Thursday 8 December 2011

Chapter One: Magician by Raymond E. Feist

The latest genre in my series of first chapter dissections is Fantasy. As with the other books I’ve analysed (here), I will attempt to work out how a debut novelist managed to create an opening to his story that successfully pulls readers in.

Raymond E. Feist’s Magician (1982) was hugely successful, and is still considered one of the great fantasy books today. Coming up with a swords and sorcery epic at a time when fantasy of that kind had pretty much been done to death shows there’s always room for more stories, in any genre. It's such a good book that it encourages you to read the many sequels and follow-ups, all of which are terrible.

The storm had broken.

Not only is this a fairly dull opening line, it also references the weather (often considered a cliché). And I don’t think it matters. The idea that you have to hook the reader immediately isn’t really borne out in the books I’ve read, in any genre. I’ve never read the first line of anything and though “Fail!” I don’t believe anyone reads that impatiently (apart from agents).

So the book starts with our hero, young Pug, a kitchen boy at the Duke’s castle, on the beach collecting crabs. There’s some description of what kind of terrain he’s in, a couple of paragraphs. World-building is a major part of fantasy books, but the couple of paragraphs here are fairly normal, un-fantastic stuff.

Pug decides to take a nap, a little indication that he’s a bit of a scallywag. When he wakes he finds the storm that had broken is back with a vengeance, coming in fast over the ocean. He rushes back to the castle, but the tide comes in faster than expected and he twists his ankle and gets drenched.

So far the writing is pacy but nothing spectacular. All the same it reads well, and you are engaged with his struggle (even though it doesn’t seem life threatening) and his concerns about getting told off when he gets back.

The next section though is a very adroit piece of writing that I think would help writers of any genre.

As he hobbles back to the castle, the storm gets worse, and then a wild boar crashes out of the forest and charges him. A woodsman saves him and takes him to the home of the Duke’s magician who lives in a cabin in the woods. But what Feist does here is skilfully weave a number of elements together.

The magician has recently acquired a scrying ball (a crystal ball that allows you to see distant things). When trying it out he saw Pug in trouble. He sent his man to fetch the boy. It was this man who startled a boar sheltering from the storm and it was him who killed the pig when it attacked the boy. He then took the dead boar back with them and they eat it while the magician shows the boy the scrying ball and tells him what I just told you. Pug looks into the ball and is able to see the cook back in the castle, the one he was collecting the crabs for. This tips off the magician to Pug’s natural affinity for magic.

Now, it would have been quite easy to have a story where a random boar attacked Pug, and a passing woodsman saved him, but by linking everything together it is a far more satisfying and meaningful read. Everyone is playing a part and cause and effect lead you neatly from one thing to another.

It is often this aspect of creating a story that newer writers fail to materialise in their writing. Describing a castle or a tree or an army is all well and good, but establishing their role in the story world of the narrative makes them much more interesting and important to the reader.

Yes, this is what happened, but why did it happen? This is what most aspiring writers shy away from, the impudence of taking control of events like a god. But make no mistake, that is the job.

Magician starts off in pretty familiar manner. An orphan boy destined to save the world etc, but it is a remarkably engaging book and a real page turner. I would say the first few pages were nothing special. But by the end of this first chapter it is clear this is the start of a good story. Even though each individual element isn’t all that amazing, the weaving of them is very well done, and makes for a great read.

Check out the other posts in this series in the Chapter One Analyses page. I do detailed breakdowns of opening chapter for various genres (YA, MG, Crime, Sci-fi etc.) using popular debut novels (Hunger Games, Harry potter, Fight Club et al).

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Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I loved Magician back in the day. I was going to return to the world at some point (the last book I read was a Darkness at Sethanon some twenty years ago), and I am dismayed that you say that they all are terrible. Really? How do they keep getting published? Oy... I'm discovering this with Terry Brooks as well. The Shannara books have jumped the shark and need to be put down. They just aren't fun anymore. David Eddings had it right. He wrote ten books in the Belgariad and Malorian...he told his story...and never went back. The tale was done. Too bad he's dead /sniff.

For the record, those were his best books. His others just seemed like he was trying to reuse the same story for money. Maybe we all have one or two good stories in us. I dunno...Stephen King sure seems to have quite a few.

mooderino said...

@Michael - it's amazing what you can get away with once you have an audience and you've engendered enough goodwill from a great first book. The next couple aren't too bad, although nowhere near the class of the first, but after that the drop off on quality is astonishing.

I think its called The Dune Effect.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I enjoyed Magician but it's not one of my favourites. I found it a bit slow. And really, Pug? What kind of name is that for the protagonist! I enjoyed the Empire series Raymond E Feist co-authored with Janny Wurts much more.

Have you ever noticed that Raymond E Feist opens every chapter with a 2-5 word sentence then opens a new paragraph? At least he does in his later books, and he has in Chapter 1 of the Magician. It's been a while since I read it though.

I still enjoy the Shannara books. I like the direction Brooks has taken the story by linking the Knight and the Void series.

David Eddings, alas, also took a turn for the worse with the Redemption of Athalus. Everything after that was a regurgiattion of his early books with new names. You could literally, in some cases, point to characters and designate a character name from earlier series.

dolorah said...

Terrible! Oh boo-hoo; I read them all, several times, and enjoyed them over and over . I adored all the characters in both Rift War Saga’s; but I can agree that the Empire series was possibly more intriguing in pure storyline. The characters and world building is what truly captivated me. The same with the worlds of Terry Brooks.

I too enjoyed how he tied the Shannara history into the Void series. Granted, the Shannara series did start getting a bit stale. Do you remember Magic Kingdom! For Sale? That series gave me such a love for Paladins.

And David Eddings did write a couple other novels after The Mallorean that continues - or should I say explains - Belgarath’s and Polgara’s beginnings. Good books, but. He has another set of books - four in the series - that explores earth elementals. I only read two before I lost track of the series; not as good as first series, but the immortals are interesting . .

And of course I’ve gotten off track from the original post - sorry Moody. It’s just, so few people read the older fantasies . .

I liked your assessment of how the first chapter isn’t spectactular by today’s action-focused readers, but it does draw the reader in with subtle character building and a desire to read a little further to see what happens next.

Thanks for reviewing an old favorite of mine.


mooderino said...

@Ciara-I think most fantasy writers who create a world that proves to be popular get stuck in that world, or a variation of that world. It's undertsandable, not easy to come up with such a fully developed creation, but they do seem to run out of things to say about it.

mooderino said...

@Donna-I think it's a special book, and possibly the sequels suffer by comparison. They're fine if you want to spend more time in that world, but the stories are much more predictable.

I would have liked to have analysed a more recent fantasy book, but i couldn't really find one that suited my purposes. Mind you I haven't really been an avid reader of fantasy for some time so maybe I'm just not aware of what's out there.

Arlee Bird said...

Never read this and probably won't since it's not about theatrical stage magicians--now that I might read. Sounds like a lot of stuff going on from the start to engage the reader.

Personally, I like an opening that sets the scene with weather conditions.

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mooderino said...

@Lee - I agree. Here in England we love talking about the weather.

Stina said...

The book I'm querying starts with a reference to the weather, but that hasn't stopped agents from requesting it. But the weather is juxtaposed against something that's about to happen. :D

Great analysis. (Well, I'm assuming it is since I've never read the book).

mooderino said...

@stina-i think it makes a differnece if the thing you mention is relevant to the story. If it isn't it probably shouldn't be in there, doesn't really matter what it is.


Unknown said...

If I could make a suggestion, I would offer Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb. It's also fantasy and largely popular. Robin continues to write in that universe in over a dozen other novels. I've always found them to be an excellent example to study.

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