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 *****