In Feast of Souls, the first book of the Magister Trilogy, C. S. Friedman introduces a truly novel (to my knowledge, at least) magic system. The imperious and nearly omnipotent Magisters can wield incredible magical abilities, but their powers draw upon the life force of a randomly chosen other individual. As long as they are willing to ignore the fact that their powers literally come at the price of someone’s else’s life, Magisters can use their powers willy-nilly. The only exception to this rule is that when a Magister’s “host” eventually kicks the bucket, the Magister is totally vulnerable for a short period of time.
Lately, I’ve been listening to a writing podcast created by Brandon Sanderson and some colleagues (Writing Excuses), and one of Brandon’s observations that I like a lot is that in fantasy, “the constraints on using magic are more interesting than the magic itself.” That is, we can imagine a character who can overcome every obstacle, effortlessly, with magical powers, but that’s not an interesting story. What is interesting is in seeing a system of rules created, and then watching our protagonist exploit those rules in order to overcome obstacles. In that sense, I think Friedman has a great setup here. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t come together.
My main beef with the implementation of Friedman’s characterization of the Magisters is that their whole shtick is about avoiding death (which in practice means being really careful about the circumstances in which they use significant amounts of power). However, early in book one, it becomes clear that an ancient enemy may be re-emerging, which would be a clear threat to the magisters. Nevertheless, Friedman allows virtually all of the magisters to put their heads in the sand, even though some of them were alive the last time this enemy existed, and should be highly aware of this threat. It may seem like a quibble, but it really drew me out of the story, and made it difficult for me to see various characters’ actions as being believably motivated. That’s a dangerous slope, and indeed, I petered out early in book two.
Final analysis? These aren’t bad books by any means, but they didn’t capture and hold my attention.
Rating: 1 – Skip it