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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Tantras by Richard Awlinson

This scene never takes place
So Tantras marks book two in Awlinson's Avatar series.  The book has a great beginning, a boring and confusing middle, and a fun finish.  If you're into going back into the history of the Realms, Tantras is worth a read. I should note that Awlinson is a pen name, and that this marks the last book in the Avatar trilogy that is written by Scott Ciencin.  That's right, Waterdeep the last book in the trilogy is written by another dude under the same pen name.  WTF?

As I have done in the past with books in a series, I will skip my usual rubric for critique and simply comment on more general aspects, namely character, plot and setting. Beware, this review is replete with spoilers.

I was very impressed with the first book in this series, Shadowdale. (Note that all of my adjectives, "impressed," "unusual," "great," are meant to be relative to what was being produced during this period of 1980s game world fantasy fiction.) The main characters were complex with unusually detailed backgrounds.

First there is Kellemvor with his nasty, giant cat breaks free of his chest in the most disgusting manner, curse.  There is Cyric, the Zhentish thief, seeking freedom from his past.  There is Adon, a playboy cleric, who suffers a disfiguring scar and abruptly becomes a morose, useless, foot dragging, minor warrior.  And of course, the least developed, the female lead, Midnight. Whose past we know very little about, but at the same time is the center of a love triangle between Kellemvor and Cyric.

All four characters figure heavily in Book 2. And some drastic changes occur. I've been waiting for some crossover between the different Forgotten Realms novels, and by this time, about ten books into the world of Faerun, I'm beginning to see some. Ed Greenwood, in Spellfire, described all the characters in Shadowdale in such idyllic terms of brotherhood that the place seemed a lot like Monty Python's version of Camelot, "it's a silly place." Awlinson's Shadowdale takes a much darker turn. When Elminster is trapped in a demon realm at the end of the first book, he is assumed dead, and The Lord of Shadowdale, Mourngrym, holds a show trial in which Midnight and Adon are condemned to execution. Many of Greenwood's characters are given a third dimension in the first half of this book.

Which leads me to wonder about the dark turn that Cyric takes. the Zhentish thief decides to free Midnight from prison the night before the execution. And in so doing, he kills four guards in cold blood. This begins the transformation of the sarcastic, cynical thief into something far darker. Cyril's transformation is excellently done, his frustration with Adon, and his futile affection for Midnight turning him into something far worse than he might have been. That said, the crimes he commits in freeing Midnight seem mitigated to me by the fact that it's a lot easier to kill guards then to render them unconscious.  Moreover it was his friends, wrongly accused and falsely tried, whose lives were at stake. That said, by the end of Tantris, Cyric is clearly in Neutral Evil category.

Meanwhile, Kellemvor, who was falling in love with Midnight, leaves her to her fate, and even leads a search party to return the trio to the gibbet. Kellemvor's character is rather straightforward, he wants to be good, but his curse doesn't allow him to do any good deeds. That said, in Tantras, he allows himself to be duped frequently. At first I was quite bothered by this, but upon further examination, I think it actually quite subtle. As a mercenary whose curse requires him to be paid for services rendered, he has become unusually good at accepting jobs that allow him to do a decent thing or two, while still getting his reward. This type of quandary would, of course, make for a very pliable character, someone who could easily justify a complete change of heart.

Adon spends the novel becoming useful again. In the Avatar series, clerics have lost their powers unless they are literally standing right next to the avatar of their god. So Adon had already lost his abilities to heal and cast other priestly spells. But when he lost his face, his overwhelming self-pity destroyed the boyish self-confidence he displayed in Shadowdale. While the priest loses his faith, he does gain a measure of self esteem by the end of Tantris.

Darth Krayt, but to my mind a good representation of Bane
No discussion of characters would be complete without the only other character worth noting, Bane the God of Strife and Tyranny. The God of Strife is a complete idiot. This is a major flaw in these novels to date.  So, it stands to reason that the God of Strife would be fairly petty. But gods have to be more than simply humans with massive powers. Though Awlinson made a few efforts in that direction in Shadowdale, by Tantras, the god is a mewling, cantankerous moron, careening from one disaster to the next.

I have made no study of the pantheon of the Forgotten Realms. But so far I am not impressed. We have Bane, we have Bhaal, we have Mykrul, all evil gods, but none save Bhaal seem particularly nasty. But, SPOILER, given that Bane doesn't make it past this novel the gods of evil do not seem particularly strong, or pernicious.

Finally, the whole reason for my continued self debasement of reading these Forgotten Realms novels is to learn about the fascinating world of Faerun.  I've shown the map before, and it is HUGE.  After ten novels I'm pleased to say that we still haven't explored more than an eighth of it, at best.

But what do we learn? Shadowdale is but one dale of many, all vying for control of a few areas. Scardale is one such town, an area garrisoned by troops from a loose federation of city states. We learn that Tantras is a city state that primarily worships the god of duty, Torm.  Of course, Torm doesn't seem to make it either, so I think at least one of Greenwood's characters is out of an occupation.  No natural wonders like there are in some of the other books, like the Icewind Dale series and it's troll infested marshlands. That said, since the day of Arrival, when all the gods were forced to assume mortal forms, major effed up crap has been happening across the realms. Like trees coming alive and spawning undead wax monkeys, or hot mists rising from nowhere and boiling people alive, or troops of trees marching to war.  And Awlinson has come up with some truly horrific encounters, something that adds a great deal of fun to the novel, and allows him to break with the fairly limited selection of Dungeon and Dragons monsters.

Overall, Tantras is a good romp.  And hopefully Bane will stay good and dead, as he was a particularly laughable villain.

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