It has been an astounding 30+ years since Raymond E. Feist first introduced us to Pug, Tomas, and the other heroes of Midkemia in Magician (broken into Magician: Apprentice & Magician: Master in North America), the first book of the The Riftwar Saga. I can vividly remember devouring all three books of original trilogy back in high school, and I still count it as one of my favourite series.
I, of course, went on to read the Krondor's Sons duology, along with The Empire Trilogy - which had the added bonus of introducing me to Janny Wurts. I drifted away from Midkemia after that, however, having found that the opening chapters of The Serpentwar Saga were too sparse, too militaristic, too far removed from the core characters, and somehow lacking in the sense of magical epic-ness that made the first saga so compelling.
When I heard Feist was working on the story of the 'final' Riftwar, I knew it was time to catch up, to re-familiarize myself with the world, and see things through to the ominously titled Magician's End.
That brings us to A Kingdom Besieged, the first book of The Chaoswar Saga. Much to my delight (and relief), reading this opening volume was very much like revisiting old friends. The same 'epic' sense of storytelling that I remembered was back, along with myn old friend Pug at the forefront, once again a major force to be reckoned with. Feist does a superb job of casually recapping the prior sagas, bringing up details in conversation, or reflecting on past events in the character's thoughts. He never info-dumps or delays the story, just slowly and naturally brings the world and the reader back together.
There's a lot to like here, not the least of which is the story of Child, the rather unusual demon who grows in both stature and power, all the while approaching a level of sophistication that's almost human. It's not clear what role she will have to play in things, whether she'll offer salvation from the darkness devouring the land, or prove to be a harbinger of the end-times, but she's a compelling character. In fact, she just may be the most chilling character I've encountered in an epic fantasy, a character with the potential to destroy the world . . . along with the intelligence and cunning to know precisely what she's doing and why.
Similarly, the reintroduction of Pug into world affairs is a welcome addition to the story, acknowledging the tragedies that have come before and gently, politely, respectfully resolving them. His relationship with his sole surviving son is an interesting one, especially given the dark pact he made with the future in the original saga, but you can't help but hope Feist will find away around demanding the ultimate sacrifice. More importantly, Pug seems ready to take a role in world affairs once again, which promises to set up some interesting confrontations, but also ensures the possibility of survival for Midkemia.
What I appreciated most about the story, however, is the novelty of Kesh's plans for conquest. Feist has done conquering armies before, both human and inhuman, and done a solid job of directing battles and armies in ways that make logical sense, but which still manage to surprise. Here he takes things in an entirely new direction, introducing us to armies that are designed solely to make landfall and send the residents scurrying for cover. Rather the press the advantage and invest themselves in siege, however, the armies simply hold their ground while the refugees they've collected are set loose to colonize the land. This is not a conquest by swords, pole-arms, pikes, and magic spells, but one by spades, hoes, shovels, and farming. This is not a war of attrition, but a simple matter of displacement.
It's not year clear how all these events will converge, what role the elves will deign to play, or just how much the Pantathians (surprise!) are responsible for, but it's clear that change is in the air. It's a next-generation Riftwar, with grandsons and great-nephews stepping up to take the place of their heroic forefathers, guided by the continuity of Pug. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am glad I decided to revisit Feist's world. On to At the Gates of Darkness next.
Published February 28th 2012 by Harper Voyager
Paperback, 363 pages