The latest reincarnation of J.R.R. Tolkien is also, to some extent, a reincarnation of Isaac Asimov, Sir Walter Scott, Edgar Rice Burroughs and perhaps Rafael Sabatini and the elder Dumas. Into this enormous, sprawling but tightly disciplined fantasy of swords and sorcery, he has thrown the material for a half-dozen novels, with characters who range from elves and dwarves to troubadours and pirates--not to mention a whole class of mandarins, slaves and a few princesses, plus assorted other damsels in distress--also a rather appealing dragon. But, of course, most of the action involves knights and magicians.
Feist's theme is one of epic scope--a war between two worlds that become interconnected through a rift in the space-time continuum: Midkemia, whose culture is essentially medieval European, and Kelewan, which roughly resembles pre-industrial China. Each planet has its own complex political structures and situations, which affect the course of the war and provide subplots and episodes to complicate the action.
If it all sounds a bit like those fantasy games that have been in vogue for some time on American dining room tables and are now finding their way into home computers, this is hardly an accident. Novelist Feist is also a designer of such games, and he has transferred his specialized skills very adeptly from one medium to another. If his novel sometimes reads like a particularly eventful evening of Dungeons and Dragons, that should present no serious problem. Fantasy games owe a lot to fantasy novels, and it is time for repayment.
At the heart of his tangled tale are two young men from Milamber as they grow from adolescence into adulthood: Pug, a foundling with a wild talent for magic, and Tomas, who aspires to become a swordsman and fulfills that hope beyond his wildest expectations.
At the beginning of the novel, they are beginning their apprenticeship in Crydee, a small port city on the Endless Sea, at the far Western tip of The Kingdom, Midkemia's dominant power. They are separated by the fortunes of war--Pug carried off as a slave to Kelewan, where his magic powers ultimately raise him to a special status in the alien society. Tomas is on the receiving end of a magic process, his body invaded by the spirit of a great warrior from the past--back when the heavyweight swordsmen rode on dragons. As usual in fantasy fiction, it all sounds a bit silly in a dry summary, but Feist manages to make it quite convincing--one step at a time--in the actual narration.
He is not a stylist of any special distinction, but he is quite readable, he has read his models carefully, and he clearly knows how to tell a story--in fact, half a dozen stories knotted up into one. He also has a decent ear for dialogue, a sense of how to construct a scene and a good eye for significant, colorful detail whether his subject is the storming of a medieval castle, a street brawl in the slums of an old city, the wanderings of a boy lost in a cave or the mistreating of slaves on a distant planet. He fills his pages with colorful secondary characters--a gruff, pipe-puffing leader of the dwarves; a woodsman whose unerring eye with bow and arrow proves useful during a sea battle; a regal queen of the elves who turns out to be also a deeply human woman; a mad king; scheming dukes; and an enigmatic, insidiously powerful leader of a band of criminals who is known simply as The Upright Man. He keeps the action moving fast--simultaneously in a variety of locales--and he has a vivid imagination.
Many scenes stand out: the ghastly spectacle of Tomas struggling for control of his own mind and body is one, but most of them center on the figure of Pug and the process by which he becomes Milamber the magician, greatest of the Great Ones. It begins in a training center not unlike a Zen monastery and reaches a climax in a superbly constructed scene where he interrupts a gladiatorial spectacle in an arena and calls down fire from heaven on the cruel, decadent spectators. At such moments, "Magician" is totally gripping, though there are other times in its complex, meandering plot when readers may feel able to put it down for a while.
The field of fantasy has grown remarkably in the last 10 years, as readers who have been lured into it by Tolkien began looking around for more of the same. "Magician" is a significant contribution to that growth.