Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The Halfling's Gem by R.A. Salvatore

(Forgotten Realms #12, The Icewind Dale Trilogy #3)
(First published 1990)

The ruthless assassin Artemis Entreri has kidnapped the halfling Regis and is taking him to Calimport to deliver him to his erstwhile master, Pasha Pook - kingpin of Calimshan's criminal underworld. Fortunately for Regis, his friends Drizzt the drow elf and Wulfgar the barbarian are hot on their heels. Meanwhile, another friend thought lost struggles to survive a perilous situation. It is a case of out of frying pan and into the fire for the Companions of the Hall as they make their way to sprawling Calimport, the largest city in the Realms deep in the heart of the desert nation of Calimshan.




Regis, or Rumblebelly to his friends - or at least his friend, the dwarf Bruenor - has a lot to answer for. Not content with a life as the Pasha's most prized thief, he made the foolish error of stealing his master's most valued possession, a ruby Pendant of Beguiling able to charm any creature within sight of the gem. Taken at face value, one could argue he deserves whatever dire fate Pasha Pook has in store for him. Look a little deeper, however, and... well, he still kind of deserves the fate the Pasha has in store for him. I mean, Bruenor himself has a chest in Mithral Hall in which the severed hands of thieves are kept.

Hmm.

Muddy morals aside, honour demands that Drizzt and Wulfgar rescue their friend from the clutches of the wicked Artemis Entreri. What follows is a somewhat abbreviated journey south, aided by some rather convenient magic and punctuated by scenes that range from memorable to rather silly.

Firstly, the memorable: the tavern scene in which Wulfgar chooses restraint in talking down the hilariously-named Bungo shows some nice character growth. The scenes between Pook and his minions are frequently amusing and, as with Salvatore's earlier efforts, paint villains with greater nuance than some of his contemporaries. There is an exciting sea battle between the heroes and a small pirate fleet that rewards Drizzt with a heart-warming moment of acceptance as his race-altering mask slips and the crew choose to embrace him despite his heritage. The showdown between Drizzt and Entreri, when it eventually happens, is a blood-pumping confrontation that will have readers on the edge of their seats. As always, Salvatore writes combat with an energy and level of detail that highlights every thrust, slash, parry and wound dealt.

As mentioned, though, the justness of our heroes' cause is less sure in this novel. For all Drizzt's introspection regarding respect and honour, he allows his hunger to prove himself better than Entreri to occasionally cloud his thoughts. For his part, Entreri massacres an entire ship's crew in perhaps his most villainous act of his career. There's a certain twisted logic behind his doing so - but it feels gratuitous and jars with what we know of his character.

The novel's biggest misstep is the journey into Tarterus, an Outer Plane crawling with native fiends known as demodands. Here the action crosses over into the absurd, with the heroes surviving hordes of fiends (mostly) unscathed and constantly making million-to-one odds seem a sure thing. Drizzt's obvious attraction to Catti-Brie becomes a tad uncomfortable given she and Wulfgar are clearly an item - there's a stolen kiss from an unconscious Cattie-Brie that is certainly eyebrow-raising - and Drizzt claims highest-level hero privilege to shunt both Bruenor and Wulfgar to the side and become the star of the show in decidedly dickish fashion near the end. There's the feeling that here was where R.A. Salvatore decided a certain drow elf was absolutely the main event and plotted accordingly.

(Of course, the Dark Elf Trilogy remains the jewel in the crown of the roughly 400 subsequent Realms novels, so in that he was absolutely correct!)

One thing that grated that I must mention is the dialect used for some of the characters, particularly the Calishite Sali Dalib, whose broken English (or Common) is embarrassingly denoted using "de" instead of "the," among other abominations. Maybe it read better in 1990 - but, as with the stolen kiss, it makes for slightly uncomfortable reading in 2019.

All in all, The Halfling's Gem is the weakest of the original Icewind Dale Trilogy. It lacks the rough charm of the first novel and the charming character growth of the second. Nonetheless, it presents a memorable cast of secondary villains and henchmen which it delights in knocking down, and features an iconic showdown between two iconic characters. An uneven plot and some questionable character choices don't detract too much from the book serving as a satisfying conclusion to a story that brought to life some of the most prominent locales and colourful characters in the Forgotten Realms. For that achievement, the Icewind Dale Trilogy was crucial to the runaway success of the setting.

*** 1/2 out of *****

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Signed books for sale - 50% discount!

I'm moving house soon, and to clear up some space as well as spare myself the pain of carrying dozens of books up several flights of stairs, I'm offering signed (and personalised if requested) copies of my books in various languages at 50% off the cover price. I'm happy to post anywhere so long as the postage costs are covered. I currently have the following books available:

- Many copies of the Sword of the North and Dead Man's Steel US hardcover

- 3 copies of the German and French Grim Company and Sword of the North

1 copy of the Italian Grim Company and 3 of Sword of the North
2 copies of the Dutch Dead Man's Steel


1 copy of the Polish Grim Company


3 copies of the Czech Sword of the North. I may have copies of the first and third books in Czech somewhere, but finding them will involve rooting around in spider-infested corners of a shed. This is probably a death sentence, so only enquire if serious. 


If you're interested, comment or send me a message and we'll work something out. :)

Monday, 26 August 2019

Neverwinter Nights Enhanced Edition: Tyrants of the Moonsea released

A long, long time ago (2005), I was contracted by Bioware to develop a premium module for their hit PC roleplaying title, Neverwinter Nights. Unfortunately the module was cancelled after Atari pulled the plug on the premium module service. 14 years later, I'm delighted to announce that Tyrants of the Moonsea has been finished by Ossian Studios and is now available on the Steam store! (Beamdog client and GOG versions will follow shortly.) Here is the official description:


Developed by Ossian Studios and based on the original module by Luke Scull, this new, enhanced version of Tyrants of the Moonsea vastly expands this former premium module by adding 70% more story and gameplay, as well as a large amount of new art and audio content.

The harsh frontier land known as the Moonsea is besieged by demons. A mysterious cult has arisen, bent on death and destruction. Amid the chaos, war is imminent between the powerful city-states and their tyrannical rulers. Accompanied by the dwarf merchant Madoc, you approach the town of Voonlar just as the worst snowstorm of the year hits. You soon discover that only you can prevent the total annihilation of the Moonsea at the hands of a legendary and ancient evil...

Explore the treacherous region of the Moonsea, including the infamous Zhentil Keep! Travel by foot and horse through the dark and mysterious lands of Cormanthor and Thar, and by ship across the pirate-infested waters, engaging in ship-to-ship combat. Encounter monstrous foes of unspeakable power in a high-level adventure that will keep you on the edge of your seat. As the old Moonsea battle cry goes: "Dare... and beware!"

Features:
  • An expansion-sized high-level adventure with 20+ hours of gameplay
  • Use the world map to explore 18 areas in the Moonsea region including Zhentil Keep, Cormanthor, Thar, and prominent city-states.
  • Recruit from 5 different companions for your party
  • 5 new monsters to do battle with
  • 14 new character portraits
  • 35 minutes of inspiring new music including exhilarating combat tracks
  • 1,000 lines of new character VO

Buying the enhanced edition of Tyrants of the Moonsea helps to support Ossian Studios' goal of bringing you more Dungeons & Dragons adventures!

Sunday, 16 June 2019

"A Ring to Rule Them All" now on Kindle!

My first short story set in the Grim Company world, A Ring to Rule Them All, is now available in the Kindle Store! Here's the description:



"A Ring to Rule Them All" tells the story of how the legendary swordsman Brodar Kayne escaped the clutches of his immortal master, the Shaman. The first, thrilling short story set in the world of the Grim Company also acts as a prequel to the award-nominated series.

A week inside a wicker cage will break a regular man. A month will push the bravest to the very edges of their sanity.

For Brodar Kayne, it has been almost a year since he was forced inside the fiendish prison. His crime? To defy his master's command to massacre a town and people he once loved.

Even a year trapped in a cage could not break the spirit of the legendary Sword of the North. But having just watched his wife burned alive on a pyre, death would now be a merciful release.

However, Kayne's most loyal friend has other ideas. The Wolf is as grim and implacable as death itself. And he never forgets a promise.

UK Readers can purchase the short story here. North America-based readers can get the short story following this link.

Your support is greatly appreciated. :)

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Pool of Radiance by James M. Ward & Jane Cooper Hong

(Forgotten Realms #11, Pools #1)
(First published 1989)

In the ruins of Phlan, an ancient evil is stirring. Three heroes - the wizard Shal Bal, the ranger/thief Ren, and the cleric of Tyr, Tarl - each find themselves on a personal quest of vengeance and self-discovery as they band together to restore order to the ancient city.



Written as a tie-in novel for the seminal SSI CRPG of the same name released in 1988, Pool of Radiance doesn't just wear its influences on its sleeve: it uses them to inform pretty much every scene in the book, resulting in a story that is not so much a novel as a blow-by-blow account of an entertaining D&D campaign. The three protagonists are paper-thin and wield skills, abilities and spells that are word-for-word borrowed from the source material.

The plot, such as it is, is incredibly simple. Working for the obviously corrupt councilman Cadorna, our heroes must overcome a succession of challenges - essentially levels - that bring them closer to discovering the obvious truth behind the goings-on in Phlan. The book does an admirable job of following the game's structure, with the predictable downside that it feels utterly artificial. 

Though deus ex machina in D&D is nothing new, in this book low-level characters being saved by divine providence, or at least magical items that achieve the same result, is a matter of course. Rarely has a young wizard apprentice had so much handed to them on a plate as Shal Bal, who, at the start of the novel, inherits a Staff of Power, a Ring of Wishes, a magical horse familiar, and a piece of fabric that acts as multiple Bags of Holding from her murdered master, Ranthor. Not bad going for a 3rd-5th level character! 

Why didn't Ranthor use the Ring of Wishes to save himself and kill his assassin, and therefore avoid the need for the whole resulting fiasco in the first place? This is never explained. Amusingly, it is explicitly stated that Shal could use the Ring of Wishes to bring her master back to life - except he doesn't want her to do that, for spurious reasons. Perhaps he comes back in a later novel as a lich and is revealed as a villain. I guess I'll find out when I get to it.

Either way, the fact that Shal can - and does, in the end - kill anything simply by wishing it dead does rather undermine our heroes' journey as they survive increasingly deadlier obstacles and enemies. As with everything else in the book, character relationships are trite, undeveloped, and scarcely believable. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Pool of Radiance is how Shal Bal inadvertently wishes herself from waif-sized to very large near the start of the book. It's entertaining to see her struggle with her new physical reality while nonetheless getting to pick from her two male traveling companions, who both vie for her attention. I'm not sure the body-positive feminism on display here really holds up in 2019 (she is constantly described as a curvaceous and all-woman in a decidedly male-gazey manner), but it was an interesting twist to what is otherwise a forgettable character.

Pool of Radiance is pretty much what you expect a computer game adaptation to be: flat, perfunctory, and, just like its primary protagonist,  forced to take a shape it is not entirely comfortable wearing. It is undoubtedly nonsense - but it is easy-to-read and entertaining nonsense that will doubtless scratch that nostalgia itch for those who remember the 1988 computer game (and among those of a certain age, that is a sizeable demographic).

** 1/2 out of *****

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Waterdeep by Troy Denning

(Forgotten Realms #10, The Avatar Trilogy #3)
(First published 1989)

Following the calamitous events in Tantras, during which the gods Bane and Torm perished, the magic-user Midnight and her allies must bring the Tablet of Fate - one of a pair of ancient artifacts upon which the duties of the gods are recorded - to the city of Waterdeep, so that it can be returned to the overgod Ao. However, the god of death, Myrkul, and the god of murder, Bhaal, have other plans - as does Midnight's erstwhile ally Cyric, who covets the Tablets for his own selfish purposes.




The third and final book in the epic, and occasionally epically silly, Avatar Trilogy (later expanded to become a quintet) is somewhat different to the preceding novels. Written by Troy Denning instead of Scott Ciencin, the prose is a marked step up from both Shadowdale and Tantras. Unfortunately, though the writing is superior, the same cannot be said for the delivery of the story or its content.

The first hundred pages or so in particular are a slog. Unlikely events conspire to put artificial obstacles in the way of our heroes making it to Waterdeep. Denning has a habit of glossing over the most interesting developments in the story, only to then go back and explain them after the fact, resulting in the narrative lacking the sense of momentum and adventure that Ciencin's novels, despite their often amateurish writing, managed to convey.

Once again, Cyric is the book's standout character. His battle of wills with his sentient, bloodthirsty sword makes for one of the strongest scenes in the entire trilogy. Compared with the paper-thin characterizations of Midnight and comic-book bad guy Myrkul, Cyric's background and motivations make a lot of sense. Here is a young orphan raised on the streets of one of the evilest cities in the Forgotten Realms, given an opportunity to seize ultimate power and free himself from the machinations of the wizards and gods that are so ubiquitous in every corner of the setting. It's difficult not to root for him in the face of Midnight's constant stupidity and the blatant selfishness and callousness of the gods.

As mentioned, Myrkul - ostensibly the novel's main villain - is a rather hapless villain. It's unclear why the God of Death, whose sphere of influence includes the undead, would make a ragtag group of ambling zombies his tool of choice to thwart the heroes and recover the Tablets - I assume Larloch, Szass Tam, and various other liches, vampire lords, and eminently more intelligent and powerful minions were unavailable - nor is it clear why Midnight, Kelemvor and co actually fear said zombies so much. It is perhaps fitting that Myrkul's final act as a god is a crawl through the filthy sewers of Waterdeep before getting royally pummeled by the heroes.

Thankfully, Bhaal, the God of Murder, makes for a more terrifying threat. The book's standout scene involves Bhaal massacring his way through an entire citadel of defenders, Jason Vorhees-style, while our heroes try desperately to stop him. In the end, it takes a superhuman act of will from Cyric (of all people!) to vanquish the Lord of Murder once and for all.

For a novel named Waterdeep, the titular city makes a disappointingly brief appearance. That said, despite the turgid start and middle of the novel, it does finish strongly once the heroes make it to the City of Splendors. The denouement at the foot of the Celestial Stairway on Mount Waterdeep is as iconic as Mystra's death in the first book in the trilogy, as our heroes (and villains) each get what they deserve. Even Ao, the overgod, who, it turns out, also has to answer to someone - possibly the Abrahamic God, though in greater likelihood the DM.

All in all, Waterdeep is a mediocre conclusion to a trilogy that had its work cut out from the start, carrying as it did the burden of explaining the transition from 1st to 2nd edition D&D on its shoulders, as well as attempting to novelize a series of adventure modules. The somewhat jarring switch in style from the previous two books doesn't do Waterdeep many favours, and neither does the obligation to continue Midnight and Kelemvor's execrable romance and the poorly conceived schemes of the Dark Gods, or the absence of Bane's clowning villainy, which was at least amusing. Nonetheless, older fans of the Reams will still find much to remember fondly. For Realms historians, the trilogy represents a panoramic snap shot of fantasy's most detailed setting three decades ago, before the hundreds of novels and blockbuster video game adaptations that would follow.

*** out of *****