C.S. Friedman: Feast of Souls

I almost never start out a review by saying whether I really liked or disliked a given book. But habits are made to be broken. So:

Spooky, haunting, compelling, magical, and god I’m jealous — I want to write this well!

There. Now that’s out of the way, and I can talk about details. Feast of Souls features a motley cast of characters: a whore, a witch, a prince, and a collection of Magisters (who are something like a witch, only much more powerful — and morally corrupt). The whore (Kamala) wants to be much more powerful; the witch (Siderea Aminestas, the Witch-Queen) already is powerful, by dint of using her lovers (most of whom are Magisters) to manipulate events for her. And the prince? He’s the unlucky catalyst that sets off a perfect storm of consequences on all their heads.

As the book gets rolling, the prince lies fatally ill with a strange wasting sickness. The Magisters summoned in to save him know exactly what the sickness is — and can’t cure him. They can’t even tell the prince or his father the King what’s going on. Or perhaps a better word is — won’t.

Safer to let a prince die.

Meanwhile, Kamala has begun her journey from poverty and desperation to a position of power forbidden to women: she’s going to become a Magister herself, something which has never been done before. Her training must be secret; her success, even more so.

Magisters don’t like it when someone else changes the rules on them, and they never work together: but the prince’s illness is forcing them into tighter company than they’re comfortable with. But the rules are fracturing all over: enter an ancient threat, resurrected from oblivion; a threat which could easily wipe out civilization if the Magisters don’t learn how to work as a team — which, of course, they have no intention of doing.

In the background at first, then emerging to prominence in her own right, the Witch-Queen, Siderea, has to choose between evils; and her choice veers the story into an entirely new and unexpected direction.

In less skilled hands, this could have been a hackneyed, awful story. Friedman’s sharp prose and thorough understanding of her characters weaves a compelling, believable, and complex braid of a story that left me wanting more with every page. The descriptions are stunningly evocative, the background explanation concise and unintrusive: I fell into the world with the first page and stayed there until the book was finished (late enough to be early, as the saying goes). I simply could not stop reading.

This is a story about choices between evils and lesser evils, punctuated by lots of gutsy determination; it’s a story about life-changing decisions and cascading consequences. And it’s a story not so much about what it means to be human, but about how far the boundaries of that definition can be pushed — with the right leverage.

And Friedman knows just where to dig in the crowbar.

C. S. Friedman’s Web site is here.

(DAW, 2007)

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