Feast of Souls by C.S. Friedman
C.S. Friedman has long been one of my favorite fantasy writers or, really, writers in general. Having written two trilogies and four stand-alone novels in the past two decades, she's not the most prolific writer in the fantasy world, but when she chooses to publish, her work is always brilliant. I was first introduced to her stories in high school by a friend who was in the middle of reading her Coldfire Trilogy. I've always been loathe to accept recommendations from friends who say, "You've gotta read this book!" but I'm glad I did. And now with her second series, the Magister Trilogy, I've just finished and thoroughly enjoyed Feast of Souls.
This first book takes place in a world that is practically medieval, with tales of small, squalid villages, deeply-forested trails, and grand, opulent capital cities and castles. Friedman takes great care to emphasize the disparity between the peasants--dirty, uneducated, and willing to sell themselves and their families to stay afloat--while the rich go about their lives oblivious to those "below" them. There are three main categories of persons in this book: the morati, regular mortal people, no matter their walk of life; the witches, natural magicians who must draw upon their own life-force to perform their work and who, consequently, are rather short-lived; and the magisters, mysterious sorcerers who act as political counselors and power brokers who do not die. The secret to magisters' immortality is known only to them.
Though this is an ensemble story, the main character is Kamala, a young, powerfully-willed peasant witch and prostitute, though in the world of this trilogy one might debate that witches automatically fall into the category of prostitute as they sell bits of their very lives to perform magics for coin. Kamala seeks out one of the greatest Magisters to teach her how to become a Magister herself. The only problem is that there have never been any female Magisters. Nonetheless, Kamala endures and becomes what she set out to be: the first of her kind.
Wrapped around her tale is the story of Prince Andovan, son of one of the world's most powerful kings. Andovan, a respectable prince and avid huntsman, finds that he is overcome by a wasting illness that saps his strength and will to live. When the king learns of his illness, he contracts with any Magister who is willing to come examine his son; each Magister who does so finds that he is unable to help. Andovan plots with a Magister allied against his kingdom to fake his death so that he may search out the source of his sickness without his royal background hindering his quest.
The fates of Andovan and Kamala are deeply intertwined, and, though the book's major revelation comes quite early, it is so important that I cannot divulge it in this blog. Suffice it to say that themes of both sacrifice and vampirism, though not of Dracula/Anne Rice/Buffy/Stephanie Meyer type, play heavily in this book, as well as in Ms. Friedman's previous Coldfire Trilogy. They are not themes to be taken lightly, as they reflect on us all and are not just a vehicle for sexy B-list actors to go bare-chested and glittery. How much are we willing to sacrifice for something that we truly believe in or something that we desire with all our hearts and souls? How much as we willing to take from others?
Feast of Souls also includes a healthy dose of feminism, as Kamala struggles through her newfound powers as the first female Magister. She wants more than anything to be acknowledged by her peers for who and what she is, but is cautious against doing so for fear of being outcast and scorned by what is essentially the oldest old-boys club in the world. There is much she does not know about what she is capable of, how the world of the wealthy and powerful works, and how she is supposed to make a place for herself within it. Implications of her former life as a prostitute are hinted at throughout the book as Kamala witnesses the actions other women and, yes, girls, who are as she once was. Her ultimate response to the injustices of her life and her reaction to other women in the same place makes for a very compelling read.
I lack Ms. Friedman's capacity for well-written endings, so suffice it to say if you enjoy heady, truly dark fantasy you will enjoy Feast of Souls.