The Darkwar Saga, Book Three: Wrath of a Mad God. By Raymond E. Feist. Eos. $25.95.
Raymond E. Feist is one of the best authors writing heroic fantasy today, and Wrath of a Mad God is the best of the three books of his latest series, The Darkwar Saga. As a result, the book shows unusually clearly just how good – and how limited – its genre has become.
The plot of Wrath of a Mad God could, in broad outline, be the plot of many other Feist novels, or ones by other heroic fantasists, with the change of just a few names and alteration of just a few plot twists. There is a war of two worlds, fraught with despair and destruction, and a small band of heroic figures struggling to ameliorate the outcome – in this book’s case, the sorcerer Pug and members of the Conclave of Shadows. There are good warriors, and there are bad guys (the Dasati), and Pug has a specific bad guy with longstanding enmity toward him (evil sorcerer Leso Varen), and Pug’s wife is captured and must be rescued. And the key to eventual success may lie with a friend of Pug, long thought dead, who may be able to tip the balance of the final battle between the forces of good and evil.
This description of the entirely formulaic plot does little justice to Feist’s writing and pacing skill, but it is a fair summary of the events of the book – which are a great deal like the events in many other heroic-fantasy novels of recent vintage. What elevates Feist’s books above the average is not the stories he tells but the way he tells them. He keeps his dialogue mostly plain – no phony “heroic-sounding” verbiage here – and his characters’ comments often contain flickers of humor, a welcome characteristic that other fantasists frequently omit. At one point in Wrath of a Mad God, after a wholly typical comment about “wolf-riders [who] suck life from bodies,” one character comments, “I guess that means the sneaky quiet part is over.” And a few lines later, a different character, held back from attempting to follow Pug’s wife, Miranda, remarks, “I don’t worry about her. But when a man who can command dragons tells me to wait, I’m inclined to wait.”
The plainspokenness and humor are welcome, but Feist tends to take them too far, to the point of undercutting some of the otherworldly effect of his writing. In a late chapter with the notable title of “Truth,” for example, Pug finds himself talking with a god; but the god uses an old earthly story to make a point – a story that really has no place in an entirely different world: “Do you remember…the parable of the scorpion and the frog?” “The scorpion kills the frog who is helping it cross the river and when asked why answers, ‘because it is my nature.’ Yes, I remember it.” So do readers (there are variants, but all involve one animal doing a favor for another, dangerous one and being killed because the dangerous one’s nature is to kill). This does help readers connect their world with Feist’s, and in fact the author has the god make the point very clearly: “Understand, I am the scorpion, and I can no more change my nature than you can become a frog.” But the sense of wonder, of journey to a different world in a different universe, is undercut by use of this entirely mundane tale from Earth.
Feist does this sort of thing repeatedly. In the same chapter, Pug addresses the god as Ban-ath, and the god replies, “Or if you prefer Kalkin, Antrhen, Isodur, or any number of other names humanity inflicts on me – Coyote is one of my favorites – but no matter the name, I am myself.” For any reader who does not already understand that this is a trickster god whose nature is to scheme and insinuate, the use of the name Coyote makes that clear; but, again, it is an intrusion of everyday Earth into what is supposed to be a far-distant and far different world. Ultimately, the frustration of reading many modern heroic fantasies, even ones as well written as those of Feist, lies in some combination of the formulaic nature of their plots and the intrusive nature of their attempts to help readers relate to the outré by bringing in earthbound references that really do not belong to the story.