I have read appallingly little of late. Somehow, I just slipped out of a very long habit and ended up spending what normally has been reading time on other things. When I finally got around to picking up a book that has been on my to-read list for a long while, I ended up devouring it in a day of rather frantic reading, which showed me just how poorly I had fed my addiction of late. And, of course, it also showed that the book in question was so good that I couldn’t put it down. This was not a surprise, however, since C.S Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy ranks very high on my list of favourite books, and I am glad that my high hopes for her first new book in a very long while were fulfilled.
Feast of Souls is the first novel in The Magister Trilogy, set in a world where the price of magic is a high one indeed. To use magic, one must tap into the soulfire, the athra, which each person possesses in a limited amount. Once your soulfire is used up, you die. Every little use of magic eats into your lifespan, taking away anything from just a few seconds to several days. At least, that is, if you are a witch. The Magisters, however, have found a way of not only living a normal lifespan while practising magic but of making themselves virtually immortal. In the Second Age of Kings, they are the black-clad power behind almost every throne in the world.
But while there are both male and female witches, there are no female Magisters. That is, until Kamala, once a prostitute, determines that she will learn how to use her inborn ability to work magic without using up her soulfire. As a child, she saw a witch die in order to heal her brother from a plague, and she’s determined that she will not end up the same way. Her desire to live outweighs the complications of her sex, allowing her to join the rank of the Magisters, but she does so at a time of growing darkness. An ancient enemy, the souleaters, may be returning. If so, the Second Age of Kings may go the way of the First Age and the world may once again be plunged into a Dark Age.
In the Coldfire trilogy Friedman created one of the more fascinating antagonist I’ve ever encountered in Gerald Tarrant, whose questionable choices could nevertheless be understood as attempts at dealing with a very difficult situation. In this new book, Friedman is once again playing with shades of grey rather than with absolute black and white, and several of the characters that are pivotal in the first book and look like they will be pivotal in the rest of the series are of distinctly dubious moral character. Still, one can understand their choices, at least on some level, even if one cannot fully sympathize with them.
Overall, it looks as if several themes that were explored in the Coldfire books may also be explored in this new trilogy. One can draw many parallels between Tarrant and the Magisters, and one that can be mentioned without revealing too much is the way Friedman portrays a virtually immortal being. Another similarity that is suggested by the end of the first book is that we will probably see uneasy alliances in order to face an even greater threat, highlighting the fact that “good” and “evil” are far from as clear-cut as we might wish.
There are perhaps no characters in the book that are as immediately captivating as Gerald Tarrant, but there are several interesting and well-realized characters. The setting is also well-realized, with many of the questions that might arise (such as why the Magisters do not rule the world themselves) answered in the course of the story. The explanation for why there have been no female Magisters prior to Kamala may annoy some as it can be seen as stereotyping women, though personally I did not have an issue with it. It appears to be a setting where the gender roles are quite strongly differentiated and deeply ingrained, and that would have an effect on how most women think and feel.
Plotwise, the book is solidly put together and the pacing is good. The main “twists” are revealed fairly early on (though I’ve still tried to steer clear of spoiling them), but there are certainly some unexpected turns of events later on (as well as some expected ones that you may find yourself hoping won’t come to pass). If you liked the Coldfire trilogy, chances are good that you will like Feast of Souls. If you’ve never tried Friedman, grab a copy of Feast of Souls, and if you like it you can read the Coldfire books while you wait for the next one in the new series.