Thursday, 13 June 2013

Book Review: The Serpentwar Saga

Title: Shadow of a Dark Queen, Rise of a Merchant Prince, Rage of a Demon King and Shards of a Broken Crown
Author: Raymond E Feist
Year Published: 1994-1998
Genre: Fantasy

The Serpentwar Saga is a series of four books set in Feist's Riftwar Universe. I warn you now: if you haven't read The Riftwar Saga, then I strongly suggest that you go read that before you even consider this series (a lesson I learned the hard way). That said, The Serpentwar Saga is a complete epic in its own right. It tells the story of the Kingdom and its war with an invading army led by the serpent-like Pantathians. None of the books really work as standalones, so once you start you're in for a four-book commitment, which is pretty much how I got sucked into reading all four books.

(Full review after the cut. No spoilers other than what can be inferred from the existence of four books and their titles.)

The series begins with Shadow of a Dark Queen. This is the tale of Erik and Roo, two boyhood friends who flee their village after committing a crime and end up becoming part of a band of “desperate men”. Good-hearted, hard-working Erik is a likeable protagonist, with his sneaky friend Roo providing a nice foil. If you read this book simply as Erik's story, then you'll be in for a tale of action and adventure. However, if you're reading it for the epic war story, then you're in for a slow start. It takes a long while before we get to the bit about the titular Queen and her army and when you do get there, you know it's only the beginning. Shockingly, there are non-white human characters in this medieval European fantasy, and despite the fact they’re minor characters and despite the fact they’re somewhat stereotyped (positively at least, I guess), I was pleasantly surprised they existed at all. Thankfully, there is no cliffhanger at the end of the book. If anything, Shadow of a Dark Queen is a prologue or Volume I of a greater work, and should be read as such (if only for your own sake).

Next comes Rise of a Merchant Prince and it's exactly what it says on the tin. For that reason, Book #2 is the most boring of the lot as you know exactly how it ends before you even begin. It's Roo's rag-to-riches story and the blurb makes it sound more exciting than it is (the bit about the seductress ruining his world doesn't even happen and Roo’s character doesn’t really change). One thing I will say is that the book’s subject matter is original. It’s a rare fantasy novel that focuses on commerce, and I enjoyed reading about everyday life in the city of Krondor. The book is entertaining on a scene-by-scene level, if not on an overall-plot level. If you're hoping to use this as inspiration for your own rags-to-riches journey, then I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. Roo benefits largely from his opportunism, connections, luck, fighting ability and being the smartest guy around in his particular set of circumstances. The commerce jargon, strangely, is only sometimes explained. The Serpentwar plot is reduced to almost nothing, which is unfortunate as it was the most interesting part of the book. The book can be summed up in one sentence, half of which you know already (ie. “Roo gets rich and [Serpentwar plot]”). It also introduces a bunch of new characters who become important in later books.

Things come to a head in the third book, Rage of a Demon King. The Queen's armies reach the Kingdom and all hell breaks loose. There are two main plot lines: the first is about the actual invasion and the military tactics employed by each side; the second deals with the nature of the Queen herself and concerns magic and the fate of the universe (of course). In the case of the latter, there's a lot of discussion on the mythos and metaphysics of the Riftwar Universe, which while interesting, can also be a little confusing. Given the different story lines, the point of view shifts quite often, from Erik to Roo to the magicians Pug and Miranda and various others. That said, this was the best book by far. It was an exciting, gripping read with a satisfying conclusion.

The last book is Shards of a Broken Crown, which essentially deals with the aftermath of the Serpentwar – namely, how the Kingdom must handle remaining enemies and how it must rebuild. The focus shifts to Dash and Jimmy, grandsons of the Duke of Krondor, though of course the magicians also play a large part. After the high of Book #3, the series now feels a bit fatigued. While it has its moments, Book #4 is less polished than the others. The scenes in this book are noticeably shorter than in previous books and they feel choppy and abrupt. You can almost see the scaffolding of the plot poking through the scenes and the book itself seems to draw out the series unnecessarily. While the major plotlines are resolved, Book #4 still ends with sequel bait. Sequel bait! At the end of four five hundred page books! Also, I'm not sure if it was just the edition I read, but I found a lot of errors in Shards - “insure” used instead of “ensure”, over-frequent and possibly inappropriate use of the word “ironic”, character names being swapped or misspelled and various typos. Normally I wouldn't mention this sort of thing, but in this case the sheer number of errors proved distracting. Tut, tut, Shards copy editor and/or proofreader!

Overall, The Serpentwar Saga is a fun read, but I did have a number of problems with it, first and foremost being the fact that much of the world was already established in previous series. Had the world been explored further in this series, it would have been fine. Some places are explored thoroughly, and I suspect this is because they are “new”. Otherwise, we get a lot of name-dropping of places and events, and only sometimes with a perfunctory description for context. This was particularly irritating given the fact that other things were repeated again and again, things like how Calis is a half-elf and how Miranda says things drily. There are also so many levelled-up badasses in this world – literal living legends – that even without knowing about Feist's body of work you just know that there were books about these people before this series. As a newcomer to the Riftwar Cycle, it felt as if I had come late to some party where everyone had already made friends and developed their own in-jokes. As such, I didn't find their company nearly as riveting as they did and I found my eyes glazing over in some parts of the book. To his credit, Feist always manages to slip in a quick bit of summary or context at the start of each book (in case you'd forgotten things between books) or before some extended discussion of a past event. This allows new readers to follow what's happening, even if you're not having as much fun as everyone else is. To take the party latecomer analogy further, it's like you're at a party where among the guests is a kind soul who tries to include you by explaining all the jokes. So yeah. Thanks.

I gather that each series in the Riftwar Cycle deals with successive generations of characters. For those who have read about Pug, Tomas, Jimmy the Hand and so on, their presence in this series may well be delightful. However, the events of The Serpentwar Saga spell the end of some of them, making you wonder whether the characters introduced in this series will meet their end in another (I'm guessing yes). The fact that a character's life is told through different series annoys me as a reader, since I don't fancy having to read through all of Feist's works to get my closure. I'm sure this is a personal preference thing though, since others may think this fact is awesome.

You can totally tell that The Serpentwar Saga is written by a dude. The vast majority of characters are men and the books are big on fighting and killing and military strategy. The way the characters are all powered up in different classes (like magician, thief, soldier, etc) also reads like a roster of teenage male fantasies (not that there's anything wrong with that). When female characters are described, there's usually some mention of their level of attractiveness. When someone “admires” something in a woman, that's usually a euphemism for “ogle”. Though I guess it's appropriate for the setting, visiting prostitutes is also seen as an ordinary pastime for unmarried men. Also, two of the female characters experience rape, though the incidents are not described in detail and the effect on the victims seems to be glossed over. While this is a minor part of the books, I thought it worth a mention as I know that some of you would rather not encounter such material at all.

The writing is far from beautiful; it just serves the plot, nothing more, nothing less. That’s beside the point though; you basically read this for the plot and setting. Feist does this very well. He evokes environments well and his world feels lived-in and thought out. Things somehow always manage to get worse for our heroes and the Saga is an exciting read. It was also interesting to see how different characters worked with or against each other. It's not so much personality that distinguishes the characters, but position (being rich, being poor, being a Prince, being a soldier). Most of the characters fall into some sort of cliché, but there are a few bright sparks here and there (such as Nakor) to keep things interesting.

There are quite a number of plot holes and character inconsistencies in this series and these may irritate the discerning reader. For me, the worst ones are first: how there’s always some justification as to why the legendary heroes aren’t doing more than they can; and second: Prince Patrick's transformation from “blank slate” in Books #1-#3 to “angry idiot man-child” in Book #4. Rather than hating Patrick for it, I became annoyed at the author for treating the character so unfairly. Otherwise, I found the other “mistakes” to be forgivable.

I know I've complained a lot in this review, but I did enjoy the series. While newcomers to Feist's work will be able to follow the plot, the amount of back-referencing is frustrating, and I really wish I'd read The Riftwar Saga instead. Sure there are flaws in The Serpentwar Saga, but the plot is really riveting and you always want to know what happens next. It’s a bit clichéd, but still fun. Feist is good at maintaining a high level of tension and the world of Midkemia feels very rich and well-developed. But yes, if you're interested at all, start with Magician.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

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