All Shadows Fled

Author: Ed Greenwood
Published: October 1995

I can’t say that I went into this book with high hopes. The first two books in this trilogy merited D– and D grades, respectively — grinding slogs of constant combat and mystifying motivations held together by the thinnest of plots. The general impression was of an author writing as fast as he could by the seat of his pants, wasting not a moment on minor details like characterization or pacing. It seems unlikely that Greenwood’s writing will have substantially improved between the second and third books, especially considering the frenetic rate at which these books were cranked out… but on the other hand, the nice thing about having rock-bottom expectations is how easy it is to be pleasantly surprised. Let’s wade in, keep an open mind, and see if we can find something worthwhile to be surprised about here. If we can’t, at least we can take solace in the fact that the next Ed Greenwood novel is the better part of a year away. [1]

Plot

It’s tricky to talk about this novel’s plot because it feels like two entirely disconnected stories crammed together into the same book. The first half of it is a recapitulation of Shadows of Doom: the heroes defend the Dalelands by slaughtering hordes of disposable Zhentarim. Then that storyline wraps up and is never mentioned again, and it’s off to part two: the epilogue of Cloak of Shadows, where the Malaugrym try to take over the world and the heroes put them down like injured squirrels. They don’t even feature the same set of characters — the Knights of Myth Drannor and the Zhentarim get much of the screen time in the “save the Dales” first half, but Sharantyr and her Harper buddies take centre stage for the second half.

This one picks up moments after Cloak of Shadows ended, with Syluné, Sharantyr and those two Harpers staggering away from the final battle of the previous book. And then, of course, some more Malaugrym attack. Ye gods, not more Malaugrym! I wrote about Cloak of Shadows that “the Malaugrym may be the most tragically misused villains in all of the Realms novels to date — nothing about them works.” Despite their theoretically interesting shapeshifting abilities, they ended up as little more than a pack of overconfident, incapable fools who died by the dozens at the hands of everyone they met. Surely this time Greenwood will spend some effort to make convincing villains out of them, right? Nobody wants to read a book where the heroes can do no wrong and the villains can’t do anything right.

Anyhow, the Malaugrym attack and everyone is magically knocked unconscious — including the ghost, because apparently getting knocked out is a thing ghosts do now. But when they wake up, Elminster tells them how the big battle with the Malaugrym went. Turns out he char-broiled twenty of them single-handedly while the heroes were out cold. The heroes were all grievously wounded in the process, so he used some sort of hand-wavy super-necromancy to repair their bodies to exactly the state they were in before all this happened, minor wounds and all. So… what was this scene for? Now everything is back to exactly the way it was before all this happened, except that we’ve established that the Malaugrym are a bunch of losers who can be fried by the score, and they’re so irrelevant that a battle with them isn’t even important enough to be shown on-screen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author work so hard to kill their story’s drama.

Then Elminster pushes the heroes in the direction of first half of the plot. Since this takes place during the time period covered by the novel Shadowdale, there’s a massive invasion of Zhentarim led by the avatar of Bane himself bearing down on Shadowdale. We can’t have the protagonists getting in the way of the previously published book’s plot, no matter how much Greenwood was probably longing to rewrite it, so instead of defending Shadowdale they’re sent to help the Knights of Myth Drannor defeat a seven-thousand-strong secondary force of Zhents marching up through Mistledale. The total force the defenders can muster, Knights included, is about seventy people. This is supposed to be a dramatic Seven Samurai-style “outnumbered defenders overcome heroic odds” situation, but instead it comes off as complete incompetence on the part of the Zhentarim. Seriously, they can’t succeed at anything even with 100-to-1 odds? Why do they still bother trying?

The Seven Samurai plot only works if the battle’s outcome is in doubt and the victory costs the protagonists something. But here you know from the very beginning that the Zhentarim aren’t going to succeed because otherwise the climax of Shadowdale would have turned out differently, and you know that none of the Knights are going to die because they’re the author’s darlings, the PCs from his early Realms D&D campaigns. The only tension comes from making little side wagers with yourself about which less-essential characters will be killed off. Many of the secondary characters don’t even merit names, which makes it even harder to get attached to them or to care when they’re in danger. The situation becomes even sillier during a number of cutaway scenes to various Zhentarim soldiers where we see first-hand their aggressive incompetence and constant infighting. I think we see as many Zhents die due to the actions of other Zhentarim, whether accidental or deliberate, as we see killed by the heroes! It’s nothing short of miraculous that they can figure out how to put their boots on in the morning, let alone run their little empire.

Moreover, this section is yet another long stretch of frequent combats with practically no story. Elminster tells his friends to go fight Zhentarim in Mistledale, so they do. That’s the whole plot thus far. Once the Mistledale Zhentarim are annihilated in a one-sided massacre, the heroes head back north to finish the job by taking part in the tail end of the battle for Shadowdale. Then once that’s done with, the Rangers Three (which is what Sharantyr, Belkram, and Itharr are calling themselves these days) figure “Well, we probably ought to find more Malaugrym to kill” and the plot descends into rambling confusion for the second half of the book. The heroes stumble around randomly hoping to run into the plot. Some Malaugrym pursue their own goals, but those goals are fairly petty and not that interesting. The point of view wanders aimlessly from character to character. It feels like the longest, most random epilogue a book has ever had.

At the end there’s a big battle with several Malaugrym in Shadowdale, where a minor Malaugrym character from Cloak of Shadows appears out of the blue to kick everyone’s ass. Just when everything looks hopeless, the supposedly dead Elminster shows up out of nowhere as a deus ex machina who one-shots the main villain and magically fixes everyone who was wounded in the final battle. He waits until the most dramatic possible moment to do so, of course, rather than intervening earlier before many lives were needlessly lost. There’s no explanation for how he was able to do this. It’s a thoroughly unsatisfying ending to a lost and confused plot.

Characters

Throughout this trilogy we’ve been sold the weirdest perspective on the Malaugrym. On the one hand, we’re repeatedly told what a grave threat they pose to all of Faerûn — they’re apparently masters of guile and deception who, given half a chance, would rule the world in an orgy of blood. Indeed, all they can talk about is how much fun it will be to rule the Realms once Elminster (“the Great Foe”) is out of their way. But then we’re shown what they actually do when they get to Faerûn, and it’s spectacularly underwhelming. A couple of them impulsively attack the heroes and die immediately. Some of them impersonate random people and wander around. A couple of them kill a wizard and take his stuff. One of them manages to run a small trading caravan for a couple of weeks, and that’s the closest any of them come to ruling anything.

Lorgyn nodded. “I would… and so long as we keep these things in mind, and keep humans from realizing that there are shapeshifters among them, nothing and no one stands between us and our ruling any part of Faerûn that we please. You’ll take your preferred lands, and I’ll take mine.”

These two lackwits are talking about ruling Faerûn, but we’ve seen nothing to indicate that they’re capable of ruling a chicken coop. The Malaugrym munch on the occasional random human, but they get butchered whenever they meet any named character, and they throw themselves into such battles far more often than is wise. These explorers are the youngest and dumbest of the surviving Malaugrym brood, so they neglect basic shapeshifter common sense like “don’t let the humans see you transform,” break cover at the worst possible times, and rarely work together effectively. They’re also surprisingly bloodthirsty, using their shapeshifting abilities to kill people messily more often than they use them to infiltrate and deceive.

Ultimately, they don’t deserve all of this dramatic build-up and would have been better off without it. If this plot had been framed as “These shapeshifters are evil creatures who will establish a colony in our world and kill lots of people,” that would have been infinitely more plausible than “These shapeshifters are going to conquer the world if you don’t stop them immediately!” Not every conflict has to involve a huge world-spanning threat, after all, and the bigger the threat, the more fragile the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Another change that could have made them more effective would be to add a touch of moral ambiguity. Apart from a couple of comments about what a nice guy Mourngrym is (so they’ll kill him last), the Malaugrym are wholly evil — needlessly cruel, ravenously anthropophagous, and full of an unearned sense of superiority over the humans around them. Consider how it might have played out if, say, the Malaugrym who ate the caravan master and took up running his caravan decided that he actually enjoyed this new experience of going amongst humans in this new world, then made a successful career as a merchant. Or perhaps one of the ones who infiltrated Shadowdale decides that this bucolic forest town is actually a much nicer place to live than the dreary Plane of Shadow, then ends up neutral or friendly towards the heroes. It would have showed the reader that they’re not just a monolithic horde of moustache-twirling bad guys; they have as much agency and potential for personal growth as any human characters, and the ones that decide to be evil do so out of their own free will rather than because the author said so. [2]

That said, they’re not as terrible as they were in previous books. There are fewer of them, and they’ve almost all got names. They use their shapeshifting in much more interesting ways, both for combat and for deception, rather than simply flinging magic around as they did in Cloak of Shadows. (I loved the bit with the shapeshifter making himself look like two guards sitting very close to each other.) There are a handful of little great moments when one of them does something clever, and they don’t die as often or as easily. But that’s not enough to compensate for their most glaring issue: they have no goal. Elminster is apparently dead, so they aren’t motivated to hunt him down any more. They just want to explore Faerûn and steal magic stuff now that they’re not forbidden from doing so. It’s basically Malaugrym spring break — unwise youngsters on their own without supervision for the first time, making bad decisions and getting into trouble — which is the worst way to sell them as impressive villains.

Elminster is still basically a demigod who can do anything. Fortunately, he spends the first half of the book far from the main conflict in Mistledale and seems to be dead for the second half, so he doesn’t get much screen time or annoy me nearly as much until his deus ex machina turn at the very end. He’s still portrayed as a superhero who’s single-handedly responsible for fixing all the world’s problems, though:

“Taken you until now?” Shaerl said in mock alarm. “Why, whatever have you been doing?”
“Holding the Realms together, lass,” Elminster told her rather grimly.

I dearly wish that the author would cut that out — if I wanted superheroes saving the world, I’d go read comics instead. Elminster’s best contribution to this book is that his apparent death gives the other heroes a chance for some good character development while they mourn… which, now that I think about it, is not a ringing endorsement for Elminster himself.

This book marks a first for the Realms novels with something that I’m surprised to see in a 1990s mass-market paperback: a positive depiction of a polyamorous relationship. Sharantyr’s camaraderie with the Harper rangers Belkram and Itharr has blossomed into full-fledged romance, and it’s handled much better than I expected — no jealousy or drama, genuine concern for one another, and not much leering on the author’s part. I wouldn’t call it successful, though, because Beltharr and Ikram aren’t actually two well-developed characters — they’re interchangeable quipping machines. In fact, they’re so similar that you could do a search-and-replace to swap their names throughout the text and only the most eagle-eyed of readers would notice the difference. It feels less like a polyamorous relationship and more like Sharantyr is in love with one guy who happens to have two bodies for some reason.

This is the first time we’ve seen the Knights of Myth Drannor since 1988’s Spellfire. It’s quite a difficult feat to characterize a huge pack of heroes in a 300-page book, but I thought Greenwood did a surprisingly good job there. We saw the Knights through the eyes of a couple of strangers, so the reader got to know them by watching the protagonists get to know them. Almost all of the Knights got at least one scene alone with the protagonists, giving them a chance to drop their usual “merry adventurers” bravado and be honest about who they were and what they felt. But in All Shadows Fled the author just seems to assume that you already know who they all are, and they rarely get those honest character moments that make them seem more like real people. Instead, it’s nearly all jokes and random quirkiness, with much bravado and little genuine emotion. Much like Belkram and Itharr, they’re vehicles for constant banter, jokes, and japes, but precious little of it is actually witty. It’s a letdown to find so much filler in place of characterization, especially since we’ve already seen the same author handle the same characters better.

It’s an Ed Greenwood novel, so naturally we’re barely minutes into the book before the first unnecessary, unpleasant sexualization of a female character. Elminster has constructed a body for Syluné to drive, so the Knights of Myth Drannor have been carrying a sexy corpse around. Torm, their thief, apparently has a major fetish for dead ladies, because he’s been dressing the corpse up in revealing clothes and carefully brushing its hair. I haven’t the foggiest clue what’s going on, gentle reader; all I know for certain is that I desperately don’t want to know any more.

Themes

One thing that baffles me about this trilogy is how little ties these three books together. The first one, Shadows of Doom, was all about freeing the High Dale from hundreds of disposable Zhentarim. The second one, Cloak of Shadows, was all about the characters confronting the Malaugrym menace, if you consider “bumbling around and getting slaughtered like sheep” menacing. Now All Shadows Fled splits the difference by spending its first half scything through a different crowd of disposable Zhentarim and its last half throwing more Malaugrym at the heroes. I would have expected, if not a unified plot throughout, at least some sort of consistent theme across all three books. Unfortunately, the only theme I can come up with is “Bad people are bad; let’s stab them.”

There was potentially interesting material to be had in setting the trilogy during the Time of Troubles, but it’s largely ignored here. Apart from the instability of magic, we don’t see any effects of this tumultuous period on people’s lives. I loved the beginning of Shadowdale, where the author spent a great deal of time showing how the world was slowly going mad and how it was scaring the hell out of the citizens of Arabel. Here everything is normal except that the occasional spell goes awry, and the other effects of the Time of Troubles — the gods disappearing, natural processes going berserk — are ignored completely, not even used as set dressing. Shouldn’t people be deeply bothered by this? It feels like a waste.

Writing

Not great! Awkward turns of phrase abound, and the big battle scene against the Zhentarim mystifyingly switches from present tense to past tense right in the middle of the scene. It feels like another book where the production process was too rushed to give the prose enough attention.

One particular pet peeve of mine: characters seem to always be saying things in unison.

“Of course, Shar,” they said together, and the three horses leapt ahead as one.

“The Rangers Three!” they shouted in chorus as their blades struck home.

“End drawer down the window end,” Storm and Shaerl said together, then broke into chuckles (Storm) and giggles (Shaerl) of mirth.

“Lady, we will,” they agreed in chorus, and three sets of eager tentacles met and entwined.

This is just a small selection. How often does it happen in real life that two or more people say a phrase of two or more words simultaneously? Pretty much never, outside of bad musical theatre, so it’s just one more thing that makes the dialogue feel artificial.

Conclusion

Grade: D+

This book is the best of this trilogy, but that’s damning with faint praise. It’s far less monotonous than Shadows of Doom, but that’s a low bar — there are phone books with more compelling plots than that novel. It’s got less terrible villains and a less self-defeating story than Cloak of Shadows, but the end result is still far from good. The two-part construction makes it feel like off-cuts from the previous two novels, as if Greenwood thought of some scenes about fighting Zhentarim that he didn’t have space for in Shadows of Doom and some scenes about fighting Malaugrym that he didn’t have space for in Cloak of Shadows, so he cobbled all those scenes together into one final book instead of giving this book its own coherent plot.

I think Greenwood’s biggest downfall as a writer thus far is an addiction to epicness. The strongest scenes in his books have been the breaks for character development and the setting-establishing quiet scenes that give the reader a chance to learn about the world and everyday life in it, but he so rarely employs them. He prefers to fall back upon dramatic set-piece battles, big magical explosions, and wave after wave of random mooks getting messily killed, presumably because big spectacles are easier and more fun to write than characterization. The end result, every time, is that I don’t much care about the characters and become bored by the lack of meaning behind all of the excitement. I’m looking forward to a break from his work for the next nine months or so.

Footnotes

[1] Incidentally, I am at a complete loss to explain what’s going on in this cover. It prominently features a guy with an eye patch… but there’s nobody with an eye patch in all three of these books. I even downloaded OCR versions and searched them all for any mention of a person with one eye or an eye patch, to no avail. I haven’t the first idea whom that’s supposed to be or how it relates to the book.

[2] Greenwood’s 2002 novel Hand of Fire features a minor side character who’s a Malaugrym turned merchant, so I’m glad he came around to the idea eventually.

7 Replies to “All Shadows Fled

  1. One of the things that really stands out for me about your blog is seeing first-hand why so many people disparaged D&D novels in the first place. I started writing D&D fiction in part because I was salty about the notion that you couldn’t write good material with the setting and tropes (and the more general stigma against fantasy, but that’s another story), but I don’t think I ever fully grasped just how bad they could be until you describe Troy Denning’s and Ed Greenwood’s flaws as writers.

    Your description of the malaugryms and Zhentarim makes me think of the villains in many of the cartoons I watched growing up in the ’80s that couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. On He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, kids actually started to feel sorry for Skeletor and wrote letters asking Filmation to let him win for once. And yet, Greenwood’s villains make the likes of cartoon Cobra Commander and Starscream look like Rhodes scholars.

    And, of course, we see why Elminster grates on so many people. This is why I like Fighting Fantasy’s Yaztromo and Nicodemus as better examples of powerful old archmages-they can provide some useful advice and magical trinkets, and possibly even construct the Big Magical Item That Destroys Or Imprisons The Bad Guy, but they’re also both very old and generally not up to adventuring anymore. They’re happy to let the youngsters do all the actual dangerous work and reap the glory and gold that come with it. When they do get directly involved, they often need the youngsters’ help to overcome some kind of safeguards or precautions the villain’s taken against them.

    Or you could have archmages like Greyhawk’s Mordenkainen, who will simply use adventurers as disposable pawns and only cares about their welfare so long as it accomplishes his goals. The adventurers might not like being manipulated, but things might not end well if they pick a direct fight with him. On the other hand, while the archmage might be smart, he’s not omniscient…

    1. The analogy to 1980s cartoons is quite apt. Greenwood seems allergic to letting his villains do more than hurt some random bystanders or mildly inconvenience his heroes. One can’t lay the blame at the editors’ feet, since there have been plenty of other Realms novels where the villains actually achieved part of their goal and weren’t useless: The Ring of Winter, Soldiers of Ice, The Chaos Curse, and more. It feels like, as an author, he loves his protagonists too much to make them suffer in plot-relevant ways. (The only counterexample I can think of is when Delg dies midway through Crown of Fire.)

      High-level characters are very hard to do right — the more involved they are in the plot, the harder it is to plausibly challenge them, especially when the high-level character in question has vaguely defined “wave his hand and problems disappear” sorts of powers which make it difficult for the reader to tell whether a situation is dangerous or trivial for them. This is a big reason why I was excited at the prospect of the “Elminster has to deal with the instability of magic during the Time of Troubles” setup for this trilogy. I’d hoped to see a high-level character having to deal with being brought down to earth, which is one of the only ways you can directly drive the plot with a high-level character and make it work. But he spends his brief period of depowerment in the first novel being an unstoppable juggernaut of death and the rest of the books not being inconvenienced at all by the Time of Troubles, so it fell spectacularly flat.

      1. High-level characters are very hard to do right — the more involved they are in the plot, the harder it is to plausibly challenge them, especially when the high-level character in question has vaguely defined “wave his hand and problems disappear” sorts of powers which make it difficult for the reader to tell whether a situation is dangerous or trivial for them.

        Which, again, is probably why R.A. Salvatore’s high-level characters are mostly fighter-types and magical handwaves that advance the plot typically come from magic items like Drizzt’s frost scimitar or the magical disguise mask. That said, some of the mage characters in his most recent books (well beyond our esteemed host’s intended timeline) end up overestimating their ability to control some magical entities and are nearly killed, or admit they’re outclassed by certain high-level demons and have to use clever disguise magic to fool the demons instead of just nuking them with silver fire.

        I’m looking forward to the Janitor’s views of the Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends, particularly as regards Raistlin Majere and the limits he faces as a magic-user. Notably, there are safeguards keeping him from achieving his greatest goal that he can’t just dispel and has to get around by playing the long game.

        1. I’m also looking forward to getting to Dragonlance! The first six books, at least. Lots to say about those. The rest… well, outside of a small handful of exceptions, they get pretty dire. It’s not even all that remote — 1995 is nearly done, and they hardly published anything in 1997, so that just leaves the large, indigestible lump of 1996 to plow through. Probably less than two more years, real-time, before I come to the end of the TSR Forgotten Realms era and can start jumping to other settings.

  2. Yeah, definitely it’s books like these that contribute to the “Why do my PCs matter when Elminster exists?” and “The Realms has too many powerful characters” complaints. It’s not actually a fault of the setting as presented in adventures and sourcebooks so much as how it’s used in these novels. And the fact of the matter is that it’s clear all the “epicness” and huge battles with characters taking down swaths of enemies are just a distraction from the fact that there’s no story here. This trilogy could have been interesting – not just “What was Elminster doing during the Time of Troubles?” or “Another angle on the Avatar Trilogy”, but as a chance for Greenwood to comment on a major meta-textual event that significantly changed his setting from its original form. But all of that goes to waste.

    You’re completely right that Greenwood shines when he gets to do smaller character moments. I don’t know what happened with these books in particular but I do know he’s spoken in interviews about the fact that he feels his biggest flaw as a writer when he writes a Realms novel is he gets pulled into all these tangential details that a) all get cut when the book goes to print anyway, because of course an editor will cut a campfire meal scene before a big battle scene and b) would leave him much too far away from the book’s conclusion come deadline time, forcing him to basically write “and then Elminster saved them all the end” in a rushed manner every time.

    Of his modern era Realms books (The Herald, Spellstorm, Death Masks) his writing still has it’s unique strengths and weaknesses, but I think they come together much better than these older books because they aren’t under the same constraints. A shame he hasn’t been able to write one in five years. Good or bad, the Realms are still his.

    1. I do know he’s spoken in interviews about the fact that he feels his biggest flaw as a writer when he writes a Realms novel is he gets pulled into all these tangential details that a) all get cut when the book goes to print anyway, because of course an editor will cut a campfire meal scene before a big battle scene and b) would leave him much too far away from the book’s conclusion come deadline time, forcing him to basically write “and then Elminster saved them all the end” in a rushed manner every time.

      That’s part of the fun of writing fanfiction. There are no editors or deadlines, and beta readers are optional, so you can actually construct the narrative the way you want to and include things that would otherwise be removed.

    2. You’re right on the nose with “a distraction from the fact that there’s no story here.” The story in all three of these books is just “here’s some bad guys, go kill them.” One book of that was too much; three was excruciating.

      An editor won’t cut a quiet campfire scene before a big battle if that scene shows us something important about the characters and/or plot. There are lots of Realms authors whose books include great quiet, character-focused scenes — Cunningham, Lowder, and Novak/Grubb, for instance. An editor will cut quiet scenes of characters randomly bantering amongst themselves, or having conversations that flesh out the setting but don’t relate to anything else, and I suspect that’s what was going on for Greenwood. If you don’t have a sense of where the plot is going or even what the plot is (which certainly seems to be the case for this trilogy), it’s going to make everything else so much harder: you can’t tie character development into the plot, pace the plot beats out evenly, or set up the conclusion in a way that doesn’t make it feel like a sudden ass pull.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.