Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Pool of Radiance by James M. Ward & Jane Cooper Hong

(Forgotten Realms #11, Pools #1)
(First published 1989)

In the ruins of Phlan, an ancient evil is stirring. Three heroes - the wizard Shal Bal, the ranger/thief Ren, and the cleric of Tyr, Tarl - each find themselves on a personal quest of vengeance and self-discovery as they band together to restore order to the ancient city.



Written as a tie-in novel for the seminal SSI CRPG of the same name released in 1988, Pool of Radiance doesn't just wear its influences on its sleeve: it uses them to inform pretty much every scene in the book, resulting in a story that is not so much a novel as a blow-by-blow account of an entertaining D&D campaign. The three protagonists are paper-thin and wield skills, abilities and spells that are word-for-word borrowed from the source material.

The plot, such as it is, is incredibly simple. Working for the obviously corrupt councilman Cadorna, our heroes must overcome a succession of challenges - essentially levels - that bring them closer to discovering the obvious truth behind the goings-on in Phlan. The book does an admirable job of following the game's structure, with the predictable downside that it feels utterly artificial. 

Though deus ex machina in D&D is nothing new, in this book low-level characters being saved by divine providence, or at least magical items that achieve the same result, is a matter of course. Rarely has a young wizard apprentice had so much handed to them on a plate as Shal Bal, who, at the start of the novel, inherits a Staff of Power, a Ring of Wishes, a magical horse familiar, and a piece of fabric that acts as multiple Bags of Holding from her murdered master, Ranthor. Not bad going for a 3rd-5th level character! 

Why didn't Ranthor use the Ring of Wishes to save himself and kill his assassin, and therefore avoid the need for the whole resulting fiasco in the first place? This is never explained. Amusingly, it is explicitly stated that Shal could use the Ring of Wishes to bring her master back to life - except he doesn't want her to do that, for spurious reasons. Perhaps he comes back in a later novel as a lich and is revealed as a villain. I guess I'll find out when I get to it.

Either way, the fact that Shal can - and does, in the end - kill anything simply by wishing it dead does rather undermine our heroes' journey as they survive increasingly deadlier obstacles and enemies. As with everything else in the book, character relationships are trite, undeveloped, and scarcely believable. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Pool of Radiance is how Shal Bal inadvertently wishes herself from waif-sized to very large near the start of the book. It's entertaining to see her struggle with her new physical reality while nonetheless getting to pick from her two male traveling companions, who both vie for her attention. I'm not sure the body-positive feminism on display here really holds up in 2019 (she is constantly described as a curvaceous and all-woman in a decidedly male-gazey manner), but it was an interesting twist to what is otherwise a forgettable character.

Pool of Radiance is pretty much what you expect a computer game adaptation to be: flat, perfunctory, and, just like its primary protagonist,  forced to take a shape it is not entirely comfortable wearing. It is undoubtedly nonsense - but it is easy-to-read and entertaining nonsense that will doubtless scratch that nostalgia itch for those who remember the 1988 computer game (and among those of a certain age, that is a sizeable demographic).

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

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Waterdeep by Troy Denning

(Forgotten Realms #10, The Avatar Trilogy #3)
(First published 1989)

Following the calamitous events in Tantras, during which the gods Bane and Torm perished, the magic-user Midnight and her allies must bring the Tablet of Fate - one of a pair of ancient artifacts upon which the duties of the gods are recorded - to the city of Waterdeep, so that it can be returned to the overgod Ao. However, the god of death, Myrkul, and the god of murder, Bhaal, have other plans - as does Midnight's erstwhile ally Cyric, who covets the Tablets for his own selfish purposes.




The third and final book in the epic, and occasionally epically silly, Avatar Trilogy (later expanded to become a quintet) is somewhat different to the preceding novels. Written by Troy Denning instead of Scott Ciencin, the prose is a marked step up from both Shadowdale and Tantras. Unfortunately, though the writing is superior, the same cannot be said for the delivery of the story or its content.

The first hundred pages or so in particular are a slog. Unlikely events conspire to put artificial obstacles in the way of our heroes making it to Waterdeep. Denning has a habit of glossing over the most interesting developments in the story, only to then go back and explain them after the fact, resulting in the narrative lacking the sense of momentum and adventure that Ciencin's novels, despite their often amateurish writing, managed to convey.

Once again, Cyric is the book's standout character. His battle of wills with his sentient, bloodthirsty sword makes for one of the strongest scenes in the entire trilogy. Compared with the paper-thin characterizations of Midnight and comic-book bad guy Myrkul, Cyric's background and motivations make a lot of sense. Here is a young orphan raised on the streets of one of the evilest cities in the Forgotten Realms, given an opportunity to seize ultimate power and free himself from the machinations of the wizards and gods that are so ubiquitous in every corner of the setting. It's difficult not to root for him in the face of Midnight's constant stupidity and the blatant selfishness and callousness of the gods.

As mentioned, Myrkul - ostensibly the novel's main villain - is a rather hapless villain. It's unclear why the God of Death, whose sphere of influence includes the undead, would make a ragtag group of ambling zombies his tool of choice to thwart the heroes and recover the Tablets - I assume Larloch, Szass Tam, and various other liches, vampire lords, and eminently more intelligent and powerful minions were unavailable - nor is it clear why Midnight, Kelemvor and co actually fear said zombies so much. It is perhaps fitting that Myrkul's final act as a god is a crawl through the filthy sewers of Waterdeep before getting royally pummeled by the heroes.

Thankfully, Bhaal, the God of Murder, makes for a more terrifying threat. The book's standout scene involves Bhaal massacring his way through an entire citadel of defenders, Jason Vorhees-style, while our heroes try desperately to stop him. In the end, it takes a superhuman act of will from Cyric (of all people!) to vanquish the Lord of Murder once and for all.

For a novel named Waterdeep, the titular city makes a disappointingly brief appearance. That said, despite the turgid start and middle of the novel, it does finish strongly once the heroes make it to the City of Splendors. The denouement at the foot of the Celestial Stairway on Mount Waterdeep is as iconic as Mystra's death in the first book in the trilogy, as our heroes (and villains) each get what they deserve. Even Ao, the overgod, who, it turns out, also has to answer to someone - possibly the Abrahamic God, though in greater likelihood the DM.

All in all, Waterdeep is a mediocre conclusion to a trilogy that had its work cut out from the start, carrying as it did the burden of explaining the transition from 1st to 2nd edition D&D on its shoulders, as well as attempting to novelize a series of adventure modules. The somewhat jarring switch in style from the previous two books doesn't do Waterdeep many favours, and neither does the obligation to continue Midnight and Kelemvor's execrable romance and the poorly conceived schemes of the Dark Gods, or the absence of Bane's clowning villainy, which was at least amusing. Nonetheless, older fans of the Reams will still find much to remember fondly. For Realms historians, the trilogy represents a panoramic snap shot of fantasy's most detailed setting three decades ago, before the hundreds of novels and blockbuster video game adaptations that would follow.

*** out of *****

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. It was the theft of the tablets that 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 Ciencin writing under the collaborative pen name Richard Awlinson (Troy Denning 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 *****