(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 *****