Feathered Dragon

Author: Douglas Niles
Published: April 1991

Another trilogy comes to an end, but this one is more of a mercy killing than a conclusion. After this, TSR would attempt to quietly forget the existence of Maztica; there was a boxed D&D campaign setting and a couple of adventures published, but they didn’t exactly set the gaming world on fire. As far as I know, none of the later novels attempted to revisit the continent, which was written off by players, authors, and game designers alike as a regrettable mistake.

The conclusion is hard to argue with, really, and this book certainly does nothing to sell the setting. The only parts of the it which were actually interesting in the previous two books — the Maztican culture and politics — are entirely absent in this one. The Nexalan empire is destroyed, everyone bands together and abandons internecine conflict in the face of a monster invasion, and none of the local culture gets described because everyone’s too busy not getting eaten.

Plot

The plot, such as it is, makes no sense. The evil god Zaltec’s most loyal followers have all been transformed into a variety of monsters — orcs, ogres, and trolls. So he thinks it would be an awesome idea to lead them on a rampage to massacre the people of Maztica. You know, the people who were his most devout followers. The people who would willingly allow themselves to be sacrificed in his honour. The people who rounded up slaves and prisoners for his altars. The people who built him all those giant pyramids. Way to go, genius.

So our heroes lead a column of refugees from Nexal across the desert to a place the gods have prepared for them, which we’ve never heard of until the start of this book, receiving regular divine supply drops of water and manna on the way. If you’re starting to get the impression that this is another one of those books where the gods do everything and the characters don’t do anything, you’re not wrong.

But now that I think about it, not even the gods do a good job here. For instance, at one point the protagonists are arduously traversing a desert to reach the city of Tewahca, pursued by monsters. Qotal teleports the protagonists away from a losing battle where they face certain death. (Yes, it’s yet another irritating deus ex machina.) He drops them in the desert, a long walk away from Tewahca, which they arrive at too late to accomplish their goal. Why didn’t he just teleport them directly to their destination? Then we would have short-circuited half a book’s worth of this tiresome plot. Better yet, if he could teleport them, why didn’t he just do that a few dozen pages earlier and spare them all the tedious, time-wasting trekking across the desert in the first place? Way to go, genius.

It all concludes with the gods getting banished from Maztica because a couple of random mortal side characters got stabbed, which apparently is sufficient to banish gods… or something. It’s an unsatisfying and hand-wavey conclusion to a 900-odd-page series.

Themes

Appropriately enough, the theme seems to be “you can’t fight fate.” Which makes sense, given that everything in the plot is driven by some form of divine visions or flat-out divine intervention. It really makes you wonder why the gods can’t cut out the middlemen and just have it out between themselves, leaving the mortals out of it.

It even gets lampshaded frequently throughout the book:

“You have done well, Daughter of the Plume,” [Qotal] said.
“I have done what I had no choice but to do,” Erixitl replied simply.

You’d think with all these lampshades he’s hanging on it, the author would have realized at some point that this was a serious narrative problem. Sigh…

Characters

Just as in every other book she’s appeared in, Erixitl is utterly useless. Hell, the first noteworthy thing she does in the book is faint. She starts off as the ostensible leader of a large group of refugees, but she never makes a single real decision in the entire course of the novel. Various sorts of divine messages tell them where to go and a handful of other male characters are in charge of the action and warfare scenes, which basically leaves her as a powerless religious figurehead. It’s been three books and she’s yet to do anything which would make me care about her as a character. We’re repeatedly told that the god Qotal has a great purpose in mind for her, but what that boils down to in practice is that she’s a puppet of fate who never accomplishes anything on her own. This keeps happening in Niles’ books with depressing regularity. Just once, I’d like to see him write a book with no divine intervention or mystical prophecies in it where someone in the plot has some real agency… but I’m not getting my hopes up.

Halloran is, if possible, an even flatter character here than he was in the previous books. His only narrative purpose is to follow Erixitl around as she’s dragged hither and yon by the gods and occasionally slice up monsters who attack her. He gets a couple of angsty “woe, our future is so uncertain!” speeches, but they don’t land at all for me — after three books, I just can’t bring myself to care about these rather uninteresting characters or their future.

On the other side, the bad guys have been transformed from evil humans into literal monsters, which makes them much less interesting. There’s not even the pretense of any moral ambiguity or character development here, just “bad monsters fight good humans” for hundreds of pages. And just like in Black Wizards, Niles tries to compensate for the narrative weakness of the villains by bringing in way too many threats… and once again, the extra threats are 1950s B-movie monsters. This time, instead of zombies and fish-men, it’s the giant ants from Them!. They’re just another mindless horde of evil mooks with no characterization, and the book already had one too many of those. Worse yet, the “giant ants” thread is spun off into a separate plotline in a distant, unfamiliar place that lacks any characters we particularly care about; all it accomplishes is to suck the oxygen away from the combustion of the main plot until the subplot is resolved by yet another deus ex machina.

Since the colonial invaders were reduced to a tiny remnant in the previous book and are now allied with the Mazticans, the author needed another colonial threat to keep up the “Spanish Conquest” theme. So we get a cartoonishly evil commander with a faux-Spanish name (“Don Vaez”) leading a second expeditionary force to hunt down the first one. He doesn’t bring anything to the story — unlike Cordell, who was a mixed bad of good and bad qualities, this guy is just a moustache and black coat away from being Snidely Whiplash. From the minute he’s introduced, he’s just too cheesy to take seriously.

Darien, the drow mage from the previous books, returns as a drider. She’s immediately used as a sock puppet by not one but two evil gods, because heaven forfend that any character here should be allowed to have their own motivations. As such, she’s unable to rise beyond a generic “grrr, I’m evil!” characterization. Not sure why she’s even in this book, to be honest; the plot would play out much the same without her and her companions.

Writing

From the very start of the book you know you’re going to be in for a wild ride. The description of the Ethereal Plane at the beginning (too long to quote in full because it’s so damned florid) is some of the most goofy, overwrought, unnecessarily dramatic writing we’ve seen yet.

It fills the space between the flesh-bound worlds and the higher planes of the immortals, a place of emptiness, and a void.

Oh, so it’s a place of emptiness and a void. That’s good. I wouldn’t want to confuse it with one of those voids that’s crammed full of stuff.

The whole book is like that. Here’s a description of a big walking statue:

The mountainous form stood out like some jagged, natural bluff, worn by wind and water into the crude resemblance of monstrous features. Yet in its motion, it belied the explanation, for it became a menacing, monstrous object of impossible scale.

It’s so monstrous, he had to use the word twice. In fact, the word “monstrous” gets used 69 freakin’ times in this book. The descriptor “purple” doesn’t begin to cut it here; this prose shades into ultraviolet.

There are a myriad of other minor problems, like the continuity of whether the ants are black or red, but it feels pointless to nitpick small things here when the big things are so broken.

Conclusion

Grade: F

I very nearly didn’t finish this one. I couldn’t bring myself to care about the plot or the characters, the writing was atrocious, and I didn’t care that much about seeing the conclusion to this trilogy, so there was nothing that motivated me to keep going aside from pure spite. As such, this novel earns the first F I’ve given out in this project to date, which is really saying something considering the poor quality of some of its competition. There’s a whole second trilogy of Moonshae books coming up, but I’m honestly not sure I can bring myself to sit through them unless Niles steps up his game significantly.

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