2007’s Feast of Souls is the first volume in C. S. Friedman’s Magister Trilogy.
The reality of magic is this: magic consumes life force. To practice magic means shortening one’s lifespan. Consequently, prudent witches use their magic judiciously, knowing that each spell brings them closer to a premature death. Magisters have what they feel is a better solution: they draw magic from their so-called consorts. Magisters can cast as much magic as they like, confident that while someone is going to die, it won’t be them. Even better, the link between magister and consort is world-spanning and apparently random, so magisters hardly ever know their living batteries.
Conscious that non-magisters would likely be displeased if they knew how magister magic is fueled, magisters keep the magister-consort phenomenon secret. Instead, they explain away consort deaths as a mysterious wasting disease.
Andovan’s terminal case of wasting is a problem. Andovan’s father King Danton has the determination, wealth, and power to ask questions about wasting that magisters very much want not to be asked.
The simplest solution is to kill Danton. But Danton has a court magister and the magisters have strict rules about not killing each other’s clients. Danton cannot be killed. Similarly, killing Andovan is out, because his death would mildly inconvenience some unknown magister. An ingenious magister squares the circle by convincing Andovan to seek out the shadowy figure that Andovan sees in his dreams. Because his father would never let sickly Andovan leave the court, Andovan fakes his own death.
The figure Andovan sees is, of course, the magister who is draining his life force. Andovan’s sorcerous parasite is unique: Andovan is being slowly killed by Kamala, the only woman magister on the planet. Heretofore, women who tried to become magisters died in the process. Kamala’s horrifically abusive childhood provided her with the hard-nosed viewpoint needed to survive forming a bond with a consort.
One might expect being unique would make Kamala valued within the magister community. Magister Raven sees Kamala an affront. His attempt to bully her leads to Raven’s death. Unfortunately, another strictly obeyed magister rule is that magister Shall Not Kill magister. Having killed Raven, Kamala must go into hiding to avoid being executed for her crime of self-defence.
Complications will quickly snowball: not only is Andovan’s quest to find Kamala surprisingly successful, but his grieving father is dealing with loss badly. He has gone mad. If that were not enough, an existential threat not seen in a thousand years has reappeared. While the means to deal with it exists, a thousand years is long enough to forget some pesky details.
Until I read this book, I never wondered what Hamlet (the play) might have been like if, during the final scene, a dragon had attacked the castle. Perhaps Shakespeare missed an opportunity.
It’s probably best not to think too deeply about the implications behind the fact that only one woman in the thousand years of Magistry has ever been sufficiently callous to survive the trauma of forming the magical bond. Whereas many men have succeeded. Does this have anything to do with the fact that the men in this society seem to be entirely OK with the dismal status of women? That the male role requires accepting domination and oppression? Look, the Winged Victory of Samothrace!
This book was about 450 pages long in the DAW hardcover. It feels longer. Few pages are wasted. Enough happens that many events will go unmentioned here for lack of space. Indeed, when I read it for the SFBC fifteen years ago I later misremembered the plot as having been spread out over two volumes.
The novel does a nice job of convincing the reader that Kamala is a sympathetic character despite the whole “life-draining soul-vampire” bit she does. It would have been easy to make the case that every magister is a menace to public health. Which, to be fair, they are.
The novel also manages a trick that was sadly uncommon when it came out . The tome is the first volume in a trilogy, which means it has to do all the heavy lifting of establishing the settings and getting the grand plot started. Despite this, this volume could be read and enjoyed on its own.
1: That the author actually delivered the entire trilogy on time is not actually a rare occurrence. It’s just that the exceptions have received a lot of attention.