Crypt of the Shadowking

Author: Mark Anthony
Published: April 1993

Finally! The first Forgotten Realms novel written by a new author since 1992’s Red Magic. Mark Anthony wasn’t new to TSR at this point — he’d previously co-wrote a Dragonlance novel and contributed a short story to Realms of Valor — but this is his first of three full-length Realms novels. Will it be a breath of fresh air or just a different kind of tiresome slog? Let’s find out.

This one takes place in a location we haven’t yet visited in any of the Realms fiction: Iriaebor, the City of a Thousand Spires, a way station on the busy trade route between the Heartlands and the cities of the Sword Coast. Of all the books we’ve seen so far, this is only the fourth which spends almost the entire book exploring a single city. [1] As I’ve said before, I quite enjoy urban fantasy settings; it forces the author to work harder on the setting and not lean too heavily on Tolkienish “let’s go on a quest”-type tropes. But apart from this book, Iriaebor never got much attention in the setting material. None of the other novels ever came back here as far as I know, so aside from this novel it never got more than a page in Forgotten Realms Adventures and a write-up in one of the Volo’s Guides. It’s a pity, since I appreciate the Italian-inspired “merchant-run city with lots of towers” vibe. But this book doesn’t make as good use of the city environment as, say, Elfshadow; the protagonists don’t meet as many people from as many different walks of life, and you don’t see much of what daily life is like, so you never get that sense of the city as a living organism.

Plot

Imagine that someone read The Lord of the Rings, then said to themself, “That was cool, but you know what this story really needed? An entire book devoted to the Scouring of the Shire!” Because that’s pretty much exactly what we have here. A mid-level minion of evil escapes the heroes, goes back to the heroes’ homeland, sets themself up as a tin-pot dictator under an assumed name, and goes about making sure that nobody gets to have any fun. (Because, as we all know, evil people hate fun.) Where it gets interesting is that, unlike in LOTR, the heroes here are not unstoppable ass-kicking juggernauts who are ten levels higher than anyone else in town, but merely a couple of vastly outnumbered spies trying to build a clandestine rebellion.

“Plucky rebels topple a powerful government” plots are remarkably difficult to build well — the bigger the power imbalance between the rebels and the authorities, the harder it is to write a convincing struggle. Real-world rebellions usually end in either a crushing defeat where everyone gets killed or arrested — not a great way to sell a pulp fantasy novel — or take a long time to build, involve complex interactions between deep-seated fault lines in society, and aren’t the work of a single individual’s heroic actions. As such, authors tend to cheat in one of two ways. On the one hand, it’s tempting to solve the problem by cutting the heroes a break, giving them special abilities which let them ignore difficulties or making ostensibly difficult feats seem unrealistically easy to pull off. (Example: Tamora Pierce‘s Daughter of the Lioness series, where the heroine seems to develop any useful ability she needs at the drop of a hat and never seems to be in any real danger.) On the other hand, it’s tempting to weaken the villains to the point where victory is feasible, often with some sort of deus ex machina where a single action vanquishes the entire opposing government, like pulling the keystone out of an arch to make it crumble. (Example: The Return of the Jedi special edition, whose revised ending makes it seem as if the entire Empire comes apart the minute the Emperor dies.)

Crypt of the Shadowking uses both of these cheats to some degree. Some scenes which seem like they should be ludicrously dangerous — lifting a fortune’s worth of gems from a heavily-guarded building, or rescuing a person who’s about to get publicly executed in a square that’s jam-packed with soldiers — are accomplished with plenty of dramatic setpieces (big explosions, jumping off a collapsing bridge, etc.) but little actual difficulty for the heroes. You can’t see the heroes make a clean getaway without wondering “How did they not get riddled with a thousand arrows apiece?”, especially given that their plans are generally no more complicated than “walk straight into obvious trouble, then do something cinematic to get out of it.” And the “keystone villain” is definitely present here, right down to the part where the ceiling begins to collapse as soon as the boss monster dies. Everything feels very much like a PG-rated action movie. Meanwhile, most of the actual rebellion work is done off-screen by a minor character who funds and organizes the rebels; we hear very few details about how that goes, which makes it feel like a handwave.

Fortunately, there’s also a secondary plot about an ancient evil buried under the city which drives much of the latter half of the novel. The rebellion plot isn’t strong enough to stand on its own, so the story urgently needed the extra layer of complexity. While I appreciate how it improves the structure and pits two different evil factions against each other, I really wish the author had spent more time making the eponymous Shadowking interesting. As it is, the Shadowking bits are just a fairly bog-standard “the Chosen One must find the macguffin to defeat the Big Ancient Evil” plot.

Characters

Caledan Caldorian is a very self-conscious take on Han Solo, a reluctant anti-hero who quips his way through tense situations, hiding an obligatory heart of gold beneath his callous and hardened front. Like Artus Cimber from The Ring of Winter, he’s a former Harper who became jaded and fell away from the organization’s ideals, then rediscovers them in the course of a self-absorbed quest for vengeance. He’s got a tragic past, of course; I like that he starts the story with a history and a pre-existing roster of friends and enemies whom we get to meet, but I wish his backstory hadn’t been so excessively melodramatic. I find myself struggling to think of anything further to say about him at this point, which is a bad sign for a protagonist.

Mari, the Leia to Caledan’s Solo, isn’t a terribly interesting character. She has some sort of tragic orphan backstory, but we only hear the short version and it doesn’t inform her behaviour much. She’s pretty firmly in the “supporting character” role, following Caledan around and never making decisions on her own. In short, she exists to develop Caledan’s character by helping him get over his dead girlfriend, but doesn’t have much going on herself. And when I refer to her as “the Leia to Caledan’s Solo,” I’m not speaking metaphorically. Their relationship is blatantly cribbed from the Han Solo/Leia romance in Star Wars, right down to the barbed banter, flirtatious animosity, and the way she refers to him as “scoundrel”:

“So how are you feeling, scoundrel?” she asked him. The wind blew her thick dark hair from her shoulders, the sunlight setting its auburn highlights afire.

“You’d better be careful, Harper,” Caledan said wryly. “That sounds dangerously like concern in your voice.”

But it doesn’t work here. The romance plot feels forced; they get together not because they’re actually compatible or like each other, but because this is a cinematic story and they’re the male and female leads, so that’s what’s supposed to happen. They start out unable to stand each other and gradually defrost over the course of the novel, but it’s not quite clear how or why. Here’s a hot tip for writers: You can’t just assume that people will eventually fall in love if they spend enough time together. To make it believable, you need to show the events in their relationship that change their minds and make them consider each other in a new light.

Ravendas, Caledan’s Zhentarim nemesis, is a cartoonish villain who really should have spent more time studying the Evil Overlord list. She’s petulant, stubborn, and short-sighted, often working against her own interests so hard that you wonder how she survived long enough to become an evil overlord in the first place. For instance, if the Black Network’s motives in Iriaebor are to make a profit, why are they so big on forbidding fun and ruining the city? Fun, properly taxed, is one of the most profitable things there is and, more importantly, keeps people distracted from trying to overthrow you. But I suppose it’s hard to make a dictator seem appropriately villainous without some sort of oppression, even if that oppression serves no practical purpose. She’s an over-the-top, scenery-chewing villain, not the sort of human-scale evil that’s actually scary because you could imagine it in real life — but then, this novel is basically an action movie in book form, so I suppose a scenery-chewing action-movie villain isn’t too out of place.

I like the “get the gang back together” subplot, where Caledan gradually recruits the members of his old adventuring party into the rebellion. Some of them are more interesting than Caledan himself. There’s Tyveris, the warrior-turned-monk from Anthony’s short story in Realms of Valor, who returns midway through the book. He’s not as interesting here as he was there, unfortunately. His “I’ve vowed not to kill anyone again, but I’m fighting in a rebellion” conflict is perhaps more meaty than any other character’s arc, but since he’s such a minor character here, we don’t get to see much of his internal monologue or explore the issue very deeply. At least we don’t have to put up with the tired action movie trope where black guy dies first; he makes it to the end and gets a satisfying send-off. Estah, the healer, also has an interesting conflict where she has to choose between staying with her loving family or going to her nigh-certain doom with her adventuring companions, but we don’t see much of that either. Same with Ferret, the murderous thief with the heart of gold, who seems more like a stereotype from Central Casting than the rest. He gets plenty of chances to look cool and do clever things, but we don’t get any sense of the person he is or what made him that way.

The only one of the lot I really enjoyed was Morhion, the mage. He’s unfailingly stoic and stern, but the other characters have enough personal interactions with him to demonstrate that there’s a real person underneath that façade. He’s competent and clever, which I always enjoy seeing in minor characters. But most importantly, he’s morally equivocal; you’re never quite sure whose side he’s really on until the very end. The story really needed some degree of ambiguity in it, because the rest of it is as straightforward and unsubtle as it gets.

Kellen, Ravendas’ son, is one of the better minor characters in the novel. He’s a child who’s been raised by an abusive, murderous psychopath and is being used as a pawn in her schemes, but still manages to retain his essential humanity in the face of an awful upbringing. His complete powerlessness and hopeless situation are a necessary contrast to the heroic derring-do that the protagonists are indulging in. I wish he’d been a larger part of the story, because I found his fatalistic outlook appealing.

Themes

Forgiveness is a big one. Caledan is angry at his old enemies, his former teammates, and himself over the tragic events of his past. Over the course of the story, he learns to forgive the latter two and move on. It felt like there was a certain amount of “telling, not showing” going on, though; I never really felt like I understood why he was so stuck in his past and why his emotions hadn’t changed at all over the course of nine years. People grow and change over time; I can see him being angry and sad about what happened, but I can’t understand how he still has the same white-hot anger as if it had just happened a month ago.

Writing

The writing is pretty overwrought. Not florid in a Salvatorean way, fortunately, but still excessively dramatic:

Though the moon was but a thin, faint sliver, the pure light of the stars spilled in through the window of Mari’s room like liquid silver. […] She could see the spindly shapes of the city’s towers looming dimly in the starlight like gray ghosts. Or like tombstones, she thought. Tomorrow night was the dark of the moon. Tomorrow night everything would be decided, for good or ill.

And the dialogue… don’t get me started on the dialogue. It veers between normal human speech and lines that sound like they came directly from the script of a bad movie:

Her eyes glittered hungrily. “Will you kneel before me as your queen?”

Caledan gazed at her in revulsion. “Never.”

Scarlet blotches bloomed on Ravendas’ cheeks. “Then you will die,” she hissed.

Still, the writing is competent; it made me laugh sometimes, but not wince. The names are about as subtle as a frying pan to the face, though. The villains are named “Cutter,” “Ravendas,” and “Snake”, so you know they’re evil. The thief is named “Ferret,” so you know he’s sneaky. Wouldn’t want any readers to get confused about whom to root for, after all.

Conclusion

Grade: C

It’s pretty hackneyed stuff: an action-packed melodrama of explosions, battles, and heroic deeds where the Good Guys triumph over the Bad Guys. Some of the characters seem heavily derivative of other, better-written works, and most of the rest don’t get enough fleshing out. That said, it manages to be fun and never seems to take itself too seriously. I’m not likely to remember the details in a month’s time, but it didn’t feel like work to plow through it. Like a ball of cotton candy, it’s uncomplicated, fun to consume, and vanishes quickly without leaving a strong impression.

Footnotes

[1] The others: Homeland, Elfshadow, and The Night Parade.

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