Cloak of Shadows

Author: Ed Greenwood
Published: June 1995

I must admit that I wasn’t looking forward to picking this book up, not after my fairly unpleasant experience with the previous book in this series. Given that the entire trilogy was cranked out at high speed over the course of several months, I didn’t have high hopes that Greenwood would have improved his craft or learned any lessons between these books. But you can’t take on a project of this sort unless you possess some degree of natural optimism, so… once more into the breach, I suppose!

But having finished it, I find my initial optimism unwarranted. On the upside, it’s not nearly as soul-crushingly boring as Shadows of Doom. The downside is that it’s utterly mystifying. I spent the entire book thinking “Where is this plot supposed to be going? Why is anyone doing these things? Why should I care?” Things kept happening without rhyme or reason. Random subplots briefly flowered into existence and then withered before my eyes. By the time it staggered to an end, I couldn’t tell you what the point of any of it was. Still, it beats being bored stiff.

Plot

Here’s the pitch that we’re sold at the start of the book: The Malaugrym, a race of evil shapeshifters from another plane, have suffered centuries of defeats at Elminster’s hands. Now that he’s hobbled by the instability of magic during the Time of Troubles, they’ve decided that this is the perfect time to get revenge. One particularly duplicitous Malaugrym wizard has created something he calls a “cloak of shadows”, a magical effect that renders the shapeshifters invisible to and immune to the magic of Mystra’s Chosen, which should give them an edge this time around. A few brave adventurers find themselves in the right place at the right time to stop them.

It’s a decent premise, but not a single element of it actually works here. Let’s break it down sentence by sentence and see why.

First, the Malaugrym. There’s a lot of potential in the Malaugrym as villains. Given their exceptional shapeshifting abilities, there’s tremendous scope for creating suspense and psychological horror in a similar vein to the classic horror film The Thing, where no one and nothing can be trusted if it’s been out of your sight. Imagine a story where the protagonists are afraid to so much as sit on a chair lest the chair sprout spikes and maws and rip them apart! The Malaugrym could sow distrust and paranoia by impersonating the heroes, killing and replacing supporting characters, undetectably spying on everyone, or using their shapeshifting abilities to kill in interesting ways. Problem is, Ed Greenwood only knows how to write one sort of antagonist: a fractious cabal of magic-using evildoers, of uncertain numbers but large enough to round out lots of battle scenes, none of whom get much characterization beyond “I’m greedy and ambitious” if they’re lucky enough to get a name at all. That describes the Cult of the Dragon in Spellfire, the Zhentarim in Crown of Fire, the magelords in Elminster: The Making of a Mage, and now, unsurprisingly, the Malaugrym. Instead of being stealthy infiltrators or a cool new take on assassins, they’re just another bunch of wizards who show up to have spell-fights with the heroes and their shapeshifting abilities are mostly relegated to set dressing.

The Malaugrym don’t have a great track record as villains so far, given that their only appearances to date have seen them get their asses thoroughly kicked. One of them served as a minor antagonist in Crown of Fire, but there were so many disposable antagonists crammed into that book that I barely remember which was which. It accomplished nothing for the entire book, then got shanked by a couple of minor side characters at the end — not exactly a fearsome foe. And the final boss of Elminster: The Making of a Mage turned out to be a disguised Malaugrym, although it was never explicitly named as such. It took a bit more killing, but didn’t get much in the way of personality or character development before getting fried at the end. I’d hoped that an entire novel focusing on the Malaugrym would finally give them a chance to demonstrate some competence and character, but it’s just more of the same on a larger scale.

Their plausibility as villains is immediately undermined here by an early scene where Elminster, Storm, and the Simbul discuss how they could easily wipe out the Malaugrym any time they felt like it, but they’re just not worth the effort. Starting the book by telling the reader “they’re a bunch of losers who aren’t a match for the heroes” is not a great way to sell your central conflict. And things get so much worse once the fighting starts! Dozens of them are slaughtered, mostly by Elminster and the Simbul; meanwhile, the total body count that all the Malaugrym rack up over the entire course of the book is one chambermaid and one apprentice mage. Not for one minute are you sold on the concept that they might be able to kill or even seriously inconvenience Elminster.

I’ve often said that villains who don’t accomplish anything aren’t fun to read about, and now I’m forced to say it again. The Malaugrym are nothing but a gang of useless butt monkeys here; I don’t think they ever once succeed at a task they attempt. Furthermore, their constant infighting makes it even less likely that they’ll accomplish anything of note, what with all the internecine betrayal and working at cross-purposes. Normally I’m all in favour of anything that breaks up a simple “Team Evil versus Team Good” plot, but they spend far more time intriguing amongst themselves and killing each other than they do opposing the heroes. In short, the Malaugrym may be the most tragically misused villains in all of the Realms novels to date — nothing about them works. 

Next, the instability of magic. This book theoretically takes place during the Time of Troubles, when magic went haywire. In the Avatar trilogy, mages were taking their lives into their hands every time they cast a spell — it might work normally, it might do nothing useful, it might rebound upon them, or it might have catastrophic and lethal side effects. Here this is mentioned briefly at the beginning, then ignored for the rest of the book. It’s explained that Elminster is exempt from the widespread magical instability because apparently as a Chosen he can see wild magic zones and know where it’s safe to cast, which contradicts his appearances in the Avatar trilogy. And just like that, one of the most potentially interesting concepts of this trilogy is exploded — what does someone like Elminster, who’s so dependent on magic for his power, do when magic isn’t an option? I was looking forward to a story where Elminster is vulnerable and has to rely on cleverness to survive, but what we get here is more dull scenes of “Elminster waved his hand and all the bad guys died.”

Next, the cloak of shadows. Having the Malaugrym be invisible to and immune to the spells of Mystra’s Chosen is a neat idea; it would theoretically force the Chosen to use their wits to defeat this foe instead of relying on the usual barrage of killing spells. But the Malaugrym are still visible to every normal person in the world, who seem to have no problem seeing through their disguises and chopping the shapeshifters into bits. After one particularly sad scene where a few random guards and servants in Silverymoon cut down a trio of bumbling Malaugrym assassins minutes after their arrival, I began to think that these villains needed to find a more realistic life goal. Watching them go after the biggest magical heavyweights in Faerûn is like watching a yappy little dog trying to chase a car: it’s never going to catch the car, and even if it did, it wouldn’t enjoy what would happen next. Furthermore, the cloak of shadows doesn’t even work! Elminster, Syluné, and Khelben Arunsun are all Mystra’s Chosen, and they have no difficulty seeing cloaked Malaugrym or casting spells on them.

“So now they’re sending young Malaugrym to Blackstaff Tower, are they?” Khelben’s voice was calm and level, and profoundly unimpressed. […] And as a last, shattering pain exploded through him, those were the last words Taernil ever heard.

Hanging in the stasis field he’d set to catch intruders was an unlikely looking visitor: the floating, disembodied head of Old Elminster. The head was watching him.

How is it watching him when it’s already been established that this Malaugrym is cloaked? Because the author was working too fast and not paying any attention, most likely. Why would you invent this magic thing that’s apparently important to the plot, name your book after it, and then have it do nothing at all? It’s utterly baffling.

Finally, the ostensible heroes. The main plot thread of the book is the adventures of the ranger Sharantyr and the Harpers Belkram and Itharr from the previous book, who team up with the ghost of Syluné to lure the Malaugrym into an ambush and then travel to the shapeshifters’ home plane to take them on directly. But that brief description makes them sound like active characters who drive the plot forward, and nothing could be further from the truth. They’re roped into the ambush scheme by the Chosen, wander around the countryside for a while getting into random trouble, then are heavy-handedly shoved in the direction of the Malaugrym’s demiplane by direct divine intervention. At no point do they choose what they’re going to do next. Moreover, they never accomplish anything; their role in the plot is merely to be the audience’s point of view for the Chosen being awesome. First they lure the Malaugrym into a trap where the Simbul does most of the actual killing, then they’re guided through the Demiplane of Shadow by Syluné, who ends up slaying the final boss for them. These characters aren’t the heroes — they’re just the delivery system for the actual heroes. As such, I’m not sure why we spend so much time watching them blunder around.

So there you have it: this novel fails at implementing every single sentence of that pitch. It ends with a whimper, cutting off immediately after the final battle without giving the reader a sense of what’s been accomplished or what’s going to happen next. After finishing it, I sat there trying to figure out what the point of any of it had been. Why did we spend so much time with characters, both heroes and villains, who didn’t manage to do anything meaningful? Why does the villains’ plan hinge on a thing that’s useless for its one intended purpose? Why are the heroes fighting these villains when they don’t seem to be worth the effort? Did all of this empty sound and fury change the world or the characters in any way? No answers were forthcoming.

Themes

This book feels like it was Greenwood’s chance to vent about all the parts of the Avatar trilogy he didn’t like. All the heroes ignore the magical instability of the Time of Troubles; it’s brought up briefly at the beginning, inconveniences the villains a bit, and then is forgotten about in favour of lots of big, flashy spell battles. The goddess of magic is able to function as a deus ex machina just fine despite supposedly having been depowered and then killed. Then there’s fourth-wall-breaking bits like this:

Tablets of Fate, my wrinkled old behind, [Elminster] thought sourly. Did even the divine lack taste and inspiration these days?

It’s hard to not read that as a dig at the authors of the earlier trilogy. And when Ao, father of the gods, shows up, Elminster treats him with all the reverence and respect that one would accord a particularly irritating parking enforcement officer.

Look, I get it. It sucks to have people miss the themes of your work and take it in directions you disagree with. I, too, think that the Avatar trilogy was a bad idea; throwing the setting into chaos only a couple years after its introduction felt entirely needless. But retconning it, selectively ignoring it, and being dismissive of it like this makes the entire setting feel less plausible and internally consistent. He could have tried to run with the good bits or repair the broken bits of the Avatar trilogy; instead it feels like he’s just being petty about it. When you’re collaborating in front of an audience, you have to say “Yes, and…” and not “No, that’s dumb.”

Characters

Elminster is a terrible character in this book. He spends most of it completely uninvolved in the main “kill lots of Malaugrym” plot, wandering the world and magically righting random unrelated wrongs instead. Despite being unimportant to the plot, the book spends considerable effort emphasizing how important he is to the setting, to the point where he gets a long speech where he claims to be single-handedly responsible for the spread of human civilization over the past millennium. He’s so powerful that he summons a couple of gods’ avatars on the spur of the moment to resolve a thorny situation for him. Not only that, but there’s a clumsy retcon here where he’s also apparently responsible for Midnight’s success in the Avatar trilogy. [1] (He trains her and grooms her to become the new goddess of magic, and then her memory gets wiped and the events of the original trilogy continue.) The general impression is that the world revolves around him to such an extreme degree that if he were to spend an hour in the toilet after eating a bad mussel, the world would crumble to its very foundations.

Greenwood has done a lot of playing Elminster up like this in his last few books. In earlier Realms novels, Elminster is just a particularly wise and magically powerful person in a world that’s full of wise and powerful people — special, yes, but not unique. But ever since Crown of Fire, Greenwood has been pitching him as an omniscient, overworked demigod who’s single-handedly responsible for thwarting evil all across the world:

“I spent much of the night scrying the Realms as ye slept, and saw — too much. Matters that must be dealt with now, I tell thee! The lass must find her own wings to fly with while I deal with Dzuntabbar of Thay — and the wizard Vlumn’s plans to create ice golems the size of mountains in the High Ice — and a little matter of twisting awry some poison-creating spells that certain Calimshite satraps are perfecting before they get the idea such deadly craziness might work.”
“All that, before highsun?”
“Aye, and more. Come!”

I find this infuriating because it makes the entire setting feel cheaper and less realistic. A real world full of real people has complex problems with complex solutions, not a lone superhero who swoops in to save the day whenever evil rears its head.

Worse yet, Elminster comes off as unusually ruthless here in a hypocritical sort of way. He explains how it’s okay to kill people when necessary as long as you believe in your own moral superiority, but then we see him kill people in unnecessarily brutal ways, like when he suggests burning a bunch of helpless people alive or when he makes a couple of random bandits strangle each other. He seems to derive enjoyment from flying around the Malaugrym’s stronghold and creatively killing everyone he meets — not the satisfaction of a man doing a distasteful yet necessary task, but actual amusement at their deaths. Without the moral high ground, he just comes off as a well-intentioned thug.

Also, he has magic underwear that lets him fly. (I swear I’m not making this up.)

The ranger Sharantyr from the Knights of Myth Drannor returns once again, but I wish she hadn’t. As a protagonist who’s not one of Mystra’s Chosen, her role is to spend the entire novel doing what the Chosen and Mystra tell her to do, dragged around by the nose into all sorts of dangerous situations that the Chosen then have to get her out of. The lack of agency is the least of her problems, though. She’s the only living female character who gets a significant amount of screen time in this book, which means that she’s the focus for all of Greenwood’s leering, exploitative treatment of women. Inevitably, it’s not long before he gets her naked in front of an audience of men. We get to hear some of her backstory, and it’s all a series of variations on “sexually victimized by evildoers” — the drow, the Zhentarim, and then the Malaugrym in this book. After a creepy scene where a shapeshifter sticks a tentacle in her mouth in a non-consensual manner, I wanted to go have a shower. It’s handled in a tone-deaf way that’s supposed to make me think “Wow, these villains are evil” but instead leaves me wondering “What is wrong with this author?” Bleah.

Belkram and Itharr also return, and they’re just as devoid of agency. Their role here, apart from getting dragged around by the plot, is to constantly banter and quip at each other. As with nearly all of Greenwood’s novels so far, the constant bantering becomes tiresome after a couple of scenes but continues unabated throughout the entire book. They get some further character development, theoretically, but it’s of the “I’m going to stop the narrative and read you this character profile I wrote” variety rather than something that comes up naturally or gets demonstrated through their actions. They treat every situation, even the most terrifying and life-threatening ones, with such good-humoured aplomb that it makes you wonder if they’re brain-damaged. Long story short, they can’t properly develop as characters if they’re not given anything to do but jest and fight. (Hell, I can barely even remember which of them is which.)

There was a lot of potential in Syluné, the ghost of a dead Chosen who’s magically bound to a small stone that the heroes are carrying around. She functions as a guide and supernatural helper for them, but we don’t get nearly enough time with her to explore the interesting aspects of that setup. How does it feel to be dead? Does she have regrets? Does she envy her living companions? Being a ghost stuck in a rock must be a strange existence; what’s that like? We never find out. She spends the first half of the book acting as bait for the Malaugrym ambush, possessing a corpse that’s been modified to look like Elminster. (Where did they get the corpse from? We never find out.) Afterwards she seems content to just be the “mission control” archetype for the Harpers, an incorporeal voice who tells them what’s going on and gives them marching orders.

Unsurprisingly for a Greenwood novel, the goddess Mystra plays a major part in the plot. She’s introduced in a bizarre My Little Pony-themed scene where she’s frolicking with dragons and pegasi and whatnot, like a scene on a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. (1995, yo.) She then dies and shows up as Midnight, taking a brief side trip from her role in Shadowdale. This cameo is one of a few eminently cuttable subplots that don’t connect to the main plot, and the novel wouldn’t have been significantly different if the “Elminster trains Midnight” bits were missing. The main reason that Mystra/Midnight is present is to give Sharantyr a free Malaugrym-slaying, magic-absorbing, plane-hopping artifact sword, then to order her to take it to the Malaugrym’s demiplane and kill lots of shapeshifters, thus kick-starting the second half of the plot by divine fiat. It would have been a much stronger plot if she hadn’t. If the heroes are just given badassitude instead of earning it, and if they never make a noteworthy decision on their own, then they’re just puppets instead of real characters.

There’s not much more to say about the villains that I haven’t already covered above. The shapeshifting is used well as flavour, like the scene where Malaugrym in a big meeting are growing eyestalks to see over the heads of the crowd in front. But apart from one good scene where one disguises itself as a book to kill an unwary extra, they never use it for anything meatier than a quick disguise. Most of the confrontations are just wizardly spell battles with the occasional tentacle thrown in to remind you that they’re shapeshifters. Nothing they do works out, and with every vainglorious and foolish Malaugrym who dies ignominiously, our tenuous respect for them as villains is further eroded. By the end, I’d long since stopped caring what happened to them.

Writing

It’s not as bad as Shadows of Doom, I’ll give it that. Still overly dramatic, still randomly sprinkled with “ye” and “thy” with no regard for grammar, still full of questionably witty banter that rapidly gets tiresome. But either it’s toned down a little bit from the last book, or else I’m just so burnt out by reading so much bad writing that I can no longer tell what’s good any more. After the incredibly dramatic and somewhat silly prologue, the narration settles down into a state which I can only describe as “far from good, but not distractingly bad” — damning with faint praise, sure, but that’s more praise than the last book got.

Conclusion

Grade: D

It’s not as boring and combat-heavy as Crown of Fire or Shadows of Doom were. There’s more variety to the action and more potentially interesting things going on. But Cloak of Shadows seemed to go out of its way to sabotage any interest I might have had in the characters or the central conflict. It’s not just a matter of taking ideas with lots of potential and then letting them go to waste, like in The Ogre’s Pact; here the author took ideas with lots of potential and then deliberately wrecked them by doing the exact opposite of what would make them work. There’s several more books in between this and the final book in the trilogy, and I’m grateful for the break.

Footnotes

[1] There’s also a flimsy retcon that tries to explain why Shandril and Narm were sent on the road alone in Spellfire, a plot point which many readers (myself included) found incomprehensible. Syluné claims that the reason why they were sent alone is that the Malaugrym were secretly trying to capture Shandril, so Elminster and the Simbul wanted to thwart them without any innocent bystanders getting hurt. But (a) there was no evidence of this motivation in either of the two Shandril books, (b) we’re talking about the Knights of Myth Drannor here, who just held their own against two dracoliches and a dragon-riding archmage, so some shapeshifters seem like an anticlimax for them, and (c) it’s not believable because the Malaugrym never pose a serious threat to anyone. Torm and Rathan killed the one in Crown of Fire so effortlessly that it’s not a very plausible ex post facto justification.

8 Replies to “Cloak of Shadows

  1. Also, he has magic underwear that lets him fly. (I swear I’m not making this up.)

    Devoid of context, this made me wonder if perhaps Greenwood was a Mormon. AFAICT from a quick search, he isn’t. Maybe he threw this detail in just to troll Tracy Hickman.

    1. It’s possible, though there’s no evidence of that in the text. In the story, it’s just an enchanted item he created. Makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose; that’s one magic item you’ll never lose and that nobody will think to look for!

  2. I didn’t have much of a memory of this book, but when I saw the cover I recall it being someone of a mess of short segments jumping from character to character with too many spell effects, but honestly, that describes most of Ed Greenwood’s later books, so I could be thinking of a different one.

    I recall I stopped reading them with….Elminster in Hell I think? I recall seeing Elminster’s Daughter in stores and giving it a pass. What got me was when I realized he only had about three male characters and one, possibly two female characters and he just kept giving them new names.

    1. Yeah, that description is pretty universal for his books. I’ve started working on an Ed Greenwood novel bingo card — a bunch of typical stuff like “A new battle starts immediately after the last one finishes” or “Storm Silverhand takes her top off in front of people” — so that I can at least derive some amusement on a meta level from reviewing the rest of his novels. Given that his novels all feel very similar, I expect it will be a very easy game to win.

  3. This book sounds less a novel than the Platonic ideal of everything people criticize about the Forgotten Realms:

    -Incompetent villains who are as much a danger to themselves as anyone else. At least Novak, Grubb and Salvatore give more justification as to why their villains have infighting;

    -Uberpowerful creator’s pets who drag lesser heroes around by their collective noses and force them to watch how epic and awesome they are;

    -Magic being less of a useful device to advance the plot than a deus ex machina that completely drains all the challenge out of the novel. Small wonder that other D&D authors mostly wrote mid-level protagonists (Weis, Hickman, Novak and Grubb) or higher-level parties that were mostly fighters (Salvatore), or played up the limits on magic (Weis and Hickman emphasizing how Raistlin Majere needed to relearn his spells, and how his frail health made him an easy target for anyone who thought of a way to get past his magic).

    Makes you wonder how much of the Realms’ success can actually be attributed to Greenwood himself.

    1. Your assessment of this novel is spot-on. However, while Greenwood’s fiction was a mess, I recall that the D&D materials he wrote were generally high-quality. They were jam-packed with vivid details and did a good job of fleshing out the feel of a place. Credit where credit is due.

  4. Merry Christmas to you. Thank you for doing the Lord’s work in reading all these horrible books for our entertainment.

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