Darkwell

Author: Douglas Niles
Published: February 1989

So we’re back to the Moonshae Isles for the conclusion to the first Forgotten Realms trilogy, and I can’t say I’m excited about the prospect of spending another book with Prince Whitebread. But who knows? Maybe Niles will pull out all the stops and show us the craft he’s learned in the ten months since Black Wizards came out. (Spoiler: Nope.)

So apparently Bhaal, the Forgotten Realms’ god of murder, still has a fierce yen for wiping out all life on the Moonshae Isles for no well-explained reason beyond “he’s evil.” It’s getting increasingly irritating, actually. Bhaal is the god of murder, right? Niles describes him as “the patron god of any who would slay another of his kind.” He gains power from people killing each other — not on the battlefield, because that’s the domain of Tempus, god of war, but from them actually murdering each other. So… why would he go to so much effort to wipe out the population of the islands and render it lifeless and dead? Who’s going to get murdered and give you power if a bunch of random monsters annihilate them all, genius? I guess godlike power doesn’t give you any extra points in wisdom or intelligence.

What you’d expect from a well-written god of murder would be a plot to set all the factions at odds with one another, plunging the land into a spiral of self-inflicted violence. That would generate loads of messy, murderous deaths for him to feed off of. But no, instead we get zombie hordes and mutant killer animals and fish-men armies and whatever, but precious little of people murdering each other. It’s as if Niles needed some sort of generically evil Dark Lord for his plot, so he scanned through the long, long list of Realms deities, saw a god of murder, and thought “Yeah, that sounds evil. He’ll do!” without actually thinking it through.

Plot

The evil god of evilness is trying, for ill-defined reasons, to eradicate all life on the Moonshae Isles and sink them underwater. To that end, he summons several monster movies’ worth of mooks — a horde of zombies, an army of fish-men, and a menagerie of mutated animals — to assault the isles’ inhabitants, who band together against the threat. It all feels rather generic, to be honest. None of the villains have an ounce of motivation outside of “because we’re evil,” nor any redeeming or humanizing qualities, so they’re just flat and flavourless obstacles for our heroes to oppose.

There’s not much in the way of twists and turns to this plot. It’s a pretty straightforward buildup to the climax, cutting between the bad guys doing bad things and the heroes arduously travelling to the place where the climax is going to happen. (The place’s name is the title of the book, in case there was any uncertainty.) As with Streams of Silver, there’s little to no interaction between the heroes’ thread and the villains’ thread; unlike Streams, it doesn’t even have an interesting villain character to make the B plot intriguing.

One of the few things that it does right, however, is killing off the Earthmother (the genius loci goddess of the Moonshae Isles) early in the book. It’s a good “oh shit!” turn of events which raises the stakes for the story, because it tells you that there won’t be any more divine intervention to save the day, unlike in Black Wizards. It permanently changes the setting, and it gives Robyn a chance for some character development as she mourns the loss of her deity and finds a new god to worship.

As an aside, if you’re a traitor who’s ingratiated themselves with the heroes, and they tell you that they’re trying to beat the villain by taking a magic scroll to a certain place, what would you do? You could lead them the wrong way into peril. You could kill them in their sleep. You could steal the magic scroll and burn it on the campfire during your watch. Or, if you’re the traitor in Darkwell, you could just lead them straight to their destination unharmed like a complete incompetent to ensure their inevitable victory. Man, they sure don’t make henchmen like they used to.

Hell, even gods aren’t immune to that sort of stupidity in this book. At the end, Bhaal manifests a physical form in the Realms to destroy our heroes. His awe-inspiring divine powers include (a) punching people, and (b) throwing rocks at them. That’s it. The entirety of his godly might basically boils down to “stomp around like a hill giant.” So disappointing. When he’s inevitably defeated, the closing narration states that he got his ass kicked so hard that he would be banished and forgotten for generations. Nope. He shows up again a few books later.

Themes

I’m having a hard time coming up with a theme here. “Fish people are bad news”? “Bad people mess things up”? You could argue that the villains’ pollution and damage to the isles’ ecosystem constitutes an environmental message of some sort, but if so it’s handled with all the nuanced subtlety of FernGully.

Characters

On the up side, Tristan, our royal whitebread protagonist, is not nearly as much of an idiot in this book as he was in Black Wizards. The down side is that we’ve replaced the stupidity with general dickishness; he kicks off the book by cheating on his fiancée and being rude to his friends, and his character development throughout the book can be summed up as “Maybe I shouldn’t have been such a complete tool to the people I care about?” It feels like an abrupt character change for the sake of manufacturing conflict, since he was headstrong and foolish in the previous two books but not nearly such a jerk.

Still, contrived or not, it’s some character development and it works reasonably well. He screws up really badly, continues being a jerk throughout the book, and only gets his head back on straight at the end. Robin takes a long time to get over her bitterness and forgive him, so it doesn’t feel like a cheap sitcom reconciliation, and he seems like a more mature character by the end than he did at the beginning.

Robyn is more interesting in this book than in the previous two, fortunately. She goes off on her own to fulfill self-directed goals, overcomes problems without assistance, and has a much more central role in the story than her former “chosen one of the Earthmother” and “passive love interest” parts. She’s got a decent character development arc where she gives up her traditional Earthmother worship and becomes a cleric of Chauntea, and has to learn to forgive Tristan for being such a dick. However, between the two of them, they consume all the character focus available in the novel.

Daryth, the Calishite thief, meets a tragic end halfway through the book, and it’s actually one of the better bits. He pits himself against a superior foe, battles it with all his cunning and cleverness, and still loses, which makes the foe seem actually dangerous and not just another one-scene roadblock for the heroes. The other characters are appropriately affected by the loss and grieve for a long time, which makes for good character moments and raises the stakes for the story. Still… Daryth was the most likeable of the supporting cast, but reading this I realized that after two and a half books, I know significantly less about him as a character — and care correspondingly less — than I did about Akabar from Azure Bonds after just one book. None of the supporting characters in these books get much in the way of backstory, characterization, or screen time, so it’s hard to get too attached to them. There’s a few characters I haven’t even mentioned here because there’s just not much to say. Pawldo, Tavish, Yak… who are they? What do they like, where do they come from, what motivates them? We get only the barest of hints, so they remain paper-thin characters who just round out the fight scenes.

Newt is still annoyingly immature. Yazilliclick the sprite is still… what even is he, anyhow? He doesn’t accomplish a single damn thing over the course of the two books he’s been in. He mostly just tags along with the heroes, serving no purpose and getting no characterization outside of “the shy one,” when the author remembers to mention him at all. He splits up with the party for a while, spends more time accomplishing nothing in a subplot, then returns in time to accomplish nothing. I’m not clear on why he was even in the books.

And like I said earlier, the villains are sufficiently flat that it’s not really possible to talk about their characters. They just do bad things because they’re bad people and someone has to set the plot in motion.

Writing

The Sword of Cymrych Hugh was like a feather in his hand — a thirsty, violent feather.

It’s, uh… it’s not great, folks. It’s really not great.

As with the other books in this trilogy, the issues with the writing are mainly about inconsistent tone. Both the narration and the dialogue wobble between speaking plainly in normal English and discoursing elaborately in overwrought purple prose. (R.A. Salvatore has a similar problem, but without the wobble — all his prose is maximally purple.) I think too many fantasy writers, Niles and Salvatore included, fall into the trap of reading Tolkien at a young age and thinking that the antiquated diction in it was what made his novels so compelling, then trying to ape it badly. It’s not the diction that makes a fantasy novel good, however, but the quality of the ideas, the richness of the setting, and the construction of the plot and characters. Diction trails distantly behind all those qualities, in my opinion — it’s merely the clothing that you dress your story up in, but if you don’t have a good story to tell, it won’t help you.

(I’m now going to have a hard time not referring to random things in my daily life as “a thirsty, violent X”; it’s too hilarious a turn of phrase to pass up.)

There’s also quite a few passages which go beyond “tone problems” straight into “how on Earth did an editor not flag this”, like this three-sentence paragraph which is the entirety of a largely-ignored giant battle scene:

The result of the battle was perhaps not preordained, but it may as well have been. Thousands of attackers poured into the breach, to be met by hundreds of defenders. The defenders could not stand, nor did they.

I could write a thousand words on everything that’s wrong with that paragraph, but I’ll refrain and just let it speak for itself. I’ll just leave you with one more such awesome passage — it was hard to pick just one, but this won out.

“Why?” grunted Randolph, striking aside Pontswain’s thrust and settling back on guard. His eyes expressed a legion of scorn that could not be phrased into words.

“Don’t be such a fool!” sneered the lord. Pontswain slashed savagely once, twice, and both times his blade clashed against the captain’s steel.

“Your arrogance would be amusing, if you weren’t so treacherous.” Randolph held steady, watching his foe. “Did you really think you could steal the Crown of the Isles and escape like a thief in the night?”

“Your discovery and interference is trivial!” Pontswain sprang at the captain, slashing desperately, then suddenly stumbled back with a bleeding wound across his cheek.

“Now your arrogance is amusing!”

I have “a legion of scorn” for this dialogue. This was actually in a professionally published novel.

Conclusion

Grade: D

The plot is simple, the writing atrocious and overwrought, the characters mostly flat. In some ways, it’s actually a step back from the previous book in the trilogy. So we end where we began: with a straightforward fantasy story where a prince with a magic sword and a white mage girl defeat a big evil guy to save the kingdom.

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