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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Wyvern's Spur by Kate Novak and Jeff Grub

This was one of the best Forgotten Realms novels yet. Not only did it occur within the standard realms, a fortified town in Cormyr, it had some truly loveable characters.

It was not a complex novel by modern standards, but after the sanctimonious and cliched writing of the Ice Wind Dale trilogy it was a great relief. The novel continues the events of the Curse of the Azure Bonds, popularized by the SSI one of the earliest PC games in history.  However it takes as it main character a complete nonentity, as we used to say in the biz an NPC, or non-player-character, a drunk partygoer who mimicked the King and nearly died when Alias tried to kill him. But before we get any further let me state simply and for the record: The Curse of the Wyvern's Spur is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Character: so the harmless partygoer is named Giogini Wyvernspur, and he's a delight. Foppish and insecure, but undeniably good natured, he returns from the mission that the King sent him on and his apartments in the city suddenly seem too small. He's been bitten by the adventure bug and for the first time in his life he's doing things for himself. His manservant is astonished! When he comes home, he returns just in time to find out that the Wyvernspur family, of which he is the primary heir, has just lost the magical artifact that gave the family it's name. Meanwhile his Uncle, an old but powerful wizard has a very important message for him. The novel is almost written as a mystery novel, which is a nice twist for fantasy, unusual too.

There are only two other characters of note: and one of them is a mystery. The other is Olive Ruskettle. If you remember Azure Bonds at all, you"ll remember the Halfling bard, Olive Ruskettle, whose desire to create a lasting melody provided the foil for The mystery of the azure bonds and the nature of Alias. In this novel, she finds herself back to her thieving roots, having taken on an apprentice. Her apprentice is Alias! But not really, apparently this area of the realms is chock full of Alias copies. Each a different class, none of whom has any idea of her mysterious parentage or fabricated nature. But back to Olive: she is probably the most interesting Halfling character I've read: in general I find them sort of boring.  Like dwarves, they tend to be very one-sided, in the opposite way. They are carefree, disloyal, low level fighters, or thieves. Olive exhibits these tendencies of course, what good a cliche if it's use is completely dissociative. But she also displays real leadership, particularly in Spur, given Giogini's befuddled nature. She seems to have a genuine history if not particularly well explicated, there is a third volume in the series: which if she plays a part will make the Alias trilogy really the Ruskettle Trilogy. Of course there are disappointments, Olive is "spurred" (haha) to help Giogi because of grief over her apprentice's sudden demise, but that grief, though referenced often enough is just not written convincingly.  In part because we do not know much about her slain friend: which brings us to the third character of note, the Alias look alike.

I don't even remember her name, an indication of how soft this part of the story is. Like so many love interests she is a soft amorphous blob, not saccharine, she displays rare moments of pique, but is just not very interesting. That said, this is often true in narrative fiction so maybe it's unrealistic to expect in pulp fantasy.

Cliche: we've mentioned the Halfling cliche, what's interesting about this is that what really made the Halfling cliche were Tolkien's hobbits. The hobbits of the Shire are really very charming, quaint and amusing details abound them really bring such characters to life. Unfortunately this charm almost never translates to D and D.
Hobbits everyone knows and loves

The Wyvern cliche is a relatively minor one, possibly not even worth mentioning other than the fact that they are smaller, armless dragons of lower intelligence. They do translate across fantasies, notably Erikson's Malazan epic has a small if memorable place for them.

Obviously all the D and D cliches apply. One cliche that sticks out a bit in this book is the magic-user D and D cliche, including: the mechanics of spell book casting, magical properties of spell components, scrolls, memorization etc.  It reminds me that aside from historical accuracy (relative accuracy) the main reason for such contrivances was to impose limitations on characters that would otherwise be far too powerful in a game setting. Compare that with the sweeping powers of Anomander Rake or Rand al'Thor. The limitations provided an additional layer of strategy. Fighters went forward to cover the firepower of spell casters. Spell casters could exert enormous force on massive monsters or provide a distraction to beleaguered fighters. I still remember the Fall of Pale from Gardens of the Moon and how it shattered my spell casting memes.
A Wyvern for you, complete with stinger, by Andrew May

Another cliche explored in this novel, a more generalized cliche is the Whose Yer Daddy cliche. Given the preponderance of this cliche in literature I'm sure there must be some more technical name, but I can't resist it: who's your daddy? The cliche for children with mysterious parentage. Rand al 'Thor, Garion from the Belgariad. In this case, Giogi's father was a great adventurer whom the Crown relied on for certain dangerous tasks. Of course, Giogi's Aunt Dorath, herself a colorful, if minor character, hides the secret of Giogi's parentage.

Which brings us to Completeness. This novel is a tightly polished miniature puzzle and all of the pieces fit together extremely well. It has drama, love, high magic, the undead,and best of all a genuine warmth and sense of humor. It is self contained and there is no sense that the third novel in the Alias series will have anything to do with Giogi (more's the pity.).  We did learn a bit more about the Realms, about the nation of Cormyr. King Azoun, part of a long running dynasty is a relatively fair ruler. There is an interesting form of patronage at work: successful adventurers can be given land and title as governors of the land though they are not granted nobility and the title does not pass through the family  line, unless the governor marries into the local nobility.  One nice thing about the story is that since it stays in the same locality a few nice details have time to come about.

So, on the whole, this is a decent novel and might even be with a reread a few years from now. High praise indeed for a Forgotten Realms novel.