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The set up of this story, the first volume in the Magister Trilogy, is quite interesting; C S Friedman has clearly thought about magic and the implications of its use. There are two kinds of magic-users in the world: witches, whose sorcery feeds upon their own life force – effectively slowly killing themselves in the process of using it – and Magisters, who have learnt how, when their ‘soulfire’ dies, to begin drawing off the life force of random humans – eventually killing these unknowing victims and allowing the Magisters to live forever. Witches can be men or women and are untrained; Magisters are always men (because, apparently, women aren’t ruthless enough to steal others’ soulfire) and new ones are trained by old ones.

It’s quite a unique system. Naturally, it requires secrecy on the Magisters’ part in order to work: if people knew that the mysterious disease known as the Wasting was caused by Magisters, people would rebel against them. Magisters often serve as mage advisors to monarchs and there are few enough of them that they can’t seize worldwide power for themselves. They also have one problem: whenever the source of their stolen soulfire dies, they are weak and vulnerable – on the point of death – for a moment until they find a new source.

The main characters in this story are Kamala, a young woman who has become the world’s first female Magister, Prince Andovan, a man who is her ‘consort’ (ie, source of soulfire), Colivar, a Magister who is nowhere near as ruthless as Magisters are continuously described, and Queen Gwynofar, Andovan’s mother and heir of the Protectors, people who saved the world from destruction in a previous age. The return of this ancient danger forms the basis of the plot.

The story moves along at a decent pace, and the various threads of it keep the reader’s interest. The characters are likeable enough. Kamala is the most interesting: she was a prostitute from an early age, sold into the profession by her mother; as such she is damaged and driven. The author’s introduction indicates that Friedman interviewed someone with a similar background before writing the book. There is certainly a feel of authenticity to much of the portrayal of Kamala – up until the point where she has sex with Andovan – who she barely knows at that point.

On the whole, though, Feast of Souls is a fairly unchallenging book. All the Magisters who serve as important characters, while a little wary of each other, tend to co-operate readily enough, despite the fact that they’re supposed to be viciously competitive. The mad king and his evil Magister, who are the villains of the piece in this first book, are dealt with quite easily in the end – although at a high cost; the relevant scene is a bloodbath that borders on the comedic. Andovan and Gwynofar are old-fashioned, good and noble royals – and they’re a little dull.

The worst thing about the book, though, and the reason I won’t be reading anything else by this author, is that her writing is one huge cliché from page 1 to page 564. Anything heavy is as heavy as lead; anything dark is as black as night; anything sharp is as sharp as a razor. Her style of writing is a little odd. It’s written in a hackneyed elevated style – the kind of writing that non-readers of fantasy probably imagine fantasy is generally written in. It’s a mixture of the old-fashioned – x was terrible to behold – and the contemporary – using ‘impact’ as a verb, for instance. It’s also unnecessarily bloated – Friedman never seems to use one short sentence when two long ones will do.

Another disappointing fantasy novel from an author I’d previously heard good things about.

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