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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.

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