Revenge-fantasy books are almost a dime-a-dozen (and almost as clichéd as the phrase "dime-a-dozen"). I don't know how many books have the main protagonist be the last survivor of his people, out for revenge against the bad guys who murdered them, but I do know that there are many. So when I heard that Raymond E. Fiest's Talon of the Silver Hawk was that kind of book, it already had one strike against it. Style can make up for a lot of things, however, and thankfully Feist's style brings this up a few notches. Not enough to make it an outstanding book, but enough to make it thoroughly enjoyable. It is part one of a series (Conclave of Shadows), however, so be warned. It is set in the Krondor universe, though it evidently takes place many years after the Riftwar, for those of you who are already fans of Feist.
Kieli is about to become a man by going through the vision quest that his people, the Orosini, use to mark the onset of adulthood. After they have their vision, boys come back to the village, having received their adult name in their vision, and find out who their parents have chosen to be their bride. However, Kieli doesn't have time for all this. Right after his vision, he sees smoke from his distant village, runs there, and arrives just in time to almost be killed along with the rest of his people. In fact, he's left for dead. Found by a kindly yet secretive old man who's much more then he appears to be, the newly christened Talon of the Silver Hawk goes through years of vigorous training to fulfill his duties to his rescuer. He becomes a member of a super-secret organization, a secret weapon in a fight against evil. He creates a new identity to ingratiate himself in high society in order to keep close to the evil-doers. In his service to this organization, he will take his first steps on the road to vengeance for his family and his people. But will he lose his own identity in the meantime?
It's a good thing that Feist can write an interesting yarn, because there is nothing in this book that's very original. As I said, we've seen the "last member of a people out for revenge" story before. We've also seen the "secret organization on the side of good but can do some shady things" before. The setting is almost Dungeons and Dragons with the serial numbers filed off. In fact, this organization almost reminded me of the Harpers in the Forgotten Realms series of books. Thus, the book bears a heavy burden on its rise up the hill of quality.
Thankfully, Feist makes the book a lot of fun and Talon is actually quite the interesting person. There is a culture clash between his own people and the society that he ends up trying to infiltrate. He has to learn a lot of things, including the art of seduction. His people don't believe in sex before marriage, but the character he becomes has to become a lady's man. His first two "conquests" actually conquer him, and they couldn't be any more different. One's blond and beautiful, and the other is brunette and kind of mousy. He eventually doesn't avoid promiscuity, but he still has to be taught a harsh lesson in love and loss before he can be fully ready for his role.
The characters aren't really anything special (with the exception of Talon, of course). They fulfill their roles admirably. The duke is subtly evil rather than twirling his moustache, but then he's only the ultimate goal of the series, not for this book. The main villain for the book, Raven, doesn't get much characterization at all. It doesn't really detract from the book, however, since it makes it almost a force that Talon is fighting against.
There are both good and bad things in the structure of the book. The good thing to mention is an interesting stylistic choice. Every chapter starts with a one-sentence paragraph, along the lines of "Talon waited." Most of them are two words, though occasionally there are more, like "Talon sipped his wine." I don't know why this style intrigued me so much, but I really got a kick out of it. The main problem I had with the book, however, is that Talon almost seems too perfect. He rarely makes a mistake, and when he does he's able to rectify it pretty quickly. This isn't so much the case when he's being trained, but it certainly is afterward. He's a great hunter, bowman, swordsman, he has ladies falling all over him (once he's in society). It just doesn't appear to be a lot of work for him.
As I said, the only time this doesn't happen is his training, which actually does take up a large portion of the book. I started out thinking that it was too drawn out and much more could have been glossed over in favor of an interesting story afterward, but the more I read, the more I was intrigued. There are almost sub-stories in the whole thing, the most interesting being his doomed dalliance with a fellow student. After it was over, I was glad it all had been included. We learn bits and pieces about the Conclave of Shadows as Talon does, and it makes it more interesting.
Ultimately, I just have to say that this is a fun book. That's the only reason that I'm giving it four stars, as going strictly by quality, I'd have to say it's between three and four. I'm glad I read it, and I'm eagerly devouring book two now.