Author: Mark Anthony
Published: November 1995
By this point the Harpers series, an open-ended series of stand-alone novels, has been going on long enough that authors are regularly using it for sequels to their previous novels: Elfsong, Crown of Fire, and now Curse of the Shadowmage, a follow-up to 1993’s Crypt of the Shadowking. I was lukewarm on that book, as I recall. It seemed like the author was looting ideas from his favourite movies left and right — the Star Wars-style squabbling, flirting rebels, an Indiana Jones-style tomb with falling rocks, a Robin Hood-style “rescue condemned prisoners from off the gallows” scene, et cetera — in order to make it feel epic and cinematic. But it takes a lot more than just exciting action sequences to make a book work, and it was hard to care about the dramatic moments when they were set amongst weak characters and a hackneyed plot.
It’s been two years since then, and author Mark Anthony has written another novel in the meantime (Ravenloft’s Tower of Doom). Moreover, I enjoyed his character-driven short story in the Realms of Infamy anthology. Has he accrued enough writing experience to level up and deliver something I’ll enjoy reading? Let’s find out.
Crypt of the Shadowking was a fairly straightforward blend of two traditional plots: “rebels fight oppressive government” and “find the macguffin to defeat the ancient bad thing.” Curse of the Shadowmage mixes things up by stealing only one plot — “save the world by destroying the One Ring” — but implementing it in the most half-assed, confusing way possible.
The pitch: Caledan Caldorien, the Harper hero of the previous book, is slowly going mad. He’s becoming increasingly impulsive, violent, and difficult to deal with, and at first everyone thinks it’s because he’s just being a dick. But soon we discover that, as one of the last descendants of the Shadowking whom they destroyed in the previous book, he’s being gradually warped by fell magic into becoming a Shadowking himself. He runs off, and a small party — his girlfriend Mari, his old friend Morhion, and his son Kellen, plus a couple of random side characters — follows in the hopes that they can save him in time.
There’s a lot of exposition at the beginning to explain the fairly thin and silly plot of the previous book to the reader. It sounds even worse in recap, like reading the Wikipedia plot summary of a cheesy 1980s fantasy film. But the plot that then develops in this book is no better: “We must quest for the Magic Dingus to save the world and lift the curse on our friend.” Apparently there’s a macguffin which contains all of the Shadowking’s power, warps the minds of people around it to keep itself safe, bestows magic powers on its possessor — look, it’s just the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings. You know the drill; it’s an amulet instead of a ring this time, that’s all. The bad guy needs it to take over the world and the good guys need to destroy it to stop him.
“You can’t have it!” Ferret snapped suddenly. As if by dark magic, the little thief’s usually cheerful face was transformed into a pale mask of suspicion. He retreated into a corner, crossing his arms and glaring at them with calculating eyes. “I should have known all along that was what you wanted, to come here and rob me. Well I won’t allow it!”
Seriously, the author isn’t even trying to hide it.
And again, like the previous book, not just the overall plot but also individual scenes are directly lifted from other media. Like that scene where the party — their fellowship, you might say — needs to escape across a river from a bunch of shadowy, black-cloaked monsters who are chasing them. I wonder where he got that bit from? Later, they fight off their shadowy pursuers from atop a hilltop of weathered stone ruins. There’s the “dislocate your shoulders to escape from restraints” scene from Lethal Weapon 2. And I laughed out loud in pure disbelief at a scene where the party meets an old woman because the dialogue was lifted so brazenly from The Last Unicorn:
“And now, in the dark winter of my life, you have come at last.” Her voice became a moan of despair. “But why have you waited all these years? Why have you come when I am so old, so weak, so tired?”
None of these borrowed scenes are used skillfully. For the faux-Ringwraith chase scene, for instance, the characters escape by… running into a forest, at which point their enemies just give up and leave for some reason. Are they allergic to trees? It’s an anticlimactic end to a perfunctory-feeling moment of danger. And in The Last Unicorn, the “Where have you been?” scene is the character-establishing scene for one of the protagonists, a brief moment of heartbreaking and poignant honesty. Here it’s a throwaway line from a minor side character whom we’ve just met, have no reason to care about, and never see again, so it has all the emotional resonance of an old woman complaining about her soup being too hot.
Characters frequently do things without explanation to keep the plot moving, or know things that they shouldn’t:
His eyes narrowed. “How is it you know what we seek to do?”
She waved this away as if it were an unimportant detail. “How I know matters not.”
As far as the author is concerned it is an unimportant detail, because it’s left unexplained. There’s no sense of the characters as real people in a plausible world, only a series of contrived events that hurry the characters along from one dramatic moment to the next. In particular, there are a surprising number of ghosts who keep showing up out of nowhere to tell the party where they should go — less then a fifth of the way into the book, we’ve already met three talkative dead people. Only one has any real narrative importance; the others should have been cut.
Furthermore, the plot is burdened by occasional sequences which add nothing to the plot or characterization and are clearly just there for padding. For instance, at one point the heroes find themselves trapped in a cavern full of man-eating gibberlings. They fight them for a while until Morhion randomly finds a scroll of feather fall, which turns out to be exactly the thing they need to escape. Then they continue on their journey, having learned and done nothing useful. The overall impression is of the author getting to the end of the novel and realizing “Oh no, I’m twenty pages short!”. Same with the “stumbling across ancient ruins and exploring them” sequence — they get a poorly developed macguffin out of it, but that’s about all, and the book would have been better off without either that scene or the macguffin.
Even worse, the plot structure is fundamentally wrong. The emotional heart of the story is the fraught relationship between Caledan and his friends and family, but they’re kept separate for almost the entire book. It’s mostly Mari and her companions chasing after Caledan, intercut with occasional scenes of what Caledan is up to, and they don’t meet again until the denouement. I can’t help but compare it to Streams of Silver, which had a similar “two parties chasing after each other and not meeting until the end” plot structure. There, it worked so much better because the character interactions at the heart of the story were between the characters in each party — Bruenor, Wulfgar, Regis, and Drizzt in one and Entreri and Catti-brie in the other — rather than between characters who spent the novel apart, so that we got good character moments in each scene instead of having to wait until the end for a payoff.
The climax is very, very silly. We discover at the last minute that the gods built a magic pipe organ that disrupts shadow magic or… something… and the heroes beat the villains by repairing it. It turns out that the Shadowking conveniently left an “undo my entire plan” lever in his stronghold thousands of years ago, so the heroes pull it to save the day. For fuck’s sake, why would any self-respecting villain do such a thing? It feels like an unearned and arbitrary victory because nothing about the forces of evil was particularly well-developed. To crown it all, the victorious heroes give the mind-corrupting, world-destroying artifact to an eleven-year-old boy and say “Yup, it sure is perfectly safe now!” What could possibly go wrong with that plan, geniuses?
Ultimately, little about this story feels real. It comes off as a series of cinematic action setpieces thrown together into the rough semblance of a plot, without much attention paid to plausibility, internal consistency, or making space for character development.
The novel begins by introducing Caledan as a complete asshole, which… well, it’s an interesting way to kick off the story, I’ll give it that. He’s verbally abusive to his girlfriend, pays little attention to his son, and explains away why he murdered a suspected Zhentarim spy with:
“I was having some fun and got a little carried away, that’s all.”
It’s a ballsy move to open your novel by convincing the reader that your hero is an emotionally abusive psychopath and distant father — you’re gambling that the eventual character development will outweigh the audience’s negative first impressions. But a stand-alone novel is a dangerous place for that sort of stunt because someone who picks up this book without having read Crypt of the Shadowking will just think that Caledan is a complete asshat who isn’t worth the effort that others devote to saving him. Perhaps you could get away with it if this were the second book of a trilogy, but here it seems like a bad idea.
But it’s not just Caledan who comes off as a psychopath, because this is another one of those Harper novels where the Harpers are portrayed as a pack of complete idiots. Caledan and Mari’s idea of infiltrating the Zhentarim is to kick in the door of a suspected safe house — “suspected” is an important word there, mind you — and start murdering everyone in the room, which seems both unusually bloodthirsty and terribly impractical. Later, the Harpers’ upper management orders Mari to kill Caledan to stop him from turning into a Shadowking. They’re fully aware that she’s been in a romantic relationship with him for years, yet they seem surprised when she refuses and quits the Harpers in protest. Wasn’t there anyone better suited for the job? Then, to further compound the idiocy, they threaten to kill her for disobeying them. Aren’t these supposed to be the good guys?
That said, Caledan ends up being one of the better characters here. Later on we get some scenes from his point of view where we see how he’s battling the force that’s taking over his mind; they’re fairly well done and evoke some much-needed sympathy. His struggle is hopeless, but he struggles anyhow because that’s his nature.
Mari, Caledan’s girlfriend, also works fairly well as a character. The two of them have been together since the end of Crypt of the Shadowking, but they didn’t get a happily-ever-after due to the whole “becoming a psychopath” thing. It’s nice to see a rocky relationship that takes hard work instead of a fairy-tale romance, even if it’s only rocky because evil magic is slowly driving Caledan crazy. She’s hurt and upset by his behaviour, but doesn’t lose sight of his essential humanity or lose hope that she can save him. (It’s fortunate that his assholery is the result of magical manipulation and not just a personality trait, though, or else this would veer into unpleasant “abused girlfriend trying to change her abusive partner” territory.) She gets a few good character development moments with Caledan and Morhion, but not as many as I’d like.
Morhion, their sinister mage friend from the previous book, is probably the strongest character here. He’s ambitious, driven, and a bit creepy, but not evil. He’s got a Faustian bargain with an evil ghost — in exchange for the ghost’s help saving Caledan, it’s going to possess Morhion’s body and destroy his soul — which gives him good character development and ties back into the plot. His situation seems utterly hopeless, so his despair and self-sacrifice feel genuine. (I wasn’t surprised, however, when it was casually resolved by a deus ex machina at the end.) He’s been nursing an unrequited crush on Mari for years, and it’s handled surprisingly well: the potential love triangle is resolved by Mari and Morhion talking to each other about it like mature adults rather than drawing it out with unnecessary sophomoric drama.
At first it was nice to see Kellen, Caledan’s son, again; I thought he was one of the better characters from Crypt of the Shadowking. But here he seems weirdly subdued, always passionless and calm despite the bizarre and frightening circumstances around him. I think the author was going for a “Danny from The Shining” vibe, but he’s overplayed his hand — Kellen comes off less like an unusual child and more like an automaton. He doesn’t get much time for character development, and we don’t see any little details that would make us think he’s got ordinary human emotions under his impassive exterior, so we just end up with a hole in the story where a child should be. He’s got some innate magical abilities, but they tend to be of the “hurry the plot along” variety rather than something that characterizes him.
The inn was quiet at this hour, and the silence seemed heavy with portent. Kellen had the feeling that something was going to happen today. He didn’t know what it would be, nor when exactly it would occur, nor whether it would be for good or ill — only that something would happen.
Kid, your prescience sucks. I haven’t seen this much pointless foreshadowing since Viperhand.
Cormik was a player in Iriaebor’s criminal underworld from Crypt of the Shadowking. He gets upgraded from minor character to full-fledged party member in this book, but doesn’t add much to the story because he’s basically your standard funny fat person. He likes to eat, and when he’s not eating he’s complaining about not eating. He’s rotund, and other characters mock him for it. But who is he? What’s his backstory? What does he do when he’s not eating or complaining? Hell if I know. The author seems to think that physical characteristics are enough to characterize him, and that we should laugh when people make fun of how fat he is. The book wouldn’t have been different if he weren’t in it.
The same goes for Jewel, another Iriaeban crime boss who accompanies the party on their journey. Even worse, she makes no goddamned sense:
In the middle of the chamber, on a chaise of crimson velvet, reclined the figure of an incredibly beautiful woman. Her short hair was like a wave of polished onyx, her skin as lustrous as burnished amber, her eyes as bright as violet sapphires.
She’s ninety-three years old. A 93-year-old human woman appearing youthful and “incredibly beautiful” is way more than just aging gracefully, but we’re explicitly told it’s not the result of magic. I’d ask how that’s possible, but I’m pretty sure it’s because the author just didn’t want to include any women in the story who weren’t young and hot, plausibility be damned. She and Cormik are constantly sniping at each other with broad, clumsy insults for no apparent reason, even at inappropriate times. It quickly becomes tiresome and makes them feel like caricatures instead of characters, as if the author thought that “they fight all the time” was a character trait rather than a mere quirk.
But she’s hardly the only character who doesn’t make sense. The Harper assassin K’shar, who pursues the party in order to kill Caledan, is an ordinary half-elf who behaves like the Terminator. When we first meet him, he chases after the party by running sixty leagues (about 180 miles) in two days. The author just tells us “he’s really good at running,” but running eleven marathons in a row without stopping? Come on! It feels like it’s a buildup to learning that he’s got some sort of unusual magical powers, but he doesn’t. He can unerringly determine where the party has gone and escape any obstacle between him and his quarry with ease, yet he has no human traits to balance out his perfect abilities. He never feels any emotion more substantial than satisfaction at his progress, so he’s no more interesting than a robot until his sudden and unconvincing change of heart at the end. He’s less a character than a plot device for keeping the tension from flagging while Caledan and his friends are separated.
Ferret, the party’s old thief, returns in this book, robbing his unexpectedly noble sacrifice in Crypt of the Shadowking of any significance. When you give a character a good death, you have to have the courage to make it stick. His death was his big moment of character development, where he shed his cowardice and selfishness to save the party by facing certain doom. Now we’re told “well, he actually escaped and was totally fine,” which devalues that character development and feels like an arbitrary ass-pull on the author’s part to avoid losing a character he liked. I appreciate Ferret’s sardonic counterpoint to the rest of the plot’s excessive seriousness, but the trade-off wasn’t worth it.
There’s nothing to say about the villains; they’re just shadowy bad things. On the rare occasions when they speak, it’s just your standard overwrought “I shall destroy you” villain dialogue. We get their backstory about being nigh-omnipotent monsters from before time existed or something like that, but it’s so silly and dramatic that I can’t take it seriously. Which brings us to the…
The tone of Curse of the Shadowmage is serious epic fantasy, and it doesn’t do this book or the Forgotten Realms any favours. Even if the plot had been rock-solid, the underlying problem is that this is a story that just doesn’t fit in its setting. The author is trying to tell a Tolkien-ish epic where a nameless evil from before the world was created is menacing all existence, complete with an origin story where the gods sing the universe into existence in a very Silmarillion-esque fashion. But he doesn’t have the time or space in this one novel to do a good job of setting all that up, and it goes against the grain of a shared setting like the Realms where he’s only one of many hands working on it.
The best of the Harpers novels have been ones which dealt with a small-scale problem: “save this city” like Elfsong and Masquerades, or “stop this localized problem” like The Parched Sea and Soldiers of Ice, or “solve this mystery” like Elfshadow and The Ring of Winter. You don’t have much space to work with in a single novel, so the reduced scope gives you plenty of time for character development and only requires you to flesh out a small piece of the setting. But more than that, the whole point of the Realms is to tell smaller, human-scale stories. With the exception of the Avatar trilogy, the Realms has never been about epic “save the world” plots. TSR mostly left those to the Dragonlance setting, whose world of Krynn was menaced with destruction and convulsed by war on a seemingly monthly basis.
Furthermore, big epic fantasy fundamentally doesn’t work in a long-running shared setting. (I’ll probably revisit this discussion in more detail when we get to Dragonlance.) To write a Lord of the Rings-style epic, you need big stakes and a massive threat: huge wars, world-destroying evils, that sort of thing. But the bigger the stakes, the more confident the reader is that the author won’t follow through on the threat. How many Tolkien-ish stories are there where the world gets destroyed at the end? You might fear that the author will kill off a particular character, but destroying the entire world is off-limits because then there’s no story left to tell. Especially in a shared setting like the Realms, where the editors presumably frowned on authors destroying the universe that they’d worked so hard to build, the reader knows that any significant threat to the entire world is hollow and pointless. And it worked well in Lord of the Rings because it was a one-and-done story: the world was saved but forever changed, and then Tolkien put his pen down and didn’t write any sequels. If he had written another trilogy of novels about the world being in danger again, and then another one, and then another one, pretty soon readers would give up in disgust. The bigger the stakes, the more they strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief and the verisimilitude of the setting.
Here Anthony is trying to write the Realms’ pre-history and create big epic situations, but it just comes off as clumsy Tolkien pastiche. Even if it had been done well, though, those things just feel like they don’t belong in the Realms and that feeling jars me out of the story. In short, Mark Anthony seems like the kind of over-ambitious author for whom Jeff Grubb had to invent his notorious “Don’t blow up the moon” rule. The core story here was “we need to save our friend from his curse,” and a good novel could have been built around that human-scale idea, but all this “doom threatens the entire world!” rubbish just distracts the reader from the parts that work and cheapens the setting in the process.
The overall quality of the writing is noticeably worse than Crypt of the Shadowking. The book is full of incredibly clunky dialogue, none of which sounds like it would ever come out of a real person’s mouth:
“Fool!” it shrieked. “Defiler! You cannot harm me. I will rend your flesh to liquid with that of these other mortals.”
“Truly?” K’shar mocked. There was no fear in his expression, only a feral eagerness. “Very well, creature. I will make it easier for you. I will not try to escape. On the contrary, I will come directly to you.”
I don’t think I’ve read fight dialogue this leaden and awkward since Darkwell. Or the modern anachronisms:
“Let me guess — the Shadowking did his own decorating, am I right? The gloomy neo-gothic overtones highlighted by the retro-apocalyptic blasted rock are a dead giveaway.”
Funny how someone can use the word “gothic” when nothing it might refer to — the Gothic peoples, gothic architecture, gothic literature, The Cure — exists in his world. And “retro-apocalyptic”? Seriously? The writing never seems to settle on a consistent tone, which is just one more factor that prevents me from getting immersed in the story. And don’t get me started on the ghosts, who talk like over-enthusiastic Ren Faire participants:
Verraketh shook his head. “It shall not be so easy as that, Mari Al’maren. Thou seest, when I was Shadowking, I feared the music of the vale. I sought to mar it, and alas I succeeded.”
Something inside me died when my eyes hit “Thou seest.”
Crypt of the Shadowking was content to be action schlock, full of Hollywood scenes and time-worn action movie tropes. It wasn’t particularly deep or well-done, but at least it was fun to read and had a straightforward plot that more-or-less made sense. Curse of the Shadowmage, on the other hand, aims for serious epic fantasy but falls flat on its face with a nonsense plot that wears out its welcome almost immediately. I liked some of the character work — Morhion and Mari, in particular — but too much of it felt like work to plow through.
Four D-grade novels in a row. Are the Realms books settling down into a trough of consistent awfulness? I sure hope not, or 1996 is going to be a hard slog. There’s another Mark Anthony book coming up in a couple of months, and now I’m not much looking forward to it.