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.