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[WIR] Where I read and then drone on at length about The Riftwar Cycle, being a story in 30 parts

Truthkeeper

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Let’s talk about something impressive. Let’s talk about a guy named Raymond E. Feist. Unsurprisingly, the author of our little tale. Incidentally, our little tale is thirty books in the making. Feist singlehandedly knocked out 23 of those books in 30 years (the other seven credit other authors and I’m unclear about the division of labor on them, or if Feist actually worked on any of them himself beyond having created the setting). This was a man dedicated to telling his incredibly long and detailed fantasy story set in his personal D&D campaign setting and getting it finished, unlike certain other authors in the genre. But I kid, I love George RR Martin even when he’s too busy swimming in his McDuck-style money bin to do any writing.

So, what the hell is a Riftwar, and why does it Cycle? That is what we’re here to find out! I was a big fan of the series in high school and off and on through college, but sort of fell away from it for a while. But I felt recently like rereading the bits I am familiar with, and reading for the first time the 15-20 books I missed. And I decided to share the read with you fine upstanding folks. Some of you might have read these books before. Some of you might have played the licensed video game that fits in after the first arc, Betrayal at Krondor (a lot of people seem to like it, I didn't, but I did enjoy the book based on it)

Strap in, enjoy the ride. No snacks unless you brought enough for the whole class. We’ll be starting, oddly enough, at the beginning, with Magician, book #1 of the Riftwar Saga trilogy, which kicks off the larger series. Anybody who tells you this is two books is a filthy liar (or was tricked by those dastardly publishers who chopped it in two for publication, or by that dastardly author, who may have actually intended a split). The story really works better with them as one book, but we'll get to that in a while.

Riftwar Saga Book 1: Magician
Chapter One: Storm

The book opens with a quote. My made up statistic says that books opening with quotes are 40% more interesting.

A boy’s will is the wind’s will
And the thoughts of youth
are long, long thoughts
Longfellow, My Lost Youth

We open with our main character, Pug. Pug is a teenager and an orphan who lives in the Duke’s castle at Crydee, cared for by the head cook and his wife. Clearly, he is doomed to a life of drudgery and disappointment in which absolutely nothing interesting will ever happen to him. While enjoying a long walk on the beach collecting shellfish washed up by the recent storm, he sprains his ankle, gets soaked when it starts storming again, and takes too long getting back to the castle, and his attempt at a shortcut goes badly when a wild boar takes offence at his presence in the woods. Pug’s luck is basically shit. BUT! He ends up being saved when a hunter shoots the boar, and is even kind enough to offer him lodging for the evening. Pug was clearly never warned about stranger danger, and immediately take the man’s offer to stay with him and his master overnight.

The hunter turns out to be Meecham, a franklin in service to the wizard Kulgan. A franklin is a person who isn’t a serf or slave, but doesn’t own any land of his own, and so works on somebody else’s land. Kulgan turns out to be old, pudgy, and smokes a pipe, because wizardly stereotypes existed even in the 70s. Pug recognizes Kulgan as being the Duke’s court magician, and Kulgan immediately identifies himself as a ‘good guy’ by objecting when Pug calls him master, despite the difference in their social classes (Kulgan being a member of the Duke’s court, and Pug being that kid who sleeps in the kitchen), and manages to gain Pug’s trust, even though the poor kid is kinda suspicious, because wizards are creepy motherfuckers who taint crops, curse cows, or so the superstitions hold. Also, he has a powerful familiar! Well, he has a fire drake the size (and attitude) of a spoiled housecat.

Kulgan shows Pug his brand new crystal ball, and reveals that he had been testing its scrying capabilities, just happened to spot Pug stuck outside at night in the storm, and sent Meecham to help him. The boar was an unfortunate bystander, but a welcome guest for dinner. ALSO! Pug turns out to be able to activate the crystal ball himself. I’m sure this is entirely unimportant, because he still has that life of drudgery and disappointment in which nothing interesting will ever happen coming to him. Also also, one of Kulgan’s magical talents is forecasting the weather. I’d make a snarky comment, but recall the first thing anybody knew about Gandalf was that he made fireworks.

Pug, despite being an orphan, is probably one of the best educated kids around, because grew up in castle with people who care enough to teach him stuff. Kulgan tests him, and finds he’s able to plod his way through a page out of a history book, despite not knowing all the words. Kulgan also uses this as an opportunity to dump some info. Crydee is part of the Kingdom of the Isles (which is totally not Europe) which is ruled from a capital city far in the east called Rillanon, and has been in a state of regular wars and skirmishes with the neighboring Empire of Great Kesh (which is totally not Africa) for centuries. The Crydee province where our intrepid young hero lives used to be part of the Empire, but the Duke’s grandfather conquered it for the Kingdom. And isn’t it so convenient that different countries have different forms of address so we can just call them the Kingdom and the Empire, rather than remember their names?

Kulgan eventually turns the conversation back to Pug, and asks what he intends to do with his life when he grows up. Which is in less than a year, because you’re a considered a grown-ass man at 14 in this setting. Pug is the shortest and scrawniest kid around, but he wants to enter the Duke’s service as a soldier. Because he’s dumb. Also, it turns out that when Pug was first brought to the castle, the Duke could have pressed him into service as a serf, since his parentage was unknown, but he felt it was “a lesser evil to free a bondsman’s son than to bond a freeman’s.” This clearly identifies the Duke as a ‘good guy’.

And then Pug went to sleep, to dream dreams about being doomed to a life of drudgery and disappointment where nothing interesting ever happens to him.
 

Evil Midnight Lurker

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I never did manage to finish my one try at reading the entire series once it was done, I think I lost track maybe five books short? It's a helluva thing, though.
 

Truthkeeper

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Chapter Two: Apprentice

Pug has a friend! His name is Tomas, and he’s the son of the head cook who takes care of Pug, making them more or less brothers, which they show in attitude. Pug and Tomas are usually hard and diligent workers… well, no, they’re teenagers, but they usually do their best, but they both fucked up today. Pug spilled an expensive jar of honey and dropped an entire tray of bread. Tomas hung up a side of beef to dry… but hung it too low, and the Duke’s hounds had a great feast.

But it’s a big day! It’s Midsummer, and Pug and Tomas are both 14, which makes them men of Crydee! The Choosing, which you can tell is obviously a big deal because it’s capitalized and everything, is today! Tomas, like Pug, wants to be a soldier under the command of Swordmaster Fannon, because they’re both idiots. But that’s for later in the day, right now, Pug and Tomas are teenagers who got the day off work for being too distracted, and decide to spend that day out in the woods hitting birds with rocks. For real, because they’re actually good at hunting with slings, not just that they’re creepy weirdos or anything. Instead of birds, they find a really big stag! They also find the Duke’s Huntmaster, Martin Longbow (you can tell he’s important because he gets a last name, Tomas has one, but it’s the old-style named after your father, making him Tomas Megarson), who is apparently really awesome at archery, and hunting, and stalking through the woods, and he’s friend to all children, and to all animals he isn’t in the middle of hunting, and to elves. He helps the boys approach the stag, which is apparently the oldest in the forest, and claims they have an understanding about when he’s going to shoot it. Martin and the boys chat about the upcoming Choosing. It turns out Martin’s Choosing was nonstandard, in that the Duke intervened and told the previous Huntsmaster to take him, which is a major violation of tradition. But nobody is gonna blame the Duke, because nobility, so instead they all gossip and point behind Martin’s back about what a weirdo he is.

Pug, being a bit presumptuous because again, massive difference in social class, demands to know where Martin’s been, since he was away for a month, and Martin impresses the kids with stories about his most recent trip to the elf city of Elvandar (because elves aren’t very creative), where he feasted with the Elf Queen Aglaranna. By which he means he was at the feast, and she was at the feast, and he was at the table as far from her as they could stick him, because human. Martin grew up at an abbey near the elven forests, and spent a lot of time playing with the elven children, which is why they tolerate him and he’s an expert on their culture. Important cultural note: elves don’t say the names of dead people, because it distracts their spirits form reaching their final rest.

Eventually, the kids and Martin get back to the castle, in plenty of time for the festival and the Choosing, but presumably without any birds because they were too busy talking to Martin about elves. Apparently nobody bothers to keep track of birthdays, everybody is just considered to age one year every Midsummer. I stand corrected, they’re still boys now, Midsummer is considered your last day of boyhood. Tomorrow, they become newly minted men. Who will still be 14. Tomas’s mother did some fancy sewing work on Tomas’s second-nicest tunic so Pug would have something presentable to wear before the Duke and his court, because she’s still a pretty decent mother to him. I don’t seem to recall him really acknowledging that very well, but there’s a short bit here where he recalls that Megar and Magya tended his ills, kept him fed, and punished him when he had it coming, and loved him like a son. Can’t ask for more than that.

There’s some more detail on how the Choosing works, naturally. All the boys from 8 to 13 at various crafts and services, so that they can learn how everything works. In a pinch, this means everybody knows how to do a little bit of everything and can be pressed into service if needed. At the Choosing, the master craftsmen and the Duke’s staff pick as many apprentices they need from among those turning 14. If there are a lot of 14 year olds and nobody needs any more apprentices, then the leftovers can become franklins like Meecham, working the Duke’s land, or can find work on fishing boats, or are allowed to leave town and find work somewhere else. Clearly, these are undesirable outcomes. But Pug is doomed to a life of drudgery and disappointment where nothing interesting ever happens, so odds are pretty good on him becoming a farmer or fisherman. It’s not the worst thing that could happen to him I suppose, even if it is considered incredibly shameful to be stuck standing before the assembled Craftmasters and their new apprentices and have nobody calling your name. Pug’s got a strong spine, he’ll manage, and he even thinks that it’s not so terrible that he’ll jump off a cliff or anything. Good attitude kid.

Megar apparently mentioned to Pug that he had heard in advance that Tomas would get his desire of becoming a solider, and might even get fast-tracked to the Duke’s personal guards if he does well. Notably, Megar does not mention having heard anything about Pug’s future.

It’s about that time that the Duke himself finally puts in an appearance. His Grace, Borric conDoin, third Duke of Crydee, Prince of the Kingdom, Lord of Crydee, Carse, and Tulan, Warden of the West, Knight-General of the King’s Armies, heir-presumptive to the throne. And mayor of a little village up the coast I’m sure. His sons also show up, a smiling and friendly looking blonde guy, Prince Lyam, and a skinny dark-haired moody kid named Arutha. Lyam is openly well-loved by the people, Arutha is respected and admired for his competence, but not regarded warmly by the common folk. If we were picking villains early… but I know better. The Duke also has an attractive daughter, Carline, whose main trait is being attractive.

The Duke starts off the festivities by asking the not-yet men if any of them want to leave his service and take their business elsewhere. One kid does, a netmender’s son with too many older brothers who figures he might have better prospects joining a ship’s crew. The Duke, who you’ll recall we’ve already established is a good guy, makes sure the kid thought this through and has a job lined up, and even asks around about the captain of the ship he’s joining. Assured that he isn’t selling the poor kid into slavery, he dismisses him from service.

Then the Choosing begins. The master sailmaker names his apprentices. Then all the other master craftsmen. Then Housecarl Samuel, the head of the castle’s servants. Then, finally, Swordmaster Fannon, who picks Tomas. Pug is left unnamed and alone.

Welp, sorry Pug. I’m sure your life of drudgery and disappointment in which nothing interesting ever happens won’t be so terrible. Farming is probably a lot of fun.

BUT WAIT!

Kulgan speaks up at the last minute! You’ll recall that he’s the Duke’s court magician, and he’s entitled to choose an apprentice as well. The common folk don’t think it’s right or proper for a magician to participate, but the Duke allows it, because good guy. Oddly, Pug has to think about it for a second. Maybe a life of drudgery and disappointment is better than being a wizard? He gets encouraging nods and smiles from the princes, and decides that being a magician is probably better than having no craft at all, and accepts the apprenticeship.

He then promptly trips over his own feet while walking to stand next to Kulgan, so he still ended up embarrassing himself before all assembled.

Lucky for Pug, rather than the life of drudgery, he instead stumbled into a pretty sweet gig. Kulgan has his own quarters at the castle, in addition to his own house on his land outside the castle where I guess he doesn’t actually spend much time, and he has a spare room Pug can have. Apparently apprentices almost never get rooms of their own, and Pug is kind of astounded. Bad news: Kulgan totally chose Pug because he felt sorry for him and doesn’t actually have any idea what to do with him. That life of drudgery might not be out of the question just yet. He also gets Pug some new clothes, because orphan.

Pug and Tomas meet up later to enjoy the festival. Pug shows off his new clothes, Tomas shows off his soldier’s tabard, thankfully nobody was stupid enough to give the teenager a weapon yet, probably chop off his leg or something. They decide that the optimal way to celebrate their newfound place in working society… is to steal free food from the festival tables before the celebration begins. Our heroes. Also, because they’re men now, they’re allowed to drink ale at the festival, which sadly does not lead to hilarious results. Shockingly, the tall and broad Tomas is popular with the girls, while the small and boyish Pug… isn’t. And he’s getting to that age where he realizes that he doesn’t like that. But for now, he’s well-fed, a little tipsy, and has a place in civilized society. All is well, and nothing interesting will ever happen to him.
 

Boris

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I only ever read the first three books, but I like them. They're also so obviously based on an early D&D campaign.

Good luck with the WIR! It's no small task.
 

Evil Midnight Lurker

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I only ever read the first three books, but I like them. They're also so obviously based on an early D&D campaign.
I remember finding some of the published game material in our FLGS back in the early Eighties.

To be precise, if I remember right, the entire novel series is the backstory to the RPG setting.
 

Dragonlover

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This is possibly my favourite book ever. I considered a WIR, but the nostalgia is too strong for me to not blaze through it without stopping.

I assume you're reading the authors preferred edition with all the extra text?

Dragonlover
 

Grymbok

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I never did manage to finish my one try at reading the entire series once it was done, I think I lost track maybe five books short? It's a helluva thing, though.
I've read 26 of 30. I didn't read the four Riftwar Legacy books as (a) they're not part of the main story, and (b) I'd played the games they were adaptations of so it felt like it would just be retreading. I have strong views about the latter part of the series, but I'm not sure whether it's appropriate to be sharing them if Truthkeeper is just going in now?

In my opinion, the main canon is the Riftwar Saga, Krondor's Sons, the Serpentwar Saga, Conclave of Shadows and then Darkwar, Demonwar and Chaoswar. The others are side stories and spin offs.

Of those, the Empire Trilogy is semi-essential for firstly showing the other side of events in the Riftwar Saga and secondly being some of the best books in the canon. Riftwar Legacy as I've said I've not read. Legends of the Riftwar is interesting in that it's three books which crossover with books by the co-authors. I've never read the series they cross over with but from memory all three were pretty good and worth reading.
 

Grymbok

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I remember finding some of the published game material in our FLGS back in the early Eighties.

To be precise, if I remember right, the entire novel series is the backstory to the RPG setting.

Yep. The first three books tell the story of the first Riftwar. The RPG is set a lot later. I can't recall off hand now if the RPG setting is set immediately after book 30 or if there were more events not told to bridge to there.

The impression I always got was that there was probably just a couple of pages of history written up about how Midkemia came to be as it was for the RPG. So the first three books were probably expanding out a sentence or two.
 

Sundancer

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In my opinion, the main canon is the Riftwar Saga, Krondor's Sons, the Serpentwar Saga, Conclave of Shadows and then Darkwar, Demonwar and Chaoswar. The others are side stories and spin offs.
Huh... I wasn't even aware of Darkwar, Demonwar, and Chaoswar.
I've read up to Serpentwar, and I think I started the first book of Conclave of Shadows but wasn't much impressed, so I stopped paying attention to Feist for a bit.

I might have to revisit that. How are they, generally speaking? Especially Chaoswar, is it a decent ending to the series?
 

Grymbok

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Huh... I wasn't even aware of Darkwar, Demonwar, and Chaoswar.
I've read up to Serpentwar, and I think I started the first book of Conclave of Shadows but wasn't much impressed, so I stopped paying attention to Feist for a bit.

I might have to revisit that. How are they, generally speaking? Especially Chaoswar, is it a decent ending to the series?
I'll spoiler block the answer given I think Truthkeeper is reading for the first time.

Spoiler: Show

I recently had to clear some space on my bookshelves. My Riftwar collection now only goes as far as the Serpentwar Saga. I wavered on Conclave of Shadows, which is good, but it's just a bridge to what comes later...

In general - and this feels like a daft thing to say about a 30 book series but there you go - the main problem with the last third of the series is it's rushed. Part of that is possibly meant to show power escalation meaning that situations are resolved quicker, but mostly I just felt like Feist was introducing new worlds, factions and knowledge and not giving them anywhere near the room to breathe that things got back in the days of Riftwar, Empire and Serpentwar. It becomes just riftwar after riftwar without the breaks that there were in the earlier series books. Up to Conclave, it's a series about generations of people in Midkemia, mainly the con Doin family and their hanger's on, with a few long-lived immortals who span the series. After that point it's purely the story of the immortals.

Also - at least in the first editions, they may have been fixed since - the editing becomes terrible. There was a repeated chapter in one edition, but beyond that you end up with things like mistaken names, typos all over the place, and in one case the party splits and two Elvish twin brothers are split between the two groups. I forget their names, let's call them Bill and Ben. Anyway, Ben goes with Tomas's group. The next chapter follows Pug's group, and Ben's right there. Because they clearly meant to say the other way round and no one noticed :(

In summary - if you felt you were always reading the story of Pug (and to a lesser degree Tomas) then maybe keep reading, with the caveat that the high point of the series is the Serpentwar. If you thought you were reading the generational story of a kingdom, then it loses that when you get to Darkwar.
 
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