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.'


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!

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Streams of Silver by R.A. Salvatore

(Forgotten Realms #6, The Icewind Dale Trilogy #2)
(First published 1989)

Bruenor the dwarf and his companions Wulfgar the barbarian, Regis the halfling and Drizzt the renegade dark elf set forth from Icewind Dale on the most ambitious of quests: to rediscover the lost dwarven stronghold of Mithral Hall, birthplace of Bruenor and his clan. The road will be long and full of peril, for the Savage Frontier is a harsh place - and hot on their trail is the assassin Artemis Entreri, one of the most infamous killers in the Realms.

The sequel to 1988's The Crystal Shard is a fast-faced, action-packed entry into the Forgotten Realms canon that swaps the politicking and warfare of Icewind Dale for a classic quest story. The Companions of the Hall make for an unlikely but effective group as they hack, slash and occasionally talk their way through the many dangers of the North. The relationships between the characters continue to develop, while this time around we get an insight into the mind of the hunter as well as the hunted, with Artemis Entreri's chapters representing some of the most engrossing in the novel.

At least for me, the writing didn't quite flow as smoothly as in The Crystal Shard, though this could be attributed to the cumulative edits and tweaks that have been made to the first book over the years. While it's fun to visit numerous locales such as the City of Sails, Luskan, and Longsaddle, home of the eccentric Harpell wizard clan, the travelogue-like nature of much of the story's first two acts naturally prohibits the sense of isolation and desperation that made the previous book so memorable. 

As mentioned, the introduction of a highly competent nemesis for the Companions - more specifically, Drizzt - provides an overarching air of impending threat, and the anticipation this builds for the eventual showdown is what really drives the story until the third act. An ill-advised jaunt through the Evermoors is perhaps a tad too long and clumsily plotted to really work, while Drizzt's constant optimism and subsequent disappointment when faced with the surface world's prejudice towards his kind does an excellent job of building his character and complementing the seesawing elation and despair of the third act and its gut-punch ending - which fakes the death of one character only to (apparently!) kill off another.

The third act is the book's strongest by far, paying solid tribute to the Mines of Moria while introducing a deadly new foe in Shimmergloom, the great shadow dragon. The inevitable confrontation between Drizzt and Entreri is as memorizing in its psychology as in its swordplay. Once again, Salvatore describes combat in a highly personal, visceral way that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries. Bruenor's adopted daughter Cattie-Brie gets a little more page time, though she's largely passive. In fairness, this actually works in the story's favour - it helps build the legend of Entreri, a man so dangerous and terribly in-control that even the feisty daughter of a dwarven clan-leader struggles to find the courage to act against him. Elsewhere we get more female representation in the form of Sydney, an ambitious apprentice in the Host Tower of the Arcane, and a cameo from Alustriel Silverhand. Interestingly, Alustriel refers to her sister Dove being "much younger" - even though both are well into their seventh century of life. At this point, the power (and prestige) creep that eventually made the Chosen of Mystra so problematic hadn't yet taken root.

Streams of Silver is a fine sequel, laying the groundwork for a rivalry that would go on to become one of fantasy's finest, and fleshing out one of the more iconic regions of the Forgotten Realms. It's quite remarkable that R.A. Salvatore was able to put out a follow-up to The Crystal Shard (and indeed, a third and final part) so quickly while avoiding any missteps. You get the sense he loves this world and these characters, and ultimately this shines through on every page.

**** out of *****

Friday, 18 May 2018

Azure Bonds by Kate Novak and Jeff Grub

(Forgotten Realms #5, Finder's Stone #1)
(First published 1988) 

The adventuress Alias awakens one morning having lost her memory. The only clue as to what has befallen her is the glowing blue tattoo on her arm: a series of sigils that react violently to magic. Determined to unravel the mystery of the azure bonds, Alias joins forces with a mute lizard warrior, an exotic mage and a greedy halfling bard on an adventure that pits her against assassins, dragons, and worse.

The first Forgotten Realms novel by married writer duo Jeff Grubb and Kate Novak was certainly one of the more influential in the setting's early years. It would later be turned into both a pen and paper adventure and a CRPG, both named Curse of the Azure Bonds. Though not as iconic as Drizzt or Elminster, Alias found popularity as the first strong feminist (rather than simply female) protagonist to feature in a Realms novel. Remarkably, there is nothing embarrassing about the book's handling of gender at all. Less laudable is the use of "swarthy" to once again describe characters of darker skin, as well as a bizarre reference to "Jihad." Surely that's an anachronism?!

Certainly the strongest-written of five Realms novels (at the time of release), Azure Bonds weaves a tale of intrigue from the get-go. The amnesia plot propels the story forward - and thanks to the supporting cast, particularly the amoral halfling "bard" Olive Ruskettle, the novel attains new levels of character development for the setting, with character growth and change taking place in the course of the book. There's some genuinely amusing dialogue and witty banter between the party, who aside from the paladin lizardman, Dragonbait, are a more morally dubious bunch than the Knights of Myth Drannor or the Heroes of Icewind Dale. This fits nicely with the book's locales, which are primarily found on the Dragon Coast - a veritable nest of vultures and thieves, the most infamous city of which is Westgate (with which this humble reviewer is quite familiar).

New villains seem to pop up at every turn as Alias and her companions slowly get to the bottom of the mystery of the tattoo. The dark alliance between the various factions is somewhat improbable but provides a good excuse to introduce a handful of loathsome adversaries. In some ways there are perhaps too many villains, as few get enough attention to really stand out. Interestingly, the real "hero" of the story is arguably a great red dragon named Mist. Unusually for her kind, she maintains a code of honor which results in her assisting the heroes and eventually engaging in prolonged battle with a mad god that lasts dozens of pages.

Despite the wonderful set pieces, the descriptions of battle are where the book sometimes falters in comparison to earlier novels by Ed Greenwood or R. A. Salvatore. They lack the grandeur of the former or the high-octane drama of the latter. The ubiquitous magic missile is referenced several times: in fact, spells are often referred to according to their D&D name, which lacks a certain flair. The final battle is unfortunately a little overwhelming compared to the epic showdown between Mist and Moander earlier in the story, and this ultimately hurts the pacing.

Quibbles aside, Azure Bonds is a solid book. In fact, it strikes me as a very good candidate for a D&D movie adaptation (at least one set in the Forgotten Realms). The Crystal Shard is often mentioned as the obvious choice - yet there's a certain timeless accessibility to the mysterious amnesia storyline, as well as strong characters of both sexes to appeal to a modern crowd, without an excessive amount of out-of-gate weirdness and lore. Alias is certainly the Realms character with the most cinematic appeal to a more general audience - she's an attractive, strong female lead whose backstory nicely treads familiar sci-fi beats.

**** out of *****

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Spellfire by Ed Greenwood

(Forgotten Realms #4, Shandril's Saga #1)
(First published 1988)

Shandril Shessair is an orphan girl who works as a kitchen hand in The Rising Moon inn in Deepingdale. Restless and wanting to see something of the world, she joins up with a passing group of adventurers and soon discovers that she possesses the rare and devastating ability known as spellfire. This immediately makes her a target for any number of evil organizations keen to use her powers for their own nefarious ends. It is up to the likes of Elminster of Shadowdale and the Knights of Myth Drannor to ensure that no harm comes to Shandril. As her journey unfolds, she meets a young apprentice wizard named Narm and the two quickly fall in love.

The first novel written by Ed Greenwood, the esteemed creator of the Forgotten Realms setting, is a decidedly odd book. As far as entry points go, it's a surprisingly poor introduction to the famous setting, throwing characters, organizations and locations at the reader left, right and centre. That an extraordinarily rich, detailed world existed in the author's head is obvious to see: however, it feels like he was in a such a rush to introduce the reader to the vastness of his creation that fundamentals such as the pacing of the story rather went out of the window.

Ed Greenwood possesses an unusual writing style, embellishing his dialogue and even his prose with archaic affections that are occasionally whimsical but sometimes clunky and hard to follow. This makes the novel harder to get into than it really needs to be. I'll confess that upon reading it now, for the second time (my first was in the 90s!), there's a certain poetic quality to the book that I perhaps didn't appreciate the first time around. For every confusing passage of text, there's a beautiful line that lands clean.

Spellfire's story is very straightforward. Shandril is the Chosen One, a teenage girl who can wield destructive powers capable of shattering a dracolich. One gets the impression Mr. Greenwood wanted this book to be a love story and coming-of-age tale in addition to a miniature grand tour of the Forgotten Realms (or at least the Dalelands). Unfortunately, Shandril is extremely average and unremarkable in every way except for her spellfire. She's not particularly heroic nor compassionate. Her love interest, Narm, is equally dull. He is also responsible for one of the book's biggest flaws, which is his senseless decision to return to Myth Drannor after his master was brutally slain by devils for no good reason at all other than to have him meet Shandril again later.

In truth, a lot of the plotting doesn't make a great deal of sense. Shandril is a giant walking target for every bad guy in the Realms, yet she and Narm are constantly put into situations that place them and their protectors at huge risk. Everywhere Shandril goes, the bodies mount up. Elminster and others justify this as the moral approach by citing the freedom to allow Shandril to make her own choices and grow into her own person - but that's a cold comfort for the hundreds of dead she leaves in her wake wherever she goes. Also, she is rarely (if ever) left alone and unguarded, even when enjoying some private time with Narm, rendering that stated intent rather hollow. In one scene, no less than two mage allies eavesdrop on their lovemaking.

There is a surprising amount of (implied) sex in Spellfire. Greenwood's stated view of the Realms is one of sexual tolerance and freedom, so it makes sense. That said, the propdendarance of (much) older men with young girls raises eyebrows, as does Elminster's ability to make attractive females fall in love with him. Here we get the first hints of the problematic, invincible Mary Sue the Sage of Shadowdale would become in later novels. (I'd love to know how many DMs over the years have been asked the question, "But what is Elminster doing?" whenever there's a threat of any significance.)

To balance out the above criticism, let me say that taken in isolation, the Elminster presented in Spellfire is a highly likeable old greybeard who mitigates his vast power with a much-needed sense of restraint and humanism. In fact, outside of the two main characters in Shandril and Narm, the characters in this novel are an incredibly colourful collection of heroes and villains, hinting at endless stories that have happened and will happen. The effect this creates is to imbue a sense of mythic awe to proceedings - of a living, breathing, incredibly detailed world that begs to be explored.

There are some that will rage at this comparison, but Spellfire strikes me as the Forgotten Realms equivalent of Gardens of the Moon, the first book in the Malazan series by Steven Erikson. Both are intimidating and initially inaccessible; both make questionable story-telling decisions and throw everything plus the kitchen sink at the reader from the get-go. More importantly, however, both succeed in painting a compelling history and a world that begs to be persevered with despite these issues.

Spellfire is a sometimes confusing yet always entertaining novel that will reward those familiar with the setting - more so than newer readers. As the first novel written by the creator of, and set in the cradle of, the Forgotten Realms, it is essential reading for fans, with epic battle scenes and D&D lore aplenty. Just expect a bumpy ride along the way.

Note: this review is for the 2005 revision of the novel. The earlier edition was poorly edited, cutting out chunks of text Greenwood wanted to include, and thus is a substantially weaker novel. That said, editing issues remain in this edition, such as a dragon described as being "as long as seventy Rising Moons or more" - by my calculations, that's at least 2,000 feet!

*** out of *****