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!

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 *****