I've heard many things about Raymond E. Feist from other SF fans, but since I began reading him a few books ago, I've always at the least enjoyed his books, even when they were lackluster. They've always had their faults, but the entertainment value was sufficient to make them worth reading. Which is why Into a Dark Realm, the second book of Feist's "Darkwar Saga", surprised me. One thing Feist has never been, up to now, is boring, but he has finally hit that low-water mark with this one. The book is relatively short, yet I still had trouble finishing it; every time I picked it up and started reading it, my eyelids started to droop.
The sinister Leso Varen's attempts at using necromancy to take over the kingdom of Kesh have been stopped, and it is just a matter of mopping up the Nighthawk assassins guild. However, the threat of the Dasati, a race of beings from another plane of existence, is still around, and Varen has disappeared. Pug, powerful magician and head of the Conclave of Shadows, decides to visit the Dasati realm and find out more information before the Dasati invasion commences. He and a select few members of the Conclave (as well as a violent young man who doesn't seem to fit in Midkemia, the main world of these books) will undertake the journey, not knowing what awaits them and whether or not they'll survive. Meanwhile, Varen is discovered hiding among the magicians' council on the plane of Kelewan, but where could he be? And will they discover him before he is able to begin yet another plan of conquest and terror?
It is often said that the second part of a series is hard to enjoy, caught as it is between the beginning book, where the situation and characters are introduced, and the climax, where everything comes to a head. While this can be true, I've enjoyed many second books enough to know that at least some enjoyment can be derived from seeing how the plot develops over time. The second book must be more than repositioning chess pieces, however, or the life will be sucked out of it. Sadly, Feist showcases a perfect example of that here. Into a Dark Realm is nothing but setup, and tedious setup at that. Huge swatches of the book are taken up by Pug and his entourage learning how to survive on the Dasati plane, all the while learning more about their history and why they may be wanting to invade.
Even more of the book is occupied by the adopted sons of Caleb (one of Pug's sons), Zane and Tad, as well as their good friend, Jommy, learning things, first at a school, later as lieutenants in the army. The characters try valiantly to be interesting enough to hold these passages together, but they're not. It's only the fact that I've been with these characters a while that made it bearable at all. Feist's prose is mundane and the dialogue is stilted, making it even harder to read. Occasionally we happen across passages of Pug's wife, Miranda (the only female character of any consequence in the book), discussing things with a couple of the Kelewan mages as she tries to track Varen down.
Feist introduces a few new characters, mostly Dasati who have a secret of their own, but none of them succeed in engaging much interest. One of them is a female as well, but her role is fairly cliched thus not of much consequence. She plays the powerful mother to one the other characters, the power behind the throne, so to speak, but in this case not for evil. Since the rest of the characters are fairly stereotypical as well, at least it's not a gender thing. The Dasati themselves are the ultimate example of Darwin's theories, with a truly evil society where only the fittest survive. Children are hidden away with their mothers as the men try to kill as many as possible during organized hunts in the wild. While some of the details are different, ultimately this isn't anything new, either.
That's the major problem with Into a Dark Realm. We've seen it all before. Feist has often been accused of reading as if he's novelizing one of his Dungeons & Dragons games, but nowhere is it as prominent as it is here. The situations are predictable, and even the dialogue is one-note. When Zane, Tad, and Jommy first go to the school and have an altercation with some other students, it's obvious what's going to happen among them all. When they get into the army, you know that something will happen to make them heroes. It gets tedious after a while.
This could all be saved if the characters were interesting, but that's not the case. Nobody's truly out of character, so I can't say that the characterization is actually bad. But they don't carry any of the action, even in the final scenes of the book where something actually happens to setup the third book. They just seem to be going through the motions, as bored as the reader and trying to make their way to the end without nodding off. Bits of humor are thrown in but none of it truly funny, some of it centering on the discomfort Pug and his group feel around the Dasati sexual practices. That's always good for a chuckle.
Ultimately, Into a Dark Realm has nothing going for it. If I weren't already invested in this series, I would not read the final book of this series. As it is, unless the finale is a masterpiece, I think this book has soured me on reading any more Feist after this series is complete. I've somewhat enjoyed my time on Midkemia, but I think it may be time to get off soon.