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 *****

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