Darkwalker on Moonshae

Author: Douglas Niles
Published: May 1987

Let’s kick off our appraisal of the Forgotten Realms novels by looking at a novel that wasn’t even supposed to be a Forgotten Realms novel! Darkwalker on Moonshae, the first Forgotten Realms novel published, was originally written for a never-finished campaign world which TSR UK had been working on. The setting which Darkwalker was supposed to be set in was cancelled, leaving Douglas Niles with a suddenly useless half-written novel. But on the other side of the pond, TSR found itself in need of tie-in novels to introduce this new “Forgotten Realms” setting they were developing, so they stitched the novel into the campaign setting as best they could, slapped the original Forgotten Realms logo on it, and sent it out into the world. [1]

So how did this setting surgery affect the novel? Well… it could have gone better, honestly. They had a setup with plenty of potential, but not enough of it was properly realized in the book.

The bad news is that the Moonshae Isles are hardly the first place one would want to set a novel which is meant to introduce people to the new setting. It’s a small archipelago in the middle of nowhere, very far from any of the “main” areas of the setting such as Waterdeep, Cormyr, or the Dales. And it’s got a unique and completely different culture from the rest of the Realms, so it’s about as non-representative a region of the campaign world as you could come up with.

What’s interesting, though, is how few changes it would have taken to make those weaknesses into strengths. One of the themes in the supplementary RPG setting material for the Moonshae Isles is the cultural conflict between the indigenous Moonshae inhabitants (“the Ffolk”) and the traders and settlers from the mainland of the Realms. The more trade and contact they have with the mainland, the more their traditions — particularly their autochthonous nature religion — are threatened by the spread of new ideas. Putting more of that into the story would have given the reader a better sense of what the rest of the Realms are like by seeing them in contrast with the society of the Ffolk. Seeing two cultures in conflict gives you a good sense of each culture’s values.

On a side note: Ffolk? Seriously? The “ff” is clearly intended to look like Welsh, but “ff” in Welsh is just a normal “f” sound. So “Ffolk” is just pronounced “Folk” and just means “folk”, but the extra “f” is there to remind you that this is a different and exotic culture. It’s the Celtic equivalent of a Chinese restaurant sign in North America, where the name in a faux-brushwork font conveys the same meaning as it would in an ordinary Roman font, but conveys a suggestion of exotic Chineseness to people who know nothing about Chinese culture.

There is so much scope for a discussion of cultural appropriation in the Forgotten Realms. Oh my god, so much. I think I’ll save the meat of that discussion for the Maztica and Empires trilogies, though, and just touch briefly on the subject for now.

The culture of the Moonshae Isles is clearly a pastiche of various Celtic cultures, drawing its inspiration primarily from Wales. The Ffolk have a Welsh-looking name, use Welsh Gaelic geographic descriptors like “Caer” and “Firth”, use coracles as boats, bury people in barrows, have a druidic religion, and so on and so forth. Many fantasy authors populate their worlds with analogues of real-world cultures because it vastly reduces the cognitive load on the author and the reader. You can just say “It’s like (this real-world culture), but with magic”, and the reader’s imagination fills in all the gaps for customs, food, social organization, and so forth with their existing knowledge — much less work than designing an entire culture from scratch and successfully communicating every relevant aspect of it to the reader!

The downside, though, is that it removes a lot of the fun which people derive from fantasy in the first place. The point of fantasy is that it’s a playground of imagination where you can make things up and construct new ideas, rather than being restricted to the mundane. So a real-world analogue culture like the Ffolk is a double-edged sword for an author — you get rich detail with little work, but it’s ultimately not as satisfying because it feels too ordinary. It’s like making a cake from a mix rather than from scratch: still edible and tasty, but just not the same.

That said, Niles does a reasonably good job of characterizing the Ffolk. You see everyday things like their festivals, their funeral customs, and how they interact with other cultures, so at least it feels like the characters exist within a plausible society.

Themes

Colonization is a major theme of the Moonshae Isles. It’s a region where, much like the real-world country it’s based on, successive waves of immigrants have settled the Isles and displaced the existing inhabitants. From the first chapter we have this:

Halflings lived on all the Isles of the Moonshaes, mostly as neighbors to human settlements. Although they were one of the original races, along with the dwarves and the Llewyrr elves, to inhabit the islands, they had adapted well to the coming of humans. Now, they profited from business dealings with the Ffolk, and benefited from the protection afforded by nearby castles.

So humans were at one point newcomers to the Moonshaes, where they raised castles and set up a hereditary monarchy to rule everyone else. There’s some mention of the fate of the aforementioned Llewyrr elves, whom humans apparently drove to near-extinction until the survivors hid themselves in remote places. But this is all ancient history, and now the present-day Moonshaes seem to be a more-or-less idyllic society. The halflings seem to be cool with this, but the dwarves and elves we meet are still appropriately pissed off at humans. (Especially understandable for the elves, for whom this all probably happened within living memory!)

On the other hand, we have the Northmen, a clear stand-in for the Vikings in our Britain allegory. These “savage, yellow-bearded” humans who “jabber in their strange tongue” are clearly an Other in the Moonshaes, a separate culture which doesn’t interact with the rest of Moonshae society except through trading and raiding. They’re consistently portrayed as uncouth, brutal, villainous invaders; there’s one single Northman in the entire novel who’s not a complete dick, and he gets killed off a few pages after his introduction. The Ffolk, comparatively settled and peaceful, are now feeling the sharp end of the cycle of colonization as the Northmen rape, burn, and pillage along their coasts in increasing numbers.

(As an aside, I was surprised to see that the Northmen in this book are uncomfortably keen on the “rape” part of the whole Viking “rape, burn, and pillage” formula. Apparently some editor quickly realized that their primary audience was thirteen-year-olds, because the TSR of later eras would permit nothing more than the suggestion of sexual violence.)

And finally, as I mentioned earlier, there’s cultural colonization. For the past century, the druidical traditions of Earthmother worship have been steadily eroded by the importation of foreign religions from the mainland. Even if the Ffolk survive the existential threats of the Beast and the Northmen, they still risk losing their traditions and becoming assimilated into mainland culture. It’s a pretty straightforward retelling of real-world Christianity’s absorption of pagan cultures, but it adds a welcome dynamic feel to the setting — things are always changing, sometimes for the better but often for the worse.

This, plus the bit above about the elves being driven to extinction, demonstrates another one of the themes of the early Forgotten Realms: things fall apart and get steadily more ordinary. The elves, formerly rulers of vast empires, are in full retreat from human lands. The slow-breeding dwarves are dying of attrition against their hereditary foes. Humans spread across the globe, felling trees and establishing trade routes and slaying monsters and generally making everything settled and boring. The world is full of ruins and relics from older, more interesting eras that will never come again. They backed off from that theme pretty hard in later materials, but the early FR stuff worked hard at capturing that Tolkienish “extraordinary things are fading away” quality. I think it worked against the setting, ultimately — that sort of bittersweet feeling works really well in a self-contained story, but as a worldwide theme for a long-running setting, it’s just depressing. If you commit to it you eventually have to kill off all the things that make your world interesting, so I can’t say I’m sorry that they decided to go for a certain degree of stasis in the setting instead.

On reflection, I wish they’d spent more time exploring the colonization angle in Darkwalker on Moonshae. Apart from one particularly rude dwarf and one jerkass elf, the novel shows little of the interracial friction you’d expect given the “human colonial invaders” backstory they’ve set up. If they’d focused more on the aftereffects of the Ffolk’s colonization and subsequent relations with the original inhabitants, it would have shown off some interesting cultural conflict that’s really rooted in the setting’s history. As it stands, though, it’s little more than window dressing to the central heroes-versus-villains story. Same for the “ancient traditions versus invasive religions” angle; it’s a great idea, but apart from a bit of kvetching about Friar Nolan’s newfangled gods, it doesn’t really come up enough to make you feel how it’s significant to the Ffolk’s culture.

Plot

An ancient evil, hell-bent on destruction, awakes and slowly gathers power. The benevolent genius loci of the Isles summons various allies, including the protagonists and a whale, to battle it. Apart from the whale, it’s a pretty standard fantasy novel outline. (Hell, there’s even a magic sword macguffin.) It’s told from a wide variety of alternating viewpoints: the main protagonist (Tristan), the antagonist (the Beast), various people corrupted by the Beast who act as fifth columnists, the Earthmother, a Northman war leader, and so on.

I found that alternating between the protagonist and antagonist viewpoints added a lot to the story. Seeing what the villains are up to on a regular basis continually raises the stakes and makes the heroes’ situation feel more precarious. The omniscient narration does mean that there’s not a lot of suspense — many things that would have been foreshadowing leading up to a dramatic reveal, like the Earthmother’s children awakening, are just shown right away. Everyone’s plans are right on the table from the outset, and there’s no ambiguity about who’s good, who’s bad, and what everyone’s motives are. But it works, largely because the villain is more interesting that the heroes here, so the villain bits are a nice salty break from the bland whitebread of the protagonists.

The end is a bit more Lord of the Rings than Dungeons and Dragons, once the action moves to the hero’s and villain’s armies having epic battles, and it doesn’t do the story any favours. The entire last quarter of the book is one long series of battles and sieges that just goes on and on with no pauses for breath or chances for characterization. At about the seven-eighths mark, I found myself just exhausted by all the big, complicated fight scenes.

The novel feels like it was originally written as a complete standalone story, but then had the final few paragraphs tacked on as a sequel hook. Not sure if that’s actually how it was originally planned, but it certainly feels that way.

Characters

Tristan, the protagonist, is a serviceable if uninspiring character. He starts off as kind of a tool, full of insecurity and jealousy and braggadocio, but after his dumbass behaviour gets someone killed he shapes up and gets a bit of character development. There’s a prophecy about him, of course — because this is the kind of fantasy novel where the protagonist must be the subject of at least one divinely-inspired prophecy to maintain their standing in the Heroes’ Union Local 159 — and you can pretty much predict his entire character arc by Chapter 2. Oh, and naturally he’s a prince. His chilly relationship with his father the King had the potential to be interesting, but was handled in too heavy-handed a fashion; it seemed like his father’s only narrative purpose was to periodically show up and say “Shut up, son. I hate you.”

On the other hand, Kazgoroth, the Beast, is actually a reasonably interesting villain. Its motivations seem no more complicated than “I want to destroy things because I’m evil”, but it’s how it goes about doing so that’s fun to watch. It’s cunning. It knows it’s not invulnerable, so it gradually builds up its strength, corrupting useful individuals and personally setting plans in motion with patient malice. It averts the common pulp fantasy pitfall of the villains just sitting around waiting for the heroes to arrive, and watching it carefully gathering resources makes you appreciate it as a worthy adversary for the protagonists instead of just a generic “dark lord” stereotype.

Calimshan is a country on the mainland which is basically a mashup of Arabic and Turkish culture, if I recall correctly, so when the first Calishite in the novel was described as an “oily merchant” and the second was a thief, I thought “Oh hell, they come from the Kingdom of Cheap Arabian Nights Stereotypes!” Fortunately, Daryth, the thief in question, turns out to be a clever, loyal, and resourceful character who avoids ticking any further stereotype boxes and ends up being the most likeable character of the lot. I often found myself wishing that he’d been the primary viewpoint character instead of Tristan.

There’s a couple of other members of the protagonists’ party who don’t get enough screen time to really talk about them as characters here. Perhaps they’ll get more development in subsequent books of this trilogy? We’ll see.

Where the book falls down hard on characterization is with Robyn, the protagonist’s token female love interest. She’s pretty, soft-hearted, nature-oriented, talented but in a way which doesn’t overshadow the protagonist, and fundamentally dull. She serves as an object of romantic rivalry for Tristan and Daryth, and her newly-blossoming druid powers act as a macguffin of sorts plot-wise, but she has very little personality of her own. She’s defined by her relationships with other characters and the setting, not by her own rarely-expressed thoughts or feelings. In short, she’s a classic example of Men Act, Women Are: she tags along with the male characters in a passive way and serves as a love interest just by being present, rather than by indicating interest or instigating a relationship herself. I hope she gets more interesting by the second book or this trilogy might end up being a slog.

In fact, now that I think about it, nearly all the female characters in this book are rubbish. Most of them are described primarily or solely in terms of their attractiveness to the male cast members. There are maybe two named female characters who aren’t sex objects, a young halfling lady and the chief of the druids, but the former doesn’t really have any reason to be in the story and the latter only shows up rarely to deliver exposition or be a deus ex machina.

Oh, and there’s a faerie dragon (little dragon-like thing with magic powers) who’s one of those characters like Star Wars‘ Jar-Jar Binks or Olaf from Frozen, where they aim for “childlike naiveté” but plunge all the way into “annoying immaturity bordering on severe mental problems”. Even better, I vaguely recall that he’s going to be a recurring character who will aggravate me further in future books. Funny how I don’t remember that archetype being nearly as irritating when I was reading these as a kid, but as an adult I can’t stand it.

Writing

It’s sufficient, I suppose. The author is inordinately fond of commas, often punctuating a sentence with five or more where two would do, but that’s a venial sin. More damning is the dialogue, which doesn’t seem to find a consistent tone. Sometimes the characters are chatting between each other like ordinary modern-day people, and then one of them will suddenly start talking like a Ren Fair actor who’s had a few too many glasses of mead:

“I ask you all of able body for help. I also offer an opportunity to any who would strike back at the invaders who have sullied our land and killed our loved ones!” The prince was encouraged to see many listeners straining to hear. “The enemy comes soon, from there!” He pointed to the low hill, six miles away. “I will meet him there, with a company of knights, and others of seasoned foot!”

…Of seasoned foot? What the hell is a seasoned foot? Are we talking, like, trotters with pepper and sriracha? Barbequed pigs feet? I suppose the knights do need something to eat. [2] And “you all of able body”?

That whole paragraph is one of a handful of garbage fires in the novel. It seems like TSR’s editing for the first couple years of the Forgotten Realms series was pretty sketchy — whether from lack of experience or lack of time, I couldn’t say. I hope that the overall quality gets better over time, but I expect that the next several novels are going to have some howlers like this.

Conclusion

Grade: D+

It’s aggressively mediocre. Competent, not terrible by any means, but not doing anything that would distinguish it from any of the other million fantasy novels out there where a whitebread prince gets a girl, finds a magic sword, and defeats a great evil according to a prophecy. In short, it feels like paint-by-numbers fantasy.

More importantly, it doesn’t feel like the Realms. Since it’s set in fantasy Wales, you get a reasonably well-executed pastiche of British history instead of any of the unique flavour of the world. In no way does this seem like a promising start to the series.

Footnotes

[1] “The Origin of the Moonshae Isles”, Jeff Grubb.

[2] Before you leave a comment explaining this sentence, yes, I know what he was trying to say. It’s just a very awkward-sounding way to say it.

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