Viperhand

Author: Douglas Niles
Published: August 1990

The year of historical fan fiction continues apace! Having taken a two-book detour from the Spanish conquest of the New World to watch the Mongols invade China, we’re now back in Central America Maztica for the next installment of Dances with Jaguars.

In some ways, it’s not quite as bad as the first book. Some of the characters are a little livelier, we see a bit more of the setting, and the story is finally past the clichés of first contact and into the more interesting territory of “what the hell do we do now?” The book is strongest when it’s dealing with Nexalan politics and the conflict between the Mazticans and the Amnites. I particularly appreciate how it does a good job of evoking the catastrophic effects of the invasion on the country and how ordinary people are victimized by the war. (Compare this to the war in Dragonwall, which, aside from a few mentions of refugees, involved nobody who wasn’t a soldier or noble.) It’s at its weakest, unfortunately, when it’s following the protagonists; their story should be the heart of the narrative, but it feels flaccid and perfunctory.

Plot

The Golden Legion attempts to conquer the kingdom of Nexal and claim a fortune in gold, unaware that their actions will be the catalyst for an apocalyptic disaster. Our heroes attempt to avert the crisis, but since this is book two of a trilogy, they naturally don’t succeed.

Once again, it’s a plot driven almost entirely by coincidence rather than the characters’ motivations. The characters’ only big goal is “prevent the apocalypse”, but rather than actively pursuing it, they’re dragged from scene to scene by contrivance, more witnesses to their own story than active participants. Everyone is impelled by prophecies, divine visions, “an unconscious sense of urgency” (shorthand for “my plot sense is tingling!”), or an invariably correct and completely unexplained intuition. There’s lots of unsubtle “Suddenly, that thing they found a few chapters ago turned out to be exactly what they needed!” moments — the cloak, the bracers, the potions, etc.

In fact, after reading this novel, I find myself heartily sick of the entire concept of “divine wisdom,” which is omnipresent in this book but always extraordinarily vague and completely useless. Erixitl receives visions from Qotal; they come in the form of dramatic spooky darkness, but never suggest any course of action or give practical advice. Coton, the high priest of Qotal, is a wise elder who sees the entire plot as it unfolds, but is under a vow not to say or do anything. Erixitl’s father is a magical blind man with some sort of second sight who — you guessed it — uses it to dispense extremely vague advice. But the winner of the “useless divine wisdom” award goes to Gultec’s teacher Zochimaloc, who says this after divining dire portents in the stars:

Zochimaloc shook his head with a wry chuckle. “What does it mean? I know not for certain. The full moon will shine over the world, as always, and great things will happen — things we cannot predict, or perhaps even explain. But when next wanes the moon, the True World will not be the same.”

So let me get this straight, old man — you did a Ph.D in Astrology just so you could tell us “the moon’s going to keep shining, and things will be different”? Jesus, I could have told you that! Ultimately, all these divine messages are mere atmosphere, overdone almost to the point of parody, and the book would have been far better off without the reams of hazy, pointless foreshadowing.

There’s a half-hearted and awkward attempt at a love triangle between Erixitl, Halloran, and Poshtli, but it’s mercifully brief. It’s all very melodramatic: there’s some misunderstandings worthy of a TV sitcom, people interrupt each other and storm out before they can say the few words that could have resolved all the confusion, and then they all make up with no hard feelings. The whole episode serves no purpose other than to heavy-handedly separate Erixitl from the party for a while.

Themes

The end of the world! Everything is going off the rails, headed towards some terrible catastrophe. It’s a good theme, but not expressed very well. It’s mostly shown through the foreshadowing of the abovementioned divine visions, but ultimately those are a failure of “show, don’t tell” — it’s more impactful to show how things are in danger of falling apart than it is to repeatedly tell the reader “Hey, things are going to fall apart!”

Characters

Halloran, our hero, is a tiny bit less rubbish this time around; he’s been taking an interest in learning the native culture and language, and has a bit less of the wide-eyed naif about him. Sadly, it’s not enough to make him a three-dimensional character. He still feels like a generic beefcake sort of hero: he gets romantic with the designated female love interest, is dragged around by destiny rather than his own goals, and demonstrates his brawn in the occasional action scene. But what sort of person is he? What does he do in his off hours? What does he like and dislike? I still have no idea. If you asked me those questions about Giogioni Wyvernspur from The Wyvern’s Spur, I could write a whole essay about what sort of person he is, because he’s a well-developed and vividly described character. Halloran, though… I just finished reading this book and I can barely think of a couple of sentences to describe his character. That’s never a good sign.

Erixitl continues to be an entirely passive character who does nothing of interest or importance. As with Robyn in the Moonshae trilogy, two men just start spontaneously fighting over her romantically with no particular involvement on her part. She frequently plays the damsel in distress; she’ll end up in a dangerous situation, and then either one of the male characters saves her or divine intervention protects her — or sometimes both. The one time she actually attempts to take a plot-relevant action, a divine emissary prevents her from doing so. Her only real contribution to the plot is to constantly have portents of doom in the form of scary but vague visions, and to be a living macguffin for a prophecy. Why is she even in this book? Seriously, you could write this book without her in it and it wouldn’t change much at all.

It wasn’t as bad with Robyn; at least she got a chance to go study with the druids and defend her grove and all that. But Erixitl hasn’t had any of that sort of independent development yet. I can’t even answer the most basic question one should be able to answer of a main character yet: “what do they want?” Her main goal seems to be “let’s not have everyone die”, which is pretty basic as wants go and tells us nothing about her as a character.

The best characters in the novel are Naltecona, the ruler of the kingdom of Nexal, and his nephew Poshtli. Both are wise, honourable, directly active in the plot rather than being told what to do by the gods all the time, and well-rooted in the setting. They come into conflict later in the story over how to respond to the depredations of the foreign conquerors, and that conflict actually feels pretty well-done. That’s something we don’t see too often in these novels, and something I’d really love to see more of: conflicts between characters where the conflict isn’t a straightforward matter of “good vs. evil,” but a philosophical disagreement or difference of opinion.

The mercenaries of the Golden Legion are functional but not great. Most of them are patently evil jerks whom the author spends no time on humanizing: Alvarro, the Bishop, Darien. Cordell is still a greedy, ruthless bastard, but he gets a bit more character time than the other three. Daggrande, the dwarven crossbowman, is the only one who’s given any redeeming characteristics. This is a shame, really, as they were a great chance to put the reader in an interesting moral quandary by having real humans on both sides of the conflict. If there had been some moments where we got to see the rank-and-file soldiers talking amongst each other in an unguarded manner — a chance to hear their uncertainty at being so far from home, their concerns over the direction of the expedition, their wistful conversations about what awaits them back home, that sort of thing — one might have more empathy for them. Instead, they just seem like humourless robots blindly following the Captain-General’s orders. One of the only genuinely tense scenes of the book is when they have to fight their way out of Nexal against insuperable odds, but it would have had more emotional impact if they weren’t such a bunch of complete tools.

The drow, the ostensible masterminds of the plot, are a generic Evil Council of Evilness. They bluster and threaten often, but their role in the book in terms of actual actions is negligible. Once they’re finally revealed, all that setup is for naught; they accomplish nothing and are trivially cut down by the heroes and their divine aid in a way that murders any potential for drama. Pretty soon the drow will get a distinct characterization and culture, courtesy of R.A. Salvatore, but at this point authors are still treating them like your typical moustache-twirling villains: disposable and uninteresting.

Gultec, a minor character from the first book, gets a number of cutaway scenes in Viperhand where he receives vague wisdom from a Yoda-style teacher and learns magic powers, then does nothing with them. Like Yazilliclick from Niles’ previous trilogy, he’s a spurious extra who seems to serve no narrative purpose in this novel. I hope he’s got plenty to do in the final book, because his story has been a two-book-long subplot that’s all setup and no payoff so far.

Writing

It’s actually pretty decent, which is surprising coming from the guy who wrote Darkwell. The setting feels fairly real, the dialogue ranges from acceptable to pretty good, and the diction doesn’t get in the way.

Like Ironhelm, there are periodic interstitial excerpts from a chronicle written by a priest of Qotal. Unfortunately, here they’re almost entirely used to recap what’s currently going on, describing the events of the novel thus far in a portentous, slightly overwrought manner. They would have made a good opportunity to show off aspects of the Maztican culture and setting which weren’t obvious from the main storyline, but instead it’s just a periodic refrain of “Here’s what just happened, and the gods are about to kick our ass!”. I know what just happened, thanks — I just read it.

There’s my usual complaints about a few obvious grammar mistakes, but perhaps we should just take it as read at this point that TSR’s editing department was not exactly a well-oiled proofreading machine.

The power of that eruption […] will lead to an explosion from which the city cannot survive.

Conclusion

Grade: D+

There are a few things to like about this book, but the character work is too sloppy and the plot too contrived for me to give it a decent grade. I’m looking forward to taking a break from the historical fan fiction for the next couple of books; that’ll be a breath of fresh air. Or stale subterranean air, as the case may be, but still a nice change.

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