With more than two dozen novels published over the course of almost 30 years, Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga is one of the longest-running series in fantasy—probably the single longest-running prose series by the same author using the same characters. With that much baggage, maintaining narrative momentum and continuity is difficult, though Feist’s development of his world of Midkemia and introduction of new characters and settings indicated that he’d be able to get around the worst aspects of serialization. That’s largely been cast aside, unfortunately, as his novels continue to rely on “the magician Pug saves the world from a slightly different ultimate evil this time” as a crutch.
Feist’s skills are in political intrigue and exploration of interesting cultures—which he and co-author Janny Wurts handle superbly in their Empire series—but he seems content to deal with magic and mythology instead. The latest Riftwar book, A Kingdom Besieged, is full of dreary exposition describing a stream of mad mages and powerful demons from recent books. But the strongest parts of the book are the human characters and ambitions of kingdoms and empires. Given how wildly successful George R.R. Martin has been with political-intrigue-based action, and based on Feist’s previous successes with human-based conflict, his stubborn reliance on driving tension via incarnations of evil is a disappointment.
Even worse, the world-building which was such a strength of his Riftwar books a decade ago has largely been replaced with fan-service. New characters with different backgrounds can shed light on a setting, maintaining interest and momentum in long-running series, like Erik and Roo did in Feist’s Serpentwar books. Such is not the case in A Kingdom Besieged, as every major character seems to either be a hero from a previous book, a descendant of one of those heroes, or most frustratingly, a surprise reincarnation of a dead character. Constant reminders of the original characters litter the dialogue, with far too many lines that read as “You’re as good of a swordsman as your great-great-uncle, Prince Arutha, hero of the books Silverthorn and A Darkness At Sethanon!” During those times, A Kingdom Besieged reads like a Star Wars expanded universe book, where the kids run off to have adventures similar to their parents’, primarily so fans can see the names they love in action again.
And yet in spite of the over-reliance on familiarity, the painful early exposition, and the we-really-mean-it-this-time ultimate evil, A Kingdom Besieged isn’t terrible. Feist’s prose rarely rises above workmanlike, but it and the novel’s structure make the pages turn easily enough. The press materials for A Kingdom Besieged suggest that it kicks off the final trilogy in The Riftwar Cycle. If so, that’s probably a wise creative move, as A Kingdom Besieged suggests that, 30 years after its creation, Midkemia has worn out its welcome.