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Legacy of Kings by C. S. Friedman

Cover art by John Jude Palencar

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This book, Legacy of Kings concludes the Magister Trilogy, which began with A Feast of Souls and continued with Wings of Wrath. Technically the Magister Trilogy is a single novel in three physical books, rather than a series of three interrelated novels. Historically this pattern in high fantasy had its beginnings in the paper shortage which led to a nervous publisher to split JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings into three volumes. Such was the popularity of Tolkien that he set the pattern, to the point it almost seems a lot of writers feel the trilogy is somehow an obligatory form.

However, there can also be practical reasons for the trilogy, or other multi-volume but closed-end series. It's quite possible that the story one needs to tell is simply too large to be contained in the binding of a single volume. There are both physical and economic constraints to how big a book can be. Even the best bookbinding techniques can only let a book get so thick before its spine becomes unstable and susceptible to bending or breaking just by the act of being read. In addition, the larger a book becomes, the more expensive it becomes to produce -- but the willingness of readers to pay the additional money does not necessarily increase in pace with the expense of production.

Hence the tendency to break large stories up into multiple volumes. Unlike the open-ended series, such a multi-volume work is planned and written with a definite ending point in mind, at which the story is to actually conclude. However, this brings in a different set of problems that don't confront the author of an open-ended series. In my review of Wings of Wrath I discussed some of the problems of middle volumes of trilogies, particularly weak and saggy middle and the necessity of bringing everybody back up to speed before the story can proceed. Final volumes also are apt to have the second problem, for the simple reason that one can never assume that one's readers have read the previous volumes recently, or even at all. Throw readers in too fast and they will get lost and frustrated, and may even decide you're an incompetent writer they'll never give another dime.

But final volumes also have the problem that they need to conclude, and ideally they should draw everything together into one spectacular bang, rather than a stutter-stop sequence of little pops, or worst of all, a complete fizzle. As another writer put it, you've got a thousand plates spinning and you need to bring them all to a stop at once.

Science fiction and fantasy often deal with extraordinary ideas, which means you also have the problem of making sure that the ending lives up to the promise of the beginning. You've created an intricately realized Secondary World full of complex cultures and placed it in jeopardy in ways that stretch the limits of your reader's imagination. The last thing you want to do is bring it to a close that leaves your readers feeling, "oh, that's all there was to it?" For instance, you do not want to have the resolution prove to be almost absurdly simple, such that the reader feels the writer has played a stupid trick on them. You also don't want the resolution to be confusing or depend upon assumptions the reader may not necessarily share, or knowledge about the Primary World that may not be in general circulation.

Because of all these ways that the ending of a trilogy or other multi-volume work can go wrong, I approached this book with more than a little trepidation. I'd been pretty much blown away by the first volume and read it in a single day, but I'd found the middle volume didn't live up to the expectations of the first one. Not that it was bad, but it was average, and because the first volume had set the bar so high, volume two suffered in comparison. Once I got past the first several chapters, in which the momentum of the first volume was rebuilt, and the author started introducing new ideas, I was convinced that this was indeed a novel I wanted to read. However, I didn't feel that burning compulsion to gulp it down as fast as I could,

And quite honestly, I felt that same take-it-or-leave-it feeling about this book. I read it piecemeal over several months. They were busy months, since I had multiple events I had to juggle, but the simple truth is this: if a book is good enough, you will find ways to pry loose the necessary time to read it as fast as possible, unless it is literally impossible to do any reading.

Once again, the first several chapters were housekeeping, getting the reader back up to speed. And it had been several years since I read the second book, so there were some details I didn't remember as clearly as I could've, and now had become absolutely critical threads -- for instance, Queen Gwynofar's transformation to give her greater strength and endurance, which I must've missed altogether when I read the second book. In this volume the author begins to explore the consequences of such a rapid transformation, showing us that suddenly having extraordinary strength doesn't mean that she will instantly be able to use it effectively in combat. Instead, she must spend hours every day integrating the necessary skills into muscle memory so that she won't end up doing herself serious harm in the middle of a major battle.

And that's one of the great strengths of this trilogy -- the way in which the author meticulously works though all the consequences and practical implications of each element of magic in her fictional world. So often people use the word "magic" to mean wish-fulfillment -- a thing that happens simply because one wishes hard enough, without effort or consequence. We often hear the expression used when someone is airing a complaint about a real or perceived unreasonable expectation, particularly on the part of someone in a position of authority who is operating on the assumption that subordinates' resources are infinitely elastic.

And to be true, in traditional tales of wonder, there was precious little thought given to the mechanism by which the magic operated. However, this does not necessarily mean that it was all wish-fulfillment -- far from it, wishes were apt to backfire on the characters who made them. Rather, these stories gave little attention to the workings of magic for the simple reason that the development of skill in magic was not part of the hero's journey. Magic was almost invariably performed by supporting characters who may have been friendly or hostile, but whose motives and activities were often by and large opaque to the audience. Even as recent as Tolkien, or Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, we didn't get any real delving into the mechanism of magic because it wasn't the focus of the story. Frodo might use a magical sword or Galadrial's phial, but they were things given him as ready-to-use items, and generally were used only in dire need. Similarly, Thomas Covenant might be the wielder of the Wild Magic, but the whole point of the story was that he had no idea of how to use it, and his inability to summon it at will, but only in response to major emotional crises, was a key point of the story.

By contrast, more recent fantasy has often featured skill in spellcasting and other magical workings as a major part of the protagonist's story arc. How much of this is the result of a new generation of writers growing out of the role-playing game community is open to debate, but one thing is certain -- when the protagonist is presented as a character involved in the operation of magic, the workings and limitations of that magic need to be set out in a clear way, or otherwise it is apt to become a rampaging plot device, showing up whenever it's convenient to let the author get the character out of a jam, and being forgotten when the author's mind is on other things. (There are exceptions -- for instance, in the Harry Potter books the mechanism of magic can be left somewhat vague because Harry and his friends are students learning the craft of magic, and thus can be expected to have trouble at unexpected moments, or get lucky with a spell far beyond their skills).

That said, Queen Gwynofar's extraordinary enhancement is really a side-story to the real focus of the book, which is of course the Magisters, the sorcerers who use magic without apparent price. Unlike the witches, who draw energy from their own souls, the finite wellspring of life energy each person in that world is born with, the Magisters draw power from some unknown source. In fact, they are a form of energy vampire, feeding upon the soul of another person.

In the first two volumes, the practical ramifications of this method of using magic were explored. First, we got to see the young witch Kamala's struggle to become a magister in spite of being told again and again that no woman can become a magister, that only men have the necessary aptitudes. Then we had the newly crowned King Salvator, a former Penitent monk, refusing to follow the custom of having a Court Magister, and explaining the ethical issues that led him to the decision to rely solely upon witches who chose to donate portions of their own lives to his service.

In contrast to him we have Siderea Aminestas, the brilliant Witch-Queen who has used her wiles to extend her life and her power far beyond the limits of her own soul by binding various Magisters to her and having them accomplish what she dared not spend her own life energy upon. But no matter how careful she might be in spending it, in time it would necessarily run out, and the inevitable was fast drawing nigh. At that point she was approached with an offer, that she could become like the Magisters -- and in that offer was the temptation that brought forth a lifetime of bitterness at those men she'd used, all the time aware of how they scorned her and thought less of her. Thus she came to be bonded to one of the ikati or Souleaters, the mysterious creatures like flying serpents that live by sucking the life energy from humans, and gains the power to do likewise and continue her life indefinitely.

And thus we have a key hint -- that the power of the Magisters is somehow connected with the Souleaters. Not just the fact that there were no Magisters in the First Age of Kings that was brought down by the coming of the Souleaters, or that the first Magisters began to appear some centuries after the raising of the Wrath and the banishment of the Souleaters to the northern wastes, but an actual link in the mechanism by which they operate. And thus we have the central thrust of the final volume, the race against time to find the secret of the Souleaters and defeat them before the human quislings who've become their partners in the north unleash them to feed forever upon human civilization.

It's interesting, however, that the author spends relatively little time describing the Souleaters, instead dropping various hints here and there about their appearance -- their scales and neck spines, their rainbow wings like those of an insect which also double as solar collectors (and although the illustration on the hardcover of the original showed Kamala with a necklace ornament that portrayed a Souleater having four wings like a dragonfly, references in this volume strongly suggest that Souleaters have ten wings), the claws, the faceted eyes that recall the dragons of Pern (and the relationship of ikati and human among the northern villages does read like a dark mirror of the relationship between Pernese dragon and rider). And this choice may well have actually have been better, since it leaves so much to the imagination to put together an image of the creature from the glimpses and hints. There's always a risk that an extensive description of a fantastic monster will actually diminish suspension of disbelief rather than enhance it, for the simple reason that the revelation proves smaller than what the reader's imagination had brought together from prior foreshadowing. For instance, several different critics have commented that H. P. Lovecraft's extensive description of Wilbur Whateley's peculiar hybrid anatomy in "The Dunwich Horror" ends up undermining the sense of horror and revulsion, instead becoming only tedious.

On the whole, Legacy of Kings is a storyline that's quite well handled, although there were a few times when I had trouble keeping track of who was where and the relationship of the various desert cities to one another, and I had a little problem with the plausibility of a species existing in such low population densities (a single queen to sustain the entire species? far too much possibility of a mischance rendering the entire species extinct). And although the resolution of Kamala's situation did seem to be a bit of a get-out rather than a true confrontation of the issues, the storyline really, truly did conclude. In fact, there were almost no threads left unresolved, to the point that I can't imagine how Ms. Friedman would be able to write any further stories in this fictional world, never mind how deeply fascinating I found it and how much I would like to visit it again.

Review posted November 14, 2012

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