Reading & Writing: Raymond E. Feist’s Magician

As I’ve mentioned before, I regularly read novels to my son. Recently, I completed reading the novel Magician, by Raymond E. Feist. Note that this version is the single volume that combines the books Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master, and is the “revised edition” that restores the deleted materials from the original published version.

(And I don’t count this as interrupting my back-to-back read-through of the entire Malazan Book of the Fallen series, as I continued to read those books myself while reading Magician to my son. I’m currently about halfway through The Bonehunters.)

I originally read the first handful of novels in the Riftwar Saga back when they were published in the 1980s. I remembered enjoying them, but couldn’t remember much detail about those books.

There are two interesting things I noted about the writing in Magician.

First, Raymond E. Feist was heavily into roleplaying games during his time in university. He and his friends created an alternative to Dungeons & Dragons, and Midkemia (the setting of the Riftwar Saga) was the setting for that game.

In reading the novel, I found that the D&D influence is fairly obvious. Specifically, the inclusion of the elven and dwarven races, along with goblins and what he calls the Dark Brotherhood (essentially drow). No halflings appear in the novel, though.

But what I find interesting is that the inclusion of these races don’t really matter that much to the story. By which I mean that Magician could easily have been written with humans in the roles of the other races and nothing really would have changed much. The only element that might have felt different is Tomas’s story in which he finds himself at war with the spirit of an ancient powerful being that inhabits his mind when he dons some magical armor. But even the history of that ancient being (who dominated the elven race as slaves centuries in the past), doesn’t absolutely depend on the existence of elves as a separate, non-human race.

It’s a great example of how so much fantasy in the 1980s included standard Tolkien tropes whether or not they were absolutely necessary to the story itself.

Which is not to say that Feist did anything wrong here. Rather, it’s a great reminder that, as writers, we should examine our own stories and look for elements that we’ve included as reflective of fantasy fiction in this decade. What bits are showing up in so many fantasy novels published now that aren’t essential to the story? What pieces are there just because it’s believed they’re “necessary?”

Feel free to leave your thoughts about this in the comments.

The second interesting thing about Feist’s writing is his dialogue.

It’s become pretty standard in most fiction that writers try to use dialogue attribution (e.g. he said, she muttered) as little as possible. Ideally, the dialogue itself should usually tell you who is speaking through the word choices, the grammatical structure, etc.

However, this is not always possible and dialogue attribution is necessary in many situations where not using it would be confusing to the reader. And its placement in the dialogue is pretty standard. Attributions generally go at the end, or sometimes in the middle.

Examples:

  • “I…I don’t feel well,” he mumbled.
  • “Get some sleep,” Rotos answered. “It will pass.”
  • “I am Commander Laita Naschect,” she said in a clear voice.

However, in Feist’s novel, Magician, the attributions usually come ahead of the dialogue.

  • Gardan answered, “It’s a bitter night for a cold camp, Your Grace.”
    Borric said, “Agreed, but if those sons of hell are nearby, a fire would bring them howling down upon us.”

It doesn’t seem like it would matter much, but I really felt the difference in reading the book aloud. Putting the attributions at the beginning felt pretty awkward. Some of it was just unfamiliarity, of course, but it also altered the flow of the words. When there was a scene with a half-dozen people speaking, and every bit of dialogue started with “Borric said” and “Pug said” it really impacted how it could be read aloud.

A common bit of advice for writers is to read your writing out loud. Personally, that’s one thing I do with every one of my novels before publication. It’s amazing how many awkward sentences or repetitive words get caught that way. It allows me to ensure that the text flows smoothly. Even if the reader will never utter a single passage out loud, that flow is still important—it impacts how the book feels.

Again, I’m not saying that Feist was wrong in how he did it. He’s a well-established and far more successful author than I am. I’m merely pointing this out as something that is unusual (even in books published in the 1980s) and that is worth thinking/talking about in the craft of writing. He tried something different, and I don’t think it worked for me as a reader. But the attempt is interesting, regardless.

And lastly, what did my son think of Magician? Well, he enjoyed the book well enough. He easily made it through the entire novel without complaint, and looked forward to hearing how Pug was going to manage his return to Midkemia.

However, he’s not interested in having me read the rest of the Riftwar Saga novels to him. He prefers to move onto something else. So it didn’t, after all, capture his interest past the first novel.

I’ve already started reading Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey to him and he’s enjoying it immensely. You can expect me to eventually make a post about this series here once we’re farther into it.

What about you? What did you think of Magician and the rest of the Riftwar Saga? Are there any books that did something different with the narrative that you found either interesting or disruptive? Let me know in the comments.

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