King of Ashes

You may recall that I used to be a huge Raymond E. Feist fan. Like many fantasy readers from my generation, my teenage years and early adulthood were spent reading the author's popular Riftwar, Serpentwar, and Empire series. I have so many fond memories from those books and their characters. The same goes for the Riftwar Legacy and Krondor's Songs sequences. These novels showcased a Raymond E. Feist writing at the top of his game and each new installment was an immediate bestseller.

And then, SFF authors such as Robert Jordan, Steven Erikson, and George R. R. Martin burst on the market and changed the face of epic fantasy forever. These bigger, more ambitious, and more convoluted works of fiction made books by Eddings, Salvatore, Brooks, Weis and Hickman, and Feist feel somewhat inferior in comparison. These bestselling writers retained the better part of their fan bases for a long time, yet it seemed evident that their best years were behind them.

My last forays into Feist's body of work was in 2007-2008 when I read and reviewed his then latest trilogies, Conclave of Shadows and the Darkwar Saga. Sadly, I found little to like about either and was in no hurry to read whatever came next. A part of me regrets not finding out how storylines which were born in Magician: Apprentice ultimately ended in the Demonwar and the Chaoswar sagas. But those two series turned out to be such lackluster efforts that I never did pick up the sequels.

King of Ashes marked the beginning of a brand new series and I knew I wanted to give it a shot. Needless to say, I wanted nothing more than to see Feist return to form and produce the sort of ripping yarn on which his fame and success were based. Something awesome akin to titles such as Prince of the Blood, The King's Buccaneer, or Shards of a Broken Crown. Alas, I'm sad to report that this new novel is pretty much a failure to launch. Based on my last experiences with the author, my expectations were relatively low. And still, the first installment of the Firemane Saga was a major disappointment. Had this been written by anyone else, I would have quit after a few chapters. This being a Feist book, I persevered till the very end, only to discover that there was no payoff and nothing that made me want to read the next volume.

Here's the blurb:

The first volume in legendary master and New York Times bestselling author Raymond E. Feist’s epic heroic fantasy series, The Firemane Saga—an electrifying tale of two young men whose choices will determine a world’s destiny.

For centuries, the five greatest kingdoms of North and South Tembria, twin continents on the world of Garn, have coexisted in peace. But the balance of power is destroyed when four of the kingdoms violate an ancient covenant and betray the fifth: Ithrace, the Kingdom of Flames, ruled by Steveren Langene, known as "the Firemane" for his brilliant red hair. As war engulfs the world, Ithrace is destroyed and the Greater Realms of Tembria are thrust into a dangerous struggle for supremacy.

As a Free Lord, Baron Daylon Dumarch owes allegiance to no king. When an abandoned infant is found hidden in Daylon’s pavilion, he realizes that the child must be the missing heir of the slain Steveren. The boy is valuable—and vulnerable. A cunning and patient man, Daylon decides to keep the baby’s existence secret, and sends him to be raised on the Island of Coaltachin, home of the so-called Kingdom of Night, where the powerful and lethal Nocusara, the "Hidden Warriors," legendary assassins and spies, are trained.

Years later, another orphan of mysterious provenance, a young man named Declan, earns his Masters rank as a weapons smith. Blessed with intelligence and skill, he unlocks the secret to forging King’s Steel, the apex of a weapon maker’s trade known by very few. Yet this precious knowledge is also deadly, and Declan is forced to leave his home to safeguard his life. Landing in Lord Daylon’s provinces, he hopes to start anew.

Soon, the two young men—an unknowing rightful heir to a throne and a brilliantly talented young swordsmith—will discover that their fates, and that of Garn, are entwined. The legendary, long-ago War of Betrayal has never truly ended . . . and they must discover the secret of who truly threatens their world.

I was curious about the worldbuilding. The Midkemia-related plotlines were built over the course of ten series spanning twenty-nine novels. Of course, there was no way Raymond E. Feist could create something that could resound with as much depth for King of Ashes. And yet, I expected more than this rehashing of several fantasy tropes and themes. Sadly, there is nothing new within the pages of this book. If anything, the worldbuilding felt bland and déjà vu. I found it hard to believe that Coaltachin managed to gain control of crime over the entire world, and it's never properly explained how the Kingdom of Night was able to maintain its stranglehold on every single country's underworld. Other than showing off his knowledge of both navigation and blacksmithing, King of Ashes featured nothing special. To all ends and purposes, this Firemane universe is a decidedly generic fantasy environment made up of a panoply of elements that we've seen before. The discovery that there are more power players out there towards the end of the novel hints at a more ambitious overall story arc. And yet, there is no denying that this first installment has little to show for it. I'm well aware that opening chapters in SFF series usually work as introductions meant to establish the protagonists, their world, and principal storylines. However, even seen from that angle, King of Ashes felt decidedly uninspired.

Characterization, an aspect in which Feist habitually excels, is subpar throughout the book. Shockingly, I couldn't connect with any of the characters. Hard to believe that the man behind Hatu, Donte, Hava, and Baron Daylon Dumarch is the same author who created such memorable protagonists such as Pug, Nakor, Miranda, and a slew of others. Hatu and Donte are the most emo characters I've encountered in a long while. Always thinking about sex, love, and the feelings they engender. I have a feeling that Feist wanted to grimdark this tale to a certain extent, but the results are probably not what he had in mind. The darkness, the blood, the gore, the violence, and the sex more or less occur off stage, so to speak, and there are no true shades of gray to speak of. Hava, who will undoubtedly gain a lot of importance in subsequent installments, is little more than a token female protagonist. The rest of the supporting cast is comprised of equally mundane and uninteresting men and women.

Feist has often demonstrated that he doesn't fear killing major characters like Jimmy the Hand and Arutha. Perhaps we'll get lucky and the author will get rid of Hatu and Donte. But I have a feeling that they're in for the long haul. Considering the number of unforgettable characters Feist created over the years, one has to wonder how he could settle for such an unoriginal trio to take center stage in this novel. Other than their thoughts on sex, Hatu, Donte, and Hava's storylines felt like something straight out of 1992.

In addition, King of Ashes suffers from numerous pacing issues. The rhythm can be atrocious in certain portions of the book and rushed in others. For the most part, as I mentioned it reads like something from the early 90s. Problem is, the fantasy genre has evolved quite a bit in the last few decades and I'm not sure this new series can truly satisfy genre readers in 2018.

In the end, uneven pacing, clichéd fantasy elements, and poor execution sunk this plot before it ever had a chance to lift off. Things pick up near the end of the book, but it's a case of too little, too late. It's obvious that there is more to Hatu's tale than meets the eye, and more players involved than we expected, but it remains to be seen if readers will be willing to fork out their hard-earned money to read the next volume. Myself, I'm ambivalent on the issue. On the one hand, it's Feist and he has shown in the past just how good he could be. On the other hand, King of Ashes shows so little potential that I doubt the author can somehow elevate his game and save this series. Time will tell. . .

As was the case with Stephen R. Donaldson's Seventh Decimate last year, King of Ashes was supposed to be Raymond E. Feist's big return with brand new material. And like the Donaldson, this novel was nothing but a big disappointment. . .

The final verdict: 5/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

2 commentaires:

DontDriveAngry said...

Having acquired and read an advance copy, I've been waiting to see reviews on this latest.

As a longtime Feist fan, I agreed with your reviews of the post-Serpentwar series. The Conclave of Shadows, Darkwar and Demonwar series could all have been condensed down by at least a book if not into single volumes altogether and been far more effective reads. However, I will admit that the final series, The Chaoswar Saga, was far better than those and I recall that the last book was very well done, and even if you have to speed-read through the remaining books to get there, I would recommend reading it to get to see the closing volume of those beloved characters.

Regarding King of Ashes, I'm of mixed feelings. My initial reaction was that he definitely attempted to go into the so-called grimdark area of fantasy, likely in response to observing the popularity of GRRM and others. However I felt that he struggled with it at times, perhaps a result of the bulk of his fantasy career being primarily based in the moderately lighter Tolkien-based-fantasy that highlighted the 80-90's. I recall reading that Midkemia was the result of he and his friends creating their own RPG world and these books were essentially the backstory, so after writing that lighter fare for so long, it was hard to abandon entirely and with King of Ashes, it felt at times as though he was trying to walk the line and provide a more mature story while still hanging onto the elements that worked for him in the past. In particular, he definitely went to his comfort zone of having the story unfold as two main characters come-of-age, seen before with Pug/Tomas, Erik/Roo, Tad/Zane, etc. Also, there are Nighthawks & Mockers, of a sort, though they have banded together and acquired their own island nation and navy. Not quite the same, but still familiar, I guess. As you said, there were a number of common tropes.

Also, as you noted, he waited until the very end to reveal that there was "more" to the story of the Firemane... which, while there were hints dropped here and there along the way, still felt a little weak to me, reminding me of why I stopped reading Goodkind early on, where every new book there started with some new previously-unheard of threat/entity that seemed pretty important/notable that I felt it would've certainly been mentioned somewhere along the way prior to this. The seeming large-scale global importance of the Firemane... why did this never come up?

Anyways, this was a good, honest review and while I didn't dislike the book and will likely give the next book a read, I definitely saw the flaws. Mostly, I feel like it would have been given somewhat better praise if this was a first effort and not from an established author with 30 published books to his credit

Anonymous said...

Bummer. Was hoping it was going to be the start of something good.:/