Cormyr: A Novel

Author: Ed Greenwood and Jeff Grubb
Published: July 1996

This is an interesting one, and I’ve been looking forward to cracking it open for a while. Ed Greenwood has a very distinctive writing style, is notorious for being able to crank out many thousands of words per day, and was living in a different country from TSR. How would a collaboration between him and another author even work? My curiosity was piqued when I saw that his co-author was Jeff Grubb, whose books have been mostly excellent thus far and who co-wrote most of his work with his wife Kate Novak, so he’s got plenty of experience writing collaboratively. Let’s dive in and see what happens when you mix the two together! It seems like it’ll be a fascinating experiment. (Well, fascinating if you’re a hopeless nerd like me, I guess.)

The forest country of Cormyr has thus far been an idyllic utopia in all the setting material. It’s the epitome of a lawful good kingdom where people are honest, life is peaceful, and a benevolent king rules the land with his subjects’ best interests always in mind. There have been occasional exceptions, like Gondegal’s insurrection in 1352 DR or the chaos during the Time of Troubles in Shadowdale, but they’ve been merely brief interruptions to the rich history of a kingdom that’s been thriving for over a thousand years. But if there’s one thing you can say about a peaceful, utopian society, it’s that it makes for terrible drama and doesn’t offer much opportunity for adventure… so let’s wreck the place! This is the first in a trilogy of novels that chronicles the death of King Azoun IV and the descent of the kingdom into chaos. [1]

I’m rather bummed out by this turn of events, to be honest. On the one hand, I can see why they did it. A living world isn’t a static place, and this situation provides more opportunities for storytelling for both authors and D&D players. But I feel that having a kingdom that wasn’t a complete shitshow made for a good contrast against its many unscrupulous and conflict-prone neighbours. Realistic or not, you need idealized places like Shadowdale and Cormyr to balance out the cynical view of humanity demonstrated by nearby places like Zhentil Keep, Sembia, and Westgate, whose people are generally evil, greedy, and duplicitous, respectively. Speculative fiction isn’t just for holding up a dark mirror to society; it can also be aspirational, where you show what things could be like if humanity would do a little better.

Anyhow, what’s done is done. Let’s start talking about the actual story…

Plot

…or “stories,” as the case may be. This novel has a curious new format that we’ve never seen before. On the one hand, there’s the main plot in 1369 DR where the kingdom is thrown into crisis after an assassination attempt on King Azoun nearly succeeds. That takes up maybe half of the novel. The other half, interwoven between the modern-day scenes, is a series of vignettes about the history of Cormyr from –400 DR to the present. I expected that I’d be rather irritated by the constant switching between time periods for irrelevant side stories, but as the novel went on I found myself surprised by how little it bothered me. The past scenes reinforce and give context to the modern-day scenes, painting a detailed background for the A-plot that intertwines with it at certain moments. It turned out to be a surprisingly effective and fun structure — this story could easily have been told without the historical vignettes, but they make the overall story much richer.

I only wish the authors had devoted as much care and attention to the actual plot as they did to the structure. The modern-day story feels like an Idiot Plot, the sort of plot where conflict only occurs because the characters are dense. I spent the whole novel scratching my head and trying to figure out what the hell was going on, with little success.

For instance: This plot is kicked off when an assassination attempt nearly succeeds at killing King Azoun. He’s carrying a magic token which can teleport tons of soldiers and mages to him at a moment’s notice, but doesn’t use it during a pitched battle for his life against a superior foe. Somebody else uses it after the battle is over, once everyone is poisoned and dying. If he’d used it right away, the rest of this novel would have been a cozy tale of peaceful palace life.

Once the king is incapacitated, his court wizard Vangerdahast decides to ferret out the traitors responsible through trickery. He sets about pretending that he’s trying to install himself as permanent regent and steal the crown from the rightful heirs, gathering support from nobles and mercenaries for his new faction while keeping an eye out to see who opposes him. For a variety of reasons, this is a mind-blisteringly stupid idea. I kept hoping that something would happen that would explain why he was doing this, but it continued to make no sense right up until the end.

For starters, his plan makes everything so much worse. Cormyr’s political climate is tense but stable after Azoun’s incapacitation, and Vangerdahast probably could have kept the kingdom on an even keel by presenting a united front with the king’s daughters to calm the public. Instead, his fake coup plot destabilizes the already tenuous political situation, erodes public trust in the country’s leadership, and alienates all the good people who would have helped him set the realm to rights. If he’d just done his damn job instead of all this cloak-and-dagger intrigue, I suspect everything would have worked out better. “But wait!”, the authors presumably say. “Then he wouldn’t have been able to smoke out the traitor!”

But whom is he trying to smoke out? Everybody, I guess? The nobles who agree to support him are obviously treasonous, happy to ignore their oaths to the Obarskyr dynasty to instead back a strongman who promises some stability. But what about the ones who don’t agree to support him? They’re driven into the arms of the rival faction led by Aunadar Bleth, an evil, power-hungry bastard who’s scheming to claim the throne, so by doing the right thing they end up supporting treason too. And at the end Vangerdahast mentions how displeased he is with the noble families who sat on the fence and didn’t support either faction, so as near as I can tell he’s determined that the entire population of Cormyr are traitors to the crown. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The only two nobles he trusts are people who have recently tried to kill him, which seems like a very odd and hazardous way to go about testing people’s loyalty.

In the end it feels like his plan succeeds basically by accident, and he seems to have sacrificed a great deal to learn very little. I’m all in favour of novels about intrigue, deceit, warring political factions, and whatnot, but there has to be a reason behind it that makes a little bit of sense or else it’s just conflict for the sake of having conflict. The nonsense plot is capped off with an unsatisfying climax where the heroes don’t seem to be in any real danger and the villains are easily defeated by random magic stuff that comes out of nowhere. So much wasted potential.

Fortunately, the interstitial historical chapters are much better. They start at the pre-history of Cormyr, when the elves first came to the Forest Kingdom and challenged the reign of the resident dragons. It’s an interesting story about the cycle of colonization: the dragons are displaced by the elves, the elves are displaced by the humans, and there’s an implied warning that someday the humans will be displaced in turn by something new. We see each wave of colonization from the perspective of the people being displaced, which avoids the usual Western narrative of progress and gives it a bittersweet feeling. The elves, in particular, are handled surprisingly well, with a distinctly non-human point of view that makes the relationships between them and other races fraught and sells the idea that they’re more than just humans with pointy ears. I like it — we’ve seen the idea of “humans gradually take over from elves” so many times before, but I can’t recall ever reading a story where the elves get to be the colonizers and displacers.

It then shifts to telling stories from the humble beginnings of the human kingdom to the present day: how the line of court wizards was established, how the kingdom grew to its present borders, how the current uneasy relationship between the nobility and the monarchs came about. Each chapter tells the story of a moment of crisis for the kingdom — wars, rebellions, conflicts of succession, assassination attempts — that put the modern-day crisis in perspective. We see how there have been many other dark times in the nation’s history, and they’ve always gotten through them somehow. Rather than an unprecedented existential crisis, the current mess is just another instance of common themes echoing down the centuries.

I quite appreciate that they aren’t all macho scenes of battles and bravery, which is an easy trap to fall into when recounting history. The smaller-scale personal tales with a great deal more talking than bloodshed are often much more interesting. In particular, I enjoyed the vignette where Iltharl the Insufficient willingly abdicates his throne to his powerful, capable sister after a sensible adult discussion. He’s not a bad person, but he’s not the person the kingdom needs right now, and in the end everyone is brave enough to set their pride aside and do what’s best for Cormyr. The historical stories usually tie into what’s happening in the modern-day narrative in some way, giving context and detail to the current events. My favourite transition is probably the modern scene where two wizards are talking while playing chess on an antique chess set, and then we jump back in time to see the famous battle which the pieces of the chess set were carved to commemorate. It’s a subtle way to connect the scenes that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but still shows the reader how the past impacts the present in both large and small ways.

Overall, it’s surprisingly effective. The historical context adds some sorely needed richness to the modern-day narrative, and for the most part these little short stories are clever and deftly told. If the authors hadn’t done a good job of making the historical content relevant to the modern story, or if the flashbacks had been boring digressions from the A-plot, I’d have hated it. Fortunately, I think they’ve hit just the right balance here; the past scenes reinforce the themes and give extra detail to the modern story without disrupting it.

Characters

The closest thing to a protagonist in this sprawling story is Vangerdahast, the ruthless but fiercely loyal court wizard of Cormyr. He’s pretty decent, actually — capable but not invincible, clever but not omniscient. He can’t solve his problem by going around and blasting evildoers, so he has to manipulate people and gradually amass information. As mentioned above, he would work a lot better as a character if it felt like his plan made any goddamned sense, but at least he’s got a clear goal and doesn’t do nearly as much “He waved his hand and magic happened” problem-solving as I expected from an Ed Greenwood character. We spend flashbacks with several of his predecessors in the court wizard role over the years and see how he’s learned from their successes and failures. He gets enough unguarded moments to show us that there’s more going on underneath than his usual “smug git” persona. Not bad.

Azoun IV is still the perfect king in nearly every way. He’s an inspiration to his people, an unfailingly brave, good-hearted, and unselfish ruler who has his country’s best interests in mind. [2] The only new flaw they’ve given him is lechery, an inherited trait which he apparently shares with all of his ancestors. (Many of the flashback scenes involve previous monarchs’ libidos causing issues, such as when one tries to seduce his court wizard or when another suffers heart failure at a compromising moment, and the current succession crisis is intensified by the vast number of ambitious royal bastards Azoun has fathered.) He spends most of the story off-screen and comatose, though, so his idealized portrayal doesn’t get on one’s nerves too much.

I wish they’d spread the flaws more evenly around the family, because his daughter Tanalasta is nothing but flaws. She’s the eldest princess and the theoretical heir to the throne, yet the kingdom is thrown into chaos because she doesn’t want to rule, but she doesn’t want anyone else to rule for her either. She’s a juvenile, emotional mess who can’t get her shit together, and the entire kingdom suffers because of it. Furthermore, she’s unbearably annoying. In every scene she’s either petulant, paranoid, and obstructionist or weepy, pliable, and submissive depending on whom she’s talking to. She’s easily manipulated by an ambitious schemer, which makes her look dense and reduces her to the role of an object to be possessed rather than an independent character with agency. Every time she showed up in a scene, I groaned. There’s an unconvincing bit at the end where she instantaneously resolves all of her issues and becomes the perfect princess without showing any of the emotional work to get there, and it didn’t work for me at all.

Giogioni Wyvernspur shows up in what I think is his last appearance in the Realms canon. It’s not a very memorable one, unfortunately, because he barely gets any screen time. There are a few “and Giogi was there too” scenes in which he gets only a handful of lines and merely tags along with other characters, but this novel wouldn’t play out any differently if he hadn’t been in it. His wife Cat has a bit more of a role, but there are so many characters in the A-plot that none of the supporting characters get nearly enough fleshing out.

We spend some time with Dauneth Marliir, the scion of a rebellious noble house who bucks family tradition by being a fervent loyalist, and he’s acceptable but not exciting. Outside of his major conflict (“Should I support the king? If so, how?”), he feels bland and whitebread. What does he enjoy? What does he care about? Who is he? I don’t really know. He has a fairly major role as one of the good-guy conspirators who spies on activity in the palace, but he’s mostly the tool of other people like Emthrara and Cat who point him in the direction they want him to go. Since he’s so lacking in agency, he mostly functions as a camera that the viewer can see palace scenes through rather than a full-fledged character.

Brantarra, the Red Wizard who kick-starts the plot by trying to assassinate King Azoun, feels like a bizarre hole in the story where a villain should be. She’s barely even in the story, and in the few scenes where she does appear, she seems to be merely the Standard Ed Greenwood Villain. Evil mage who belongs to a cabal of evil mages? Check. No clear motivations or backstory? Check. Hot chick who gets a scene of gratuitous nudity and/or sexiness? Check. Killed anticlimactically by someone waving their hand and magic happening? Check. She’s so forgettable that I couldn’t remember her name while writing this review and had to look it up.

Aunadar Bleth, her cat’s-paw, works a little better as a villain. The authors initially leave it ambiguous whether he’s a villain or not, and when they finally show us what’s behind the mask it’s not as disappointing as I feared. The flashback scenes which sketch out the history between the Obarskyr and Bleth families inform his motivations, and he uses his limited resources (his wealth, connections, and his romance with Tanalasta) to good effect. He’s kind of a boring “I’m ambitious so I do bad things!” villain, and he’s a sap who gets dramatically outmaneuvered at the end, but he’s got just enough character traits — overweening pride, youthful enthusiasm, ruthlessness — to boost him a little bit above the usual Ed Greenwood villain in my estimation. Could have been worse.

Many of the characters in the historical scenes are more vibrant and memorable than the characters in the A-plot, despite only being present for one or two chapters. The “Purple Dragon” for whom the monarchy is named, Thauglor, is a great point-of-view character for the early “elven invasion” scenes. He’s proud, dangerous, and has a very inhuman mindset that reflects his thousands-of-years lifespan. The various court wizards are quite distinct from one another: Baerauble, the first, who ends up saddled with a job he doesn’t want; Amedahast, who starts out bitter and angry but sacrifices herself bravely at the end; Thanderahast, who grows from callow apprentice to archmage over the course of his long life; Jorunhast, who voluntarily faces exile for doing something wrong for the right reasons. Frankly, they’re all better supporting characters than anyone in the modern-day scenes. We get inside their heads and see little details about them in a way that the crowded A-plot doesn’t have time for.

Writing

A favourite game of mine, whenever I read a novel by multiple authors, is to try to pick out which bits were written by which authors. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the game was so unsatisfyingly easy. First scene: definitely Jeff Grubb. The scene is full of rich details and does a great job of getting into the characters’ heads.

The summer sun was glimmering brighter in the cloudless blue sky, and already black flies were swarming about the cooling carrion. The young dragon waited his turn at the spoils, shifting no more than one errant talon in his growing impatience. Thauglor thought of carrying off the remains as a lesson or burying them in dust, but relented. A hungry hunter hunts poorly.

Second scene: People talk like Ren Faire actors, say “Aye” a lot, and dump exposition on each other. Definitely Ed Greenwood.

The king grinned, his even teeth flashing briefly beneath his graying mustache, and said, “That’s Thundersword’s windwork, to be sure. By the sound, they’re about a mile and a half east of us… with quarry and without any great desire to return yet. We shan’t have to worry about them for a while.”

And so on and so forth, for the rest of the book. This was written in the days before widespread Internet, so I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Grubb and Greenwood wrote it by FedExing packages of manuscript to each other across the Canadian border. It definitely feels like they traded off chapters, with the historical scenes written by Grubb and most of the modern-day bits written by Greenwood. (Curiously, this means that the historical scenes set 1300 years ago have more modern diction than the present-day scenes!) On balance, it seems more Grubbish than Greenwoodesque.

And yet, the combination works better than I expected! Greenwood’s usual pseudo-archaic style is more muted than usual here, so the transitions between authors aren’t nearly as jarring as I feared. Instead, the moderate style changes are merely a signpost for the reader that they’re now in a different setting. That said, I do find myself wishing that they’d switched roles, with Greenwood writing the “founding of the kingdom” parts and Grubb the “kingdom in crisis” bits. Greenwood’s style, diction, and character mannerisms are all better-suited to epic historical material from the distant past, and Grubb’s plain-spoken, character-focused prose would have been a better fit for the conspiratorial antics that follow King Azoun’s incapacitation. I expect it would have improved the plot, too, since Greenwood tends to be terrible at intrigue. Still, this is the best work Ed Greenwood’s done in a long time. Having someone to rein him in and keep the plot on track prevents the rambling, action-heavy stories he tends to produce when he’s writing by the seat of his pants. There were a few overlong “let’s listen to some complete randos talk about the rumors they’ve heard about the crisis” scenes that could have been trimmed far, far down, but I’ve suffered through much worse.

My biggest complaint would be that the point of view goes absolutely everywhere. Most of the historical scenes have different point-of-view characters, due to the “telling the story of Cormyr down the generations” format. That I can forgive, since they’re basically a small anthology of short stories. But the modern-day scenes show us the succession crisis from the perspective of at least a dozen different characters. (I can’t be arsed to go back and make an exact count, but I was easily able to rattle off a dozen off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are plenty more I’ve forgotten.) The modern-day A-plot only takes up half the novel, so there’s not nearly enough room for characterization — when each character gets only a small amount of attention, none of them end up particularly well-developed. I’d be willing to forgive a clever, intricate plot that has shallow characters, or a nonsense plot with great characters, but it’s sad to see the writers whiff on both.

My second-biggest complaint is the ubiquity of comma splices. They infest the prose like lice, especially in Grubb’s scenes, and it drove me nuts.

Themes

As you might expect from a novel co-authored by Ed Greenwood, the unintentional theme for half of the book is sexism. The women in the A-plot are generally useless in one way or another: flighty, gossipy, shallow, weepy, cowardly, played mostly for sex appeal, thoroughly evil, and/or helpless victims. The people who move the plot along are all men — Vangerdahast, Aunadar Bleth, Giogioni Wyvernspur, Dauneth Marliir, etc. — and their attitude towards the women is often dismissive or patronizing.

He stepped inside, glancing critically at the gardens, and noted approvingly that Lady Wyvernspur seemed to have taken things strongly in hand.

Fuck off, Vangerdahast. She’s a badass who doesn’t need your approval of her gardening skills.

The only potentially active female character in the book is Alusair, Azoun’s headstrong youngest daughter, but she ends up being Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film — she gets a single scene at the beginning of the book explaining why she’s not going to be involved, then is sent far away and barely mentioned again. Same with her mother the Queen, who gets barely any screen time and is then unceremoniously ejected from the plot. Emthrara, a Harper who moonlights as a stripper, is irritatingly over-sexualized in a leering manner and doesn’t really do much aside from providing minor assistance here and there. The woman who feels most like an actual human here is Cat, Giogi’s wife, who’s a mage of significant ability who uses her powers to help Vangerdahast. (Unsurprisingly, she’s a character who was created by, and here mostly written by, Jeff Grubb.) Yet even she gets hardly enough scenes or lines to justify her presence.

Fortunately, the state of affairs in the historical sections is much better. Women are present as effective queens, dangerous foes, and brave court wizards. There’s less of the leering sexualization, and the Obarskyr royals’ lecherous tendency is often presented as a serious character flaw that causes problems rather than a minor peccadillo. It’s one of the many attributes that makes it obvious which author wrote which section.

Politically speaking, the main theme is the conflict between monarchy and oligarchy, with Vangerdahast and the Obarskyrs representing the monarchical faction and a variety of uppity, grasping nobles spearheading the nascent oligarchic faction. It’s not a particularly compelling theme. In the historical sections, we see how much the country suffers when bad kings are in charge; in the modern sections, we see what awful human beings many of the nobility are. Since we see the worst sides of both, it seems like a pointless squabble between two bad forms of government. Under either system, it’s the quality of the people that matters.

Conclusion

Grade: B–

I’ve given this novel a rather hard time in this review. In the modern-day sections, the plot makes no sense and the characters are sketches. And yet… every time I found myself becoming irritated by the modern-day nonsense, I’d stumble onto a fun and engaging short story about the history of Cormyr that would reset my irritation counter for the next modern scene. Half of it is a good book, and the other half is at least mildly entertaining even when it’s being bad. The structure is a fascinating experiment that mostly works quite well, and the pitch is much more interesting than just “heroes fight monsters,” even if its potential is poorly realized. I still found myself looking forward to picking the book back up after each time I put it down.

I suppose I’ll give it a B–, despite the many weaknesses, because I appreciate seeing novels that try to do something unique instead of rehashing Tolkien or Joseph Campbell for the millionth time. (For the record, I’d probably give the historical sections a B+ and the modern-day parts a C– or D+, but the novelty of the construction improves the combined grade slightly.) I’m glad that I won’t be getting around to the other two books in this trilogy, though, because reading the plot summaries didn’t give me any confidence that they’d fare better. And now onto the next challenge: my final R.A. Salvatore novel!

Footnotes

[1] It was originally a standalone novel, as the subtitle implies, but was retconned into being the first book of a trilogy when the second book was released in 1999.

[2] Weirdly, they’ve also made him an untutored chess prodigy in this book. This contradicts his earlier appearance in Crusade, where his wife could regularly mop the floor with him at chess because he was too predictable and averse to sacrificing pieces.

11 Replies to “Cormyr: A Novel

  1. Ah, I was hoping you’d have a higher opinion of this one, but the messy nonsense plot in the modern day and the constant leering tone definitely would bring it down a notch. I think you arrived at a fair grade.

    1. I wouldn’t describe this novel as having a constant leering tone; the only character where the leering was particularly obvious was Emthrara. But the other female characters were bad for other reasons: the noblewomen who occasionally served as a chorus were gossipy idiots, the villain is a hot mess, Cat gets barely any lines and is mostly a tag-along character, there’s a very Greenwoodian “random sex object who gets murdered to show how evil the villains are” character, and Tanalasta was just the worst. The only strong-willed female characters in Greenwood’s chapters, Alusair and Filfaeril, were quickly shoved out of the plot. I think the only lady here I didn’t dislike was the priestess of Tymora, and her only job in the plot was to repeatedly fail at keeping people alive. The modern-day section demonstrates a wide variety of ways to write female characters badly.

  2. Alas, Ed Greenwood can’t help but Greenwood it up. Recently I became aware of this altogether too frank bit of worldbuilding notes, which is mostly just his own harmless sexy Forgotten Realms headcanon (albeit with a ludicrously inaccurate view of how droit du seigneur was socially construed, or if, uh, it was ever widely practiced, anywhere), but veers alarmingly into the “not cool” zone near the end, where he describes springing it as a roleplay scenario on nonconsenting con-goers.

    1. Ugh. Yeah, I’ve read that quote before and it gives me nausea. It’s cool if you have a D&D group where everyone has clearly established boundaries and that’s how you want to play, but at a con with a bunch of random strangers? Not classy. This is why the X-Card had to be invented.

      I really wish that this novel had been a Jeff Grubb solo joint instead of a collaboration. Grubb has described his role in the Realms as “the engineer” who took what Greenwood (the architect) came up with and made finished products out of it, and I think that was a critically important role. Greenwood is great at building voluminously detailed worlds, but the stuff he produces has a lot of rough edges — with his treatment of female characters at the top of the list — and someone has to sand them down to make something readable. It’s bothersome that Greenwood sees that sanding-down process as censorship, and doesn’t seem to have figured out that the people who object to stuff like the above snippet aren’t pearl-clutching moral guardians, but just people who don’t want his sexual fantasies intruding on their gaming.

  3. -If I were Vangerdahast, the first thing I’d do after someone nearly killing my king would be to turn the royal spy network loose to try and investigate some of the most obvious suspects like the Zhentarim, the Red Wizards, the Iron Throne, any remaining Fire Knives, supporters of Vorik Aris (more on him later), Sembia, the Cult of the Dragon and the church of Cyric.

    Is there any explanation why ‘Vangy’ doesn’t do this? Even good-leaning kingdoms would still have intelligence agencies in a D&D world, especially when they not only have other political entities to worry about like real countries do, but the schemes of various wizards, fiends and gods.

    Not to mention he’s a lich-level wizard. Why doesn’t he cast any divinations or borrow a tactic from R.A. Salvatore and conjure some sort of goodly creature from the upper planes to find more information? Or see if he can contact anyone in the Harpers for help? The Forest Kingdom is exactly the kind of nation and rulership you’d think the Harpers would want to encourage more of. Cormyr collapsing wouldn’t mean anything good for the Harpers or their goals.

    -Sadly, real life history is rife with political leaders making things worse with bad decisions, so Vangy’s actions in depicting himself as a traitor are pretty believable. Napoleon III let Bismarck goad him into the Franco-Prussian War; the U.S. Presidents before and after Lincoln allowed the Civil War to become a ticking time bomb and then utterly soiled the bed on Reconstruction; Wilhelm II called Belgium’s neutrality treaty a ‘scrap of paper’; Nicholas II decided to pick a fight with Imperial Japan; Imperial Japan itself thought U.S. resolve would be broken by the attack on Pearl Harbor…I’m sure we could probably all add a lot of different examples.

    -The funny thing about Ed Greenwood, besides his being Canadian, is that apparently he still worked as a librarian in between penning all his various Realms material. That’s what I’ve gleaned from reading some of his various social media posts, at least. Our esteemed host has previously wondered if the rough edges of Greenwood’s material came from having to write so much material in such a short period of time. Maybe the time crunch Greenwood would be under between his ‘day job’, his TSR work and running his personal D&D campaigns were the reason his writing turned out the way it did, as much as any TSR decisions?

    -One thing I’ve often wondered about collaborative writing is who actually writes which part of a text. How many co-authors just each write separate chapters and jam them together like Greenwood and Grubb do here? How many have one of them write an initial draft and then the other(s) revise it? How many don’t do any of the actual writing, but are listed as co-authors because of all the work they contributed towards coming up with the characters, plot, etc.?

    -The Four From Cormyr 2nd Edition module, written by John Terra, actually addresses the stereotype of Cormyr as some utopia. Obscure nobleman Vorik Aris is the main villain of the final adventure in the set, and he flat-out tries to overthrow Azoun despite the king arguably being at the height of his power and popularity. This is further developed in the 3rd Edition changes where Azoun is killed and many of the noble houses have committed flat-out treason. Alusair is acting as regent for her baby nephew Azoun V, but the kingdom’s been so badly rattled by the upheavals that Alusair is struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

    -I’m kind of two minds about writing attractive characters, especially women. I’ll be the first to admit that I like seeing attractive women doing things from being superheroes to professional wrestlers in media, and I certainly don’t begrudge straight women or gay men wanting the same things from men in those roles. Various Realms and Dragonlance novels have been criticized for depicting so many of their female characters as gorgeous-and I’ve done the same thing with some of my own protagonists. OTOH, our esteemed host’s criticisms about Greenwood’s depiction of women are entirely valid. Maybe a way to do it more tastefully is to mention it at the start when introducing the characters, then leaving it at that?

    -This book illustrates the challenges of trying to write from a nonhuman perspective. It’s one thing to write monsters like demons or orcs (if you depict them as being corrupted by evil gods, as Roger Moore’s story “Vision” did and Matt Mercer does in Critical Role, along with the possibility of orcs freeing themselves from it), but writing a being that still has its own sentient desires and preferences but has a much longer lifespan and is more specialized in certain fields than humans are (magic for elves, crafting for dwarves, etc.) I’ve always imagined Greyhawk’s elves as not being hostile towards other races but preferring to keep to themselves just because it’s hard for them to relate to those other races. They welcome visitors and trade with the outside world, and they’ll help refugees from BBEG attacks, but they prefer to stay in their own communities otherwise.

    -Add me to the list of people squicked out by having to find Alustriel in the steaming bath. I wonder if, beyond the X-Card, a simpler rule of thumb would be to avoid sexual aspects altogether unless the player has somehow built it into their character ahead of time. The Critical Role campaign I’ve been streaming had Sam Riegel’s female halfling make her Mercer-played husband give her a “nooner” before she had to leave, while Mercer just sat and watched when Marisha Ray and Ashley Johnson played out their own characters’ lesbian relationship.

    Scenarios like what Greenwood depicted make me understand the reticence some female and/or racialized gamers have had with certain D&D elements.

    1. Is there any explanation why ‘Vangy’ doesn’t do this?

      Nope. The “intelligence network” is basically himself and a handful of trusted War Wizards. The Harpers’ assistance consists of one Harper agent taking a break from her day job as a stripper to look into things, which doesn’t sound like they’re putting a lot of effort into it. I don’t get it either.

      One thing I’ve often wondered about collaborative writing is who actually writes which part of a text. How many co-authors just each write separate chapters and jam them together like Greenwood and Grubb do here?

      Depends on the authors! In this instance they were in two different countries and Ed Greenwood had a day job, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they came up with an outline, divvied up the scenes, and then wrote individually. Other authors who are able to spend time in the same room might write together or take turns. Whatever works!

      I don’t think we can blame these rough edges merely on Greenwood being busy. The same flaws have been present in many of his books, and they’re fairly easily avoidable. It feels like he didn’t learn from his mistakes the way that some other authors have; instead, he focused on producing words as fast as possible. By his own admission, he cranked out work in 14– to 16–hour stretches, writing in every spare minute of his day. But writing is only one part of being an author — ruthless editing and self-criticism is the other part, and without it you’re not going to grow nearly as much.

      I’m kind of two minds about writing attractive characters, especially women.

      Yeah, this is a meaty topic, and probably one that deserves more time. There’s nothing wrong with having attractive characters, generally speaking! I’ve got zero problems with that. But there’s a wide continuum in the way that authors treat attractive characters, all the way from “an interesting person who is also attractive” to “a pair of tits with a name and brief character profile attached,” and Greenwood’s writing often falls on the latter side of that spectrum. I’ll grant that his work is good in some ways by 1990s standards — there’s no shortage of female characters, and many of them are badass and capable. But ultimately they come across as badass and capable sex objects, where the author can’t help but frequently remind you how hot and DTF they are even when it makes no sense for the narrative.

      Consider Princess Alusair in this book, who’s a very different character from the Alusair we met in Crusade. The other characters keep pointing out what a badass she is and how she has a reputation for banging everyone who comes within a mile of her, to the point where those are her primary personality traits. We see her have a very bad day, where several of her comrades are killed and she learns that her father is on the brink of death, but she seems much less bothered by that than she does about not being able to sleep with one of her peers who’s turned out to be her bastard half-brother. She’s not displaying any of the emotions or doing any of the actions that you’d expect someone in her situation to display or do — instead, she’s having flirtatious banter and getting a foot rub. It makes her feel like less of a real character and more like wish fulfillment on the part of the author.

      Storm Silverhand is another easy example, since I think she’s taken her top off for no apparent reason in every Ed Greenwood book where she appears. When the nudity doesn’t make sense in context, it feels like you’re just watching the author take the clothes off his Barbie dolls.

      There’s an uncomfortable male gaze that’s omnipresent in his work. For instance, I think that every single one of his books features ladies getting naked, often inadvertently, in front of an audience of men. I could probably find a dozen instances in fifteen minutes if I were to go back through the novels I’ve already read. Hell, I can think of two instances in the modern sections of this novel alone. But when I think about how many men have ended up naked in his books… there were a couple of instances in Spellfire, I guess, and that’s all that comes to mind. It feels like it’s an outlet for his personal fetish. (For anyone who’s ever seen the Patrick Stewart episode of Extras, it’s pretty much exactly that in novel form.)

      In short, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sex-positive fantasy novels or having attractive characters, but what matters is how you do it. Do those elements make any sense for the character and the current situation? If not, it’s going to feel lazy and gratuitous.

      Add me to the list of people squicked out by having to find Alustriel in the steaming bath. I wonder if, beyond the X-Card, a simpler rule of thumb would be to avoid sexual aspects altogether unless the player has somehow built it into their character ahead of time.

      Exactly. Knowing the boundaries of the people you’re playing ahead of time avoids a lot of unpleasant situations. Every campaign should start with asking the players what kind of game they want to play and, more importantly, what kind of game they don’t want to play. There’s nothing wrong with including sexual elements in a game if the whole group is comfortable with it, but that element of foreknowledge makes all the difference between “immersive” and “super skeezy”.

  4. Nope. The “intelligence network” is basically himself and a handful of trusted War Wizards. The Harpers’ assistance consists of one Harper agent taking a break from her day job as a stripper to look into things, which doesn’t sound like they’re putting a lot of effort into it. I don’t get it either.

    See, this is what would make writing in the Realms such a tricky thing for me. I’d have to gauge exactly how much any given character can actually do with magic and keep it from derailing the plot. I’ve had an easier time with this in my Greyhawk stories because the early sourcebooks I use as a guideline indicate that characters higher than 10th level are pretty rare except in seats of power. Combine that with magic items being such a pain in the behind to make in the 1E AD&D rules, and it’s a lot easier for me to justify why A Wizard Didn’t Do It.

    Meanwhile, here Vangerdahast has a country’s worth of magical resources, a small army of wizards at his beck and call and what should logically be a number of spies that either work for the Crown and people in the Harpers he could call on, and Greenwood doesn’t explain why he comes up with such a half-baked plan?

    I’m sorry for soapboxing, but this sort of thing really grates on me as a reader. One of my main critiques of the Realms is just how many archmages seem to be running around willy-nilly. There’s Elminster, the Simbul, Alustriel, the Red Wizards, the mages of Halruaa, the Nimbral Lords, the Twisted Rune, the Red Wizards of Thay, the wizards of Phlan in the Moonsea, Halaster Blackcloak, the Princes of Shade, the phaerimms, Khelben, Manshoon, Slarkethel the kraken wizard who runs the Kraken Society, Zhengyi, Larloch…I recalled all those names off the top of my head, and I wouldn’t even call myself a Realmslore expert!

    BTW, another writing query: How long can/should a dangling subplot be left before it’s resolved? I ask that because one specific plotline from Streams Of Silver is resolved not in Passage To Dawn but in The Silent Blade. I hope this doesn’t count as spoiling since The Silent Blade goes beyond our esteemed host’s timeline and he won’t review it, but the plotline in question is that of Valric High Eye, the Sky Pony shaman one of the protagonists vowed revenge on. R.A. Salvatore finally addresses this, but he did it five books (I’m not counting the Dark Elf Trilogy or Cleric Quintet for this, just the Legacy of the Drow series and The Halfling’s Gem) and nine real life years (1989-1998) later.

    Does a subplot lose its effect or impact if it’s left for that long? I’m not so sure it did in Salvatore’s specific case, since it tied neatly into the protagonist’s inner turmoil, but I have a couple of ideas for such plotlines and I wonder if they’d lose their impact if they stayed on the backburner for too long.

    1. Good question. I’ve been thinking along the same lines while reading Passage to Dawn, which also brings back some hoary old plots, and I think I like it. A plot does lose some effectiveness the longer it’s been since it was last relevant, but it’s better to have plots that tie into the existing world and show the consequences of the characters’ past actions rather than constantly saying “And then, a totally new problem showed up!” and ignoring what came before. It makes the world feel richer and the characters’ actions more meaningful.

  5. Ah, I’ve been waiting for this one to come up. I have very fond memories of this book. I first read it when I was about 14, which is probably exactly the right time. Even then the flaws in the present day narrative were hard to ignore: all the plotting and intrigue is arbitrary and senseless – it’s not actually constructed as a royal court drama, succession crisis or what have you, it’s just lots of stuff happening for reasons that surpass explanation and occasionally the characters say “all this court intrigue is terrible!” so you know what the author wants you to feel. The equally arbitrary sexy maidens tip you off that that author is Greenwood.

    The historic vignettes are an entirely different story (as it were). I think they’re a cut above the genre to this day – inventive, evocative and atmospheric, and portioned out to very effectively give you the feeling you’re getting a bird’s eye view of the whole history of the nation. The characters are all quite distinctly drawn – so you can see how characteristics, family tendencies and consequences echo down the years. Ultimately, I’ll take Greenwood’s foibles on the chin to get the patchwork history of the kingdom.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with your take. It’s frustrating to think how much better this book could have been if it had all been done to the same level of quality, instead of this stark divide between the modern and historical bits.

      1. I know it’s late to return to this, but I just want to note how charmed I was by the episode that was essentially “what if Richard II was just sorted out sensibly?’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

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