Monday, 15 July 2013

Book Review: Feast of Souls by Celia Friedman

Name: Feast of Souls
Author: Celia Friedman
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Notes: Published in 2007 by Orbit in the UK and Daw Books in the USA. I bought the British paperback edition.

In the High Kingdom of Danton Aurelius, magisters from across the known world are gathering for an unusual meeting. The King’s son is dying of an apparently incurable wasting disease, and he has charged them with providing an explanation and a cure.

There is a mystery here, but not the one the High King thinks. The magisters know the cause of the prince’s illness but they dare not reveal it for fear that it will expose the secret at the heart of their order. The mystery is not what is responsible, but who


Why I read it:

I bought this on a whim, really. I’d never heard of Celia Friedman, but her book had a nice blurb from Tad Williams (whose books I like) and the prologue seemed interesting.

My Review:

Imagine a world where there are two types of magic users. The first are witches. Male and female both, witches use their own life source – their soul fire – to cast spells. Small sorceries cost witches mere minutes of their lifetime, while larger undertakings might cost days or even years. Only the Magisters can use magic freely. An immortal order of mages, by tradition male-only, they fuel their sorcery by siphoning the soulfire of others.
It’s a great premise, right? I actually think it’s one of the best things about this book. I loved the idea of vampiric mages. Drawn to novelty, incredibly learned, and dabbling in politics to pass the years, they’re compelling figures. Indeed, several of the main characters are Magisters – but ­­Friedman never lets us forget the callous choice they make every day: to kill others so they can live. The Magisters also stand out as the most original part of a book populated with fairly typical fantasy archetypes; of course there’s nothing wrong with noble princes, insane kings, dashing magicians and tomboy heroines, but I’ve seen them all before.
The most ‘dark’ thing about this book is the setting. Sexism permeates everything. At one stage a female character is raped, and even sympathetic characters use unpleasant gendered language. (“Forgive me, my fierce little whore.” Ummmmm, what?!) It almost made me stop reading, although in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t. There are also hints of homophobia – although no outed queers – and it’s obvious that peasants suffer under the magical feudal system. It’s a depressing backdrop for a story, although Friedman puts it to good use. At least not all the characters were white. 

Still, there were a lot of positives about this book. Kamala, an ex-prostitute and survivor to the core, is a brilliant protagonist.  I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at some of her sections – because of course she hates dresses and feels the urge to monologue about it – but on the whole her quest to become the world’s first female Magister was a compelling one, especially given what a dubious moral choice it is. There is also a looming battle against the “Souleaters”: vicious dragon-like creatures reemerging out of legend and leaving destruction in their wake, creatures that even the Magisters are ill-equipped to deal with. I’m expecting big things from Book 3. 

Bascially? This was a great novel. I can’t wait to finish the trilogy.

Cover Commentary:

I don’t mind the British cover. Yes, it’s slightly boring. But the colours go well together and the castle is nicely drawn, although I’ve no idea why they the publishers decided to overlay the building with elven-esque writing. It’s certainly a damn sight better than the American cover, which for some reason has dragonfly wings framing an underdressed and sexualized Kamala. It’s a horrible portrayal of a character that 1) is repeatedly described as unfeminine and masquerades as a boy for most of the novel, and 2) is a former prostitute who loathes her former life. 

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