Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Feast of Souls

One of the toughest things about writing fantasy is magic. People don’t really appreciate how tough it is to write about the supernatural. As soon as you stick a bonafide sorcerer/sorceress in a story, the reader is constantly asking, “Well, why can’t so-and-so just cast a spell and make all the bad guys go bye-bye?” On a stage, a magician needn’t worry about such things, but in good storytelling, magic must be a science rather than a cheap tool for getting your characters out of a jam when the need suits it. With that in mind, let’s discuss C.S. Friedman’s latest novel Feast of Souls.

The basic concept behind the fantasy world in Friedman’s new book is that magic must be fueled by the soul. A witch can do almost anything, so long as his/her life force is sufficient to perform the task. The catch? Each little spell performed makes your natural lifespan that much shorter. A special breed of spellcasters within this world have found the way to cheat this limitation. They are called magisters, and the closely guarded secret to their power is that they feed on the souls of others to power their magics. Up until the point where this story begins, all the magisters are men. Enter the character of Kamala, a young woman who has survived as a prostitute but decides to use her gift of magic to find a better life by becoming a magister.

Things get complicated rather quickly as Kamala’s first host turns out to be the prince of a powerful kingdom (a fact of which she is ignorant for most of the book). The prince’s failing health creates a crisis among the magisters as the prince’s condition threatens their very existance. The know they cannot cure the prince, but they cannot expain the truth of his condition without exposing their own dirty little secret.

Friedman handles the rules behind this world’s magic all but perfectly. If I had to nitpick, then I might question why there haven’t been any female magisters before Kamala. The book suggests that women aren’t suited for the price demanded, that “Nature has prepared her to bring life into the world and nurture it, and the very essence of her soul is shaped to that purpose.” I must confess to finding fault with that logic, and I think part of it might be how it seems to sell men short even as it gives women too much credit. I’ve seen enough women prove themselves very poorly-suited to nurturing their children, and as a father of two, I find this notion that “nurturing” is a predominantly feminine talent somewhat insulting. I had the pleasure of meeting Celia (that’s what the “C” stands for in C.S. Friedman) at this past James River Writers Conference, so I can easily say that the blanket statement given in the book might not be her opinion as much as it is of the character whose point of view is used in that scene. Her talent for getting into a character’s head who thinks nothing like her is just one of her many gifts as a writer.

As to the writing merits of the book, Celia deserves a lot praise. I think Feast of Souls might be one of her best books ever. One of the book’s most admirable traits is the pacing. What little I’ve revealed is all pulled from the early part of the book, and there is so much more here to enjoy. We’re also given an ancient race of soul-eating monsters that serve as a foil to the magisters and threaten to destroy the world. Things move quickly in this book, and more so than in the traditional fantasy novel. It’s a pity more don’t move at this pace.

The book finished up more neatly than I would have expected. Feast of Souls is only 448 pages long (at least, it is in the advanced readers copy I have), and for a fantasy novel, that’s pretty short even if the book is the first in a promised trilogy. We are treated to a bit of a cliffhanger, but I think it’s handled well. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the next two books.

Other Books by C.S. Friedman:

Oddly enough, I took quite a long time to finish reading this book, perhaps the longest I’ve taken to read anything. I started reading Feast of Souls shortly before last year’s James River Writers Conference, and for some reason, I found myself struck with a sort of reader’s fatigue once the conference was over. Not only did I leave this book half-finished, but I found myself unable to read anything during the past few months. A lot of that had to do with my work on The Last VanDaryn. My wife and I have been so close to finishing that book. Everything seemed to suffer for it, including this blog. I didn’t even dare to crack open Feast of Souls until we’d finished writing our book.

Speaking of The Last VanDaryn, there’s something ironic in that our book also deals with soul-stealing monsters. My wife had worried over this for some reason, fears that people might think we were stealing ideas from Celia’s book. Having finished Feast of Souls, I don’t see many reasons to worry about that. That’s one of the fascinating things about books, they can share similar concepts and still end up worlds apart while being equally satisfying.

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