TSR employee Jeff Grubb was the co-author of the “Grey Box”, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting boxed set which introduced the Realms to tabletop roleplayers. He spent months sorting through cardboard box after cardboard box of Ed Greenwood‘s notes about the setting and compiling them into a collection of sourcebooks and maps. So you’d think he and his wife would be the ideal candidates to pen one of the first Realms novels. But… is it any good?
In a word, yes! Azure Bonds is the first of the Forgotten Realms novels so far which I’d unabashedly recommend to someone who’s interested in the series. It’s the first one that feels both well-plotted and full of well-developed characters.
Grubb and his wife Kate Novak collaborated on a trilogy of Realms novels, of which this is the first — a very loose trilogy, where each book is a standalone story which shares some characters and a particular glowing rock, retroactively titled the Finder’s Stone trilogy. However, Azure Bonds was originally a standalone novel which was retconned into being the first book of the trilogy in later printings. (Shortly thereafter it was adapted into a computer game by SSI, but the game’s actual connection to the novel, aside from some character cameos, is tenuous.)
The plot is tricky to write about, since there’s a good twist partway through the book and I don’t want to spoil it. Let’s just say that it’s generally quite well-constructed, to the degree where the second time one reads it, one notices a number of foreshadowings and clever little details all throughout the novel.
The short version: Alias, a mercenary swordswoman, awakens in an inn in Cormyr and finds herself with a bizarre magical tattoo on her forearm and no memory of the past several months. The mysterious tattoo is able to take over her body and control her actions, so she attracts an unlikely crew of boon companions — a foreign merchant-mage, a feckless halfling minstrel, and a curious lizard-like creature — and sets off to discover who put these brands on her and how to get them off.
Ordinarily, I’d sigh in annoyance at the “amnesiac character wakes up and has to discover the plot” device. It’s a trope which makes things easy for a lazy writer: because the protagonist knows nothing about the setting or plot, you have a convenient excuse to write lots of exposition scenes where people explain things to them. You don’t have to subtly weave the reader’s discovery of the setting throughout the book, because the reader can learn about it at the same time and in the same manner as the protagonist. 
However, it works well in Azure Bonds for a couple of reasons. First, she’s only missing several months, not her entire memory. You don’t have to go through the often-tedious process of watching the protagonist learn everything about the setting and her capabilities — she starts the novel knowing who she is and being familiar with the world, and the reader learns about these things through her internal monologue instead of sitting through heaps of clunky exposition. Second, and more importantly, the missing memories take a back seat in the story to her quest to learn about and remove the titular tattoo. The missing memories are more of a side effect of the real problem rather than the central motivation for her character, and serve to reinforce the novel’s theme of discovering identity.
Alias, the swordswoman whose magical tattoos are the linchpin of the plot, is the first strong female character in the Forgotten Realms novels to date. She’s jam-packed with both strengths and flaws: fiercely independent, cunning, practical, strong, stubborn, prideful, terrible at dealing with emotions and opening up to people. Unlike many a fantasy protagonist, her exceptional qualities are integral to both the plot and who she is, rather than being clumsily tacked on to demonstrate the protagonist’s awesomeness to the reader. She’s got more agency than any female character we’ve seen to date, constantly driving the plot forward in her headstrong manner. And most of all, she’s fun to read about, with a personality that bursts off the page in a way that I didn’t quite feel with any of the protagonists of the previous novels.
Her friends are a very deliberately mismatched set. Akabar, a merchant and mage from far to the south, is serious, honest, intellectual, scholarly, and driven to prove himself. Olive, a halfling minstrel, is loud, greedy, funny, self-centred, and deceptive. The contrast between the two works on a couple of levels — not only do those two characters often butt heads with each other over their irreconcilable differences, but they bring out different aspects of Alias as she interacts with them. With Akabar, she’s similarly serious, honest, and dismissive of his attempts to prove himself. When Olive is around, she’s more light-hearted and witty. They both get remarkably well-detailed character arcs for supporting characters, where they face challenges both external and personal and end up very different from how they were at the start of the novel. Compare Akabar and Olive with, say, Daryth and Pawldo from the Moonshae trilogy, who get no character arcs or meaningful change at all, and you see the difference in craft between this and the other novels we’ve seen so far.
Dragonbait, a member of a heretofore unknown race of lizard-creatures, shows up early in the novel as an odd enigma. He starts off as silent comic relief, but as the novel goes on you get hints and tidbits of information about his actual role in the plot, which is much larger than it initially appeared. By the end of the book he’s become a viewpoint character. It’s a nice slow unravelling of a little mystery piece by piece at a steady rate, rather than dropping big globs of exposition all at once.
Giogioni Wyvernspur, a Cormyrian noble who serves as a minor recurring character throughout the book, is a straight-up homage to Bertie Wooster, P.G. Wodehouse’s clueless upper-class twit. As he blunders into and out of a variety of scrapes, the delivery is so on-the-nose that you can almost imagine him being played by a young Hugh Laurie in your mind’s eye. He gets a novel to himself later where he gets considerably more character development, but in this book he’s a pretty direct lift from Wodehouse. Still, if you’re going to steal, why not steal from the best?
Elminster shows up as a minor character in this book, and the cameo works surprisingly well. Instead of the smugly omniscient sage from Spellfire, we see a quiet, thoughtful person who doesn’t fully understand what’s going on and who’s trying to do what he thinks is best, but isn’t confident that he’s actually doing the right thing. In the end, Alias talks him around to her way of thinking and he follows his heart instead of his head. I wish more of his appearances throughout the Realms canon had been like this — the uncertainty and fallibility make him feel more like a human and less like a plot device.
The villains are a motley bunch who remain mysterious through most of the novel, preferring to act through various agents; you only see them together and understand their motivations near the end of the book. I’ll tread lightly through this section to avoid spoilers, but they’re mostly memorable and built up well. Particular mention has to go to Mist, a peevish and amoral ancient red dragon who gets entertaining scenes with a variety of characters, and the delightfully repugnant avatar of Moander.
The primary theme of the novel, which is consistently and ably reinforced throughout the book, is personal identity. Alias sees her memories as an integral part of herself, her only tangible reward for years of adventuring, which nobody can take away. Thus, she’s particularly distressed by the several-month-long gap in her memory, since it’s an assault on her identity — at least, until she discovers that memory loss is the least of her problems. Akabar is dissatisfied with the life of a travelling merchant and longs to be an adventurer and a serious mage, even if he’s not willing to admit that to himself at first. Olive is an unrepentant thief at the outset of the novel, to the extent that she even stole her own name, but by the finale has discovered who she wants to be. Dragonbait’s identity is a mystery to the reader for almost the entire book. And there’s another character whose lack of identity is their defining characteristic. The culmination of the book is everyone discovering their real identities and coming to terms with them, even as they battle with gods and monsters.
To a much lesser extent, it’s also the first book to deal with the topic of racism to any serious degree. You see through Olive’s eyes what it’s like to live as a halfling in a world built for humans where your kind are considered greedy and untrustworthy. The indignities range from the difficulties of dealing with human-sized architecture to outright persecution:
“I’m sure you know the saying — a halfling will never sell her own mother into slavery. Not—”
“—when she can be rented at a greater profit,” Olive said sourly, beating [spoilery character] to the punchline. She hated that joke.
“Yes, then we’ll have found the Red Death,” Olive growled. “That’s what Maalthir’s mercenaries are called among my people. Under his orders, they carried out a campaign to purge Hillsfar of thieves. Human thieves could hide, but all halflings were thieves, as far as Maalthir’s Red Death was concerned. They drove every halfling from the city in the middle of the night, forced them to leave their valuables behind, didn’t even give them a chance to sell the land or shops they owned.”
The fact that Olive is a greedy, untrustworthy halfling thief who perfectly fits the stereotype undercuts the message somewhat. Still, she’s a complicated enough character that you feel sympathy for her and the point still partially lands. It’s not quite significant enough to call it a full-fledged theme, but Azure Bonds certainly does more with the topic than most of the other Realms novels did. (More on that in the next review.)
Surprisingly good, actually! Of all the books we’ve looked at so far, this is the first that actually understands pacing. There’s plenty of action, but each action sequence is bookended by a quiet moment of character development or exposition or travel. Those interludes spent riding through the countryside, making camp, or relaxing at an inn after a long journey all serve to make the action more impactful when it breaks the silence. Here’s one, a little scene by the fireside at a campsite:
Alias watched as Akabar lifted the lid from the pan and crushed a fistful of dried peppers over the steaming grain, letting most of it settle in a quarter of the pan.
“I take it that’s Olive’s portion,” Alias noted, smiling.
The mage grinned fiendishly. “The vengeance of wizards and cooks can be subtle but terrible. Each day I add another quarter fistful. Eventually Mistress Ruskettle will help prepare a meal, or her tongue will fall out of her head.”
“More likely, you’ll run out of spices.”
This interaction tells us about the characters: Alias is perceptive, Akabar has a sense of humour and a curious sense of fair play, and Olive is lazy and self-centred. But more importantly, it gives us a break. You can’t sustain a fever pitch of action for an entire third of a book, as the previous books have all tried to do, without making the reader tired and bored.  The consistent rise-and-fall pattern also serves to punch you even harder at the end, where what looks like the next quiet moment of rest is unexpectedly interrupted by things going really sideways for the protagonists. (And the example above makes for a good running joke where Olive complains about the heat of the food.)
The characters end up criss-crossing much of the Heartlands of the Realms, from Cormyr to the Dales to Westgate, but you don’t get as strong a sense of place in Azure Bonds as you did in, say, Spellfire. Much of the story takes place on the open road, with a brief stop in Shadowdale, so the characters spend most of the time interacting with each other rather than with the setting — good for character development, but not for world-building.
There are problems on the micro level — some awkward turns of phrase that an editor really should have cleaned up, and a couple of action sequences which are confused enough that you have to re-read them to figure out what’s going on — but given that the macro level is solid, I think the smaller flaws are forgivable.
It’s no genre-defining work like Lord of the Rings or expectation-defying surprise like Perdido Street Station, but it’s a well-constructed, genuinely entertaining fantasy novel executed reasonably well, featuring vivid characters and an engaging plot. In all honesty, this is the most I feel I can reasonably expect from these books, so Azure Bonds gets a solid A. I doubt I’ll be giving out many more of these, though.
 Interestingly, this trope seems to work much better in video games than in novels, due to the player having agency over the amnesiac character’s discovery of the world instead of merely watching a clueless character stumble around. I can’t avoid giving a special shout-out to Planescape: Torment here, which is based around this trope — it was not only the best of the D&D-licensed CRPGs, but one of the best CRPGs ever.
 Or, as video game designer Tim Stellmach once put it: “We want the endgame to be the climax of the mission. And you can’t sustain a climax for 45 minutes. At least I can’t.”