A young and abused peasant woman, Kamala, has the gift of witchery, but refuses to slowly kill herself through magic use. She seeks out a reclusive magister to avert the inevitable fate of witches, early death. One common thread in the word of magisters is that they grow bored through centuries of life, so Kamala is apprenticed, and eventually the impossible does happen and she becomes something new – a female magister.
This sets up the events of the rest of the book, which serve as an introduction for the trilogy to come. A prince of the most powerful kingdom has become the ‘magical food’ for an unknown magister, a secret the royal magister must keep at all costs. Events move forward from here, as the larger story takes shape. Feast of Souls is a complete, if introductory, story. But the greater struggle is to come, a struggle I look forward to reading about.
Friedman creates a vivid, unnamed world while not spending a great deal of time or effort at worldbuilding. Instead, she concentrates on characters, fully showing their motivations while maintaining proper mystery for some and slowly revealing the history and workings of the world. Feast of Souls largely serves as an introduction to characters that will presumably have key roles in the remaining books of the trilogy. The growth of Kamala with her tortured and abused past and the mystery surrounding Magister Colivar leave me anxiously anticipating book two.
Aside from the magic system, the defining aspect of the Feast of Souls is the gender relations of the world. Friedman has built a fairly standard, medieval fantasy society, and along with it, the fairly standard gender relation. Women are second class, barely human. Young girls are bought and sold as sexual objects, routinely abused, and can only hope to gain anything in life through men. Rather than keep this at a subtle level, rather than sweeping it under the rug or pretending it doesn’t exist like the majority of fantasy books, Friedman throws it into the face of the reader, never letting you forget this horrible aspect of the world. At times, there is an uncomfortable, even man-hating feel about it all, which is entirely appropriate – it works for this world. There are a few redeeming men here and there, but they are the exception to the rule. For those concerned about this aspect of the story, I say don’t be – this is a fundamental part of the world, its characters, and their motivations, and the most intriguing feature of the book.
Friedman’s Feast of Souls (Book One of the Magister Trilogy) begins what is so far an excellent new fantasy trilogy, distinguished from others with its life-stealing magic system and sharp gender relations. This was my first exposure to the writing of Friedman and it won’t be my last. Highly recommended – 8/10.