Black Wizards

Author: Douglas Niles
Published: April 1988

The next installment in the Moonshae trilogy came out only a month after The Crystal Shard. I should preface this review by stating that, while I read this book at some point in my youth, I remember nothing at all about it. That’s not a good sign. My prodigious memory for books contains recollections about pretty much every other Forgotten Realms novel I read back then, but not the last two books in this trilogy. Is it just a gap in my memory, or were they really that unremarkable? Let’s see.

We’re back to the same old fantasy Wales again, but this time we get to see more of it than before. There’s a sea voyage and lots of adventurous faffing about on Alaron, the largest island of the archipelago. We briefly visit a city which is a bustling metropolis by Moonshae standards, then a Robin Hood-style hidden forest town. (Like nearly all hidden forest towns in every form of fiction ever, it’s inevitably burned down by the end of the book.) There’s even some bits in the Underdark, for a change of pace. It feels more varied, setting-wise, than Darkwalker on Moonshae’s “trees and mud” aesthetic.

We also see the introduction of more elements from the mainland Forgotten Realms, which makes this book feel more grounded in the setting and less hurriedly tacked-on than its predecessor. The villains are a big evil god and his foreign worshipers, and the eponymous black wizards and their agents are from places like Waterdeep, Amn, Calimshan, and Thay. Curiously, no mention is made of the fact that all the villains are foreigners and nearly all the protagonists are locals. Fortunately, the potential for accidentally introducing an anti-immigration theme is lessened by a couple of heroic clerics of foreign gods who bravely sacrifice themselves to help the Ffolk.

This book focuses more on individual characters’ stories than the whole “war and armies and battles” schtick that Darkwalker dwelled on, which is a relief. In fact, let’s use that as a segue to talk about…

Plot

Oh god, this plot. Tristan gets it into his head, reasonably enough, that the High King of the Moonshaes was behind his father’s death and some attempts on his own life. So his clever plan is… to go to the capital, march into the High King’s palace — you know, the place where kings usually keep all their soldiers and guards and such — and tell him to stop being so evil. That’s it. That’s actually his entire plan. Pontswain, a stuffy minor noble, points out the obvious flaw:

T: “I can gain a measure of vengeance for my father’s death! I can force the king to admit his crimes against the Ffolk — perhaps even to make some of them right again!”
P: “You’re mad! He’s tried to have you killed already! Now you want to travel to his very stronghold and tell him you don’t like what he’s done? You don’t have a chance!”
T: “On the contrary, I think I have a good chance. We have avoided his pitfalls thus far. And besides, I have to try something! I cannot let my father’s death go unavenged!”
P: “Your foolish vengeance will get us all killed!”

Pontswain is clearly the only sane person in this story, but since he’s depicted as a jerk in a few “kick the dog” moments, that means the heroes are free to heroically ignore his opinions because jerks are always wrong. So they go to the palace in Caer Callidyrr and Tristan is promptly arrested and thrown into a dungeon for being a dick to the king, which comes as a surprise only to Tristan himself. Then he gets this great moment:

Tristan moaned and dropped his head in defeat.
“Do not despair, my prince! You have learned what your enemy fears most, and that is valuable knowledge.”
“Learned?” he said scornfully. “I learned that I’m a fool! I don’t deserve to be a footman in Corwell’s army, much less the king! I was taken prisoner like a chicken walking into a noose!”

No shit, Sherlock. Wish he’d figured that out a hundred pages ago.

He’s talking to a ghost, incidentally, who’s barely introduced, shows up in the plot in an exceptionally random way, and spends the rest of the book being an intermittent deus ex machina. It’s that kind of plot. He has a historically-significant magic sword, but he seems to spend about three-quarters of the book just losing it and finding it again instead of actually doing much with it, to the point where you could make a drinking game out of “take a shot every time he loses the sword.”

Meanwhile, Robyn has an actual plotline of her own where she goes off to train as a druid and ends up fighting an unstoppable army of zombies. This is a major step up from the previous book, where it felt like she spent the entire story just sort of aimlessly following the rest of the protagonists around and being the party’s token chick… except that she spends all of her new plotline following Genna or Ghost Lady’s directions until she meets up with Tristan and goes back to following him around again. I’m not sure that she’s actually made a single significant decision for herself over the course of two entire books.

The worst fault of this plot, though, is that just about every major problem in the book (shipwreck, zombie attack, climactic battle, etc.) is resolved by some manner of deus ex machina rather than action on the protagonists’ part. Who knew that divine intervention could become so… boring?

Themes

I’m not sure it has a theme beyond “bad people do bad things”. Again, they had a good chance to play up the “foreign colonization vs. traditional culture” angle because all of the villains are foreigners and all but one of the heroes are locals, but it never comes up. There was also some room for exploring the social differences between the High King, a perfumed fop, and his stolid, hard-working peasantry, since that’s a very different version of Moonshae nobility which contrasts with every other noble we’ve met in both books so far. But the High King is a useless tool who spends his rare moments of focus just being a puppet for the bad guy, so that never goes anywhere and he just ends up as an unexplained caricature.

Characters

Tristan is about as whitebread as he was in the last book, but now comes with a side order of stupid as demonstrated above. His relationship with his father is still retreading the same “Shut up, son, I hate you” territory from the first book, but fortunately that goes out the window right at the beginning when his father is assassinated. Now he’s got something different to angst about! Except that he doesn’t even seem all that distressed about his father’s death, and it doesn’t come up much thereafter.

Daryth and Pawldo are here again, but they get very little in the way of character moments. Their job in the plot is mostly just to follow the prince around and get him out of dangerous situations, which is good given the low standard of competence he demonstrates in this novel.

Robyn, on the other hand, gets much better. She’s actually got a plotline of her own where she gets to do things that don’t involve the other heroes, even though she doesn’t actually have much agency and pretty much all of her decisions are made for her. Her druid powers are less of a sudden “sock puppet for the nature goddess” macguffin and more of a useful talent of her own, and she actually gets a few badass moments. It still feels like she’s too much of a passive character, but it’s an improvement over the last book.

Pontswain, a noble who’s angling to replace Tristan’s father as king of Corwell, is one of the only interesting characters in the book. He’s depicted alternately as a ambitious asshole who doesn’t give a damn about common people or a wise statesman who cares deeply about the good of his country. I think the author was aiming to make him a complicated character, where you respect his motives even though you dislike his personality, but that’s a delicate balancing act and the “complete asshole” moments were far too heavy-handed to make that work. Still, I appreciate the small attempt to break out of the clear “good people vs. bad people” mold.

The villains in this book are almost uniformly poorly handled. Three out of the four villains introduced in the first few chapters are hideously ugly or disfigured in some way, because evidently good people are pretty and bad people are ugly. Most of them are evil for generic reasons: “I want power” or “I’m just evil because it feels good”, with no character development.

It seemed like there might be something interesting going on with Razfallow, a half-orc assassin. He’s introduced in the beginning of the book as Tristan’s father’s murderer, and it transpires that he has some complicated history with Daryth, so you start to think that he’s getting set up to be a full-fledged character who has personal conflicts with the protagonists… but then he goes out of focus so hard for most of the book that you completely forget he’s even in scenes he’s supposed to be in. The titular black wizards take over the villain roles entirely, and he’s reduced to some “and Razfallow was there too” moments as an extra until being unceremoniously killed off. It’s an inexplicable waste of setup.

The only interesting villains in the book are two of the bad guy’s sidekicks, a highly dysfunctional power couple of wizards. One’s an ambitious schemer, the other’s a sadistic pyromaniac. They have a disturbing lust/hate relationship which sets them apart as the only villains with actual characterization and non-stereotypical “I want money/power/blood for the blood god” motivations, but as sidekicks they don’t get all that much screen time.

Speaking of which, the Big Bad here is Bhaal, the Forgotten Realms god of murder, who’s aiming to wipe out all life on the Moonshaes because… reasons, I guess? They’ve retconned Kazgoroth from the last book to have been a servant of his, and Bhaal isn’t very happy about Kazgoroth’s death, but it seems like a weak motivation for genociding the entire archipelago. The viewpoint moments for him are just kind of generic — there’s just not much you can do with “evil god wants to destroy stuff because he’s evil,” character-wise.

Also, there’s evil fish people and evil dwarves. In fact, this book is so tightly jam-packed with antagonists that it feels like it doesn’t have enough focus or time to develop any of them.

Writing

It feels less bland than the writing in Darkwalker. In particular, it’s got some nice detail work here and there. I especially liked the fish people:

Together with his hundred concubines, his huge octopi guards, and the skulls of his enemies, Sythissall sat in his vast throne room. The hugest of the sahuagin, the king neared giant proportions. His teeth and wide, flaring gills gave his head a broad, stubborn cast. He held a huge trident of whalebone. With it, he had once slain six prisoners, rival sahuagin, with a single blow. The spines along the king’s head, and down his back, were fully four feet long when Sythissall was aroused.

“Aroused”. Huh. Niles does a good job of fleshing them out with small details like that; we only catch glimpses of their society here and there, but their culture, mindset, and anatomy are all completely alien. Alas, they’re only in a minor supporting role and none of the main characters interact with them in any way outside of stabbing.

The book has major difficulties with indicating the passage of time. It jumps back and forth between the viewpoints of a dozen characters, but it’s not at all clear how much time passes between each jump. I found myself disoriented more than once by situations where it felt like a day had passed for one character, but there were in-between cuts to scenes where characters spent days travelling. A venial sin, certainly, but one that jars me out of my immersion.

Conclusion

Grade: C-

It’s better than Darkwalker, I’ll give it that. There’s a lot more going on than the previous book’s basic “big bad guy versus heroic prince” story. The writing has improved and the setting feels a bit more vibrant.

But ultimately it’s a jumbled mess. There’s too many characters and not enough characterization to go around, so some of them get forgotten for long periods of time. The bad guys are for the most part just two-dimensionally evil, and our designated hero is a foolish goober. The plot is disjointed, occasionally nonsensical, and packed with dei ex machinae. Still, I look more sympathetically on books which try and fail than I do on books which are just blandly safe, so I have to give it a slightly better grade.

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