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. 
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…
…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.
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.  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.
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.
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.
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!
 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.
 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.