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:

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.'


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 *****

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Black Wizards by Douglas Niles

(Forgotten Realms #3, The Moonshae Trilogy #2)
(First published 1988)

A year has passed since the young prince Tristan inspired the Ffolk of the Moonshae Isles to victory over the forces of the evil entity Kazgoroth. Angered by the defeat of its powerful minion, the god of murder, Bhaal, plots a new scheme to bring death and destruction to the land of the Ffolk. An alliance is formed between Bhaal's sinister high priest, Hobarth, and a council of manipulative wizards controlling the High King of the Moonshaes. Meanwhile, Tristan struggles to comes to terms with the responsibilities that accompany being a prince while Robyn seeks to master her druid powers under the tutelage of Genna Moonsinger.

The sequel to Darkwalker on Moonshae (and third in the vast line of Forgotten Realms novels that continued unbroken until 2017) is a less focused book than its predecessor. Having gone their separate ways at the end of the first book, Tristan and Robyn must each deal with threats that serve Bhaal's plans for the kingdom in a subtler manner than the rampaging Kazgoroth. Having gone from low-level nobody to high-level fighter in the blink of an eye (though stumbling across a +4 long sword in the form of the Sword of Cymrych Hugh does help...), Tristan seems to have foregone whatever character development occurred previously and is back to his old, drinking ways. Robyn is saddled with the irritating faerie dragon Newt for the book's opening half - his unamusing Jar Jar-esque japes somewhat undermined my enjoyment of her sections.

The story takes a while to come together and truth be told some of the developments seem forced. A crazed and quite clearly dangerous old vagrant is head-scratchingly adopted by Robyn, placing her grove in obvious peril, for little reason. An entire sequence involving a submerged castle reappearing in just the right spot of sea to offer succor to our stranded heroes isn't hugely believable. Somehow Canthus, a huge dog weighing the same as a fully grown adult male, is able to survive all manner of tricky situations requiring stealth and cunning. Huge praise must surely be given to Daryth, Tristan's Calishite friend and houndmaster - not only does he fight like Drizzt and pick locks and disable traps like a master thief, he can apparently train dogs like a master druid.

As with Darkwalker on Moonshae, Douglas Niles really shines when describing the eldritch beauty of the Moonshae Isles - but particularly when writing large-scale battle scenes. There are several worth mentioning, including the desperate defense of a druid grove against an army of undead, and a huge set-piece showdown between various forces of human, dwarves, ogres and sahuagin - loathsome fish-men that no doubt helped inspire World of Warcraft's murlocs, as well as countless other imitators. It's a shame both are resolved by literal deus ex machina.

One area where this novel does succeed is in expanding the Forgotten Realms setting. The introduction of Bhaal and Chauntea, as well as characters from various mainland nations, serves to stitch together the vast tapestry of the Realms in a satisfying manner. There's more of an obvious D&D influence this time around. Though being able to identify the spells and abilities used by the characters isn't exactly a hallmark of great fantasy literature, it's certainly fun for those familiar with the game. The wizard spell charm is used to great effect, demonstrating that it is perhaps the most overpowered spell in D&D. Particularly in a backwater, low-magic setting like the Moonshae Isles, a level one wizard packing a single charm spell can bend an entire kingdom to their will. Who needs wish?

Black Wizards is a fair sequel to Darkwalker on Moonshae, sacrificing real character development and strong direction for exciting action scenes and expanded worldbuilding. It's a notable step down in quality from the first two Realms novels, but is still worth reading.

*** out of *****

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Crystal Shard by R. A. Salvatore

(Forgotten Realms #2, The Icewind Dale Trilogy #1)
(First published 1988)

The bumbling wizard apprentice Akar Kessel is transformed into a tyrant when he discovers a millennia-old artefact of incredible power. Crenshinibon – the Crystal Shard – is a sentient relic that grants huge power to its wielder even as it bends them to its will. The frozen tundra soon shakes beneath the feet of the goblinoid army raised by Akar Kessel as he prepares to conquer the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale. Only a small band of heroes stands in his way: The strange drow, Drizzt Do’Urden, who has rejected the evil ways of his kind; the exiled dwarven king, Bruenor Battlehammer; and Bruenor’s indentured ward, Wulfgar, a mighty barbarian whom Bruenor spared in years past. 

R. A. Salvatore’s debut novel, The Crystal Shard was originally intended to be set in the Moonshae Isles, before Salvatore discovered that the Forgotten Realms were in fact much larger than he had assumed. He then shifted the story a thousand miles north to Icewind Dale. Informed by his then-editor that they could not use one of his characters, Salvatore came up with the character Drizzt Do’Urden on the spot. These two decisions, seemingly arrived at by happenstance, would help establish Salvatore as a multiple New York Times bestselling author with over 20 million books sold. He is, by far, the top-selling Forgotten Realms author and has likely done more to establish the popularity of the setting than anyone besides Ed Greenwood.

It’s easy to be sniffy about The Crystal Shard. Some of the writing is clunky, as you might expect from a debut novel. The characters are largely archetypal and some of the plot developments are, upon a moment’s consideration, a little far-fetched even for a high fantasy novel. It’s what Salvatore does with these characters, the slight subversion he brings to the usual stereotypes, that fills them – and hence the story – with energy and pizzazz. This is helped in no small part by the excellent combat descriptions and Salvatore’s deep yet respectful borrowing of D&D lore. As with the first Realms novel, Darkwalker on Moonshae, the setting itself is also a star here. There’s a deep sense of hardship and loneliness on the frozen tundra of Icewind Dale. The isolated people of Ten Towns, the unforgiving nature of their fishing-based economies in the inhospitable cold - these create an air of desperation that wonderfully complements the story.

Drizzt is, of course, Salvatore’s (and the Realms’) most iconic creation – yet in The Crystal Shard he is a side character, something of an enigma whose true depths are only hinted at. Bruenor Battlehammer, the surly dwarf, is an unlikely friend and yet it’s because he is so unlikely we know that these characters have more going on than meets the eye. Bruenor’s interactions with Wulfgar are amusing but also, remarkably, occasionally touching. Torn between his loyalty to his barbarian people and the dwarf who taught him how to be a better man, Wulfgar’s coming-of-age arc is ultimately the heart of the novel. Yet there is so much else - from Drizzt’s mysterious past to the banishment of Bruenor’s clan to the hints of romance between Bruenor’s adoptive daughter Cattie-Brie and Wulfgar - that infuses the story with intrigue. Even the late mention of Artemis Entreri, who would himself become one of fantasy’s most infamous assassins, seizes the reader’s attention with an iron grip.

On the subject of Cattie-Brie, it’s unfortunate to note that she literally is the only female character in the entire novel – and her role in this one is fleeting at best. This is perhaps the most male-dominated fantasy novel I’ve ever read, or at least that I can remember reading. Of course, the author makes amends (and then some) with the fantastic Dark Elf Trilogy, still his crowning achievement. Just don’t come into this book looking for any kind of female representation. One thing I’d like to touch on is the graphic level of violence in The Crystal Shard. The body count runs to the thousands, with women and children ruthlessly cut down by goblinkin and monsters getting disemboweled, decapitated and gleefully slaughtered with a wild abandon that surprised even me, an author of “grimdark” fantasy! In one scene, Wulfgar literally crushes another man’s skull in his bare hands. I think it’s the contrast between the unshakeable belief of the heroes, and their ruthless use of violence, that is so disquieting. Unlike in most grimdark novels where everyone seems to accept or at least suspect they’re an utter bastard, Drizzt and co cleave, dice, and otherwise murder their enemies with utter conviction in their own righteousness. These are monsters - ergo, they deserve to die.

And ye gods, there are a lot of monsters in The Crystal Shard. D&D fans, particularly Dungeon Masters, will cackle with glee at the iconic nasties that show up only to be summarily dispatched by our heroes. Taking a leaf out of Darkwalker on Moonshae and its firbolg giants, R. A. Salvatore’s verbeeg are nine feet of cretinous stupidity who can seemingly kill themselves simply by getting out of bed awkwardly. Look beyond the verbeeg, though, and you have demons, dragons, hell hounds, and more goblinkin than you can shake a stick at.

All in all, The Crystal Shard is a novel in which everything somehow comes together, despite some occasional clumsiness. It packs an incredible amount of worldbuilding, action and - yes - even character development into its relatively short running time. More than this, it does an admirable job of setting the stage for the dozens of novels that would come after, many by the same author. It is, therefore, a resounding success by any measure. Essential reading for any Forgotten Realms fan - and recommended to anyone who likes bloody, action-driven fantasy.

**** out of *****

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Darkwalker on Moonshae by Douglas Niles

(Forgotten Realms #1, The Moonshae Trilogy, #1)
(First published 1987)

In the kingdom of Moonshae, a terrible struggle is about to ensue. The evil beast Kazgoroth has awakened. Drawing power from a corrupted Moonwell – a source of power sacred to the Goddess – it roams the land, amassing its followers and spreading darkness throughout the isles. Prince Tristan must rally his people against the threat of this ancient evil even as the Goddess sends her own children to combat the threat.

The first Forgotten Realms novel ever published, Darkwalker on Moonshae draws on Celtic-inspired mythology. Located a hundred miles off the western coast of the Forgotten Realms, the Moonshae isles have scant little to do with the mainland Forgotten Realms setting. Apparently the novel was originally written for a different setting and the refitted to the Realms, and it shows. The people of Moonshae exclusively worship the Mother (later revealed as an aspect of the goddess Chauntea), who has for centuries been venerated by the local druids. The clerics of the “new gods,” as the Realms pantheon are known, are a recent curiosity. There’s a definite feeling of the old ways slowly giving way to the new. This sense of the unknown encroaching upon a very familiar Celtic setting acts as an effective portal for new readers into this vast world.

The story is standard fare, as are the characters. Tristan is notable only for his remarkably quick transition from feckless disappointment to his father, to inspirational leader and expert fighter. This occurs in the space of few dozen pages and seems mainly down to him finding a magical sword. Of slightly more interest is Robyn, Tristan’s young ward of mysterious parentage who quickly discovers she possesses druidic powers. Tristan spends much of the book fretting over how Robyn feels for him. New friends (and potential love rivals) include Daryth, a thief hailing from the Arabian Nights-inspired setting of Calimshan, and the famous bard Keren. Filling out the party are a halfling named Pawldo and, perhaps my favourite character, a moorhound named Canthus, who truly is a Good Boy.

The writing is by, and large, fine. There are some clunky passages and dialogue, at least early on, but Niles writes combat well and paints a vivid picture of a beautiful land beset by evil. In places it’s surprisingly violent for a Forgotten Realms novel, with whole villages being put to the sword and rape alluded to, if not described. There are also some old-fashioned word choices - Daryth is introduced as “swarthy" - that are probably par for the course for an 80s fantasy novel.

There’s little in the way of female representation - Robyn is the only female character of any real note - but the sexism is mostly confined to Tristan’s attitude towards Robyn. His worship of her maidenhood jars a little with his own background of drinking and carefree wenching. Still, rather than dwell on this kind of thing – which would make this Great Realms Read-through very tedious indeed! – let’s just acknowledge it exists. It’s not as though Robyn is introduced with a silk shawl straining against her breasts…. (Ahem.)

My favourite parts of the book were those describing the children of the Goddess and their bloody encounters with the wicked servants of Kazgoroth. It’s not often we get to read about a thousand-feet long leviathan doing battle with a gigantic fleet of northmen, or a unicorn goring the hilariously inept Firbolg. By the way, the Firbolg as described in Darkwalker on Moonshae are more like verbeeg or ogres than the magically powerful giant-kin described in the second edition Monstrous Manual. So dumb and hapless are they that Kazgoroth eventually decides to eviscerate its own giant minions, probably to save itself the pain of having to deal with them again. The highlight of the novel for me was a tense showdown between the moorhound Canthus and a werewolf for leadership of the Pack – a vast gathering of wolves that have been subverted by Kazgoroth.

Though not terribly well written or greatly original, Darkwalker on Moonshae is a very successful entry point to the Forgotten Realms courtesy of its vivid worldbuilding and the sheer sense of mythology that permeates the novel. It captures the imagination and is easily recommended both to younger readers looking for a stepping stone into fantasy fiction and older readers keen to revisit a high fantasy setting where good and evil are very definite concepts.

The sequel to Darkwalker on Moonshae, Black Wizards, was released in 1988 and is the third book on this epic journey across the Realms. First, though, Icewind Dale awaits….

*** ½ out of *****

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Great Realms Read-through!

As some of you may know, back in the early 2000s I created a series of popular modules for the PC roleplaying game Neverwinter Nights. A critical and commercial success, Neverwinter Nights empowered a legion of D&D fans to create their own digital adventures. For the younger me, it was an opportunity to create stories set in the fabled Forgotten Realms setting, which had first gripped me as a young teen. Though occasionally derided for its chaotic, grab-bag worldbuilding, that same one-size-fits-all approach infused the Realms with an incredible diversity of locales and characters that have fueled around 400 novels and short story collections, dozens of roleplaying books and accessories, and more than a score of video games. It would be fair to say that some of the history of the Forgotten Realms helped inspire my Grim Company novels – particularly the fall of Netheril and the folly of mages who would dare challenge the gods. Those interested in a detailed summary of the Realms are advised to check out this excellent article by the inimitable Adam Whitehead.

For me, what started as an exercise in game design and fanfic using the NWN toolset ultimately set me on my path to professional game development and international publication. Though my first module, Siege of Shadowdale, was short and unsophisticated, the second, Crimson Tides of Tethyr, garnered the attention of Bioware. Tyrants of the Moonsea was a contracted Premium Module that got cancelled when Atari (a truly abysmal publisher) ended their support of the game. I began a fourth module intending to finish off the story… but by then real-life had interfered and I joined Ossian Studios as lead designer and writer on the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion Mysteries of Westgate. More screw-ups by Atari meant MoW never achieved the success it might have – but I did get to write story proposals for a fourth NWN2 expansion, as well as Baldur’s Gate 3 and Icewind Dale 3 pitches that ultimately never went anywhere.

Fast-forward to the present day. Once I’ve finished my current unannounced gaming project, I intend to overhaul and then complete the series of modules I began way back in 2002. The recently released Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition should hopefully provide the platform to make that dream a reality. In the meantime – driven partly by research but mostly just nostalgia – I’m going to attempt a foolhardy, some might say impossible undertaking. I’m going to attempt to review every Forgotten Realms fiction book ever released, in the order they were first published. That is, as mentioned, around 400 novels and short story collections spanning over 30 years.

Crazy? Perhaps! It’s been a hard couple of years for me personally. Stepping back into the Realms feels almost like catharsis after all the real-life and fictional grimdark. I expect this project to take years and occasionally drive me to the point of insanity. But, if nothing else, it will get me reading and updating this blog on a regular basis. It’s my hope that the Great Realms Read-through will prove both informative and entertaining, shedding light on forgotten classics while providing critical commentary from the perspective of a novelist and game designer who has worked with the setting.

Stay tuned for the beginning of this odyssey. The first very stage of our grand tour will take us off the west coast of the Forgotten Realms for Douglas Niles’ 1987 novel, Darkwalker on Moonshae.