Sunday, August 8, 2010

Voor de poorten van het duister - Raymond E. Feist

Voor de poorten van het duister is the Dutch title of Feist's latest novel. It's a pretty literal translation of the English title At the Gates of Darkness. Feist is some of the first fantasy I've read, there is an entire shelf in my bookcase dedicated to his books. Pretty much from the moment translations of his work started appearing in Dutch bookshops in the late 1990s I've been picking up copies of his work. When I started reading his books I hadn't read much speculative fiction. I think my experience was limited to Dune and The Lord of the Rings prior to reading Magician, which then lead me to the book of people like Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan. Over the years my appreciation of his work has waned somewhat. Partly because I have discovered books that are qualitatively much better and partly because I have developed my taste as a reader of fantasy. I do have fond memories of the first dozen book however, so every time a new one hits the shelves I find myself reading it against my better judgement.

At the Gates of Darkness continues the story that began in Rides a Dread Legion and chronicles the efforts of Pug and his Conclave of Shadows to deal with the threat of an invasion by an army of Demons. The story has three main story lines. One that follows Pug and the Conclave, one that follows the Knight-Adamant Sandreena and one that follows the elven brothers Laromendis and Gulamendis. Each of then unveils useful information about the nature of the threat posed by the invading demons and the role of the Conclave's nemesis Belasco plays in all this. After pooling their resources a plan is conceived to deal with Belasco once and for all.

Feist's work covers a total of five riftwars. The Riftwar, the Serpentwar, the Darkwar, the Demonwar and the yet to be published Chaoswar. At the Gate of Darkness is the conclusion of the Demonwar and Feist's 26th novel in the Midkemia/Kelewan setting. The Dutch translations switched publisher a couple of books ago and Lia Belt, who has translated this book, is the fourth translator to take on Feist's work. The translators decided to change the names of some characters (although not consistently throughout the series), which makes reviewing these book in English a bit of a pain. I constantly have to check if the names are the same in English. Pug for example, is Puc in the Dutch version. A wise decision on the translator's part. With the Dutch pronunciation of the letter g, his name would sound like you have something stuck in your throat.

With such a long running series a certain fatigue of this particular creation is always a risk. Feist's books seem to suffer from this a lot. Personally I think the last good book he wrote was the third book in the Serpentwar Saga, Rage of a Demon King. I consider the fourth part in that sub-series, Shards of a Broken Crown to be mostly superfluous. After that Feist seems to loose interest in his own creation. The books start to feel rushed. Less attention is paid to the setting and the development of societies of Midkemia or to the secondary characters. The plot follows the course of a fairly simple Dungeons and Dragons game. After reading the Darkwar books I was optimistic that Feist was trying to raise the level again. Although these books suffer form many of the problems I just mentioned, they feel more inspired than the books that preceded them. I'm afraid the Demonwar books are not cause for further optimism.

Feist's books have always had a high D&D content. This is not surprising given the fact that Midkemia was originally a D&D world. In earlier books, Feist takes a lot more time to flesh out his world however. With characters such as Arutha and Eric von Darkmoor, these books have a connection to the world of ordinary Midkemian citizens. No matter how privileged these men were, they did not possess magic or extraordinary long lifespans. How they dealt with the presence of magical threats to their country was one of the interesting aspects of the story. A combination of worldly concerns and supernatural influence on the world made these books a lot more readable than the later ones. At the Gate of Darkness is almost completely focussed on the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. There is barely a glance at how the arrival of yet another elven tribe will impact Midkemia, very little on how Puc deals with the loss of much of his second family, next to nothing on the politics of the Kingdom of the Isles look like these days etc. Midkemia has been relegated to a battlefield and a useful pool of magical talent, with much of the struggle completely detached from whatever world it is taking place on.

The Demonwar itself is also a rather confusing affair. Over the course of the series Feist has added layer upon layer of knowledge about the structure of the Midkemian universe. It has become quite a complex structure but as usual, we find out that our view of it is still not complete. The Demons stem from another plain of existence referred to as the fifth circle. They've shown up on previous occasions (in the Serpentwar in particular they play an important part) but their nature and the forces that are driving them to enter the Midkemian plane of existence are still largely unknown. In a duology that aims to explore the conflict between the Conclave of Shadows and the Demons one would expect a little more detail to be introduced. Know thy enemy and all that. Feist does add some more detail, he hints that the fifth circle is not the chaotic environment Puc and his companions always assumed. That's all it is though. A hint. Before we've even begun to unravel what the door is actually about Puc rushes off to some remote location an slams the door (or rift if you prefer) before it is good and well opened. Game over.

Although the books of Feist have never been at the high end of the scale when it comes to literary quality, his early work was first step into the fantasy genre for me. His novels gave me a taste of fantasy before tackling the heavy-hitters of speculative fiction. At the Gates of Darkness however, is nowhere near Feist's best. The story is more or less what we've come to expect from him but the execution is sloppy and feels rushed. From the Demonwar books I really get the impression Feist can't wait to get to the end of this series. With three more books to go, assuming Feist will not write the two additional Krondor books, I certainly hope he does better in the Chaoswar trilogy. It would be a shame to let the series fizzle out in a number of uninspired novels.

Book Details
Title: Voor de poorten van het duister
Author: Raymond E. Feist
Publisher: Luithingh Fantasy
Pages: 336
Year: 2010
Language: Dutch
Translation: Lia Belt
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-90-245-2889-9
First published: 2010

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