Thursday, 29 November 2018

Tantras by Scott Ciencin

(Forgotten Realms #9, The Avatar Trilogy #2)
(First published 1989)

Elminster of Shadowdale is missing, presumed dead. The magic-user Midnight and her cleric companion Adon stand accused of his murder. Both are to stand trial before the lords of Shadowdale. Meanwhile, the god of tyranny, Bane, and the god of death, Myrkul, plot to recover the Tables of Fate, the artifacts they stole in an attempt to gain some of the overgod Ao's power. Their actions resulted in Ao stripping the gods of the Forgotten Realms of their power and exiling them to the mortal plane.


The second book in The Avatar Trilogy by Scott Lowder writing under the collaborative pen name Richard Awlinson (James Lowder penned the third) is a slight improvement on Shadowdale is many respects. Though Midnight is the hero of the story, it is her erstwhile friend Cyric who steals the limelight as he quickly undergoes an alignment shift from something-neutral to hardcore chaotic evil. Cyric lies, cheats, murders and betrays his way through friend and enemy alike. Though his rapid transformation isn't entirely believable, the book does a good job of presenting his motivations to the reader. Interestingly, the traditional bastion of good and justice that is Shadowdale is painted in a less than flattering light in the first part of the story. Even paragons of virtue like Storm Silverhand are baying for the blood of our (innocent) protagonists, painting Cyric as more of an anti-hero than a villain, at least early on.

Bane and Myrkul reprise their roles as the primary villains, assisted by the largely incompetent Zhentarim. In truth, not a great deal happens for much of the book. A lot of time is spent following our heroes as they flee first the Shadowdale militia and then a trio of assassins sent by Bane to retrieve Midnight. The mercenary warrior Kelemvor's curse is central to his character arc and culminates nicely in a visceral scene with Bane - whose habitation of the priest Fzoul Chembryl's mortal form has thankfully imbued him with some restraint following his lamentable showing in Shadowdale.

As mentioned, this is Cyric's book. It is sometimes hard not to cheer for this ambitious young survivor from Zhentil Keep as he triumphs using skill and cunning in the face of overpowered wizards and godly avatars. Cyric's frustration with Adon, the priest of Sune who was rendered near catatonic after suffering a facial injury, is eminently understandable. Midnight remains the worst of the protagonists, swept along by the story's requirements and serving mainly to establish the motivations of the male characters.

Though the story suffers from dull stretches and the writing is only a small step up from Shadowdale - that is to say, merely perfunctory rather than raw - the final act in the city of Tantras steps things up, presenting a dystopian vision of Lawful Good intolerance taken to extremes. The battle between the avatars of Torm and Bane, though silly, remains one of the more memorable scenes in the great canon of Realms literature. Though, one thing I've always wondered about: if Bane's ritual to achieve his giant avatar form involved killing all of the assassins in the Realms (conveniently removing the class from 2nd edition D&D), how and why did Artemis Entreri survive? 

In summary, Tantras is middling book in a generally poor trilogy that remains essential reading for fans of the setting. Rather like the curate's egg, there is good to be found if you look hard enough.

** 1/2 out of *****

Thursday, 15 November 2018

An update - and some unfortunate news

Many of you may be wondering when you’re getting a new Luke Scull book.

The fact of the matter is that my publisher has taken the decision to terminate my contract for books 4 & 5. This was decided a few weeks ago after a meeting between my editor and my agent.

At this point, I should stress that Nicolas Cheetham and the good people at Head of Zeus have been nothing but brilliant with me – the decision was taken because my editor felt that writing without pressure or obligation is the best way for me to rediscover my motivation, and frankly he is probably correct. I wish Head of Zeus all the best and look forward to working with them again when I have a finished manuscript to present. The three standalone books I had planned for the Grim Company world will get written at some point... but it is unlikely I'll release a book in 2019.

You can read more about the personal issues that led to my current difficulties here:  https://www.facebook.com/luke.scull/posts/10160982207070526

The Great Realms Read-through is still ongoing: I should have the review for the next book, Tantras, posted very soon.

I also have exciting news on the game development front – all will hopefully be revealed next month!

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Shadowdale by Scott Ciencin

(Forgotten Realms #8, The Avatar Trilogy #1)
(First published 1989)

The Forgotten Realms are in a state of monumental upheaval. Cast out from the heavens by the Overgod Ao as punishment for the theft of the Tablets of Fate, the deities of Faerûn walk the earth. Thrust into the centre of this chaos are four heroes, one of whom carries a pendant containing the essence of the fallen goddess of magic. They must survive the machinations of the evil god Bane and seek the aid of the famed sage Elminster of Shadowdale before the Realms are lost to darkness and chaos for good.


Shadowdale is the first book in The Avatar Trilogy, which deals with the reshaping of the Faerûnian pantheon of gods while handily transitioning the setting from 1st edition to 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. All three books were written under the pseudonym Richard Awlinson ("Richard All-in-one"): in fact, Shadowdale and its sequel Tantras were penned by Scott Ciencin, while the third book, Waterdeep, was written by Troy Denning. Scott sadly passed away in August 2014 of a blood clot to the brain.

Written while he was in his mid-20s, Shadowdale was Scott's first published novel and in many ways, it shows. The first part of the book in particular demonstrates the author learning his craft on the job - the writing is often unclear and hard to read, with sentences occasionally not making much sense. The main characters - Midnight the magic-user, Kelemvor the fighter, Cyric the thief, and Adon the cleric - are frequently referred to simply by their professions, which quickly becomes grating. It's perhaps unfortunate that a young and inexperienced author was chosen to pen a novel detailing such an influential Realm-shaking event: the way the gods and their schemes are written is anything but convincing, and their juvenile antics clash with their more measured (and believable) characterizations in later novels and game accessories. The motives of the gods Bane and Myrkul in stealing the Tablets of Fate, for example, are poorly explained and more in keeping with naughty schoolchildren than the most powerful evil gods in the Realms.

Unfortunately, the way the human protagonists are introduced and brought together is as clumsy as the handling of the gods. There's something about a threat to the city of Arabel, but it isn't well explained. Before we know it, the heroes are unconvincingly thrown together and set out on a quest to rescue the mistress of a young woman, who becomes mysteriously ill in the presence of Midnight and her newfound pendant. It's all quite contrived. Fortunately, the story does take shape later on. The final third of the book, a drawn-out invasion of Shadowdale by Zhent forces, is markedly better-written than the rest. I think it's safe to assume the novel was written under some pressing time constraints and that there wasn't, perhaps, much time to go back and edit the rougher early material.

Though I've been quite hard on the quality of the novel's writing - and it is, in truth, below the level most modern fantasy imprints would consider of publishable quality - there's no questioning the great imagination of the author. I first read Shadowdale around 20 years ago, and certain scenes stuck with me from then right until the moment I re-read them days ago with a boyish grin on my face. Mystra's ill-fated confrontation with Helm on the Celestial Stairway, Elminster's battle with Bane in the Temple of Lathander - they have an enduring, mythic quality that ultimately transcends the novel's technical issues.

Of the main characters, the only one really worth mentioning (in this book) is Kelemvor, whose unusual curse forces him to demand payment for every good deed or risk becoming a bloodthirsty monster. Cyric is reasonable as the troubled thief struggling with a dark past, while Adon is something of a buffoon, a cleric of the goddess of love with delusions of grandeur. Midnight is the weakest of the leads - a magic-user who is sort-of-good when it's convenient and who predictably falls for Kelemvor's muscles before much time has passed. I'll discuss this in more detail during my Tantras review, but regardless of the batshit-crazy loon he later becomes, mortal Cyric kind of has a point when it comes to his companions' failings.

Two other thoughts occurred to me while reading Shadowdale. One, I hope whichever editor decided to allow "Spanish moss" into the text got a good telling off. Two: the Zhentarim wizard Tempus Blackthorne seems as though he was originally supposed to be Manshoon before someone got cold feet about killing off such a high-profile villain. I mean, "Tempus Blackthorne?" It might have been wise not to give a major villain the same name as a major god in a novel about the gods walking the earth....

Shadowdale is the work of a fledgling author writing under (one assumes) less-than-ideal conditions. It's a brave attempt at satisfying the requirements of a host of designers, authors and fans as the setting transitioned between game editions, though one replete with editorial and technical issues. Though not a well-written book, it is entertaining and a must-read for Realms aficionados - if only because of its importance to the setting lore.

** 1/2 out of *****

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Darkwell by Douglas Niles

(Forgotten Realms #7, The Moonshae Trilogy #3)
(First published 1989)

Tristan Kendrick, the recently crowned High King of the Ffolk, must face his greatest challenge yet. The God of Murder himself, Bhaal, is threatening to cross into the mortal realm by means of a corrupted Moonwell. If he succeeds, the Moonshae Isles are surely doomed. As the last remaining druid of the Isles, Robyn must work with Tristan in countering this terrible threat, despite her own hurt at the betrayal he has dealt her.


The final volume in The Moonshae Trilogy is by and large a solid conclusion to the series. There's a lot of narrative to get through here, and Niles does an admirable job of guiding to the story along at a brisk pace without it feeling rushed. Even more so than in the previous two novels, this is a book heavy in D&D lore, very much written with the underpinning mechanics guiding the action. Witness the following, pleasingly meta, nod to the obvious:

'Grimly Hobarth shook off these doubts. He had cast his die, and he would live-or perhaps perish-with the roll.'

Indeed. 

Cleverly - and perhaps - bravely - the otherwise predictable plot is given a good shake up early on, with our hero Tristan betraying the love of his virginal future bride-to-be with a minion of Bhaal's, who is disguised as a sultry redhead. Initially there is a suggestion of foul magic at play - but in a somewhat surprising turn, it is revealed he was simply drunk and gave in to temptation. The "will they, won't they" dynamic between Tristan and Robyn adds some spice to what is an otherwise straightforward story of good versus evil.

Another pleasing aspect of Darkwell lies in the author's willingness to be ruthless when necessary. Aside from Tristan's infidelity, the evil characters don't hesitate to rape, murder and pillage. The gross, corpulent High Priest of Bhaal, Hobarth, wastes no time in taking full advantage of the former High Druid of the Moonshae Isles - in every imaginable way. The brutal death of one of the primary antagonists, following a cat-and-mouse chase with a displacer beast, is surprisingly effective. After the unfocused Black Wizards, this is a welcome return to the kind of storytelling that made Darkwalker on Moonshae such a success.

There are problems. Some of the story beats are rather similar to those earlier in the series. In one instance - the birthing of Bhaal's Children - this works in the book's favour. In others, it merely feels like we're treading old ground, except this time we're getting an abbreviated version due to the book's relatively short running time. One or two plot points feel contrived: a vital alliance occurs due to a fortuitous meeting on the open sea. The final battle is frankly not particularly believable. Once again, Canthus the moorhound is in fine form, surviving all manner of brutal encounters and saving the day like the Moonshaes' very own Lassie. Not content with taking down a werewolf in the first book, Darkwell ups the ante for this mightiest of mortal dogs.

Though a slightly uneven book, Darkwell succeeds in recapturing the magic of the opening novel in the trilogy. While the characters won't leave much of an impression, several inspired scenes ultimately ensure its position among the pantheon of more memorable Forgotten Realms novels.


*** ½ out of *****

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Dead Man's Steel - July Kindle promotion



Exciting news for anyone yet to get hold of a copy of the third book in The Grim Company trilogy - Dead Man's Steel is available throughout July for £0.99 as part of a Kindle promotion. This offer is open to readers outside of the US & Canada.

For my North American readers, fret not - I'll be holding a special giveaway for you all soon!