Author: Ed Greenwood
Published: April 1994
This may be the most leisurely trilogy in Forgotten Realms history. Spellfire was published in 1988, shortly after the setting’s release. Now, six years later, a sequel has finally reared its head, and it’ll be another eight years after that until the final installment. This story ended up as a curious anachronism, thanks to how quickly the Realms’ metaplot outpaced it — this trilogy takes place in 1357 DR, but by the time the series ended, the books published around the same time were all set in 1372, 15 years later.
Fair warning: Since the final book in this trilogy, Hand of Fire, wasn’t published until 2002, I probably won’t get around to reviewing it. I’m planning to stick to the classic TSR era for these reviews, and that’s well beyond it. As such, don’t be surprised if I spoil the ending of the trilogy somewhat in this review.
The pitch for the last book was that Shandril, a teenage runaway, discovered that she had an extraordinarily rare magical power which could defeat most other forms of magic, and lots of evil people wanted to control her for her talent. So the plot devolved into an endless cycle of “waves of random evil people attack Shandril, then get fried to a crisp” over and over and over again. Can this book come up with a more involved plot that will hold my attention?
Well, let’s see. I’ll just crack the book open and… on page 1, it looks like Shandril’s being chased by a bunch of evil people, and she’s already fried a bunch of them to a crisp.
Imagine a chase scene in a movie: cars careening around corners, explosions going off, gunfights between moving vehicles, that sort of thing. It’s exciting and fun, right? Then imagine that the chase scene goes on for nine solid hours. The first twenty minutes are entertaining. After an hour, you’re exhausted and bored. By about hour four, the explosions and fast cuts serve only as a backdrop for your quiet contemplation of how quickly the precious minutes of your life are slipping away. By the end, you’re asleep in your chair. That’s more or less how this entire trilogy goes: people keep attacking Shandril and her friends and getting burnt to a crisp, ad nauseam. There’s not nearly enough other things going on in the story to support three books’ worth of plot, never a point where Shandril’s powers aren’t the focus of the story. All the character work and setting work in the world can’t save a novel which just keeps milking the same tension for hundreds of pages.
Consider Alias from Azure Bonds, my go-to example when I need to talk about a good character in a good plot. She’s extraordinarily talented at hitting things with swords; it’s by far her strongest suit. What makes the plot interesting is that her problems (memory loss, evil tattoos) are things that can’t be solved by hitting things with swords. This forces her to exercise plenty of unfamiliar skills in her quest to uncover some answers, which is incredibly frustrating for her but makes her grow as a character over the course of the book. By contrast, for all the major situations in the Shandril trilogy, the problem is always Shandril’s powers and the solution is always Shandril’s powers, so it’s impossible to stay interested in the plot. Every scene is one of the following:
- They are travelling
- Bad people plot to attack them
- Good people worry about how they’re doing
- Bad people attack them and get fried to a crisp
- Unexpected temporary allies rescue them
This entire book feels like just those five scenes, repeated and shuffled around. The big finish, where Shandril goes apeshit on a Zhentarim stronghold in an orgy of death and property damage, is clearly supposed to be the climax of the book. But by this point we’ve seen so many people die and so much property damaged that it just feels like more of the same on a slightly larger scale, an incremental escalation rather than a significant event.
But here’s the worst part about this plot by far: every single bad thing that happens in it was completely avoidable. The reason why Shandril & Co. are on this road trip in the first place is because the Harpers kicked them out of Shadowdale. They were all “Oh, if we protect you too much we’ll stunt your growth and ruin your destiny. So instead of keeping you safe, we’re going to send you on an incredibly long journey, practically alone. If you survive, you’ll have grown and had lots of interesting experiences. If you don’t, that’s a shame!” They set up occasional help along the way, but mostly they’re just telling a pregnant sixteen-year-old walk from Shadowdale to Silverymoon while everything in the Realms tries to kill her out of some sort of Darwinian notion of self-determination.
Think about that for a second. The Harpers’ idea of letting Shandril and Narm explore their destiny is punting a pregnant sixteen-year-old (can’t stress that point enough!) and her gormless teenage husband onto the road for a trip of over 2,000 miles, on foot. (Imagine walking from El Paso to New York City, except with people trying to kill you or monsters trying to eat you every thirty miles or so.) Apart from spellfire they’re practically helpless, and all of the most powerful evildoers in the Realms are gunning for them. They get captured before they even make it to Highmoon and need rescuing, which doesn’t make the Harpers think “You know, maybe this was a bad idea after all.” Elminster could have teleported them to Silverymoon with a wave of his hand, but he contents himself with occasionally interfering in the plans of the people who want to capture her. Seriously, these Harpers are either criminally evil or indescribably stupid, and the eventual ending of this trilogy — spoiler: it’s not a happy one — is entirely their fault. They basically threw a couple of kittens into a blender, then were sad when it didn’t work out well for the kittens.
This quote from the end of Spellfire pretty much sums it up:
“They could be dead by now!” Sharantyr said angrily. “I ride patrol for a few days and return to find you’ve put your toes to the behinds of two of the nicest young people I’ve met! One struggles with half-trained art, and the other bears spellfire that every mage in the Realms would slay her to gain or destroy, and both are mad enough to seek adventure. And but days married, too! Where is your kindness, Knights of Myth Drannor? Where is your good sense?”
Easy, Shar,” Florin said gently. “They joined the Harpers and wanted to walk their own road. Would you want to be caged?”
“Caged? Does a mother turn her infant out of the house because it’s reached twenty nights of age? Alone, you sent them!”
She’s the only person in all three of these books with a goddamned bit of sense, and of course nobody listens to her.
I’m having a hard time finding much to say about Shandril as a character because she’s so devoid of agency. The entire structure of the plot — waves of mooks attack her over and over — makes her a purely passive and reactive character for almost the entire book. She walks for a while, then people attack her, then she keeps walking. She doesn’t make any choices more complicated than “should we take this road or that road?”. She’s pretty much the same character at the end as she was at the beginning: pert, compassionate, world-weary, unhappy about her lot. In Spellfire she at least had an arc of sorts, where she grew from a callow kitchen drudge to a fledgling burninatrix. Here she doesn’t grow as a character because she doesn’t have any particularly complicated interactions with others — it’s either “char-broil” or “be friendly with nice people who help her.” So if she’s not doing anything, and she’s not becoming anything… what’s going to make me invested in this character? She does make one noteworthy decision at about the three-quarters mark — to go on the offensive against the Zhentarim — and it made me think “Hooray! Finally, someone has some agency in this story!” But as soon as she decides to do so, a series of three more Zhentish schmucks show up, one after another, to get themselves killed and delay the plot. Then there’s an interlude with a haunted house, and then she eventually gets around to the offense, but immediately ends up in a huge amount of trouble and has to be rescued again. Sigh. So much for agency.
Her husband Narm is even worse. He was a fairly major character in the previous book, but here he does almost nothing, tagging along behind Shandril and occasionally complaining. I’m racking my brain to think of anything noteworthy to say about him, but nothing jumps to mind because his only purpose, narratively speaking, is to repeatedly get his ass kicked to motivate Shandril to rescue him. The story doesn’t even dwell much on their relationship, which you’d think would be front of mind for a couple of newlyweds. He’s just a cardboard cutout, more or less.
Delg, Shandril’s dwarven friend from her old adventuring company, is somewhat better. He’s fatalistic, practical, and down-to-earth, keeping everyone else moving and safe as best he can. Unlike his companions, he doesn’t have any magic; he’s just trying to survive by being smarter than the villains and avoiding conflict, dismembering their foes with axes only when all else fails. I appreciated his “tough love” approach to motivating the party, which was a good antidote to the whining and “woe is me” from the others. When he left the story around the halfway point, the remainder of my flagging enthusiasm for this plot went with him.
Mirt the Moneylender enters the story at around the two-fifths mark, which was a surprise. He’s one of the oldest characters in Realms lore, the subject of some of Greenwood’s early pre-D&D fiction back when the Realms were just a pile of papers in a cardboard box, so it’s no shock that Greenwood would want to bring him into a published novel. He seems like an incongruous choice for Shandril’s protector, though, given that he’s a fat old man whose adventuring days are well behind him, he lives almost 2,000 miles away, and he’s busy helping run the city of Waterdeep. (Did the Harpers not have anyone around who was better suited to the job? If not, that makes them look even worse.) He’s sort of a Falstaff pastiche, a bluff, boisterous big guy who serves as comic relief. On the plus side, he’s smarter than his shtick would suggest, demonstrating enough cunning and savoir-faire to explain how he’s survived for so long. Unfortunately, the “comic relief” bits are rarely all that funny, and I found him getting on my nerves by the end.
There are two traps that high-level characters in these stories tend to fall into: either they look like jerks because they could help the protagonists but don’t, or they act as dei ex machina who make things boring by solving the protagonists’ problems for them. Happily, Elminster manages to avoid both of them here. There’s a decent explanation provided for why he’s not doing more to help Shandril on her journey: he’s constantly balancing the schemes of dozens of factions to maintain the détente which keeps the Realms safe, and he can’t take a vacation from that to help any one person without allowing major damage to happen elsewhere. (Doesn’t explain why he sent them on the journey in the first place, but… well, we covered that above.) When he does get directly involved, he gets his ass kicked fairly hard by an unexpectedly powerful foe and needs to recuperate afterwards. He doesn’t get as much screen time here as he did in Spellfire, but in the few scenes he does get, he seems less smug and more vulnerable. We see his ennui from being so old and living through so much change, and his rarely-indulged need for human companionship. Not bad.
Torm and Rathan, the bickering rogue and priest from the Knights of Myth Drannor, fare much worse in their occasional appearances here. Elminster sends them to follow Shandril and keep her safe, but it would have been a lot more effective if they’d actually accompanied her instead of chasing along behind her and shanking the occasional survivor left in her wake. As it is, their scenes feel irrelevant and tangential; they don’t get nearly enough screen time to flesh out their characters, and they do nothing relevant to the plot until the very end. I’m left wondering why they were even in this book.
This novel marks a landmark of sorts in the Forgotten Realms series: it has the first unambiguously gay characters we’ve seen yet.
“Wine, Lady?” Gathlarue’s older apprentice stood over her, a dark shape against the trees that rose all around them. The slim, raven-haired girl held a silver-harnessed crystal decanter in her hands.
Gathlarue looked up at her, smiled, and took the goblet she offered. “My thanks, precious one. You know my needs so well.” Maraira twisted her mouth in a wordless, affectionate reply, bent to kiss her, and glided softly away.
Hooray! Gay characters represented without any coding or subtle hints in a novel aimed at teenagers! That’s great, right? Except… they’re a pair of depraved evil villainesses, scheming to destroy the protagonists and kill each other in the process. Of course they are. This was the mid-1990s, after all, where “depraved villain” was pretty much the only role open to gay or bisexual characters. Conflating alternative sexuality with degeneracy was an easy way to make a villain seem more creepy and “other” to a primarily straight audience — think Basic Instinct or Blue Velvet, for instance — and society was only just beginning to come around to the concept of a sympathetically portrayed non-straight person. Still, I’m surprised that TSR allowed Greenwood to go as far as these chaste same-sex kisses — after the Satanic Panic, upper management was paranoid about not embroiling the company in further public controversies.
There’s not much more to say about the rest of the villains in this piece. There are far too many of them, their characterizations are never more complicated than “I do evil things because I want power”, and we don’t get to know any of them well enough to care about what they’re doing or whether they succeed. They’re just speed bumps for Shandril to drive over, barbecued and then immediately forgotten about.
The Harper characters are frequently worrying “oh no, are we going to have to put Shandril down if she ever becomes evil and stops being bothered by the killing?”, but it doesn’t have much emotional impact because the reader never believes that Shandril ever would. She’s unfailingly morally upright, always disgusted by the violence and wishing that it would stop. She gets angry, sure, but it’s an entirely justified anger directed squarely at the people who caused her problems, so it doesn’t make her seem like a loose cannon. If there had been scenes where she’d been tempted to misuse her powers or where she became complacent about the mass murder she gets involved with on a daily basis, then this theme might have landed.
It’s remarkable that there’s no sex in this book, given that the previous book had enough to constitute a major theme. There are prostitute characters and innuendo and whatnot, but nothing like the constant boning down that every character in Spellfire indulged in. One can only assume that Greenwood’s last book occasioned some changes in TSR’s editorial policy.
The writing is very Greenwoodian, which is to say that it has a distinct voice and does a good job of fleshing out the setting, but the quality is uneven. Still, it’s better to be uniquely flawed than boringly bad! Characters speak in a pastiche of antiquated English diction which gets grating after a while, but at least there’s much less of the gratuitous “thee” and “thou” archaisms which filled the previous book. There were plenty of little awkward bits, but nothing so groan-worthy that I felt it needed to be pointed out.
The weakest point for me wasn’t so much the style as the dialogue. There’s fewer characters here with fewer interesting relationships, and fewer moments of downtime, so there’s hardly any of the tender or ordinary everyday moments which we got to see in the previous novel. Instead, the characters spend a great deal of time bantering and teasing each other. The quality of the wit is not generally very high, and the quips quickly start to feel forced and obligatory.
Spellfire’s strongest suit was its setting work. The novel served as Greenwood’s way to introduce readers to his world, so we saw a great deal of what made the Realms unique through a variety of characters’ eyes. The setting is rather less convincing in Crown of Fire, alas, since much of the book is spent watching the characters wandering through the wilderness rather than interacting with society. There’s only so much you can do with trees and rocks, setting-wise, so I quickly found myself longing for the ancient ruins and bucolic villages of the previous book.
By the final stages of Crown of Fire, I noticed a familiar feeling creeping over me: a sense of ennui coupled to the dawning realization that I no longer cared all that much what happened to these characters. There’s not a lot of plot here outside of “bad people keep attacking Shandril and getting fried,” and there’s not a lot of character development for the protagonists, so my attention had little to latch onto. This book has a great deal in common with its predecessor: both are action-fests that are jam-packed with battles and explosions but hamstrung by weak plots. But Spellfire had a large cast of fleshed-out characters and a focus on world-building that made me actually care about the outcome of all the battles even after the constant combat became tedious. Here I just checked out partway through and never got pulled back in. This is hardly the first Realms book to give me that sensation (hello, The Fallen Fortress!), and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but I had higher hopes for this one.