A Darkness at Sethanon by Raymond E Feist (Riftwar Saga: Book 3)

As Prince Arutha and his companions rally their forces for the final battle with an ancient and mysterious evil, the dread necromancer Marcos the Black has once again unleashed his dark sorcerery. Now the fate of two worlds will be decided in a titanic struggle beneath the walls of Sethanon, as the link between Kelewan and Midkemia is revived.

It took me a remarkably long time to finally pick up Raymond E. Feist’s wildly popular Magician. It was a poor lapse in judgement based solely around the fact that the lead character was another orphan and his name was Pug. Poor reasoning, I know, but there we have it nonetheless. That being said, I did finally pick it up and subsequently ploughed through Silverthorn and then A Darkness at Sethanon.

Feist writes as if he’s writing for me specifically. It’s clever writing with clever storytelling and vivid scenery and characters. And even if there is a measure of reused plot devices it soon becomes unimportant under the new story threads that Feist throws in.

Darkness continues where the previous two books left off, with Arutha once again the focus of attention. He is one of the most intriguing characters I have had the pleasure of reading in my years, and is very relatable. His moods and motives, his distrusts and his likes are all believable and measurable so that the reader finds him or herself in Arutha’s shoes.

The same can be said for Jimmy the Hand, who once again shows up as the mischievous and far too smart for himself sidekick to Arutha’s adventure. Though maybe some could suspect Jimmy for having access to a little too much intelligence, I find myself once again relating to a character who doesn’t just take the party line as truth and makes a life and path for himself.

Feist hasn’t left us with just one plot thread though, ensuring that Pug and Tomas find their way back into the story. We continue to be shown just how powerful and unlike any other these two characters are, and how they deal with the realisation themselves. There are some beautifully constructed scenes featuring Pug and Tomas as they go in search of help for Midkemia, none more so than when they return to the beginning of time and space.

One of the highlights of the book however is a villain from past books, who reappears to be, not so much misunderstood but simply despised thanks to a lack of a fully formed picture of the character. Motivations are a wonderful thing, and can be left out of a characters biography until they are needed to sway the reader. Add that with actions and you will often find yourself liking a character you once disliked, or were intended to dislike.

Feist manages to once again capture my attention wholeheartedly and have me searching for more books in the Riftwar series of books so that I can continue reading one of the better fantasy series I have laid my hands on. It’s a real treat to read Feist, especially with the knowledge that there is so much more to come.
Joshua S Hill, 9.4/10

Being in the mood for some old fashioned epic fantasy, I decided that it was time to revisit Feist and bring the Riftwar to a close, after all I’d liked Silverthorn rather more than Magician, so theoretically at least, the third in the series should be a better experience.

A year has passed since Prince Arutha’s wedding, and the time has come for the presentation of Arutha’s new sons to the public. Unfortunately, as Arutha has learnt to his cost, public celebrations are a perfect time for assassination attempts, and though the dark elf leader Murmandamus and his vast army are far to the north, even the peaceful city of Krondor is not outside their reach. Meanwhile, Pug returns from his sojourn training in magic with the hidden elves of Kelewan, ready to discover the truth of the powers behind Murmandamus. However, this is a truth known only to the immortal sorcerer Macros the Black. Together with his boyhood friend Tomas, a warrior now imbued with knowledge of the ancient Valharu, Pug’s search for Macros will take him to worlds beyond worlds, into the realm of death and eventually to the dawn of time itself.

As the book opened, I had both some pleasant intimations that I’d be having a better experience this time around, and the less welcome sense that matters might not have improved at all. On the one hand, the initial setup of one of the book’s plotlines is annoyingly similar to Silverthorn.

Jimmy the Hand gets wind of an attempt on Arutha’s life by the Nighthawks at a public celebration, Arutha leaves home and hearth on a quest to see what could be done, (he even has the same companions), whilst Pug gets a side quest of magical world-hopping.

On the other hand, the standard of Feist’s writing definitely improved, being generally far less cold and even showing some flashes of nuance, such as when Arutha, in a fit of over-protectiveness starts exercising draconian measures over Krondor’s citizens in an effort to root out the assassins before his family are hurt. Feist also began early with that wonderfully epic style of universe spanning poetry found in the best eighties fantasy, something he’d showed so effectively during the description of Pug’s training in Magician. Indeed, I’ll freely admit I’m still enough of a classic fantasy lover to find the idea of flying on a golden dragon through grey rift space to an ancient world orbiting a dying star intoxicating.

Unfortunately where the book fell down was in its characters. Though there were one or two moments where Feist’s characters showed personality, these were usually only in a narrow, and fairly stereotypical range. Jimmy the Hand for instance, had some fun moments when playing sport with the other squires and betting on the outcome, something very believable for an ex-thief, whilst Martin Longbow’s exasperation at the need of a duke to marry and beget an air actually did bring across his state as a taciturn hunter.

The problem however, is that much of the time Feist simply tells us what characters feel or has characters recount their own history verbatim. Indeed, I often felt as if I were reading a set of clip notes rather than a novel. In fairness to Feist, several of these clip notes sessions did sound interesting, such as Martin having to cope with giggly or predatory potential duchesses, however since Feist simply presents us the accounts in very broad overview, and essentially tells us how a character feels, the knock on effect was unfortunately that I did not feel much. After all, simply telling us that a girl spent her entire time with Martin giggling, and how uneasy this made the straightforward woodsman feel is not half as effective as putting us directly in Martin’s head and having us experience his discomfort first hand; indeed without an immediate view of the situation, Martin’s dismissive judgements make him seem rather unpleasant.

With dialogue, Feist seems to swerve between characters simply saying what they’re feeling, relaying information or essentially talking shop for that given type of character, be that academic magicians arguing esoterically, warriors calmly discussing strategy, or women discussing family and babies.

Speaking of female characters, later in the novel Feist does explore a heavily martial society in which both men and women are accepted as warriors (and one where both men and women are pretty free with their affections), though we only have one female warrior as an actual character and her role is fairly peripheral. Unfortunately Feist’s issue with lack of actual character makes his attempts at cultural misunderstanding and romance so cursory they feel out of place. Indeed, one sequence in which young squire Locklear first loses his virginity, then gets angry because; being sweaty and tired following a day of running errands on the battlefield, his new girlfriend isn’t quite in the mood was particularly cringe-worthy. To be fair, I don’t think Feist has an issue with writing women specifically, so much as he simply has problems with stereotypes and portraying emotions, matters which obviously affect female characters more in a pseudo medieval setting. Indeed, most of his male characters are similarly undistinguished accept for a proclivity to pound on bad guys.

This tendency to sketch characters was also a major problem for some of his plot twists. While I was pleased that at one point a villain from Magician is given the chance to recount his rather fascinating backstory, and turned out not to be quite as villainous after all. The sequence was spoiled by the fact that said backstory is instantly accepted by the good guys, and that after that point the villain simply joins the ranks of the endlessly competent heroes and becomes yet another awesome military strategist with little personality.

The book featured a huge amount of battles, and I will say for the most part the were better executed than those in Magician, with moves and countermoves, alternating waves of attack, and a wonderfully implacable villain as an enemy. Indeed, I rather liked the way Feist explained some familiar tropes, such as the villain not using their powerful magic to breach the walls until the defenders clever plans have succeeded against conventional attacks.

The problem however, is that since the siege of the titular Sethanon only occurs 3 hours before the end of a 19 hour narrative, and is furthermore the third siege in the book, I definitely started to suffer battle fatigue. Partly this was due to me just not being invested in many of the characters, partly it was due to not being sure what tone exactly Feist was going for.

Sometimes, as when describing the deaths of countless soldiers and the destruction of cities, Feist seemed to be attempting a grim dark realism, although he stopped short of showing us civilians being massacred.

On other occasions however, such as when the defenders were relishing the prospect of throwing boiling oil on the heads of the enemy and referring to murmandamus with a host of amusingly uncomplimentary nicknames, he seemed to be aiming at the rollicking David Eddings “oh isn’t war jolly good fun,” style, though sadly without the wit or entertaining dialogue to quite carry this off. Where a masterful writer such as Tolkien, Martin or Gemmell can switch between different views of war, in Feist’s case, I often wasn’t sure how I should be feeling, and whether I should relish or regret the slaying of thousands of goblins, trolls and dark elves, who didn’t really get enough description to be either sinister or sympathetic. It also didn’t help that though the invaders were always coming out with new tricks, the heroes constantly succeeded, with all of their casualties being conveniently faceless spear carriers. Indeed, at the fall of one city, the enemies suffer such huge losses; due to some pretty shady tactics by the good guys, that I wasn’t entirely certain whether this was supposed to be a victory or a defeat.

This uncertainty on how to handle violence also showed in a rather cruel, or at least thoughtless streak, in which Feist attempted to show the brutality of war, but actually came across as something of a thug. For example when Arutha and his companions catch a mercenary running errands for Murmandamus near an inn, and decide the only thing to do is kill him in cold blood, since they cannot leave him or wait for the militia, even though the inn is a favourite stop of passing guard patrols and the innkeeper is a trustworthy friend, (we’re even told that the inn has a very sturdy cellar). On another occasion, Pug casually leaves a demonic being to suffer an agonising centuries long death simply because he can’t be bothered to spend the time sending it back where it came from.

Fortunately, whilst the war based chapters did tend to drag a bit, Feist interspersed them with Pug and Tomas’s adventures across the universe. Though for the most part these usually just involved Pug and Tomas triumphing fairly easily over enemies or learning a lot of history, the awesomeness of this history, the shear strangeness of a lot of the things they learned and the bright exuberant nature of the landscapes made these sections far more interesting and lively than those set back on Midkemia. Indeed, Pug’s constant questions and need to try and learn new magics made him feel more like the innocent boy we started with in Magician, and thus a character I could actually connect with. Similarly, whilst Tomas by this point has pretty much just turned into a walking Valharu history book, since the history of the Valharu is so fascinatingly alien I really didn’t mind, particularly since said history featured lots of awesome dragons. Indeed, Ryath, Tomas’s golden dragon companion is likely the most active female character in the entire book, and a beautifully described character at that, albeit she was reduced to the status of transworld transportation a little too quickly.

Sadly, unlike a writer like Michael Moorcock, Feist wasn’t prepared to have the whole book written in this dazzlingly awesome style, and so we had to return occasionally to the clunky characters and draggy battles from time to time. This made the pace of the whole book feel extremely slow, and I admit by the end I was finishing simply to finish.

The conclusion, as with most of the rest of the book was rather two sided. Many plot threads in the universe, from the wars of the ancient dragon lords, to the identity of the lost elves and the reason for humans on Kelewan were explained extremely well. Whatever my issues with Feist’s depictions of war elsewhere, both the single combats against Murmandamus and his allies, and the big bombastic magical explosions were appropriately rousing. Then again, being as Feist hadn’t really made me care about the characters too much, the final scenes of characters being paired off, given gifts or humorously complaining about new honours simply fell flat. The fact that nobody seemed to acknowledge the death of one faithful character other than as a chance for Pug to quite literally use her body didn’t sit right with me either.

In some ways Darkness at Sethanon did improve on Silverthorn, especially in its epic elements. Unfortunately, being a far longer novel, there were far more places to get bogged down among blandly described characters, baldly stated backstory, simple stereotypes and lapses in judgement. I often felt that I was reading a writer’s first draught, rather than a finished novel. Not a bad first draught, one with some genuinely awesome moments and even some interesting plots intended for its characters, but in general still something that needs work. Indeed, were Feist to flesh out some of his characters, show a bit more direction and trim some of the flab (such as the excessive battles), this would possibly be a great conclusion to the series. It is for this reason that I still believe my lady, who started in the middle of the series with the Serpent War Saga, who tells me that Feist does hugely improve later on. Sadly, said improvement hasn’t happened as yet.
Dark, 4.3/10 A disappointment at Sethanon

7/10 Feist writes as if he's writing for me specifically.

Reviews by and Dark

1 positive reader review(s) for A Darkness at Sethanon

A Darkness at Sethanon reader reviews

from Cambridge, UK

A very good book, which nicely brings the Riftwar trilogy to a close. I particularly like the way the threads from previous books come together at the end of this, making the climax believable and foreshadowed. I think both Silverthorn and aDaS improved upon the writing style and characterisation of Magician (although were not as ground-breaking in and of themselves). One gripe with the publishing though: What is going on with the blurb?? "The dread necromancer Macros the Black has once again unleashed his dark sorcery" - I spent all book waiting for him to turn out to be a baddie (or indeed do anything) and it never happened - seriously misleading! Still, the book itself is great, and my only criticsim would be that some of the 'epic' parts of the universe they visit don't seem very fleshed out. He seems to be constantly trying to outdo the sense of wonder each scene holds, which ends up falling rather flat as you lose any sense of perspective. I haven't read any more of Feist's books, but from what I've heard I'm probably better off stopping here. All in all, a classic fantasy trilogy that deserves (most of) the praise it receives.
8/10 ()

7.5/10 from 2 reviews

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