-support right now if we just set up a communal Photobucket account - perhaps editors can have read/write access and contributors can all have read-only access so they can look up URLs for linking images.
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