Spellfire

Author: Ed Greenwood
Published: July 1988

In the 1960s, years before Dungeons and Dragons, Ed Greenwood initially created the Forgotten Realms as a setting for his fantasy fiction. In 1988, once the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting hit store shelves, he finally got his chance to publish his original Forgotten Realms fiction in novel form. Surely the creator of the setting will have come up with something better and more flavourful than the books we’ve seen so far, right? Well… let’s take a look.

This is the first of the Forgotten Realms books to be published in one of the “heartlands” of the setting. Waterdeep and the Sword Coast in the west and the Cormyr/Dalelands area in the east are the two most lovingly detailed regions of Faerûn; Spellfire takes place entirely in the latter. It’s nice to have a book that’s set in civilization for a change, rather than a remote corner of the world, so that we can see what life is like in the rest of the Realms.

The reason why those two particular regions are so detailed is that Greenwood was the Dungeon Master for a couple of very long-running D&D campaigns set in those areas of the Realms, so they’ve benefited tremendously from many years of collaboratively-created details. Unfortunately, you can really see the D&D campaign roots showing through once the story gets to Shadowdale. The Knights of Myth Drannor, the adventuring party from Greenwood’s Dalelands campaign, show up here as supporting characters, then end up doing most of the work and getting a lot of the characterization. Between them and Elminster, it feels like the two protagonists aren’t the most important people in the story by a long shot. In fact, they spend an awful lot of time just witnessing the supporting cast being awesome.

The novel also tries to cram in as many iconic Realms characters as it can — Elminster, Fzoul, Manshoon, the Simbul, and even Khelben Arunsun all make appearances. It’s a double-edged sword, I think; it gives the world more texture when you see how many big organizations and powerful people are all carefully balanced against each other in a sort of magical détente, but it also crowds the story with characters who are only tangentially relevant to the protagonists’ journey.

The world-building, as you might expect from someone who’s spent the previous two decades building the world, is quite good. There’s references everywhere to bits of history, the chapters all open with excerpts from fictitious books, and the characters speech is peppered with unique oaths and maxims. Plenty of attention is paid to the little details of the environments in a way that makes them easy to visualize.

There’s a good mix of high fantasy and low fantasy: people get hangovers, have to relieve themselves in bushes, eat breakfast, get saddle sores, etc. It’s a nice contrast between the epic and the everyday which I find lacking in Tolkien and his imitators, and it helps the world feel real. And Greenwood takes care to make magic feel ubiquitous yet special. People have an awareness of magic and mages aren’t an uncommon sight, yet it’s still treated with reverence, people gasp in surprise when they see a magic sword, and practitioners speak of it in the sort of terms in which an artisan might speak of their craft. Many of the other Dungeons & Dragons novels fall into the trap of hewing too closely to the rules of the D&D game, a mistake which takes all the magic out of magic and just makes it feel like a mechanical “insert quarter, get lightning bolt” sort of system.

Plot

Shandril, a young scullery maid, runs off from the inn where she grew up to seek a life of adventure. Narm, a young apprentice mage, follows his master to seek knowledge and treasure in the ruins of Myth Drannor. These turn out to be terrible ideas, in retrospect, as they both spend the next half of the book being menaced in one way or another. Lots of things explode. They’re rescued and taken to the rustic farming town of Shadowdale, where everyone continues to be menaced and things continue to explode. It’s the Michael Bay approach to fantasy novel-writing, where you cram the book as full as possible with dragons, magic, fireballs, heroism, messy deaths, PG-13 sex, and little moral ambiguity.

Unfortunately, the plot is really what lets this book down in a big way. The individual ingredients are good — fun characters, exciting action, good world-building — but the plot which holds them together is one where the protagonists spend much of the novel doing nothing on purpose. About half of the book is a non-stop parade of “villain shows up, attacks the heroes by stealth or surprise, the heroes fight them off.” Rinse and repeat. I complained earlier about the way Robyn had no agency in the Moonshae trilogy, where she’d follow the other characters around and just do what they said. Here it’s even worse: neither Shandril nor Narm make any plot-relevant decisions after they get to Myth Drannor. If they’re not getting captured by something, they’re getting told what to do by the infinitely more competent supporting characters who spend the entire book saving their asses.

So the plot grinds on and on, as wave after wave of villains attack our heroes by either stealth or force and are beaten back, and my patience for them wears thinner and thinner. They’re nice characters, sure, but why make characters if they’re not going to do anything?

There are occasional glimpses of events occurring outside the immediate area of the protagonists, like a brutal power struggle among the Zhentarim or the machinations of the Cult of the Dragon, and those make the world seem a bit larger and more complicated. But ultimately they all serve the same purpose: to explain why people keep coming after Shandril in such an incessant and tiresome way.

The real problem is scope. If you want a plot that involves some of the most powerful movers and shakers in the setting, you can’t put a couple of wet-behind-the-ears chumps in the role of heroes because they just can’t interact with the big players in any way more meaningful than “try not to get obliterated.” The occasional glimpses of outside events don’t help because we don’t care about them — if the protagonists don’t care about the ongoing Zhentarim power struggle, for instance, and none of the other characters are involved with it, then why should the reader care? It just becomes an irrelevant digression which smacks more of world-building than story-crafting.

Themes

If I had to sum up the theme of this novel in two words, it would be “Everyone fucks.” Seriously, there are ridiculous numbers of people having sex in this novel — tame, fade-to-black-style PG-13 sex, of course, but still. I suppose you could describe the novel as “sex-positive”, inasmuch as positively everyone is having sex. But it’s not particularly objectifying — consent is enthusiastic and people of all ages and genders seem equally eager, so that seems like a good example for a book aimed at teenagers to set. Could have been worse.

The only counter-example to “enthusiastic consent” is a person who sexually harasses the female protagonist, but that’s depicted as just one of the many attributes which make them universally loathsome, and they get their comeuppance by the end of the novel.

Where it gets weird, however, is when you consider that Shandril starts the story as a sheltered young sixteen-year-old, falls in love with pretty much the first attractive young man she’s ever seen in a very Disney-like way, and then they get married. At sixteen. And then she gets pregnant. That’s… a somewhat less good example.

Some fantasy authors justify this sort of thing by an appeal to realism: “In the Middle Ages, young women would have been getting married as early as thirteen, and this is a medieval fantasy world, so sixteen isn’t unreasonable in-universe.” That’s a popular misconception, but it turns out to not be as true as many people think. In any event, there’s still a lot of cognitive dissonance for a modern reader around teen marriage, teen pregnancy, and proposing to someone the day you meet them, which are all generally considered to be terrible ideas in Western society, so I find this aspect problematic.

Characters

Shandril is a reasonably well-realized character: decently established motivations, emotional development, ties to other characters and the setting, et cetera. Still, you couldn’t call her a strong female character by any stretch of the imagination; the “wide-eyed naif” act gets overplayed before long, and she has zero agency at all. At the beginning she chooses to run away, and that’s the last important choice she makes for herself in the entire novel. Everything else is stuff that just happens to her or is decided for her by others: kidnapped, rescued, protected, trained, and sent off to safety.

It’s not a gender thing, though, because her beau Narm is equally lacking in agency. Like Shandril, he’s hapless, in constant need of rescuing, and has a monotonous tendency to faint, fall unconscious, or burst into tears. (Between the two of them, they faint or get knocked out eleven times over the course of the novel. Seriously.) And like Shandril, he makes a single choice early in the novel (to return to Myth Drannor) and then gets swept up in the plot and doesn’t make any noteworthy decisions after that point. Honestly, it’s a credit to the effort put into characterizing them that I don’t utterly despise them, because they’re not nearly engaging enough to carry this book.

It’s the supporting cast which makes the book interesting. There’s Elminster, a Gandalf clone who’s been Greenwood’s pet character for decades. He’s another divisive Mary Sue sort of character to the fandom, largely because he has one of two jobs in most Forgotten Realms works: either “show up briefly to dispense sage wisdom” or “save the day as an unstoppable deus ex machina.” [1] Interestingly, in this, his first appearance in the novels, he does neither. He doesn’t do the majority of the ass-kicking, and spends most of the novel very closed-mouthed about what he knows rather than dropping exposition. But he’s still hammy as hell, which is why it’s good that he’s only present in occasional scenes. (More on this in later books…)

The rest of the supporting cast are the Knights of Myth Drannor, the characters from Greenwood’s old D&D campaign, who are actually the liveliest of the lot. They have exciting battles, banter constantly amongst themselves, and demonstrate camaraderie and caring for one another. The unfortunate result is that they steal the show from the ostensible protagonists, who spend entire scenes asleep while the Knights are fighting for their lives.

The villains menacing them are… well, I suppose the best word would be “disposable.” They churn through villains at a tremendous rate; by the end of the book, the tally of asses kicked is something like three dracoliches, one dragon, three archmages, a handful of mid-level scrubs, hundreds upon hundreds of char-broiled mooks, and one chef. Most of them have no discernable motivations aside from “I work for an evil organization, so I do their evil bidding.” The only one who feels like an actual character is Manshoon, who is driven to rash acts of vengeance after someone close to him is slain; the rest are just generically evil. Not much to say about them.

One bit I did appreciate, though, was the ennui of the undead dragons. You see how each in their own way has achieved what they thought was their ultimate ambition and found it hollow and pointless, which gives a bit of sympathy to what might have otherwise just been big scary boss monsters.

Writing

Surprisingly decent, actually. Greenwood is good at the sort of little details which I appreciate most in a story: small tidbits scattered here and there which develop the characters, setting, or plot in subtle ways.

There was always work to be done. Each spring she even washed the ceilings of all the bedchambers while tied to a ladder so she wouldn’t fall off. Sharp-eyed old Tezza did the windows, all those tiny panes of mica and a few panels of blown glass from Selgaunt and Hillsfar, which were far too valuable for Shandril to be trusted to wash.

Every word counts when writing, so if you can make your words do double or triple duty, that’s a big win. That last sentence, for instance, tells us about the setting: glass is rare, expensive, and comes from distant places, which makes the world feel larger and more exotic. But it also tells us about the characters, because now we know that the people at the inn treat Shandril like a child. Little character details like that make her running away more of a sympathetic, understandable decision rather than an inexplicable, petulant thing. Pile up a bunch of double-duty sentences like that and you get a rich texture to a book.

But the problem with the entire book, really, is that it’s pretty good on the micro level but falls down on the macro level. Like all the previous books we’ve already seen in the series, the pacing is fairly terrible. About a third of the book is one long sequence which begins shortly after Shandril runs away and involves constant peril, uncertainty, and combat with very little in the way of pauses for breath. The characters — and the reader — don’t get to relax until they finally get to Shadowdale. It feels unbalanced to have the climax at the middle of the book and then have things calm down and stay comparatively calm (which is to say, only occasional explosions instead of constant explosions) until the very end.

Many of the characters speak in a stilted sort of “ye olde Englishe” which, while it adds to the immersion in theory, feels somewhat jarring after the last three books of people speaking in perfectly normal modern English. You could see it coming from a character like Elminster, who’s five hundred years old and might reasonably be expected to have archaic speech patterns, but when it’s coming from the rest of the characters it feels a bit precious. The only way I can see that working is if it had been clearly introduced as some sort of regional accent (i.e., “people from the Dales talk all faux-Shakespearean”) and TSR had actually been able to get the rest of the authors on board to make it consistent. As it is, I’m not surprised that Greenwood was the only author who kept trying to make it work.

Conclusion

Grade: C+

Honestly, you can tell it’s a first novel. Some of the characterization is quite good, but the plot is rubbish; it’s got issues with pacing and just drags the helpless characters from drama to drama without a break.

That said… it’s got something that the previous books we’ve looked at so far have lacked, a quality which is certainly its strongest point: the richness of the world-building. I can tell that it works because reading Spellfire is making me want to start writing up notes for a new D&D campaign. If you miss at telling a solid story, inspiring creativity isn’t a bad secondary goal.

Footnotes

[1] Interestingly, Greenwood has said that TSR pushed him to make Elminster more of a major character in the Realms than he’d planned, insisting on giving him more appearances in novels and getting Greenwood to cosplay as the old sage at conventions. While it’s understandable — having recognizable characters is great for brand awareness — the end result was, in the opinion of this author, an irritating degree of overexposure.

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