Fuck Off, Feist

by Arthur B

There comes a point where enough is enough and the Riftwar Cycle passed that several books ago.
It finally happened. I'd known that Ray Feist was deeply unlikely to radically improve as a writer for some time now, but I'd honestly intended to see these reviews of the Riftwar Cycle through to the end just to see how stupid they got. I was rewarded with a brutal reminder of a bitter fact: the more you overlook small transgressions from an author, the more likely it is that they will eventually come out with something abhorrent to punish you for your indulgence.

I had long ago written off Feist's ability to write female characters. Whilst it isn't true to say that the women in his books - those who aren't vilified, at any rate - are defined solely by their capacity to give succor and comfort to the men in their life, Feist does have a marked tendency to cast women in support roles - see Miranda, who does sweet fuck all for the entire Conclave of Shadows and Darkwar Saga series until everyone else who could potentially do the job is literally in a different dimension. It is also notable that when Feist presents one of the obligatory bildungsromans he feels obligated to include in all his novels, it's always that of a young man or group of boys; Feist writes over and over again about young men growing up and discovering, amongst other things, the pleasure of sex, but more or less never gives women the bildungsroman treatment. (The major exception is the Empire Trilogy, but Mara in that doesn't exactly have the same enjoyable and risk-free and fun introduction to sexual activity Feist gives his male characters.)

Moreover, Feist regularly defaults to having women just not being especially capable of defending themselves when it comes to the crunch; even Miranda, the most powerful woman in the series who isn't an actual god, ends up getting captured in Into a Dark Realm, and although she does end up rescuing herself Feist seems to go out of his way to ascribe this at least in part to her captors not being very competent. Most other women aren't even that lucky, as is attested to by the bondage pirate sequence in The King's Buccaneer..

So, I was briefly heartened in the opening section of Rides a Dread Legion to be introduced to Sandreena. Feist decides to kick off the Demonwar Saga by introducing a brace of new characters who are already seasoned adventurers, which I approve of since the interminable bildungsromans are kind of getting wearisome at this point. After an entertaining chapter introducing the reader to a rascally but essentially decent warlock and his warrior companion, Feist turns his attention to Sandreena, who is presented as a holy knight hailing from a religious order dedicated to defending the weak and vulnerable. Having the ass-kicking paladin be a woman would have been an interesting change of pace for Feist; having said paladin also be a woman who likes luxuries and sexual frolics, which Sandreena appears to be, would be a change of pace for fantasy in general, which typically takes a religion = Christianity = anti-fun stance and additionally is often written by dudes who aren't comfortable with the idea of women who like and seek out sex in the same way the same authors present men as doing.

Alas, Feist spoils it all within the next few pages by going full grimdark.

Specifically, he decides that a little armchair psychology is required to explain why a woman might want to become a meditative spiritual knight defending the needy by day and enjoying life's luxuries by night. Naturally, a woman in Feist's world can't simply enjoy and pursue sex solely because she enjoys it - as we have learned in the series up to this point, men seek sexual pleasure as an end to itself whereas women tend to see it as a means to an end. A couple of exceptions show up in the Conclave of Shadows series; one is a group of girls who are literally aliens and their enjoyment of casual sex was presented as being part of their wacky alien culture. The other was an actual sociopath, because only an actual sociopath could sleep with a dude and then straight-up leave him in a cool and unemotional manner.

No, Feist applies a very particular morality to his female characters. They're allowed to enjoy sex if they're paired off with their true love, but a woman who seeks as broad a range of casual sexual experiences as single male characters tend to pursue are treated with an authorial double standard which reaches its nadir here.

See, it is written in the ancient grimoires from which the rules of fantasy writing are derived that in the Era of Grimdark all women who have the temerity to aspire to protagonist status shall have a traumatic backstory based around rape and abuse. Sandreena is no exception. Specifically, we are told that in her past Sandreena and her mother lived in dire poverty and were exploited by the main thieves' guild in Krondor, which resulted in Sandreena being abused by a series of men. Disgustingly, Feist actually has the audacity to talk about how the first man to rape Sandreena was actually comparatively caring and gentle, as if it stops being rape if you cuddle afterwards. On top of that, our introduction to Sandreena has Feist telling us directly (because "show don't tell" is for chumps who make up their own stories rather than riffing on a friend's Dungeons & Dragons setting history) that Sandreena, as a result of her past, can only get sexual pleasure from men who hate her, which seems to combine hardline Nice Guy ideology (she's literally the woman who spurns Nice Guys because she's only interested in Jerks) with bizarre misunderstandings of how fetishes work and weird assumptions about how people respond to abuse.

The mere introduction of this character was enough for me to say "Nope, not going down this road" and give up on reading the last two sagas in the Riftwar Cycle altogether. Apparently Sandreena has a romance with another character in this series which presumably involves him healing her psychic wounds with his cock, and whilst I understand that this is a cliche of some branches of romance, at the same time you don't go to Ray Feist for romance, you go to Feist because you want the most generic of generic fantasy because that's all his books aspire to be, and this isn't a fantasy I had any patience for.

That said, I was still curious as to how the long story of Pug comes to an end, so I swung by a book shop the other day to peek in the back of Magician's End, the recently-released final book of the Riftwar Cycle, and was astonished by the incredible lack of ambition the conclusion of the series seems to involve. Some bullet points of things which jumped out at me:
  • In Pug's final meeting with the gods, Sandreena's patron goddess manifests to him in the guise of Sandreena herself, so unfortunately Traumapast the Masochistic Paladin seems to be a major figure of the last two series.
  • The end of the series has Pug sacrificing himself to defeat an incursion of our plane of reality by the Dread - the big bad from the Darkwar Saga. In other words, this whole sorry farce could have just as happily ended with Wrath of a Mad God.
  • On which note, the entire Nameless One plot which was played up in the Serpentwar Saga and started being brushed under the carpet during the Darkwar books seems to have been an extraordinary red herring.
  • Fucking Nakor - the most infuriating character in Feist's repertoire - is back, despite having a perfectly good death at the end of Wrath of a Mad God.
  • Doing some background research on that point, I find a number of deaths have been undone by virtue of the gods causing people to be reincarnated in strategic points around the universe - a gimmick which was kind of interesting when it was tried out in the Darkwar series, but its repetition here seems to be a textbook example of Feist taking something which was fun in a previous book and working it to death in subsequent books.
  • Prominent youths watching on as the politics of the Kingdom are set to rights make me expect that Feist was foisting off bildungsromans featuring nigh-clones of previous character off on the reader to the very end.
  • It all feels rather pedestrian and pointless, the product of an author with absolutely no ambition whatsoever.
That last point feels a little cheeky when one of the things I liked about Magician was how gently unpretentious it was. On the other hand, writing a single unpretentious fantasy novel is charming, whereas writing dozens is simply repetitive and unimaginative. Over the course of this review series I have seen Feist's skills as an author grow in fits and starts, peak (I'd say during Rise of a Merchant Prince) and then go into this grim decline.

The only three books in the Feist bibliography I'd say were really solid are Magician, Daughter of the Empire, and Rise of a Merchant Prince, and both of the latter two are rather spoiled by a failure to follow through on their more interesting strands in their sequels. Magician, conversely, can more or less stand alone perfectly happily and has this charming earnestness to it which the sequels lack. It's also the only book I can recall in the series where the dwarves are anything other than a background presence, Feist playing down their existence in subsequent books presumably to get away from the perception that he was writing Tolkienish Dungeons & Dragons fantasy even though that is exactly what he is doing.

In other words, Magician works because it's an infectiously enthusiastic recap of a D&D game. The rest of the series fails because Feist kept toning down the naïve charm of the original and kept failing to find similarly compelling material to replace it with - the politics of Daughter of the Empire and mechantile manipulations and personal drama of Rise of a Merchant Prince were good starts, but in both cases Feist didn't sustain them in the long run and dashed back to his authorial comfort zone as quickly as possible. And by failing to grow as a writer, Feist has inevitably stagnated - and it's a stagnation which has seen every one of his bad habits become utterly ingrained in his writing.

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Comments (go to latest)
http://ronanwills.wordpress.com/ at 12:01 on 2013-10-09
I remember back in my teens my brother was super into Magician and set out enthusiastically to consume the entire Riftwar series, or at least what had been written at the time. He got halfway through the third book before giving up (I never even made it a quarter of the way through Magician but me and fantasy aren't really a good fit to begin with).

When I read about characters like Sandreena I want to tie the author to a chair somewhere and force them to explain just what the fuck they were thinking. I am genuinely baffled.
Arthur B at 12:11 on 2013-10-09
explain just what the fuck they were thinking

See, that's where you're making an assumption that isn't supported by the facts...
http://lalunatique.livejournal.com/ at 05:33 on 2013-10-11
I remember reading a couple of Feist's works back in the day (Krondor: The Betrayal and Prince of the Blood, maybe) and finding them rather crushingly generic if not horrible. I'm glad I didn't get into the ones with more shudder-worthy examples of misogyny, though even with the tiny sample I read I noticed women were not exactly well-represented (which I far prefer to horrible representations). It's good of you to point out good books in the series, I'll read those and fill in the subsequently-fizzled plots with my own imagination.

I don't understand the rationale for authors refusing to take risks or challenge your own assumptions. Is it so commercially damaging to change the formula, or is it the aversion to getting out of one's comfort zone? Or maybe it's just that not everyone is as reflexively critical as Ferretbrainers are.
Arthur B at 10:21 on 2013-10-11
It's good of you to point out good books in the series, I'll read those and fill in the subsequently-fizzled plots with my own imagination.

Heh, I should hasten to add that when I read Magician and Daughter of the Empire I was less critical of stuff like horrible representation of women so it's entirely possible I missed stuff there. (I think Magician is more or less innocuous in the sense that women are almost entirely absent except for love interests, so it's just par for the course nonsense rather than creatively misogynistic. Daughter of the Empire has decidedly dodgy aspects but those can usually, IIRC, be read as the main character making a conscious decision to do a distasteful thing or two in order to secure her family's position and it's driven by the particular political situation in the setting, which is fine in the initial book where you're 100% immersed in the Tsurani culture so you're not looking for the main character to seek alternatives to that but it's less supportable in the later books when Feist brings in pseudo-Europeans and it becomes clear that the Tsurani would be much happier if they behaved like white people.)
Robinson L at 15:15 on 2013-11-30
Huh, what a disappointingly (but, by your accounts of Magician's End) fittingly anticlimactic conclusion to the FerretWar saga.

Not that I blame you for pulling out when you had to, Arthur. Still, six years, seven reviews, the introduction of the site's #1 theme ... what a journey it's been.
Arthur B at 16:41 on 2013-11-30
the introduction of the site's #1 theme

What, "Books"? Pretty sure there's earlier stuff on that than this...
Robinson L at 22:39 on 2013-11-30
I meant the theme which is presently labeled #1 in the site's numbering system, like so, whereas "books" is theme #7, (not to mention a lot more generic).
Arthur B at 22:40 on 2013-11-30
Ah, there's no special planning or order of precedence behind that numbering, it's just the order the themes were added to the system. ;)
Robinson L at 18:00 on 2013-12-02
Oh, yeah, I didn't mean to suggest "#1 theme" reflects any sort of hierarchy of importance, just that that is the number of the (pretty distinctive) theme which this article introduced. (It also reflects how far back in the site's history this series stretches.)
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