I have always loved fantasy novels. I grew up reading The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and Harry Potter. As an adult, though, fantasy has been harder to find. I’ve dabbled in Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, and of course, my favorite Laini Taylor. I’ve read the odd vampire novel and one or two urban fantasy books, but something about high fantasy captured my attention when I was a kid, and ever since then I’ve been on the lookout for something equally impressive. So whenever a friend hands me a book with magic in it and says, with a gleam in her eye, “You HAVE to read this!” well, let’s just say I can’t resist.
Enter C.S. Friedman’s FEAST OF SOULS.
FEAST OF SOULS, unlike Daughter of Smoke and Bone or Harry Potter, does not try to redefine fantasy. It is not trying to change the rules. It very much playing within the archetypal high fantasy setting, in a medieval-like world similar and yet so different from our own, where tavern brawls are a regular occurrence and kings and queens are wedded for alliances, not love. Friedman’s FEAST OF SOULS is a classic, epic fantasy novel, as vivid and intense as George R. R. Martin could ever have hoped for.
It is also very long.
The best thing about FEAST OF SOULS is the magic. Although I very much doubt this concept is revolutionary, it was the first time I had read a work of fantasy that was predicated on this rule: in order to cast spells, you must expend a portion of your own life force. Every whisper of magic you use costs you a few seconds of your life. To do more requires minutes, hours. Immense feats of witchcraft cost days or weeks of your own life. It turns out, however, that there are some who have circumvented this rule.
The setup to this reveal – and how the magic works – is the premise for the book’s beginning. Friedman’s ability to imply the answer without giving anything away is impressive, and the hook got me going from page one.
But goddamn, did it take me a long time to get from page one to page five hundred and sixty four, where it finally ends. The last fifty pages were spellbinding (pun intended), as were the first fifty, but the middle weighed me down. The narrative is deftly woven between several different characters, with odd one-offs – characters who appear and then never narrate again – popping up here and there. But it is also rife with ponderous thinking, dream scenes, emotive writing, and a lot of wandering around that maybe-kind-of-sort-of furthers the plot but isn’t especially exciting. It was a slog to get through 80% of the book. Like a long walk up a mountain, it was worth the hike, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t aching during the trek.
Another problem I had was the book’s attempt – and failure – at feminism. The primary protagonist, Kamala, is a woman who practices a type of magic so extraordinary that apparently not a single female in the history of the world has ever succeeded at practicing it before. This, to me, reeked of the “cool girl” trope – where the major female character is powerful enough to get into the “old boy’s club” but no other girls have apparently ever succeeded. Raised as a pauper whose virginity was auctioned off at a young age by her own mother, Kamala is naturally extremely sensitive to the needs of other women, who Friedman goes to great lengths to show us are all in desperate need of help. Almost all the women we see are whores, high and low class, who are used and abused by the drunken patrons of the city. And although there are two other significant female characters in the story, one of them gets all of her power from the men around her, and the other one is raped and impregnated at one point by her own husband. Both are extremely interesting characters. Neither are paragons of strength, independence, or female fortitude. And with three major characters, you might imagine this book could pass the Bechdel test, but alas. It does not. None of the major female characters speak to each other at any point.
And the one time a young damsel in distress does actually need saving, and our powerful magician female protagonist is near at hand to help? Yep, you guessed it – it’s a man who saves her. Not Kamala.
While attempting to prove via Kamala that girls can be just as strong, powerful, or independent as the boys, Friedman somehow succeeds at squashing all the rest of the girls in the book back down into the patriarchal mud where they belong.
Oh, well. At least the magic is cool.
Aside from that hiccup and the longevity thing, the book was really quite good. From rich and delightful character development to intricate worldbuilding to deft, eloquent language, it was a story worth reading. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll pick up the next book, and only time will tell if I’ll come back and read it again. It might have been a long hike to the top of this mountain, but it was a beautiful one, and the view from the top was incredible.
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