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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Darkwalker on Moonshae, Forgotten Realms 1, Douglas Niles

I intend my review of this book to be short and sweet.  This book was terrible.  As an intro to the Realms, it brought, literally nothing to the depth of the world created by Ed Greenwood.  After reading R.A. Salvatore's Homeland, I was deeply disappointed.  As I stated last post, I am going to attempt to read these books by date of publishing, having faith that Wizards of the Coast had some idea that the world they would be creating would be somewhat cohesive, and not like The Simpsons, where every character restarts every episode with little or no history.  Granted, this was the late eighties (published 1987), and it was a different time for fantasy genre fiction.  The genre, whose following grew by leaps and bounds because of works like these, has grown infinitely more sophisticated.  However, Douglas Niles' first stab at a Forgotten Realms novel reads like the senior project of a highschool student.

I was rather hoping that the first series in the Realms would be of the same caliber as Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's War of the Lance, saga.  So far, I am deeply disappointed.

Character:  There are no characters in this book.  The lead character is a feckless prince named Tristan.  He's apparently irresponsible, but we don't see any evidence for that, apparently he whores and drinks every night, but we only see that one night at a summer festival.  And apparently, he's got a heart made of gold, and is really in love with a ward of the King, a young girl named Robyn.  Who flirts with a thief, for no apparent reason, which never goes anywhere, and is completely unresolved by storie's end.  SPOILER:  It turns out she's in love with the prince too, and the thief flirt was a red herring.  Big surprise.  Still though, it's not all bad.  I'm reminded that a big part of high fantasy was romantic love.  A lot of modern fantasy writers, in their cynicism choose to ignore this.  But Arwen and Aragorn's forbidden love was a highlight of Tolkien's saga, not a distraction, or a subplot.  Readers of fantasy are romantics, and love, no matter how unrealistic, always appeals to us.  Back to the facts:  Tristan is the most developed character, and he's as shallow as condensation.

Images are from Daniel Eskridge's website
Cliche:  The interesting thing about reading a book that takes place in a world that is determined entirely by the rules of the 2nd edition of the Dungeon and Dragons handbook, is that the author can choose when he breaks with the rules, and when he upholds them.  As an old dungeon master, I find both possibilities interesting.  When one of the minor characters, the aforementioned flirty thief, Daryth garrots a Firbolg in one stroke, you realize immediately, that is what those of us in the trade called a "backstab" an attack that only a thief or assassin type character class can use, depends upon him being "hiding in shadows" and gets to roll an incredible damage roll (I forget the dice roll, and the internet failed me--D&D was pre-internet!)  On a side note, I've noticed that much of the D&D terminology pervades the videogaming industry at large, and that the first hits for the term backstab, were DragonAge Origins hits.  Anyway, Darkwalker uses all the D&D cliches, about dwarves, halflings and elves, with some interesting additions.  The Moonshae Isles are home to a druidic clan of peoples based largely on a Celtic-Welsch-Scottish mythos.  Druids are anything but common (though possible) in Dungeons & Dragons, and to have three of the central characters, including the novel's central conflict be based off a Druidic conflagration was quite refreshing.

Eskridge, Image of Tristan's home, Corwell
Scope:  Despite this being our first immersion in the Forgotten Realms, the scope of this novel was perilously small.  There were the Ffolk of the Moonshae Isles (which don't seem to be isles at all) and the Northmen (think Vikings) who ravaged the peaceful Ffolk in longships.  The only reference to a larger world is that this character, Daryth, the thief, rogue, assassin, was from another land, and was called a Calishite.  No reference is drawn to a larger world, and even the central conflict of Darkwalker is based around the defense of a fairly minor castle in a larger kingdom, the High King of which never bother's to even show up.  Still, this is the first book of a series, so I'll be patient. 

Magic:  As in cliche, the magic of Darkwalker is fairly limited.  The Big Bad seems to be unlimited in scope, but is ultimately defeated with a magic sword.  Here Niles completely abandons D&D rules.  D&D is one of those games where characters die all the time.  Dungeon Masters can be unflinching about killing characters, despite the vast amounts of time it takes to create one.  So Big Bads are really, really hard to kill.  This is why Rogue characters are so important.  If you can't kill the Dragon, you need someone who can steal the famed Gem of Aranar from it!  As a rule, in Darkwalker, all of the magic is clerical in nature.  This is unusal for the genre, particularly in D&D where magic is an involved affair with spell memorization and spell ingredients.  Clerical power is innate and based on your level, your natural abilities, and your chosen faith.)

Theme:  Despite all of my misgivings about Darkwalker, it's fairly lighthearted.  Something, which after the heavy fiction of Steven Erikson and others is a bit of a relief.  Still, Darkwalker seems like a one off, classic swords and sorcery novel.  The writing has an innocense about it that comes off as amateur rather than intentional.  Since its plot based fiction, which skimps on the characters inner dramas, or treats them, again amateurly, there's really no theme to this novel.  It's get in there, and get her done.  Slay the dragon, save the damsel.