A young prince must pose as a pirate as part of a daring rescue mission in The King's Buccaneer, a novel from Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Cycle.
This time, now that I had own copy and more control of my time, I was able to read it all the way through - something I would do so many more times over the years, as it's one of my all-time favorite novels. It even went with me around the world when I participated in the Semester at Sea program, reading it repeatedly during rare quieter moments. (I've had to replace that copy since, due to wearing it out from re-reading it that many times.) I've gotten to the point where I can open up the book at random and start reading without needing to go back for context.
Born Raymond E. Gonzales III in Southern California in 1945, Feist grew up an avid fan of classic adventure fiction, including some favorites of mine - Sir Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda and Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood. (Both of those books have also inspired my own writing, just as The King's Buccaneer did.) While attending college at the University of California in San Diego, Feist became a fan of fantasy fiction via computer and tabletop role-playing games. His friends, the Thursday Nighters, either came up with either their own Dungeons & Dragons campaign or a new table-top role-playing game altogether - I've heard both, depending on what source I'm using, and I'm not sure which is accurate. Either way, the setting for this game was the world of Midkemia, where Feist would later set the majority of his famed Riftwar Cycle.
The story continued across nearly thirty books published over just as many years, comprised of numerous smaller sagas that told their own self-contained story, while also setting up the pieces for later and greater conflicts. Some of the novels have also been adapted into comic book format, and there have even been two PC games (Betrayal at Krondor and Return to Krondor, which Feist himself later adapted into the novels Krondor: the Betrayal and Krondor: Tear of the Gods). As for where The King's Buccaneer fits into all this, it's one of the novels in the sub-saga Krondor's Sons, telling of the adventures of Prince Arutha's sons as they come of age, each in their own way.
Prince Nicholas, the youngest son of Prince Arutha, is nearly an adult, and his father is worried about whether he's ready for the responsibilities that come with his rank. Not only is Nicholas quiet, shy, and reserved by nature - unlike his hellraising older brothers Borric and Erland - but he's been treated with kid gloves on account of the deformed foot he was born with. His friend and squire, Harry of Ludland, has a tendency to get Nicholas into trouble, but the young prince's sense of caution and indecision still troubles Arutha. Amos Trask, now admiral of Krondor's fleet, suggests sending Nicholas to his half-brother Martin, now duke of Crydee, to season him a bit. Nicholas becomes Martin's squire, while Harry squires for Martin's taciturn son Marcus. Nicholas soon settles into his new routine, while developing a rivalry with his cousin Marcus over the affections of Abigail, lovely companion to Marcus's sister Margaret.
However, one night, a pirate horde attacks and destroys Crydee, ruthlessly slaughtering thousands and abducting Abigail and Margaret, along with numerous other villagers. The now-reclusive sorcerer Pug is contacted for aid, but after thwarting a magical attack, he reveals that the prisoners are hostages to ensure he - and the royal fleet - don't attempt to pursue the raiders. In order to safely hunt down the masterminds behind the raid, Trask devises a cunning plan - the rescue party will pose as pirates. Their mission will lead them to infiltrate a pirate haven, endure a monstrous storm at sea, cross a distant continent, and venture into the clutches of an ancient enemy with a plan more insidious than any of them could have possibly imagined. And Nicholas will be forced to make some hard choices to protect those he loves.
Interestingly, while Feist plays some of the standard genre tropes straight, he also messes around with some. The most noticeable one is that very few of the book's romances start and end where you think they will, and the first person a character is attracted to isn't necessarily the one they'll end up with. (I've seen this in Feist's other Riftwar books.) While I appreciated not needing to have read the previous books in the Cycle to follow The King's Buccaneer, it did make me want to, on account of how invested I became in the characters and the world I'd been introduced to. I've still got a long ways to go before I finish the entire Cycle, but reading the whole thing is certainly on my bucket list, and I've re-read (or plan to re-read) all of the ones I've made my way through so far.
The supporting cast is pretty big, and some don't even show up until the third act, but their presence is justified, and I can't think of anyone who feels superfluous. They're all given at least some characterization and distinctive personalities, enough to make them engaging. Amos Trask in particular lights up any scene he's in, and has some of the best banter and one-liners. Harry easily could have been an annoying sidekick character, and while he starts off as something of a one-note character, he's a steady voice of reason for Nicholas, and one of the few people he can open up to. Marcus and the half-elf Calis are among the less likable characters due to their more stoic natures, and Calis is very much a Mary Sue on par with Orlando Bloom's depiction of Legolas (to be fair, The King's Buccaneer came first), but there's still some decent substance to them. And then there's the enigmatic Nakor, who rivals Trask in ability to steal any scene he's in, and who has more substance to him than one might think. There aren't as many female characters as male, and Abigail is the one character who started to get on my nerves after a while, although that seems to be deliberate on Feist's part. Still, Margaret's consistent defiance is a welcome counter-point, and the feisty street-thief Brisa has some great moments.
As for the writing, The King's Buccaneer is solid overall, and I especially like Feist's dialogue. The plot has a lot of moving parts to it, but everything fits together, with little in the way of hanging threads, and as I said earlier, Feist manages to balance everyone's screen-time despite the size of the cast. Pacing-wise, the first two thirds of the book are solid, keeping the story moving at a steady pace, without rushing things or neglecting to establish character. The final third, however, is a bit more of a rocky read than what came before, introducing a bunch of new characters and throwing a lot of exposition at us, but it picks up again toward the end (although I had to re-read certain scenes a few times to follow everything). While none of the action scenes are particularly long, there's a good amount of them spread out through the book, the highlight being Nicholas's saber duel with Captain Render. The only thing it truly lacks is a strong, interesting villain. Captain Render, the leader of the pirates that attack Crydee, is a rather generic villain, even if he has a memorable character design, and he gets whacked about halfway through the book. As for the masterminds behind this plot, they mostly stay in the shadows, and their point person barely shows up. Although to be fair, there are so many characters to develop and explore among the protagonists that trying to work that same magic with an antagonist might have bogged things down too much.
Whether you're into high fantasy or not, The King's Buccaneer is definitely worth your time, and like I said before, you can read it and appreciate it on its own - although if you want to read the Riftwar Saga first, by all means, do so. It's perhaps an unconventional choice for a Talk Like a Pirate Day review, but that's part of why I write this blog - to put the spotlight on various works I've discovered and enjoyed over the years so that other people can have the chance to do the same. Besides, I owe a great deal to this book, both for the immense pleasure I get out of reading it and for its role in inspiring my own writing (I'm holding off on how for a later INCspotlight post). So I hope you'll give The King's Buccaneer a read and, if you like it, recommend it to others.