Fantastic Reviews - Fantasy Book Review
King of Foxes cover King of Foxes by Raymond E. Feist

Conclave of Shadows, book two

Eos hardcover - copyright 2004
381 pages
cover art by Paul Robinson

Book reviewed April 2004
Rating: 7/10  (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          Ever hear praise for an author along the lines of, "He's such a good writer, I would read anything he wrote, even his grocery lists"?  Raymond Feist is not such a remarkable prose stylist that you will want to read his grocery lists.  He is instead an excellent storyteller, and so would never waste his reader's time with a grocery list.

Feist puts his storytelling skills to good use in King of Foxes, the second volume in his new series, Conclave of Shadows.  The series takes place in Midkemia, the medieval fantasy setting of most of Feist's work, including the Riftwar and Serpentwar series.  Many of the characters from those books make appearances here, but most of the action centers on a new character, Talon of the Silver Hawk, Tal for short.

Even though the Conclave of Shadows series is set in the universe of many previous Feist novels, it stands alone well, and readers new to Feist should have no fear of starting here.  (There are some inside jokes for Feist regulars, though, such as a passage where Tal reads a certain book about Rupert Avery, a name readily familiar to Feist fans, which Tal dismisses as "badly written.")  I do, however, recommend beginning with the first book of the new series, Talon of the Silver Hawk, before proceeding to King of Foxes.  The good news is that King of Foxes ends with a satisfying resolution, not a cliffhanger, so you can safely read Talon of the Silver Hawk and King of Foxes before deciding whether to continue on to the three further volumes projected in the Conclave of Shadows sequence.

In Talon of the Silver Hawk, our hero Tal is just coming of age in a mountain village of simple folk called the Orosini, when their land is ruthlessly attacked by raiders and Tal's people are annihilated.  Tal is badly wounded but survives, and is nursed back to health by members of the Conclave of Shadows, a mysterious group that educates and trains him to help their cause, which they will not disclose.  Tal agrees to join their group, primarily in hopes that it will give him the opportunity to avenge the Orosini, of whom he fears he is the last survivor.  The Conclave gives Tal a new identity as Talwin Hawkins, an extremely talented member of an obscure branch of a noble family.

King of Foxes follows Tal's search for vengeance against the ambitious Duke Kaspar, the "king of foxes" of the title, ruler of the Duchy of Olasko.  Under Kaspar's leadership, Olasko has come to dominate the Eastern Kingdoms of Midkemia, and Kaspar plans to expand his realm much further through both conquest and subterfuge.  Tal has learned that Duke Kaspar ordered the slaughter of Tal's people the Orisini to advance his plans.  Happily enough, the Conclave of Shadows also has a dim view of Kaspar, and so is pleased to send Tal off to do in the duke.  This will also give Tal the chance to observe Kaspar's advisor, a wizard named Leso Varen, whom the Conclave dreads for unstated reasons.

As luck would have it, Duke Kaspar was so impressed by Tal's performance at a prestigious fencing tournament as to offer him a job.  So all Tal has to do is take the job, then win Kaspar's confidence while seeking out the means of his ultimate undoing.

But there's a catch: To work for Kaspar, Tal will have to take an oath of loyalty to him, and the Orosini never violate an oath.  Tal's solution to this dilemma is to take the oath, knowing that Kaspar is such a weasel he will eventually betray Tal, releasing Tal from his oath and giving him the chance to effect his plan for revenge.  (Apparently the Orosini code of ethics absolutely forbids breaking an oath, but swearing an oath for duplicitous reasons is hunky-dory.)

Once employed by Kaspar, however, Tal is assigned various duties that he finds extremely distasteful, particularly the assassination of rulers who stand in Kaspar's way, including the princess of a neighboring land.  Tal begins to fear that he will lose his soul before Kaspar gets around to betraying him.

Talon of the Silver Hawk and King of Foxes both make for highly entertaining reading, as Tal battles ruffians and pirates, escapes a faraway dungeon, storms a castle, and the like.  The books' plot is not so intricate as other best-selling fantasy series, yet Feist effectively manages to draw you in to the story and keep you turning pages.

There is less emphasis in these books on magic and imaginary creatures than earlier Feist novels.  Tal has no magical abilities and while he is a great swordsman, he often relies on more mundane skills, for example using his talents as a chef to escape from one seemingly hopeless situation.

The de-emphasis of the magic in the Midkemia universe gives these books a realistic sensibility akin to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  Although Feist is not the gifted writer that Martin is, the realistic approach works well for him.  The story has the feel less of a fantasy novel than of an old-style swashbuckling adventure by Alexandre Dumas or Robert Louis Stevenson, writers Feist has said he admires.

I enjoyed Talon of the Silver Hawk, but for me King of Foxes is an even stronger novel for two reasons.  First, I found Talon of the Silver Hawk too focused on Tal's thirst for revenge.  King of Foxes shows us a bigger picture, both for Tal and for Midkemia.  Second, King of Foxes adds depth to Tal's character (and, to a lesser extent, to some of his friends and companions) that was absent in Talon of the Silver Hawk.  Talwin Hawkins is a flamboyant, womanizing young man, and Tal's struggle not to lose himself in this assumed identity is quite interesting.  Tal begins to find qualities to admire about Kaspar, and we wonder if this is because Kaspar isn't all bad or if Tal's judgment is being tainted by the time he spends in the Talwin Hawkins role.

Tal's discomfort with the tasks Kaspar assigns him is also interesting, although Feist could have made this an even sharper moral dilemma.  Tal doesn't like having to kill for the duke, but Tal's victims - a group of pirates and competing rulers nearly as Machiavellian as Kaspar - are not all that sympathetic.  If Kaspar had ordered Tal to kill someone truly innocent, then Tal's refusal to violate his oath would have been put to a severe test.  Perhaps Feist avoided this circumstance because Tal would have had no choice but to keep his oath, and Feist thought that Tal might then become less sympathetic.  Tal is such an engaging protagonist, however, that I think Feist needn't have worried.

Conclave of Shadows book three -> Exile's Return

What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
vanaaron@excite.com
Copyright 2004 Aaron Hughes

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