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 Realmscourtesy 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 *****

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