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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Shadowdale by Richard Awlinson

So this may be the first book in the Forgotten Realms series that I have really enjoyed, and have found to be a fairly mature story. It also was written in 1989, and while it still follows a fairly staid Dungeons & Dragons, hero's quest, type of format, it's characters have a great deal more depth, then even R. A. Salvatore's entry into the realms
over the same time period, (Streams of Silver). The troubled heroes actually have back story! Best of all, the story ends in a large, well detailed battle scene with gods, demons, and thousands of troops.

One thing I found troubling, if only in a vague way, was that the premise of this series of books is that the Gods have been banished from the planes by the über god Ao. And as such, they are sent to dwell as humans in the Realms. Now, alongside the release of these books, were actual campaign materials detailing the stats of everything that existed in these worlds.  So, when gods are killed in the  course of this story, were these gods listed in the materials? Or were they Awlinson's creation for the purpose of this particular tale.  The Arrival, as it is called, would have to be a pretty big deal in the worlds history, particularly in light of the fact that magic seems to stop working, and clerics spells only work in the physical presence of their god. So, is Shadowdale adding to the canon of the Realms, or is it just a one off? From this link, it turns out that the Realms Creator, Greenwood actually did conceive of Bane.

When I start reading the books written in 1990, I hope to see reference to the Arrival and the events that followed.  I know that the events that occur in Darkwell, and Streams of Silver are quite independent of this apocryphal event. Though, they could well have occurred prior (or long after) the events herein.

The most enjoyable attribute of Shadowdale is story's heroes, Midnight, Kelemvor, Cyric and Adon. The story begins as these unlikely adventurers skip town on a guard duty contract, although why you would want your city guarded by men on forced contracts enforceable by prison sentences is beyond me. Why? To aid a mysterious girl, whose mysterious mistress is trapped in an old ruined castle.

Kelemvor is ostensibly the most developed of the heroes. A fighter with a terrible curse laid upon him. This curse forces him to only engage in human relations on a contractual basis whereby he is promised a reward, and then actually receives it.  If he does not, (spoiler alert) he turns into a hideous beast. This makes him seem hard hearted. Now, if Awlinson had opted for a shallow character, the curse not withstanding, once removed, would allow Kelemvor to be the selfless hero we all want him to be. However, it turns out, that he is, as all real people are, much more complicated then this. He stays to defend Shadowdale against the Zhentarim, but not because he cares one whit for the people of Shadowdale. He stays because he loves Midnight, and is promised her love, as the basis for the contract. Imagine knowing, as a lover, that your partner may love you, but they can only be with you while under the terms of a very strict contract.  I quite like this twist, and it is in stark contrast to Salvatore's Drizzt Do Urden, the dark elf with the heart as big as the Realms itself.  As a note, if you are, as I am, reading these chronicles for the first time, DO NOT google Kelemvor.  I just inadvertently spoiled the next two books for myself!  Don't click on this.

Cyric is another interesting guy. A thief, turned multi-class, fighter. That's a term from the old days. At first in the D&D world, you had to choose, fighter, thief, or magic user. In later editions, more classes emerged, and in the advanced rules, your fourth level thief could choose to become a fighter. He would retain his thieving skills up to that level, but he would then have to level up as a fighter instead. You could also choose to level up both, but it'd take forever, so most people usually simply switched.  As a boy, I thought this was cheating (having your cake and eating it too. Don't like the paltry hit point scores of a thief? Multi-class him and have the best of both worlds). Now, as an old man, I know that we wear many hats in this lifetime, and we frequently put earlier chapters in our lives completely to bed.

I digress. Cyric was born in Zhentil Keep. First in Spellfire, and now in Shadowdale, we are introduced to Zhentil Keep, as a city that worships the evil gods of the Realms. I find this to be a really interesting concept. Say what you like about cities, but for them to exist, a certain amount of cooperation is required. A certain amount of trust. After all, a contract is a promise, and not all goods can be paid for up front. For a promissory note to hold value, you must trust its issuer to fulfill the obligations therein. And trust cannot exist in a city of Evil. Unless, of course, it's not all Evil. Which reminded me of my favorite St. Augustine quote, "And even when men are plotting to disturb the peace, it is merely to fashion a new peace nearer to the “heart'’ desire; it is not because they dislike peace as such.  It is not that they love peace less, but they love their kind of peace more."

So I was eager to learn more about Zhentil Keep, from the character of Cyric. He was a thief and a murderer, but his most ardent desire is to be free of his past. To be free from the shackles of the Thieves Guild that made him what he was. He too could care less about the people of Shadowdale, and in fact despises them for their apparent weakneses of trust, love, faith and optimism. And he too, opts to stay and defend it from the approaching army. He's also an atheist, which is pretty hard to be in a Realm where there are actually gods. Like I said, for a fantasy novel of the late eighties, this is pretty deep stuff.

My favorite character, is Adon. Adon is a cleric of the goddess Sune, the Realms' Aphrodite. He is incredibly vain, in a harmless, humorous way, and finds himself being chased out of town by a woman who somehow managed to resist his charms. Adon loves the ladies, and he is a firm believer in beauty. Which makes his devotion to Sune all the easier to believe. After all, to believe in beauty one must only know desire and possess eyes. This would all make Adon pretty one dimensional, save for the fact that as a cleric in a time where the gods have descended, he has lost his powers, and has made no effort to find the avatar of the goddess living within the Realms. Neither for his belief, nor for the powers it gave him.  Which, is, odd.  And then, in the last sixty pages, something happens to Adon which is definitely not expected. And he becomes a completely different person overnight. Who he is, we do not yet know. His tale will likely be continued in Shadowdale's sequel, Tantras.

The last point I'd like to bring up is about that old sage, Elminster.  I've been hearing about Elminster for nearly two decades.  He's the Realms version of Gandalf, a long lived wizard of power to rival the gods.  Up till now we haven't learned much about him.  In Spellfire, we learned he had a dalliance with a student, who turned into an evil sorceress.  We also learned that he is short tempered, and humorous.  In my mind, I had always equated him with Dragonlance's Fizban, the bumbling old wizard who happens also to be the God Paladine.  But Elminster is definitely human.  This will probably make him a better character over all.  Though I must say, I rather miss old Fizban and his disastrous Fireball spells.

One last note. Shadowdale, Tantras, and Waterdeep were all released in the same year. Leading me to believe that they were written as one novel and broken up to sell more books, and to be more readable. It also suggests that Awlinson began these novels around the time that Niles, Greenwood, and Salvatore were composing their own founding works.

This was a good read, and if you're looking for some lite fantasy to get you through à lull, this would be a good choice.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Darkwell by Douglas Niles

This marks the final installment in the Moonshae Trilogy.  And, as I am going to start writing shorter blog posts, let me simply outline a few points about the series, about the Realms, and about this particular novel.

The Moonshae Trilogy are some of the first books published in the universe of the Forgotten Realms, published in 1987 to 1989.  And this was a period of great schlock in the fantasy genre.  And these books fit the bill.  They are pure swords and sorcery.  Dungeons and Dragons at its most obvious level.  In some ways, though the books were intended to help sell the games, and vice versa, the books are fairly limited by the universe of the D&D world.  Anyone who has ever read the Players Handbook has had their eyes glaze over with the sheer number of rules, dice roles, and mathematical calculations required for even the simplest of actions.

So when a level six druid casts the level three spell Plant Growth, what happens can be described anyway the dungeon master wants, but at the same time has to adhere to a very specific set of limitations.  And in many ways these stories of the Forgotten Realms are just that, well DM'd stories by a group of players fulfilling quest objectives.

Or the DM can break the rules entirely, as they sometimes do.  But breaking the rules is dangerous business and it can backfire on the author.  One nice thing about writing in a new, or less proscribed fantasy realm is that the limit is your own imagination, and the rules are yours.  Breaking your own rules creates problems too, but a re-envisioning of said rules, an enlarging of the paradigm, is a simple escape from these sorts of problems.

And in each of the Realms books I've read (and I've only read up to 1989) you can literally see spells being cast out of the Magic User's guide.  When the dark god Bhaal creates his evil champions to battle the heroes, they came straight of the Monster's Compendium.  And they have to, because the main rule of writing in an open series like this is a certain consistency.  Still, I'm not sure how I feel about a Displacer Beast being a big bad.  On the one hand, it recalls my egregiously misspent youth (playing with dice and pencils when I should have been out drinking and having sex) on the other hand, the sense of horror and intrigue created by the unveiling of a "new monster" is almost entirely mitigated.

Up until now, just three years into the history of the Forgotten Realms, the books have no inter connectivity, save for a few common city names.  The tales have begun at the far ends of the Realms and have involved relatively little geography.  Though R.A. Salvatore's Icewind Dale series has some decent travel.  Ed Greenwood's own first novel, the man behind the Realms,  taking place in his own world was simply atrocious.  Spellfire has to be one of the worst books I've ever read.

This was never the case in DragonLance, which had such a serious and continuous narrative of the War of the Lance to underscore the personal dramas within.  That said, the Realm of DragonLance was much less flexible, and probably why the Forgotten Realms have, I think, ultimately triumphed in the worlds of TSR.  Anyway, my next book in this series is Shadowdale.  A town first discussed in Spellfire.  I am looking forward, finally, to some crossover.

Last point, about Darkwell.  This book was a pleasant surprise.  The characters took some dark turns, and some of the most intrinsic characters actually died.  That said, the book would have been vastly improved if Niles had NOT decided to make it a happy ending.  Meaning boy gets girl, boy gets forgiven, atonement occurs, and they have many happy children together.  If Niles had not pulled his punches at the last minute, his characters could well have lived on to a fourth or fifth book.  The druid heroine, Robyn, having turned Cleric after the death of her god, the Earthmother, would not have forgiven the King's infidelities.  And Tristan would have actually grown for it.  If Tristan had been wracked by actual guilt over the death of his friend, then he would never have forgiven himself, and the sadness this engendered in him would have made him a far better King.

That said, until the last six pages this novel was difficult to put down.  And that makes it the best Realms novel in the series so far.

For a nice history of D&;D, look here.