Song of the Saurials

Author: Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb
Published: March 1991

1991 was a good year for closing out trilogies; the Empires trilogy, Finder’s Stone trilogy, Maztica trilogy, and Dark Elf trilogy all saw their final books in the first half of this year. But unlike the other three, the Finder’s Stone trilogy isn’t really much of a series. Azure Bonds and The Wyvern’s Spur were a pair of standalone stories, loosely connected by a couple of plot threads and characters, but taking place far from each other with very different protagonists. Now Song of the Saurials is bringing all of the Azure Bonds characters together for a reunion tour… but can it tie the series into a coherent plot and recapture the magic of the original?

Well, no. Not at all, really. It’s a serviceable but ultimately disappointing finale to what was otherwise an excellent couple of books. There are some good character moments and some clever bits, but they flounder under a fairly straightforward plot, uninspiring villains, and heaps of exposition.

Plot

The gods give Akabar some visions about Moander, the dark god from Azure Bonds, returning to the Realms, so he travels to Shadowdale to get the band back together and go deity-hunting. It’s a pretty weak setup, as plots go. “The gods give you a quest” ranks right up there with “You all meet in a tavern” and “You’re the chosen one” amongst the pantheon of bad role-playing game clichés. It dumps the plot fully-formed onto the characters instead of giving them the chance to discover it gradually for themselves. It looks at first as if the authors are going to let the characters figure things out organically through Alias’ strange songs, but then Akabar and Zhara show up to hurry things along and all ambiguity disappears. A slow realization of the scope of their problem would have made for a much more effective story and perhaps given them a chance to work in more plot twists, because this one is arrow-straight compared to its predecessors.

Honestly, I wish they’d just made the third book another loosely-connected standalone story like The Wyvern’s Spur rather than trying to make a direct sequel to Azure Bonds. The “suddenly there’s danger and we have to get everyone back together” plot feels perfunctory and a bit forced; they didn’t leave themselves enough sequel hooks in the previous two books to make this feel like a natural conclusion to the characters’ stories.

The protagonists are split up into multiple separate groups for the majority of the book, which slows the pace of each thread to a crawl as it switches back and forth. You can get away with that sort of thing in a George R.R. Martin-style doorstopper, but it’s a lot harder to pull off in a breezy 300-page mass-market paperback. Azure Bonds did this too, particularly in the Shadowdale and “chasing Moander” sequences, but it was used much more deftly there. It was always Alias’ story, with the supporting characters’ scenes furthering her plotline, and the bits where it was switching back and forth only lasted for a limited time before all the characters reunited again. Here it feels constant and annoying.

The trilogy’s eponymous finder’s stone also contributes to the weakness of the plot. In the first book, it was just a glowing rock that would find things; in the second, it displayed a couple more special abilities. By the third book, it turns out that it’s actually an artifact of tremendous magical power, and in Finder’s hands it can do… well, pretty much anything the plot needs it to do. The extent of its powers are never defined, so the authors are free to handwave logistical difficulties that the characters find themselves in by having the stone do magic for them. It’s not a major narrative-destroying problem, but just another contributing factor to why this story feels sloppier than the others. Another such factor is Alias’ telepathic link to the saurials; it starts off as a good way to introduce vague plot hints and atmosphere, but later provides the protagonists with such specific and timely information that it feels like a deus ex machina on the authors’ part to keep the story moving.

Themes

Self-sacrifice is the clear theme here. One character dies for something they believe in. Finder has to grow past his selfishness and learn the concepts of self-sacrifice and compassion to achieve his destiny and save the day. That actually works pretty well; Finder is the most complex character in the book, and his character growth is fun to watch.

It’s a somewhat darker book than the previous two, tone-wise. Between the creepy mind control, Finder’s oblivious amorality, and a mad god torturing and slowly genociding an entire town of creatures, it feels more grim and less heroic. I don’t think that makes it a better book, though. If anything, it feels like more of a slog when the grimness isn’t relieved by the occasional dose of humour or sentiment — without the light to contrast against it, darkness gets boring pretty quickly.

Characters

There are far too many protagonists all competing for the reader’s attention — Alias, Akabar, Dragonbait, Zhara, Finder, Olive, Coral, and Grypht — and you can really feel how it sucks the life out of the novel. Both of the previous books focused on one or two main protagonists, occasionally cutting away to the satellite characters for specific scenes. This made for excellent character work; you got to spend a long time with each main character and get to know them as a person. But here the point of view is constantly cutting between many different characters, none of whom get the same degree of care or attention which the previous protagonists enjoyed.

Alias is an excellent example. When she was the protagonist of Azure Bonds, you spent most of the novel seeing the world through her eyes. She was outwardly tough, but hiding an inner core of emotional vulnerability to which only the reader was usually privy. When she felt threatened she’d lash out or do something stupid, but you’d see it all through her eyes and empathize with her confusion and unhappiness. Here, they get across the same concept by showing other characters watching her being an immature jerk. Her emotional immaturity is well-justified from a story point of view, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch from other characters’ perspectives; it just makes her seem like kind of a tool.

Akabar is rather more boring and serious in this one, without the wry humour and curiosity he had in his first appearance. Seems like his role as “prophet of doom and gloom” doesn’t leave much room for expressing a personality. I must admit to liking his wife Zhara as a character, though; she’s very much like Alias personality-wise but with a completely different worldview and culture, so they strike sparks off each other right away. Like most of the other characters, however, she doesn’t get enough time for proper development because she’s competing for that time with so many others.

Moander made an excellent villain in Azure Bonds. He was out of touch with the modern world, not really clear on how human behaviour worked, and demonstrated a delightfully alien mindset. Sadly, the Moander whose return sets the plot of Song of the Saurials in motion is far less interesting. He’s doing his best impression of the standard Evil Overlord, a gloating, unconvincing vaudeville sort of evil, and it’s simply boring by comparison. It wasn’t just the vines and mouths that made Moander scary; it was the strange intelligence behind them. At least he’s not entirely useless; he pulls off the occasional deception well, and his minions give the heroes enough trouble to be, if not quite credible threats, at least more than mere speed bumps.

The ranger Breck starts off with some potential as a hotheaded Harper jerk who’s accidentally throwing a wrench into the party’s plans. As the newcomer, he doesn’t know any of the other characters, so his blundering around and making incorrect assumptions yields a few good moments. Alas, the major downside is that he needs lots of events from the previous books explained to him in an increasingly tedious fashion. Once he’s no longer causing conflict his usefulness to the plot is at an end, but he sticks around for half a book anyhow just soaking up the exposition.

The only standout characters of the lot are Finder and Olive, whose troubled friendship forms the emotional core of the novel. Finder, in particular, is the character who gets the most development and has the strongest arc. He’s incredibly proud, arrogant, and self-absorbed, but he gets by on the strength of his silver tongue and a magnetic personality that draws people to him like flies to honey. Watching this emotionally crippled loner try to figure out how to be a good friend, good parent, and, ultimately, a hero is the most rewarding part of the book, and he’s portrayed in a larger than life fashion that makes his scenes fun.

Olive, the only character who appears in all three books, is the emotional heart of the story. Her rapport with Finder is excellent; she sees him for the egotistical, self-centred jerk he is but loves him despite it. And as one of the only people Finder actually respects, she ends up playing the role of his conscience much of the time. I think this novel would have been vastly stronger had it just been based around Finder and Olive, rather than the horde of protagonists we ended up with, because they’ve got the best moral quandaries and most affecting scenes of anyone here.

Writing

The writing is acceptable, though punctuated by the occasional typo. It’s straightforward and serviceable, without much music to it. What’s not acceptable, though, is the vast amount of time the book spends on exposition for the benefit of readers who haven’t read the first two books. Characters will explain things to each other at the drop of a hat, often in an obvious and stilted manner, and for people who have already read the rest of the trilogy it becomes rather tiresome. It’s at its worst when two separated groups of characters meet up and one group has to explain to the other what just happened a few pages ago; that’s fairly common, too, given how often the party splits up.

Another major problem is that two of the protagonists are mute, and one of them doesn’t understand everyone else’s spoken language. This complicates things tremendously — so much so, in fact, that I think it was a mistake having Grypht in the book at all. Alias and Dragonbait communicate with a thieves’ sign language that she teaches him, but its unlimited expressiveness stretches my credulity to the limit. You’d think a set of thieves’ signs would be specialized for things like “There are two guards ahead” or “Wait five minutes and then create a diversion”, not for having deep emotional conversations with a full vocabulary. It’s worse with Grypht; some humans use magic to communicate with him, but then they have to translate everything he says for the rest of the party:

“I have scried on my people for months as they built this new body, but I had no idea it was so huge” Grypht said. “I never attempted to view it all at once. I never imagined the scale they’ve built it to.” From the hamlike smell the wizard emitted, Alias could tell that Grypht was extremely worried.

“Grypht didn’t realize it was so large, either,” Alias explained to the adventurers who couldn’t understand saurial.

This happens all the time, and gives the dialogue a jerky start-and-stop feeling not unlike being in a stick-shift car with a new driver. Conversations can’t flow naturally under those circumstances.

The “mute person with a different means of communication” worked very well in Azure Bonds. It was a good way to hide secrets from the reader; after all, Dragonbait could have explained the entire plot in moments if he’d been able to speak. In Song of the Saurials we get an omniscient narrator who shows us all the plot twists without any subterfuge, so there’s no point in characters hiding information. Furthermore, circumventing the language barrier was an interesting challenge for the characters initially — but now that everyone knows how saurials communicate, there’s nothing more to milk out of that. Best of all, Dragonbait understood Common just fine, so he wasn’t the target of any tedious explanations like Grypht is here.

But the most grating, nails-on-a-chalkboard part of the writing for me was Elminster, whose antiquated style of speaking has been cranked up all the way to pseudo-archaic nonsense. “Thyselves” isn’t even a real word! “Thy” is a singular second person pronoun, so it should just be “yourselves”. [1] And you can’t just search-and-replace “did” with “didst” any time you feel like it. Argh!

Conclusion

Grade: C

I really wanted to like this book. The characters are old favourites, there are some really good individual character scenes, and there was plenty of potential in the concept. But the execution is just so flat and sloppy that I can’t help but wonder what went wrong here. A pity, really.

Footnotes

[1] Spellfire made the same mistake at one point, but I think my brain was sufficiently numbed by all of the unnecessary archaisms by then that my eyes glossed right over it.

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