Friday, 29 January 2010

‘Feast of Souls’ – Celia Friedman (Orbit)

The world is made up of many things; my own personal viewpoint sees it as being made up of ‘authors I really should get round to checking out at some point’. Guy Gavriel Kay is one such author and Tim Powers is another (although I do have a copy of ‘The Anubis Gates’ waiting to be read). They’re names that I hear and think that I must pick up one of their books... and then I end up doing something else and forget all about it until the next time. Do you have the same kind of problem or are you made of sterner stuff and go straight out to pick these books up?

Celia Friedman is one of those authors that I’ve always meant to check out, particularly as her ‘Coldfire Trilogy’ is one of those series that everyone seems to rave about online. The beginning of a new trilogy is always a good place to start so I made it my mission to read ‘Feast of Souls’. Celia Friedman can now sit firmly on my list of ‘authors I’ve finally got round to reading’ and I will be making it my business to read the rest of this trilogy at least. ‘Feast of Souls’ is rather good...

The son of King Aurelius is dying, laid low by a mysterious wasting disease that strips him of his life daily. The King demands an explanation from the magical community and Magisters from across the land are summoned in an attempt to solve the mystery. The answer will strike at the very heart of their secret order, a magister is involved and must be silenced before certain unpalatable truths become known to the world...
But all of this merely serves to distract both men and Magisters from the danger that is arising to the north. An evil long forgotten is stirring and defences that once stood strong are weaker than ever before. The world is about to become an even more dangerous place than it is already...

‘Feast of Souls’ is one of those clever books that gets it’s hooks into the reader and ties them to the story without their even knowing it. That’s what happened to me. Despite some misgivings (more on those in a bit), ‘Feast of Souls’ was a book that I couldn’t stop reading. On the few occasions when I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about what might happen next in the book, there aren’t many books that do this to me!

Friedman has painted an incredibly bleak world for her story to play out against, a bleakness that did it’s best to drive me away from the page whilst keeping me going at the same time. This is a truly joyless place to spend time in with none of that joyful spark you get when you’re transported into another world for the first time. Everything is too downtrodden for that; the Magister’s dark secret holds an entire world in oppression without their even realising it and Friedman pulls no punches in her depictions of the life of the lower classes. Friedman also adopts the same approach to interactions between the ruling classes with certain scenes in particular making me wince! Life is truly cheap, especially if you’re a Magister.

A world so bleak and seemingly bereft of hope like this one is astonishingly hard to get into. You almost find yourself asking what the point is; everything is obviously going to hell in a handcart anyway. Friedman rescued the book from my putting it down by showing her readers that even in a world like this there can still be hope for the future. It’s actually the whole point of the book.
No matter how bad your situation, there is always a way onwards and upwards for those who wish to take it. The way out may lead you somewhere even worse but that isn’t really the point. It’s all about not giving up, learning to live with your mistakes and keep pushing on. Through the characters of Kamala and Andovan, Friedman celebrates humanity’s refusal to break under pressure and that is ultimately what kept me reading.

Here are two characters who have both been dealt a poor hand by fate although one of them had more influence over that hand than the other. What makes for compelling reading is watching their attempts to either make the best of their situation or change it entirely. Hard decisions have to be made and you will question the morality of these. Underneath it all though is an all consuming desire to live and that’s something that we can all identify with. Once I made that connection with the characters I knew that I wanted to see how it all ended.

As the opening book in a trilogy, ‘Feast of Souls’ is primarily about setting events up for future books as well as introducing the setting and characters within it. As such, the focus is more on politicking and world building and this does affect the pace of the book, slowing things down when I wanted them to speed up. The politicking is enthralling though (especially as the larger picture becomes apparent) and the world is beautifully drawn (albeit bleak...) As a payoff I found that this more than made up for the lack of pace in areas of the book. When events flare into life Friedman has her hands firmly on the reins and delivers scenes that are tightly controlled while sparkling with vitality.

‘Feast of Souls’ is a tough one to get into (maybe a little too tough for a opening book in a trilogy) but I found that the effort paid off in style. Like I said earlier, I’m glad that I finally got round to reading something by Celia Friedman. If this is anything to go by then I’m looking forward to reading ‘Wings of Wrath’.

Eight and a Half out of Ten


Aarti said...

I've never even heard of Friedman, but I shall have to check her out. I have Tim Powers on my shelf, but haven't read him yet. And I have an ARC of Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven with me right now that I'm reading. I like some of his books much more than I like some of his others. Most people love Tigana, but my heart will always belong to Lions of Al-Rassan, personally.

Anonymous said...

If you're in the U.S. she's known as C. S. Friedman.

Anonymous said...

I think Kay is probably one of the two or three best writers of our genre. The Fionavar Tapestry is terrific, and a lot of what happens within anticipated a lot of the more contemporary fantasy we enjoy today. I think my favorite will always be Song of Arbonne, which breaks your heart in such thrilling ways.