Wednesday, 09 September 2009
Ray Feist's Krondor's Sons trilogy was cancelled after two books. It is not hard to see why.
Previously In Raymond E. Feist's Dungeons & Dragons Campaign
The Kingdom of the Isles in the magical world of Midkemia was attacked by invaders from a more original fantasy world, and some stuff happened with dragons and life crystals and dark elves that I forget. Meanwhile, in the plagiarised dimension of Kelewan, a princess fucked a slave boy named Kevin, whilst in our own plane of existence Arthur insists on buying Ray Feist's books second-hand, at first because of Feist's failure to acknowledge the influence of M.A.R. Barker's work and later because Feist simply hadn't written anything good enough to merit buying full price. Will Feist pull out a story worth paying the full whack for? Let's see...
Krondor's Sons: Passing the Time Between Wars
So, as far as I can tell the overarching Riftwar Cycle that connects almost all of Ray Feist's books (seriously, I think he's only ever written one book which wasn't connected to Midkemia/Kelewan) consists of a series of oddly-named wars, which comprise the major, pivotal events of the series, and a large number of books which occur between the wars and cover less interesting bits. So, for example, between the Riftwar Saga and the Serpentwar Saga you have the Empire Trilogy, detailing interesting goings-on in Kelewan (the Dimension of Someone Else's Work), and you have Krondor's Sons, which focuses on Midkemia (the Dimension of Generic Fantasy).
And more specifically, on the offspring of Arutha, a major character from the Riftwar Saga who, as you might have guessed, ends up becoming Prince of Krondor, effectively the ruler of the western half of the Kingdom of the Isles. This focus means that Krondor's Sons continues the practice of the Riftwar Saga in telling the story of the royal family of the Kingdom of the Isles in general, and Krondor in particular, as though these were the bold Men of Destiny whose deeds would shape their world, and all others are chattel, worthy only to the extent that they help out the royal family.
In other words, it's exactly like most epic high fantasy. But is it any good?
Prince of the Blood
Prince of the Blood focuses on Arutha's elder sons, the twins Borric and Erland. In a refreshing change of pace from the goody-two-shoes protagonists of the Riftwar Saga (even master thief Jimmy the Hand was whiter than white in that one), Borric and Erland are spoiled brats with little-to-no idea of how privileged they are, and think nothing of delaying returning to their father's court for a couple of days in order to indulge in some gamblin' and fightin'. Arutha's response is to get his goons to beat the shit out of them, and then send them to the court of the Empire of Kesh to celebrate the Empress's 75th jubilee because it's not safe for him to go himself. Naturally, things go a little wrong; someone's conspiring to start a war between the Kingdom of the Isles and Kesh, and they've decided that the best way to go about it is to murder Borric and Erland in cold blood. Captured by slavers, Borric is saved by the fact that he is dressed as a wizard for no especially good reason, and thus is not recognised; he is able to escape with the help of Suli, an urchin boy who is more than willing to steal, spy, and kill for Borric if necessary. Borric returns the favour by introducing the kid to copious amounts of alcohol (and in one instance, at Suli's encouragement). With a couple of more forgettable allies they make for the palace of Kesh to try and meet up with Erland's posse and perhaps complain about the murder attempt.
Meanwhile, following the kidnapping and apparent death of Borric, Erland is inconsolable for precisely a week, at the end of which he arrives at the palace of Kesh and is immediately drowned in women, politics, women, fine wines, women, banquets, women, hunting, and more women. Given that Erland is having the time of his spoilt little life, Feist actually does a good job of fooling the reader into thinking that Erland is in just as much danger as Borric is, but that patently isn't the case. This only makes Borric's troubles even more amusing. Feist appears to have used the twins as a device for exploring the two sides of his writing, as well as a clever means of showing two complementary views on the Empire of Kesh: Borric's travels provide the kick-ass adventure stories that characterised the Riftwar Saga, and provides a bottom-up view of Keshian society, while Erland's immersion in Keshian court politics allows Feist to write about the sort of conspiracy and intrigue that infused Daughter of the Empire, and presents a top-down look at Kesh.
Kesh is an odd society. It's an empire ruled by an elite trueblooded race of people who are aesthetically similar the ancient Egyptians (they even worship animal-headed gods), but who are culturally utterly dissimilar (there's no big emphasis on death or the afterlife or pyramids or the ruler being descended from the Sun God or whatever) - although on the other hand, Feist does a good job of depicting how a society whose ruling class are hunters as opposed to warriors would function (for example, there's lots of ritual hunts but no tradition of duelling).
That kind of weird disconnect between aesthetics and culture crops up a lot. Kesh is a multiethnic nation (so is the Kingdom of the Isles, to be fair), incorporating pseudoarabs, pseudochinese people, pseudoafricans, and so forth, but often they only superficially resemble the cultures they are supposed to represent, which doesn't speak well of Feist's research. Kesh is also brutally unjust, especially to the lower echelons on society, and on the verge of revolution, rebellion, and bloody interracial violence. This means it is an exciting place to have an adventure. However, it also means that by this point in his writing career Feist has written about the negative aspects of pretty much every premodern culture except medieval Europe; between Kelewan and Kesh, Feist has covered pretty much the entire globe. On the one hand, the Kingdom of the Isles isn't really meant to represent the values espoused by medieval Europe so much as some generally idealistic and romanticised concepts which can appeal to a liberal modern audience. However, there's the occasional mention of other pseudoeuropean cultures on the world of Midkemia - surely one of them could be used to show the downside of feudalism? Saying "wow, your ancestors were mean!" to every culture on the globe while letting your own ancestors off the hook does not seem even-handed.
Despite a somewhat rushed ending in the original version of the book (Feist recently put out a revised edition with an entirely rewritten ending to solve this problem, but I haven't read it), Prince of the Blood is an exciting adventure story, worth picking up and reading second-hand but not quite of a sufficiently high standard to be worth buying new. It's pretty self-contained - there are a few parts which might not mean much to people who didn't read the Riftwar Saga, but Feist does a good job of filling in the reader without boring those of us who have read those books, and nothing especially world-shaking happens in it, so you can skip it quite happily without risking being too confused by future volumes of the ever-expanding Riftwar Cycle. I was especially glad that Feist was able to write about a crisis which, for once, didn't have cosmic world-shattering implications, but at the same time managed to make it seem important and relevant. Feist's writing has generally improved; whilst there's occasional efforts to attach angsty backstories and complex motivations to characters who in the Riftwar Saga were merrily one-dimensional, which read a bit like bad Riftwar fanfic, there are also a few parts where Feist exceeds his limits and becomes genuinely excellent (the love-at-first-sight meeting between Sir James and his telepathic sweetheart Gamina lurches between bad fanfic and excellent writing and back again from sentence to sentence).
But if you thought the cultural myopia was bad this time, then you're in for a treat with Feist's next effort...
The King's Buccaneer
The second book deals with the third son of Arutha, Nicholas, introduced in Prince of the Blood as a tiny child with a deformed foot. Ten years (and the events of the second two books of the Empire Trilogy) have passed since then, so now Nicholas is a teenager with a club foot - but, ah, it's a very specific level of club foot.
Specifically, Nicholas is only disabled when it is important for Feist's purposes that he has a club foot. When it is not convenient, the foot is completely forgotten. In general, Feist only wants to think about the club foot when he wants to portray Nicholas as a potentially great leader of men wracked with indecision and doubts about his own ability, the foot representing the flaws he perceives in himself. After a hundred pages or so Feist tires of Nicholas having an actual club foot so he has Pug, the all-purpose Gandalf ex Machina of the setting, fix the foot by helping Nicholas start down the path of accepting his inner fears (because, you see, disabled people are that way because it's all psychosomatic), and his foot only hurts a little when he's mired in uncertainty. When Feist remembers.
I'm mentioning the foot thing first because it's the only failure of The King's Buccaneer which is really unique to the book. None of its other problems - and golly, does it have problems - are unique to it per se, they're just daft things that Feist has been guilty of in previous Midkemia books. The problem is that they're all gathered into one place and turned up to eleven, and the really enraging thing is that they end up spoiling some otherwise quite fun parts of the book. To be fair, between Prince of the Blood and this one Feist was busy finishing off the Empire Trilogy with Janny Wurts, and The King's Buccaneer was published hot on the heels of Mistress of the Empire, so I get the impression that Feist was investing so much energy in the Empire books that he simply wanted to coast a little for The King's Buccaneer. Either way, this book has problems, even though it also has some quite entertaining elements.
But don't expect fun for the first hundred and fifty pages or so. First a bunch of characters from the earlier books show up in Krondor and pat each other on the back, telling each other how marvellous they are and how jolly good it is to have such nice friends. Then it is decided that Nicholas and his squire Harry need to go to Crydee, the initial setting of Magician, to serve on the frontier a little to make men out of them. They stop off on Sorcerer's Isle and meet Pug, get some spooky prophecies, and more back-patting occurs amongst the alumni of previous novels. Then Nicholas reaches Crydee where he's impressed by how awesome Duke Martin and Lady Brisa and the other local characters from previous books are, and some more back-patting occurs.
One almost suspects that most of the major protagonists in the various Midkemia novels are based on player characters from the Dungeons & Dragons campaign that inspired them. This would explain why Feist seems to have a terminally limited number of characters available to him; most of the new characters introduced in The King's Buccaneer seem to be based on earlier characters in the saga or fantasy novel stock characters - castle wizard Anthony is a bit like Pug was when he was a struggling, crap magician rather than a godlike wizard of ultimate power, the utterly bland half-elf is like Diet Legolas, and so on. The most blatant example is Nicholas himself, who aside from the whole foot thing (when Feist remembers to address it) is almost precisely like Arutha was at his age - as Feist makes sure to remind us over and over again. It's almost like he's proud of his stunted capacity to come up with any genuinely new ideas. It takes 100 pages for anyone vaguely interesting to show up, this person being Margaret, Nick's cousin and daughter of Duke Martin. But I'll get back to her later.
Not only does Feist recycle characters, he recycles situations. Every damn time Feist writes a coming of age story involving teenage characters he uses the same old apprentice/Squire formula from Magician. He did it to Pug and Tomas, he did it to Jimmy the Hand, and now he does it to Nick and Harry. That said, Crydee is kind of dull and so there's not much else for the boys to get up to except flirt with girls and play football (I am not kidding here). Nick could have been put in the army and sent to train with the troops at the border fort that we are being told is a bit further west, but no, he runs around fetching things for Duke Martin. Heroic!
It's around this point that we are introduced to Margaret and Abigail. Margaret is the daughter of Duke Martin and Lady Brisa, and takes after her mother, a warrior-woman Martin met in an earlier novel in which her hidden homeland was under constant siege by dark elves. Abigail is her best friend and is a proper little princess, brought up nicely in the traditions of the Krondorian nobility. In other words, Feist portrays her as whiny, childish, and generally useless, having been brought up in a society that expects that of her. Nick falls for Abigail, and falls for her hard, whilst his loyal wingman Harry gets to court Margaret by default because incest is icky. Tension naturally results between Nick and Marcus, Duke Martin's son, because Marcus want Abigail for himself because she's the only woman in the world who is as boring as he is, and Marcus duly fouls the fuck out of Nick on the
Wait, did I mention that Nick is good at football, despite having a club foot? He's also an incredible swordsman and a fine dancer. Trust me, when I say his club foot is barely relevant, I mean it's barely relevant. Nick comes off the worse on the football pitch, but apparently it's a close-run thing, so there's no damn reason why he needs to have a club foot to hold him back; maybe Marcus is just better at football than him, or maybe he gives his all on the pitch because he isn't a hestitant ditherer like Nick is. Arutha was perfectly hesitant and dithery in the earlier books without a disability providing a flimsy armchair psychology justification for that, so why can't Nick be?
At this point, Feist managed to keep my interest by actually doing something interesting. Namely, he burns Crydee to the fucking ground. Disappointingly, there's every reason to believe that it will be back to its former glory before long, but there was a moment where I thought he'd simply nuked an iconic part of the setting he has a great deal of affection for simply to finally get the plot moving. It was not to be, of course: we're talking Ray Feist, not George RR Martin or Joe Abercrombie or even Steven Erikson.
Most of the important people go hunting whilst Lady Brisa stays at home with the girls because she needs to die. (I mean, this is literally the case. Everything we know about Brisa so far suggests that she'd love to go hunting with the lads, but she doesn't come along because she needs to be back home to get killed.) Whilst their backs are turned there emerges from the shadows a motley multicultural horde of a magnitude not witnessed by Ferretbrain since 300, who kill the guards, burn the town, and storm the castle. I cackle as something bad finally happens to the royal family of Feist's beloved Kingdom of the Isles, because it's about fucking time.
But alas, even amongst this glorious moment of carnage, there are some discordant notes. First off, there's the mode of attire of some of the individuals concerned in the raid. An ensemble of leather mask, leather harness, leather kilt, and pretty much nothing else really isn't appropriate attire for slavemasters... wait, actually it works just fine for slavemasters, but only in very particular contexts. The middle of an armed raid on a royal city really isn't the right time to be wearing bondage gear.
The second problem is how completely ineffectual the women turn out to be. Lady Brisa does her best and actually kills a few of the attackers, but is struck down. Margaret does her mother proud, defending her person with gusto. Abigail wails and cries and is generally useless. The girls are captured and taken away.
No, wait, they're not just captured and taken away. The leather gimps rip their clothes off, run rough hands over their soft virginal bodies, and tie them up in convoluted ways which Feist has clearly put a lot of thought into. It's almost as if the extent of Feist's research into the institution of slavery consisted of furtive visits to specialist clubs in the horny part of town; I can imagine him hunched in the corner, watching the show, his pencil gripped tightly in his sweaty hand as he takes notes and tries not to catch anyone's eye.
Despite this, the girls are not actually raped - the slavers have orders not to interfere with them. So that's OK! Who cares about the extended sexual assault? So long as slot A never ventured into tab B, it's no more distressing or traumatic than a mild cold. Despite this appalling sequence, I still held out hope that Margaret and Abigail would end up doing something to justify their existence in the remaining 500 pages of the novel. I was honestly expecting them to arrange a daring escape at some point, in the course of which Margaret would teach Abigail the importance of having a fucking backbone and Abigail can get some confidence and personality. Not at all. To be fair, Margaret does make an effort, but she is thwarted each time by the fact that Abigail is completely dumb and spineless, and their captors are not. For 400 pages the girls exist only to give us snapshots of how they and the other captives from Crydee are doing. Then for the last 100 pages they exist only to be the love interests of two of the characters (neither of them Nick or Harry, who both pick up more interesting girls along the way).
In fact, every female character of any significance in the book exists only to contribute at most a tiny amount of information, and to provide a love interest for one of the male members of the party. Three out of the four relationships that spawn over the course of the novel end happily ever after, the fourth being Nick's passionate fling with a serving girl who join the party, a relationship which both participants agree is deeply unlikely to last because Nick will almost certainly be obliged to marry somebody else for political reasons. It occurs to me that pretty much nobody in Feist's books remains single out of choice for very long; if there be an unattached lad and an unattached girl involved in the plot, then sooner or later they will end up shagging. And where multiple pairings are possible, the most obvious hookups are always the ones which end up reaching fruition. Maybe this is just par for the course when it comes to gung-ho adventure stories, but just once I would like to see an adventure story where there's a male hero, who's single, and a female heroine, who is also single, and they work closely together but they never actually hook up because while they're great friends they just ain't attracted to each other, and this is not a source of angst for either of them because they are perfectly happy with the way things are. Could we see about doing this at some point, authors? It's not too much of a stretch to imagine, is it?
So, predictably, the rest of the book consists of Nick and a motley group of companions sailing off in hot pursuit of the Gimp Patrol and their prisoners, and they soon find themselves on the trail of a conspiracy that extends, via a Tortuga-like pirate haven, to the mysterious subcontinent of Novindus, a locale hitherto unexplored in Feist's books. The pirate haven shows enormous fun, appears to have been based on a certain amount of research without being bound by it, and - aside from being annexed by Nicholas a little too easily for my liking - is probably the only perfect aspect of the novel. I would have been happy to read an entire novel set there, but then I would have preferred a novel set entirely in one of Feist's infamous dwarven gloryholes to the wretched, shambolic mess which is The King's Buccaneer.
The frustrating thing about Novindus is that it's almost awesome. It's a land about the size of the Indian subcontinent... and about the shape of the Indian subcontinent... and a number of the local place names seem to be Indian - or rather, they're the sort of names Dungeon Masters make up when they're making up a bunch of Indian-flavoured locations for a D&D game and nobody cares if the names are etymologically correct so long as they sound right...
OK, so in terms of geography it's basically India if you ripped it off Asia (tearing along the perforations marked by the Himalayas) and dropped it in the southwestern Atlantic. It's also interestingly culturally diverse; there's a fun interlude with some Muslim elves in the eastern deserts before the party reaches the southern city in which most of the action takes place. Said city, and the region of the subcontinent it dominates, is the lynchpin of a highly balkanised society. Essentially, Novindus is a land where no strong political entities have up to conquer their neighbours and establish nation-states, in contrast to Kesh, the Kingdom of the Isles, and Kelewan. Despite a loose animal-themed clan structure, there don't appear to be any political units larger than, say, an extended family or a trading house or a town. The city itself has only recently acknowledged one overall leader, the Overlord (who naturally is secretly working with the Gimp Conspiracy), and he's more of an intermediary between opposing interests than a direct ruler. Just about any family, merchant, trading house or clan maintains its own band of mercenaries, because everyone essentially has to look out for their own personal security and without armed protection travel, trade, and other such activities are simply impossible. As a result, the city is much like an armed camp, and Nick and his party have to masquerade as a newly-formed mercenary company in order to get by.
Now, I have absolutely no idea whether this corresponds to any particular period in the history of the Indian subcontinent, or whether it's a culture Feist has just made up himself (unlikely, I know) and has just happened to slap an Indian-inspired aesthetic on. Doubtless this is partially due to me not knowing very much about Indian history. But it's also partly due to there being pretty much no culural context to most of this. Aside from the aforementioned Muslim elves, religion isn't touched, which is pretty par for the course for a Feist book but still means that otherwise-handy cultural indicators are absent. There's no sign of anything resembling a caste system, and I'm pretty damn sure that if Feist had wanted to write India with the serial numbers filed off he would at least have alluded to it, along with karma and dharma and all those other handy concepts that get outlined in the "India" chapter in The White Dude's Guide to Foreigns. The Indian-sounding aesthetic for the names of places and people feels inconsistently applied to me. Almost the entire segment consists of Nick and his pals sitting around an inn planning a daring raid on the Overlord's palace, and there's really nothing distinguishing said inn and said palace from their equivalents elsewhere in Midkemia; if you swapped out all the non-European names for European ones the entire affair could be taking place two miles down the road from Krondor.
Oh, but there is one thing: the slavery. Feist likes talking about slavery. Whenever he needs to indicate that some location is Foreign Parts, out pop the slaves. Whenever he needs to point out that a particular culture or individual is decadent or corrupt, Feist simply depicts their support for the institution of slavery. Whenever Feist wants to underline that the Kingdom of the Isles is the "good" nation on the planet, he points out that they do not have slaves. Whenever he wants to masturbate, he thinks about men in leather masks and harnesses and kilts tying up teenage girls and...
Sorry, went off on a bit of a tangent there. Anyway, the point is that slavery is a crutch which Feist has leaned on a bit too much at this point, a dead horse he's beaten once too often, an axe he has ground to dust. It's a big deal in The Empire Trilogy, it's a feature in Prince of the Blood, and it is hardwired into the cultures of Kelewan, Kesh, and Novindus.
It could be argued that this is only accurate; most of the world practised some form of slavery for much of recorded history. This is true. But let me tell you about a little ambition of mine. One day, me and some of my pals are going to put together a raiding party, concoct some spurious story whereby one of us is designated the rightful heir to Ray Feist's home town, and invade the place, Battle of Hastings style. After killing fucking everyone who resists and burning the entire north side of town we will divide the land up into lots, tally up what's on there, and distribute the bits amongst ourselves. The former tenants will effectively be forced to enter into horrendously unequal agreements with us, whereby in return for giving us almost al the fruits of their constant, grinding, mindless, backbreaking labour and their service in our armies of goons if the need arises we will promise to protect them from being randomly murdered by our occupying forces. The food the tenants eat, the clothes on their back, and the roofs over their heads depend entirely on this agreement, and may be stripped from them at any time, and the tenants may not leave the area they have been assigned to on pain of death, nor can they exit the agreement without the sayso of the lord they are bound to. In theory, a landlord would be expected to look after their serfs and not dispossess them without good cause, but is King Arthur going to take the side of the serf Feist against Arthur's good pal Duke Julian? Fuck no.
Basically, in my magical happy land where the laws of God, science and man do not apply to me, I would go over to the US on a mission to personally show Ray Feist just how fucking miserable the lot of the average working dork in medieval Europe actually was. I can't do that, of course. All I can do is sputter with impotent rage as he has Nick seduce a serving girl by talking about how awesome the Kingdom of the Isles is and how the King totally understands and respects the sacred covenant between leader and people. The state of denial Feist lives in about medieval Europe's human rights record in comparison to everywhere else in the world is utterly pathetic; the fact is that in a preindustrial society before the dawn of modern farming methods there is simply no fucking way you are going to feed everyone without forcing a sizable segment of the population to till the soil for the entirety of their lives, and that was just as true in Merrie England as it was in medieval China and every other major nation between. Pretty much the only societies in the world in that time who managed not to rely on slaves were groups which simply never expanded their population to the point where it was necessary, and/or where every single individual was a subsistence farmer or a hunter/gatherer.
Of course, yet again it should be said that the Kingdom of the Isles isn't really Medieval Europe, it's Renaissance Fair Europe. It's a collection of values that a modern fantasy-reading audience can feel comfortable with dressed up in a jester's costume. But, yet again, it should be pointed out that if you are going to airbrush the white man's history, it's only fair to airbrush everyone else's as well.
One might ask why I am more annoyed by this in The King's Buccaneer than I was in Prince of the Blood. Well, first off, in Prince of the Blood there's no sense that the Kingdom of the Isles is ever going to roll in and tell the Keshians what to do; they simply aren't in a position to do that, the Empire of Kesh is at very least an equal to the Kingdom of the Isles and could well be more powerful. Also, it helps that the bad guys in Prince of the Blood are directly plotting against the powers that be in Kesh, and Kesh isn't depicted as a monoculture where nobody ever considers that slavery might be the wrong way to go about things. You're left with the impression that, whilst the Keshians acknowledge a need for reform, they are going to do the reform themselves, in their own way.
Not so in The King's Buccaneer. Maybe it's just that the Novindus expedition comes hot on the heels of the successful annexation of the Tortuga-analogue, but the whole bit where Nicholas diagnoses the ills of Novindian society stinks of colonialism to me. Not only are the people of Novindus Doing It Wrong, but they don't even have a proper united nation-state so nobody can enforce the new rules when they start Doing It Right. What they need are some advisers from a successful, up-and-coming Lawful Good nation to teach them the proper way of doing things...
It also doesn't help that the plot of The King's Buccaneer is terrible and climaxes with Pug riding in to save the day on the back of an enormous gold dragon and nuking the bad guys. Along the way, Feist loses control of his authorial bowels and shits out great steaming piles of hints concerning the overarching metaplot of the Riftwar Cycle, although absolutely none of these strands is resolved or even adequately explored in the course of the novel. All they tell the reader is that something exciting is going to go down Really Quite Soon, But Not Now. In other words, it's laying the groundwork for the Serpentwar Saga, which I now sincerely wish I had just skipped to.
Return of the Buccaneer
Feist originally planned to make Krondor's Sons a trilogy; he even had a working title for the next book, Return of the Buccaneer. However, Feist changed publishers after The King's Buccanneer, and his new publishers wanted to kick the action off with a brand-new Midkemia series rather than a continuation of the old one. This was probably a good thing in retrospect; Feist's brief summary of what it would have covered makes it sound like a drab retread of The King's Buccaneer, only darker and edgier. One was enough. One was too fucking much.
I have nothing but respect for this decision on the part of Feist's new publishers. I can't think of many other instances where a successful fantasy author has been told quite firmly to stop writing in the middle of a series, but that's precisely what happened. I hear Feist's later work is pretty good, as far as escapist fantasy adventure stories go, so hopefully the vetoing of Return of the Buccaneer proved to be the bucket of cold water that Feist sorely needed dumping over his head. I look forward to future Feist series devoid of casual racism and bondage fantasies, but for the time being I'll still be buying his books second-hand.