Feast of Souls by C. S. Friedman
Cover art by Michael Whelan
Published by DAW Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the old tales there was little need for storytellers to concern themselves with the price of magic, for magic was almost invariably the province of the supporting characters, generally in one or another way beyond ordinary mortal ken. The study and manipulation of magical forces was not a part of the hero's journey. At most the protagonist might be called upon to use a magical device or talisman of ancient origin at a key point in the story, but it remained incomprehensible, often not even amenable to the will save in the most tenuous of ways.
Even as recently as The Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkien had no need to precisely delineate the limitations upon the powers of Gandalf, for the simple reason that Gandalf's actions were at best an aid to the protagonists' progress. The actual resolution of the plot problems would come by ordinary mundane effort, whether by humans or by hobbits (who are presented as a neotenous form of human, as opposed to the mysterious Elves who are already withdrawing themselves from the ordinary world).
But in the decades that followed, writers increasingly began to abandon the tradition of magic being solely the province of supporting characters (or antagonists) and moved its study and use directly into the hands of the protagonist. Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books were one of the earliest, with the protagonist Ged being a magician in training and much of the storyline revolving around his efforts to master various aspects of magic. As other writers began to follow suit, it soon became obvious that one could not let magic do just anything, or else it would obviate all conflict and story tension. The protagonist could not simply pull solutions out of a bag of tricks whenever it was useful and have it not work whenever it was necessary or else magic would quickly become a rampaging plot device of the worst sort. Not only did the rules and limitations on magic have to be clearly defined in the writer's mind, but they must also be clearly communicated so that the reader would know where the boundaries lay and could appreciate the way in which the author was making everything work within them.
One of the ways was to have the magic involve some kind of "price." Something had to be spent in order to gain magical effects. Part of it was the application in reverse of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's precept that any sufficiently advanced technology would appear as magic to the uninitiated. Magic then became an alternate technology, and thus required the use of some form of energy just as our own familiar computer technologies require electricity which must be generated and paid for. But a more simple driver of the movement to such systems in literary magic was the development of role-playing games in which it was possible to play characters that used magic. In a game the need for clearly-defined limits upon the magic-using characters' abilities was even more pressing, for the simple reason that being able to solve every problem by waving a magic wand would take all the challenge out of the game, and having the magic only work at the whim of the gamemaster would quickly result in feelings of frustration.
Because so many of the fantasy writers of the 1980's and 1990's got their beginnings with role-playing games, either as players or as gamemasters and game designers, it was unsurprising to see a large number of novels set in worlds whose magical systems seemed taken directly from game mechanics. One of the harshest criticisms that was frequently laid at the feet of such writers is "I can hear the dice rolling." That is, the writer had directly translated a game scenario into a novel without giving any serious thought to what it actually would mean in terms of people actually living in their world.
However, the mere fact that writers, even large numbers of writers, have done a particular idea badly does not automatically mean that a good writer cannot do it well. In this novel C. S. Friedman, author of the space opera In Conquest Born and several works about vampirism in science fictional settings, tackles the idea of the price of magic head on, delving into how an entire society would develop.
The idea of one's soul as the price of magic can be traced back to the Burning Times, the great witch hunts of the late medieval and early modern eras in which people (generally women) were accused of having sold their souls to the Devil in exchange for mystical powers. But in that schema, the soul was merely a token, a counter that was handed over. Friedman asks exactly what it would mean in a rationalistic world for the price of magic to be one's soul, and answers that it might not be paid all at once, but in stages. In her world the soul is not merely a counter but a storehouse of life energy that can be expended to work magic. Many witches heedlessly spend their power in their early years to perform tricks of minor value, only to regret it later as they learn greater skill but find their supply of vital energy rapidly dwindling. Only a few have the wisdom to use only enough to perform the magical workings hat will earn them the greatest return and thus stretch their lives out beyond the mortal span.
However, there is also another way of working magic, one even darker and more dire. Some few workers of magic, having spent their own life-force, do not perish but instead reach out to grasp the soul of another and begin the cycle anew. This trick they hold dear as a secret, lest the populace rise up in repugnance to destroy them. As a result people know only that they do extraordinary works of magic and yet their life force does not falter, and term them Magisters, the great Masters of the Art.
Among the Magisters it is accepted as a given that only a man can enter their ranks. Women, more attuned to the giving of life than its taking, cannot make the transition from spending their own soul energy to seizing and spending another's. But whenever you see such a thing laid out as a hard-and-fast rule, and particularly when it involves what one gender can do and the other cannot, you can fairly count on a major plot point being a challenge to it. And Friedman does not disappoint, giving us the bitter and wounded lass Kamala, whose experience of the brutalities and horrors of life at the bottom of the heap in a harsh society have hardened her to the point she can cheat Death by embracing Death, as the Magisters poetically put their mode of working magic.
But even as Kamala struggles do do what no woman before her has attained, a peril arises which threatens to destroy not only her, but all civilization. Friedman hints that it has come close to destroying civilization in the past, and was only barely cast back. It appears to have to do with the dragonfly-winged serpent creature that is a motif not only on the cover, but at the top of each chapter heading. Worse, it seems that the magic wielded by these mysterious beings is not confined to consuming the life-force of their own kind, but can suction the life force out of every living thing in an entire area
The novel ends on a cliffhanger, but as it is billed as the first of a trilogy, this is hardly surprising. Most modern trilogies are, like The Lord of the Rings, not a series of three linked books but three volumes of a single gigantic story. All we can do is wait for the second and third volumes to be published and see if they live up to the promise of the first.
Review posted January 15, 2009
Buy Feast of Souls: Book One of the Magister Trilogy at Amazon.com