Author: James Lowder
Published: January 1991
It’s time to ring in the new year! 1991 brought us many momentous events: the first Gulf War, the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid, and the release of the final book in the Empires trilogy. (Curiously, that last one takes up much less space in the history books than the others.)
Actually, now that I think about it, it’s curious that I should have mentioned the Gulf War in connection with this book, because Crusade feels very much like a product of its times. The very first scene is an argument between two characters about whether Cormyr should intervene militarily to protect nearby nations from the invading Tuigan hordes:
The king’s eyes grew dark again. “We’ve had this argument before. Cormyr is more than the lands that lay between lines on a map. We are only one country, one power amongst a dozen in Faerun. If one of our neighbors falls, then we fall, too. My duty to Cormyr demands that I help avert a crisis that could threaten any part of the continent.”
Variations on this discussion have been going on in American culture ever since the United States became a global power in the 20th century: the isolationism movement which kept America out of World War 2 until Pearl Harbor, the “domino theory” which drove the U.S. to oppose Communism in proxy wars, and now the Gulf War. The U.S. government claimed that it was intervening to protect a downtrodden country from its powerful and belligerent neighbour; many Americans pointed out the much more cynical motive of America’s need to safeguard its Middle Eastern oil supply, and anti-war protests were widespread throughout the country in the latter half of 1990.
There are no overt references to the Gulf War here — no placard-waving protestors chanting “no blood for jhuild” or whatever. It’s not an obviously political tract. But if we assume that the fictional media of the era was influenced by current events, then Crusade clearly comes down on the side of military intervention and reinforces the official narrative of “altruistically helping the Kuwaitis” with which the U.S. justified the war. What I’m curious about is the timeline. When did the storyline for this book develop? It was released about six months after the invasion, so it was certainly written during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, but presumably the general outline of this trilogy had already been planned out earlier in 1990. Regardless of whether it was an eerie coincidence or a deliberate analogue for real-world events, it still would have been interpreted as the latter by the audience of the time — if the book’s intended audience hadn’t mostly been 13-year-olds with more interest in simulating wars on a tabletop than watching them on television.
Mongol Tuigan horde is sweeping across central Faerûn, Zerg-rushing the nations of Rashemen and Thesk. In response, King Azoun of Cormyr assembles a coalition of allied armies to travel across the Sea of Fallen Stars and stop them before they reach the Heartlands. He has to drum up political support, hold his fractious alliance together, avoid assassination attempts, and wage vast battles in a foreign country, all while trying to win back the heart of his runaway daughter.
Meanwhile, we also see the titular crusade through the eyes of a common soldier, a fletcher and archer named Razor John who signs on as a volunteer. His experience of the war is very different from Azoun’s — he sails there on an overcrowded ship, endures the rude company of other soldiers and sailors, sees the squalor of Telflamm’s slums, and experiences the fear of standing in the ranks facing a cavalry charge. His companions are a mixed bunch: some are there for the adventure, some for money, and some, like John himself, out of patriotism. They drink, tell jokes, make religious observances, gossip and spread rumours, and all the little details that make the Alliance army feel like a collection of people instead of a faceless horde.
This book succeeds where the previous book failed by giving us more than one perspective on the same events. In Dragonwall, we only saw the war from the viewpoint of the Shou nobility, for whom the rank and file were merely expendable tools to be used and discarded as necessary. Seeing the war from both the top and bottom of society gives it an immediacy and sense of realism which Dragonwall lacked; the battles in that book sometimes felt like listening to descriptions of a particularly bloody board game.
The realism extends to showing all the details that go into waging a war: the logistics of moving large numbers of troops across the sea, the work that goes into keeping the troops’ morale up, the difficulty of keeping discipline in a heterogenous force, et cetera. In fact, the two armies don’t even meet until three-fifths of the way through the book; until then, it’s all about gathering and moving the Alliance army. I appreciate that it’s more than just “army A smashes into army B” for page after page, because Azoun and John’s interactions with the other characters — the diplomacy, arguments, and moments of personal connection — are the real heart of the book.
It’s got a fairly broad scope, taking us from Suzail, the peaceful capital city of Cormyr, to the other side of the Sea of Fallen Stars. The Cormyr scenes give us a good sense of the quiet, prosperous lives which most Cormyrians enjoy under Azoun’s mostly peaceful rule, which contrasts well with the war-torn country of Thesk. Sadly, Thesk is a very boring place, setting-wise; what we see of it is almost all empty countryside, without any details of the people or culture there. Feels like a wasted opportunity, really.
As mentioned above, the entire plot of this novel is the timely subject of military intervention in foreign affairs. Only briefly, at the beginning, does anyone question whether such intervention is justified or appropriate; once events are underway, that question is quietly dropped.
There’s also a heavy undercurrent of racism in this novel, both explicit and implicit. One Cormyrian volunteer protests that he’s “not in this to help witches or foreigners” when told that they’d be travelling to Thesk and Rashemen, the dalesmen refuse to fight under Cormyrian commanders, and everyone seems to buy into the stereotype of Sembians as money-grubbing jerks. And then there’s the intra-alliance conflict between the dwarves and the orcs, which is handled in a surprisingly nuanced way. The orcs are genuinely awful: filthy, savage, casually violent, and amoral. But they’re loyal, effective, and clever — clever enough to trick even Azoun, in the end. Everyone treats them like shit, they expect that kind of treatment, and if they weren’t so unpleasant it would be easy to feel sorry for them. But the dwarves are awful in their own way, too. They’re initially presented as honourable, disciplined, and extraordinarily capable fighters. But the more you see of them — and especially the more you see them interact with the orcs — the more you realize that they’re inflexible, proud, and incredibly racist, to the point where even Alusair, their closest ally, gets cold feet about working with them. In fact, there’s no ethnic group in the Alliance that’s presented as entirely good. You’ve got the arrogant Cormyrian nobles, the brutish Cormyrian soldier who gets hanged, the insubordinate and abrasive dalesman general, the Sembian first mate on the Sarnath, the jerkass dwarves, the orcs… every group is a mixture of both good and bad people. It’s a remarkably mature and realistic approach to this sort of story, which could easily have slipped into a tedious “good Alliance versus evil barbarians” narrative.
There’s a great little moment halfway through where the king and his historian are paging through a book of an early western explorer’s account of the Tuigan, trying to figure out how much of it is true and how much of it is just racist garbage. It’s one of a few nice acknowledgements throughout the book that history isn’t necessary true or fair to its subjects.
King Azoun IV makes his second canonical appearance here, getting most of a book to himself. (The first time was as a minor supporting character in Azure Bonds.) He’s your classic example of the benevolent absolute monarch: honest, upright, brave, cares deeply about the well-being of his subjects, and personally involves himself in the running of the country. There was definitely the potential for him to be a boring King Arthur pastiche, but thankfully he turns out to be a great character for generating interesting conflict. He’s often faced with the choice between his idealism and what’s best for his people, making painful sacrifices that compromise his knightly ethics in order to do what’s necessary. And the family conflict between him and his rebellious daughter Alusair is a problem that he can’t solve by diplomatic or military means.
Alusair is another fairly well-done character; she’s the chaotic good to Azoun’s lawful good, a free-spirited royal runaway who couldn’t stand the stifling atmosphere of court and didn’t want the responsibility of leadership. Over the course of the novel she finds herself having to unwillingly assume some of Azoun’s responsibilities, and learns to appreciate her father’s point of view in the process. Azoun, for his part, gradually accepts her for who she is and stops pressuring her to follow in his footsteps. All this personal drama is a good change of pace from the greater story of politics and warfare.
The weakest characters here are in the commoner thread. Despite the intimidating nickname, Razor John isn’t a very exciting sort of person, being quiet, affable, and easygoing to a fault. He observes everything that happens around him with a keen eye, but doesn’t think very hard about it — at least, not in a way that leads to any perceptible character development. Thus, he’s basically the same person at the end of the book as he was in the beginning: a living camera who shows the reader the low-level experience of the war, but doesn’t interact with it. His relationship with Kiri, another of the Alliance soldiers, is rather perfunctory and gets very little screen time. I’m glad he was in the book, since he fulfills an important structural role, but it seems like another missed opportunity that he should have been so bland character-wise.
The rest of the supporting cast is generally quite good, however. The court wizard Vangerdahast is appropriately high-minded and prickly as Azoun’s cynical foil. Vrakk and Torg, the orcish and dwarven leaders, make good face characters for their respective factions. Torg, in particular, gets rather a lot of screen time, much of which shows off his more unpleasant character traits. Azoun’s fractious council of generals is a small-scale microcosm of the divided army they’re leading. Thom, Azoun’s court bard, is a rare and delightful thing: a character who’s not very important and doesn’t do very much plot-wise, but still feels like a well-realized character who, under other circumstances, could be the hero of another story. And Koja makes an appearance at the end, wrapping up the trilogy with the character we began it with.
There are a couple minor editing mistakes (“ringing” instead of “wringing”, etc.), but overall it’s quite well done. The descriptions are fairly vivid, the dialogue is natural — or at least much more natural than I’m used to after the last couple R.A. Salvatore books — and the author seems equally comfortable writing dialogue-heavy diplomatic conferences as he does great battles. Scenes are peppered with little details that make them feel authentic, and Lowder doesn’t seem to be afraid of giving everyone some downtime for character development between exciting incidents.
It’s a surprisingly mature novel. I love the shades of grey throughout, the refusal to cast any part of this war as “good people versus bad people,” the acknowledgement that history is only a rough approximation of the truth. These are all things that I wish more of the Forgotten Realms authors had been capable of. And best of all, this is the least historical fan fictionish book of the trilogy! My only complaints are minor things when stacked up next to the things I enjoyed about it.