Shadowdale

Author: Scott Ciencin (as Richard Awlinson)
Published: June 1989

Here’s the point where we start to see how these books aren’t just fantasy novels based in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting, but very specifically Dungeons & Dragons fantasy novels. In 1989, TSR published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition, a major overhaul of the venerable AD&D tabletop role-playing game. It brought a host of changes that had been overdue for a decade: simplifying the dice mechanics a bit, removing the assassin, cavalier, and monk character classes, reorganizing how divine spellcasters and magical schools worked, removing psionics, et cetera. More of an evolution than a revolution, really, but still enough to cause problems for the fiction and sourcebook writers of the Forgotten Realms.

Imagine that the rules your setting is based on has suddenly, say, lost the assassin class. You’ve got two choices: you can either divorce the mechanics of the game from the fiction and just say that “assassins”, in game terms, are just sneaky rogues who kill people for money, or you can embrace the mechanics and try to explain why there are no assassins any more. The editors at TSR went in wholeheartedly for the latter approach, so this entire trilogy is essentially a series of “just so” stories which explain how the mechanics of the game changed between 1st Edition and 2nd Edition AD&D.

I’m not convinced it was the right call, frankly. The narrative needs of a tabletop RPG and a well-constructed fictional world are very different. And the setting was only two years old at this point — it’s not like it was growing stodgy and needed some sort of shake-up to make it feel fresh again. All it accomplishes is to show you the bones of the tabletop ruleset poking through the fiction like a compound fracture. Hell, there were even tie-in adventure modules for AD&D so that gamers could play through the events of the novels themselves. (I’ve never read them and can’t comment on their quality or how closely they hew to the novels’ plotlines.)

This is also the first trilogy which was written by multiple authors, presumably so that they could get the books out fairly quickly to coincide with the release of 2nd Edition. The entire trilogy was published over a period of five months, which is fairly heroic even for two authors. The first two were written by Scott Ciencin and the third by Troy Denning, but they were all released under the pseudonym “Richard Awlinson” for some reason. (I’ve heard anecdotally that it was because TSR wanted to ensure that bookstores would put all three books of the trilogy together when they shelved them alphabetically by author.)

Plot

The book opens at the outset of the Time of Troubles, as it would later be known. Ao, the abusive father of the Forgotten Realms’ gods, punishes the entire pantheon for the actions of a few who overstepped their boundaries and stole certain divine macguffins. He exiles them to the mortal world, where, almost entirely bereft of their divine power, they’re forced to inhabit mortal bodies as a lesson in humility. Naturally, this causes worldwide chaos and upheavals; natural processes like rain and sunrise start going surreally berserk without the gods to keep them in line, priests can’t receive divine spells unless they’re within a mile of their god’s avatar, and with Mystra (the goddess of magic) absent from her post, arcane magic has gone completely haywire. It’s quite an interesting setup, I’ll give it that; the Forgotten Realms is a very magic-heavy setting, so there’s a lot of potential in telling stories about how the balance of power shifts when Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards is inverted.

Meanwhile, an unlikely group of heroes is brought together to rescue the goddess Mystra, who’s been captured in her weakened state by Bane, the god of tyranny and strife. They succeed, things go pear-shaped, and then they head off to Shadowdale, the Great Attractor of the Realms, where things go even more pear-shaped. It ends with a huge battle scene that feels like more of a setup for the next book than a proper conclusion, resolving only a small, localized issue in the context of the greater story. Still, that’s not surprising for the first book of a trilogy.

Mystra ends up dead by the midpoint of the book, which is a plot point that will shape the next two books. The goddess of magic is a favourite chew toy for the writers of the Forgotten Realms; the first goddess of magic (Mystryl) died 1,700 years earlier, Mystra dies here, and her successor is going to have her share of fun times too. Every time they need to shake the setting up, it’s always “Hey, let’s off the goddess of magic!”

But despite the promising setup, the actual plot feels contrived. The characters get a pretty standard call to adventure, where a vagrant waif hires them to rescue a damsel in distress. Once that rescue succeeds, more or less, Mystra tells the heroes where to go next, Bane somehow magically overhears that (it’s never explained how or why), and he goes there too. Then they’re attacked by pretty much everything. The heroes have little agency here. It never feels like they have much choice in what to do at each step; instead, it feels like they’re dragged around by the needs of the plot. If this were a tabletop game, I’d be complaining about being railroaded.

Themes

The theme that comes through most strongly, for better or worse, is powerlessness. The gods are stripped of their powers, humans quake in fear at the resulting upheavals and wonder what terrible things will befall them next, and the heroes are merely the playthings of fate — or of the author, which amounts to the same thing.

It’s a good theme in some ways. I liked the narration early on about the city of Arabel, where it described all the weird and unpleasant things that were happening there and how the citizens were tense and scared as a result. It established a nicely grim tone, I thought, though the weirdness devolves into meaningless surreality once the characters are off alone in the countryside and you can’t see how it’s affecting society. And the point-of-view scenes from the gods are interesting; although I’m no fan of the excessive anthropocentrism of their behaviour and dialogue, we get a good sense of how disorienting and unpleasant it is for them to be in human bodies.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell an interesting story where the protagonists are powerless, and as I said earlier, the heroes are distinctly lacking in agency here. Instead of them doing things, things happen to them. Around the midpoint of the book, you realize that it’s not going to get any better and just succumb to the ennui of watching them get dragged around by the plot.

There’s also an underlying theme of deep cynicism about religion. You see the gods behaving very badly: Tymora milks the populace for money, Gond ignores many of his worshipers entirely, and Bane just sends his faithful to die in droves for his own greater glory. Even Mystra chooses a young girl for her avatar and gets her killed by being an arrogant fool. You see the faithful still try to hold on to their belief in the face of the gods’ absence, but it’s presented as a futile endeavour. I’m actually pretty fond of this theme, as it calls into question a lot of the implicit assumptions of the setting and sets up the potential for some very non-standard Forgotten Realms stories — potential which is incompletely realized in the end, but I’ll give partial marks for trying.

Characters

The gods, brought down to the level of mere mortals, are major players in this book. They have to gather what little power they can muster and defend their frail mortal forms from other gods who might seek to settle old scores, all the while trying to return to their divine realms one way or another. They’re nicely dismissive of their human worshipers; even the ostensibly good gods see them largely as squishy tools to be used and cast aside, which makes their mindset seem a bit alien.

It’s not enough, though. In general, I’m not a fan of any story where you have vastly powerful gods who are written like ordinary people. Even before being depowered, the gods squabble, laugh, and feel fear in an extraordinarily anthropomorphic manner. It robs the concept of some of its grandeur when the gods just seem like exceptionally powerful, arrogant, and quarrelsome humans instead of ineffable divine forces. The more different they seem from us, the more exciting it would be to see them brought down to our level.

Bane, the villainous god who sets the plot in motion, is a so-so character. As the god of tyranny and strife, he basically fills the role of “evil god of generic evilness,” much like Bhaal did in the Moonshae trilogy. Unlike Bhaal, though, that’s very much his dedicated role in all the Forgotten Realms setting material. (Need some evil humans for your plot? Just mix in some Bane cultists!) In this book, he can’t go two paragraphs without doing or saying something to remind you just how evil he is. What raises him above the banal villainy of the Moonshaes’ version of Bhaal is that you watch him struggle with his sudden mortality — his confusion at needing to eat and sleep, his need to hide his mortal frailties from his worshipers, and his horror at how he’s growing sentimentally attached in a human fashion to his mortal assistants. The end result is a mixed bag, too cartoonish to take seriously but better than it could have been.

Then there’s the mortal heroes who end up opposing him, most of whom demonstrate a distinct and refreshing lack of heroism. There’s Kelemvor, a swordsman under a strange magical curse which requires him to be sort of a dick to people in order to avoid periodically turning into a monster and killing folks. (It makes more sense in context.) He’s probably the strongest of the lot, character-wise; he’s gloomy, abrasive, sexist, dangerous, and slow to trust. You watch him slowly defrost and become less of an asshole and more of a human being over the course of the trilogy, though I wouldn’t say he ever gets to the point of “likeable.”

Adon, a priest of Sune, goddess of beauty, is foppish and cartoonishly egotistical. This caricature of a dandy exemplifies Wrong Genre Savvy; he thinks he’s the handsome hero of a rousing tale of derring-do, but he’s actually expendable, insufferable, and somewhat dim. When the realization finally dawns on him he doesn’t take it well, but becomes a much less flat character as a result.

There’s Cyric, a world-weary and suspicious thief with a shady past who rounds out the cast with a healthy dose of cynicism. Like Kelemvor, he’s given lots of room to develop over the course of the trilogy; he starts out morally grey and ends up… well, anyone familiar with the setting knows where he ends up, but we’ll get there eventually. His streak of cowardice and fatalistic internal monologue are a welcome change from the relentless valor of the previous couple books’ protagonists, and yet he’s written sufficiently sympathetically at this point that the reader isn’t left thinking “Christ, what an asshole.” He just seems like a damaged guy with some serious issues, initially.

And finally there’s Midnight, the lady mage who gets implanted with a piece of Mystra’s divine power; she’s competent, smart, self-assured, practical, and unwilling to take shit from people. She’s a good foil for Kelemvor and gets a fair amount of character development, but I find myself wishing that she had anything in the way of flaws to balance out her positive character traits. Kelemvor is a jerk, Adon is vain, Cyric is… well, Cyric; compared to her dysfunctional teammates, Midnight feels a bit too perfect and out of place. But then, I suppose every bunch of misfits needs a straight man. Think of her as the Zeppo of the group.

The early setup is nice, with the backstories of most of the characters being tied together. Three of them are dealing with the aftermath of a semi-successful adventure together, so it feels like you’re stepping into the middle of their stories instead of the beginning; it grounds them in the setting and makes them feel like more well-rounded characters.

Writing

It’s better than the last couple books we’ve looked at, that’s for sure. This book follows Azure Bonds‘s lead and opts for plain-spoken English and modern diction instead of Greenwood’s faux-Shakespearean dialect or Salvatore’s florid dramatics. It fits the grittier, less high-fantasy tone of this series better — the characters are spies and city guardsmen, not princes or heroes of legend, and the world is going down the tubes around them in a grim and nasty way, so a fancy tone would have felt terribly out of place.

There’s still rather a lot of room for improvement, though. Ciencin has a distressing tendency to dump massive amounts of exposition all at once, whether by long flashbacks, by characters spouting backstory for pages at a time, or by long As You Know speeches between two characters who have no reason to be talking in such an expository manner. The bones of the story aren’t bad, but it’s often presented very clumsily in a “tell, don’t show” manner.

In fact, it’s not just the exposition which gets this treatment. We’re often just told outright what the characters are doing or feeling as part of the narration instead of actually having the characters do or emote it. Here’s a particularly egregious offender:

Later, as they ate a meal taken from the pouch, Kelemvor felt a tightness in the pit of his stomach. The food was dreadful, and he seriously questioned the wisdom of eating any food taken from a magical source during this time of instability in the art. The heroes finished their meal without conversation, but the looks on their faces conveyed their thoughts quite well. Then Midnight broke the silence in the camp with a wish that Adon’s healing spells would return at the earliest opportunity to settle their upset stomachs. The comment met with a hearty round of approval from both Kelemvor and Cyric.

Why have this scene at all if the characters aren’t going to act it out? It’s baffling.

There’s some odd plot and setting holes here and there, too. For instance, apparently a delegation of worshipers of Gond, god of craftsmanship and invention, went from Tilverton to Lantan and back over the course of the book’s first half. That’s a journey of about 3,200 miles round-trip, most of it overland, and presumably they must have done it without magical assistance, given the state of magic at the time. Did they invent the internal combustion engine?

(And another writing tip: Don’t refer to “Spanish moss” if your story is set in a fantasy world that’s got no Spain in it.)

Conclusion

Grade: C

I initially hoped that this might be the first B I’d give out, given that it’s an original premise with plenty of potential rather than the standard “heroes fight monsters” stories from the previous couple books I’ve reviewed. Unfortunately, as the novel wore on, the clumsy writing and contrived plot got on my nerves more and more. It’s the author’s first novel; we’ll see if he stepped up his game for the second book of the trilogy.

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