Tantras

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

We’re back for the second of Scott Ciencin’s two books in the Avatar series. (It was the “Avatar trilogy” initially, but in later years they added a couple of tangentially-related books about the aftermath of the original three.) He had to produce two novels back-to-back in a short time frame; let’s see if the second one shows any improvement after all the practice he got from the first.

Shadowdale, despite being a tiny farming community in the middle of a trackless forest, is one of the most written-about places in the Forgotten Realms. As the setting for one of Ed Greenwood’s long-running D&D campaigns before the setting was published, it’s been developed in excruciating detail [1] and boasts a disproportionate number of powerful heroes and characters of significance to the setting. This is the fourth book out of the nine we’ve looked at so far where the characters visit Shadowdale at some point.

All those books, plus the tabletop setting materials, paint it as an idyllic agrarian community. The inhabitants live simple and rewarding lives, despite the ever-present threats hanging over their heads from various nearby dangers, and visitors readily find contentment and relaxation there — whenever it’s not being attacked, anyhow. So I’m intrigued by how Ciencin tries to take the established “peaceful utopia” characterization and twist it into something darker and more cynical. It doesn’t actually work, but it could have if it had been handled more deftly.

What he seems to be trying to do is to demonstrate how, given the right provocation, this village of previously welcoming and good-hearted people can turn into a lynch mob of crazy people who are willing to indulge their yen for vengeance by stringing people up in a travesty of justice. It’s a clever idea, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Let’s compare it to a work that pulled off this trope really well: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Consider the famous scene from Mockingbird — too long to quote here directly, alas — where a lynch mob descends on the local jail and the protagonist, a young child, wanders into the confrontation. What makes this scene (and the entire novel) great is that the mob isn’t just an enemy for the protagonists to overcome, but rather a crowd of people who have gotten swept up in an emotional moment and temporarily lost their humanity. Scout unwittingly defuses the situation by reminding each of them of that humanity, that they can all choose to be individuals rather than a collective mob.

You need good character work to make that kind of scene hit home, but just about everyone is behaving like an idiot here in Tantras. Before, during, and after the trial, all the dalesfolk are portrayed as bloodthirsty bullies without two brain cells to rub together, lacking the humanity necessary to make this mob anything more than an initial obstacle for the heroes’ journey. It’s not even a matter of being swept up in an emotional moment — all of the dalesmen who travel with Kelemvor to capture the other heroes spend weeks dreaming up ways to cold-bloodedly torture and kill the escapees. Little effort is spent on characterizing the members of the mob as actual people — in fact, Lhaeo and Thurbal are the only townsfolk who are portrayed as neither cruel nor stupid. It’s all just too black-and-white, too over-the-top to feel believable.

Plot

Midnight and Adon were near Elminster when he was sucked into another plane of existence, and there was an exploded corpse found nearby, so everyone in Shadowdale assumes that they killed him. They have a show trial where they’re sentenced to death [2], and then Cyric crosses over the moral event horizon by murdering a pile of guardsmen to rescue them. Kelemvor is sent along with a posse to retrieve the fleeing fugitives, and then after a series of misadventures they end up hunting for a divine macguffin in the city of Tantras. It ends with a giant kaiju slugfest as a couple of giant avatars battle it out Godzilla-style for control of the macguffin, which is a much more satisfying and plot-relevant climax than that of the previous book.

Cyric’s story is actually one of the better bits of the novel. After becoming separated from the other protagonists, he ends up tossed from one dangerous situation to another, escaping each with increasingly clever feats of guile and treachery. By the time he gets to Scardale, he’s gone from being a helpless prisoner to leading an entire regiment of Zhentilar troops, all thanks to his silver tongue. Unfortunately, he goes almost completely out of focus for the rest of the novel thereafter.

The heroes’ journey through war-torn Scardale and into Tantras is actually fairly enjoyable, introducing a variety of engaging minor characters and embroiling the heroes in a conflict which is bigger than they are. I must admit to having groaned in pain at the whole Bell of Aylen Attricus bit, though, where Ciencin sets up a really obvious “only the chosen one can use this magic thingy to save the day” device, and sure enough, one of the protagonists has to use it to save the day at the end. How convenient!

Themes

If I had to pick out a theme in this novel, it’s “good people doing bad things.” Kelemvor is a good person cursed to do bad things. Cyric initially had some good in him, but he gives himself entirely over to evil here. The simple and friendly people of Shadowdale turn into a frothing lynch mob after Elminster’s death. The priests of Torm in Tantras start purging the city of unbelievers by any means necessary, convincing themselves that it’s for Torm’s greater good. Any other character who’s not a dick has a high probability of ending up dead.

That leaves Midnight and Adon as the moral centre of the story; they’re the only particularly well-fleshed-out characters who consistently demonstrate basic humanity.

Characters

The character work here is a pretty mixed bag. Kelemvor buys into the “My friends killed Elminster” story way too easily — not just going along with it because he’s compelled to by his curse, but actually believing it initially, even after he saw their farce of a trial. Why? Because the author needed to manufacture conflict between the protagonists, I suppose. I could buy him helping the dalesmen hunt his friends down because of his curse, or because he’s just kind of a dick, but by this point in the books he’s spent long enough with Midnight and Adon to know that they wouldn’t have murdered Elminster or a temple full of priests, so it just makes him look rather dim.

The story also requires Storm and Mourngrym, two minor characters who have previously been shown to be compassionate and even-handed, to become complete assholes — more so than can be explained just by their friend dying. I like the idea of showing how normally good people can do bad things under the wrong circumstances, but the radical change from their previous characterizations in Spellfire, Azure Bonds, and Shadowdale is just too over the top to feel like a natural result of grief. It could have worked if it had been handled with a bit more subtlety, but as it is it just feels like more manufactured conflict — the story needed some assholes to persecute the heroes, and these were the characters nearest to hand.

Cyric’s fall from grace is handled in a not quite believable fashion; there’s some foreshadowing, but we never actually see how it happens. By the end of the first book it’s clear that he’s a damaged person with a dark side, but by the beginning of this book he’s willing to cold-bloodedly murder half a dozen innocent people without a shred of remorse, and I’m not quite clear on how that huge leap happened. He had some empathy for other human beings in the first book; here he has none whatsoever. What happened to it? However, once you get past the abruptness of his character shift, his sociopathic behaviour actually makes for interesting stories. I thought the interpersonal conflict between him and Midnight and Adon in the first half of the book was well-done.

As in Shadowdale, Midnight is the straight man of the group. She’s unfailingly good-hearted and goal-oriented, the only one of the group who stays focused on their quest instead of getting distracted by personal issues. I never quite found her relationship with Kelemvor convincing, though; it’s never made clear what she sees in him or why they work as a couple. Honestly, he seems like kind of a jerk. In the first book her motivation is basically spelled out as “I haven’t gotten laid in a long time, and he’s reasonably attractive,” but then it’s not quite clear where or why it flipped over from physical attraction to “I trust you implicitly and will follow you anywhere,” especially given how often they fall out with each other. It feels like there’s a step missing there, especially as only a few months have elapsed over the course of these two books. Hell, he even holds a knife to her throat at one point and she’s not particularly fazed by it.

Adon gets the best character development by far. He starts off the book in a catatonic state, paralyzed by his loss of faith in his goddess and guilt over his role in Elminster’s presumed death, then slowly rediscovers a sense of self and purpose over the course of the novel. His transformation from shallow pretty boy to thoughtful, well-rounded humanist over these two books has been the least awkward of any of the protagonists’ arcs.

Elminster shows back up, of course; he’s not dead, and still as smug and vaguely omniscient as ever. The instability of magic in the setting at this point keeps him from being a plot-solving deus ex machina, fortunately, so the protagonists still end up doing all the interesting work.

Bane is still a disappointing villain — perhaps even more so here than in the previous book. He struts and preens and makes a big show of being evil, but does very little that actually makes him seem scary or effective. Even his henchmen are more impressive than he is! To add insult to injury, he gets played for a fool by both Cyric and Kelemvor, who each meet him face-to-face, talk their way out of a painful demise, and then eventually betray him. I can expect that from the extraordinarily cunning Cyric, but Kelemvor? Seriously? What god would be fooled by that guy? The upshot here is that Bane never succeeds at anything over the course of the entire novel, and if your villains never succeed at anything, they neither inspire menace nor add narrative tension.

Once we get to Scardale and Tantras, the minor characters are reasonably well done, with memorable distinguishing characteristics and sensible motivations. I always appreciate a good supporting cast in a novel; it makes the world feel like a lived-in place rather than just a stage where the protagonists can strut.

Writing

It’s a little better than the last one, largely because there’s less of the off-putting “tell, don’t show” that marred Shadowdale. I suppose I’d describe it as noticeably less clunky.

However, if I had to name one particular thing that gets on my nerves about the writing in this novel, it’s how much game-specific language there is in it. For instance, many characters are described as “fighters” and “thieves” in a way that would be baffling to anyone who wasn’t a D&D player. Those words don’t have their natural meanings of “people who get in fights” or “people who steal things”; they’re technical terms which the author uses to denote archetypes and indicate the characters’ abilities in a purely game-mechanical way. The cumulative effect of things like this makes you feel like you’re reading the chronicle of someone’s tabletop D&D game instead of a novel.

Conclusion

Grade: C+

It’s better than Shadowdale, but only incrementally. The prose is a bit more readable, the characters have more agency and interesting interpersonal conflicts, and the supporting cast is better-defined. But the plot wobbles between fun and hackneyed, and the villain is rather unimpressive. On the whole, I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who’s looking for a good Realms book to read, but it’s not actively painful to read like some of the previous novels we’ve seen.

Footnotes

[1] And I mean excruciating. The original Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting actually included a census of most of the town, well over a hundred people, written in an in-universe style, complete with occupations, family relationships, and notes about personality or distinguishing characteristics.

[2] Depicted in a particularly fanciful manner by the cover artist with Mourngrym as a Gor-style warlord surrounded by bikini-clad harem girls. Come on, folks, he’s a married man. Keep it classy.

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