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 *****

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