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 *****

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