Elminster: The Making of a Mage

Author: Ed Greenwood
Published: December 1994

Next to Drizzt Do’Urden, Elminster is the second most recognizable character from the Forgotten Realms. A staple of the Realms since Greenwood’s earliest pre-D&D fiction, he’s an ancient, immortal wizard who seems to know just about everything and pop up almost everywhere, dispensing wisdom and helping out heroes. He’s been a supporting character in nine books thus far, but we’ve seen very little from his point of view and know nothing about his backstory. Well, no longer! Here’s a full novel telling the Old Sage’s story from his childhood to the point where he becomes a Chosen of Mystra.

Full disclosure: I went into this novel expecting to be intensely annoyed by it. The past couple decades have seen no shortage of “Chosen One discovers his divine destiny” narratives in popular culture, and god damn am I ever sick of them by now. And the fact that Greenwood’s last novel bored me to tears certainly didn’t improve my mood. But to my surprise I got… well, I certainly wouldn’t call it a good novel, but at least it’s an interesting hot mess, bad in a variety of ways that I didn’t expect but that I can write a bunch of words about.

I was, however, looking forward to reading a novel set so far back in Faerûn’s past, particularly one written by the author who set down the world’s history in the first place. This book starts in 212 DR, over a millennium before the time of the rest of the Realms novels. You’d think that things would be different somehow — customs, language, social mores, that sort of thing — but it seems like human society hasn’t changed at all between the 200s and the 1300s DR. There’s a lot of antiquated diction about, but not significantly more than in Greenwood’s usual prose. Young Elminster prays to Tyche rather than Tymora for luck, but that’s about it. Feels like a missed opportunity.

Plot

Elminster starts off as a twelve-year-old boy with special powers who, in the grand tradition of Joseph Campbell-inspired narratives, learns that he’s actually a prince disguised as a shepherd boy. In the grand tradition of every JRPG ever, his home village is destroyed and he has to seek revenge on the perpetrators, training tirelessly so that someday he’ll be strong enough to avenge his family. So far, so standard. Fortunately, the “Chosen One” arc is fairly underplayed — he’s a promising piece of raw material, but doesn’t have any particular destiny or any outlandish specialness apart from some minor psionic abilities. He accumulates power and friends more by impressing people with his morals and strength of character than by being preternaturally good at things.

He goes about gathering the power to smite his foes by learning the ways of all the basic D&D character classes, one after another — fighter, thief, cleric, mage — building a character sheet so messy it must make the gods themselves quail. This structure creates an overt, artificial-feeling connection between the game system and the fiction, though I’m pleased that he avoided hewing too closely to the specifics of the AD&D rules and letting them get in the way of the story. Unfortunately, the book is divided into separate sections for each class which share no characters or settings between them. They end up feeling like a series of disconnected novellas, a picaresque series of episode after episode until the three-quarters mark where he returns to Athalantar to seek his/her destiny. (More on that later.)

On the positive side, I appreciated Elminster’s practical, patient approach to his revenge quest. He acknowledges that a twelve-year-old boy isn’t going to be toppling a government any time soon, so the training montage spans about fifteen years of his life while he gradually amasses the necessary knowledge, experience, and allies, rather than making him a child prodigy who becomes an archmage before he’s able to shave. That sort of thing makes me want to throw books across the room.

The warrior section at the outset is a promising beginning. Elminster joins a band of outlaws who live in the wilderness and fight against an oppressive government, but it’s no romanticized Robin Hood-style life. They can’t trust anyone, the work is bloody and brutal, and they eke out a miserable existence in their dank cave fortress. For most of it, the battles are dangerous and reasonably realistic, with decent military tactics… at least until a scene where a skinny sixteen-year-old Elminster charges alone into a camp of professional soldiers and starts hacking them down like Zatoichi. My suspension of disbelief died a quick death at that point.

Then there’s the thief section, where Elminster makes a living as a burglar on the mean streets of the capital of Athalantar. Reading it, one gets the unavoidable impression that Greenwood read far too much Fritz Leiber at an impressionable young age. Hastarl is a villainous hive full of puckish rogues and loose women, where daily life is brutal violence mixed with merry jests and creepy scenes of questionable consent — Lankhmar in pastiche, in other words. Elminster and his new friend Farl form a street gang, get in and out of a variety of scrapes, and become celebrated criminals, until a job gone wrong convinces Elminster that it’s time to move on. Sounds potentially interesting, right? Alas, it doesn’t even come close. This section goes on for far too long, giving us an interminable series of random escapades and bedroom farces while losing sight of the theme of Elminster becoming a hero. I was relieved when he finally set out to kick-start the moribund plot again because the lengthy action scene that preceded his departure bored me stiff. It felt like it went on for years without saying anything interesting or having meaningful stakes, and the attempts at sex comedy were cringeworthy. The occasional moments of unguarded conversation between Elminster and Farl were solid, but they were too few and far between to redeem this segment.

The cleric and mage bits were basically cut-and-paste clones of each other: Elminster finds a tutor, goes through a training montage, then surmounts a couple of noteworthy challenges by casting lots of spells. Unfortunately, the addition of magic makes the action scenes fall flat. As I mentioned in my review of Realms of Valor, magic is only interesting if the reader understands the limits on what it can and can’t do. If the protagonist can just wave her hand and do anything she wants, how can you make a situation feel challenging or tense? You know that the situation will probably be resolved with some variation on “Elmara waved her hand and the dude’s head exploded,” and if isn’t, you don’t understand why and you have to take the author’s word for it.

Actually, let’s stop and dig into this a bit further, since it feels like there’s a lot there. Let’s look at the most famous wizard in fantasy, the character who inspired Elminster in the first place: Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. He clearly wields enormous supernatural power, but his magic operates on a different plane from the rest of the characters. It’s subtle, not flashy. He strives magically against other beings of similar power, but it takes place off-screen or happens invisibly so that it doesn’t distract from everyone else’s achievements. He almost never does magic on-screen, and when he does it’s limited to minor practical effects like creating light or fire. He accomplishes most of what he does by just being in the right place at the right time rather than by making things blow up. The limits of his power are never explained, but that’s fine because he rarely uses his power to solve a scene’s problems.

Now let’s consider a very different well-known fantasy wizard: Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files. His evocation magic is extremely flashy and practical, and he often uses it to solve immediate problems and cause tremendous property damage in the process. But the effects which he can bust out at the drop of a hat are very limited — mostly elemental stuff like moving air or creating fire — and you get a good sense of what the extent of his powers are and what they can and can’t do. When he comes up with creative uses for his magic, like moving air to slow a free-falling elevator or creating ice to float himself out of the water while drowning, it doesn’t feel like a cheap solution — it works because you can see all the tools in his toolbox and think “How is he going to use them to get out of this?”

Elminster, on the other hand, is the worst of both worlds: his magic is used almost entirely for immediate practical effect, but has no limits or explanations. We don’t know how many spells he has on hand at any given time. We don’t know what those spells do, since they’re almost all custom effects rather than standard D&D spells. We don’t know how those spells compare against those of the other magic-users he encounters. So when the author presents a threat, we have no way to know whether it can be solved easily with magic or whether it’s actually threatening. The inevitable result is that the easy victories feel trivial and the hard-fought ones feel like they come out of nowhere.

Anyhow, once he’s become a magical badass, there’s a conclusion where Elminster gathers all the companions he’s made in the preceding sections of the book and leads them to topple Athalantar’s government. The “getting the band back together” bits were good — it’s nice to see someone actually plan a revolution instead of just having a spontaneous uprising occur — but then it devolves into scene after scene of combat where a bunch of people we don’t care much about get killed. The denouement is long and resolves everyone’s stories well enough, leaving plenty of room for a sequel.

Themes

We’re going to have to approach this novel from perspectives I haven’t had much need to delve into yet: gender and queer studies. None of the Realms books that I’ve reviewed thus far have done much to explore issues of gender or alternative sexuality, largely because this was the mid-1990s and those were still very much taboo topics for books marketed to teenagers.

Greenwood’s novels have been the only ones thus far to admit that gay people exist. In Spellfire, there’s a casual one-sentence mention that Lhaeo disguises himself as a gay man so that people will assume he’s Elminster’s live-in lover and not actually an exiled prince. In Crown of Fire, there are a pair of lesbian sorceresses who briefly serve as villains before Shandril char-broils them. These are very small things which don’t have any significant bearing on the characters or plot, but at least it’s better than TSR’s usual approach of pretending that gay people don’t exist. Yay for representation, right?

But this is still the 1990s, so the representation remains fairly negative. Lhaeo, who is actually straight, dismisses his gay persona as “a lisping man-lover.” The lesbian sorceresses are depraved, murderous sociopaths. In this book, there’s a scene where two men are publicly shamed by knocking them unconscious and arranging them in a bed together, because sleeping with another man is apparently something they’ll be mocked for. Elminster and Farl’s fellow thieves make unkind jokes about them being lovers. At one point, Elminster comes upon a man who sleeps in women’s undergarments, and this is hilarious and shameful. It’s clear that being gay, bisexual, effeminate, or anything that’s not completely masculine isn’t something to be proud of in this fictional society.

This makes for an odd contrast with the little hints which suggest that Elminster is in fact bisexual:

[Farl] winced with an exaggerated flourish and added, “But you’re supposed to be looking at the maids, El, not the men!”

“Ah, I’ve got to learn to tell the difference. It gets me into more trouble,” Elminster replied serenely.

But on the up side, Making of a Mage has a particularly positive take on gender identity. There are many books in the real world that a Realms author might draw upon for inspiration, but I wasn’t expecting to see Orlando among them! About halfway through the book, Mystra turns Elminster into a woman — called Elmara from that point on — so that she can experience life from a new perspective. What I found surprising is how thorough the transformation is. She’s never treated as a man in a woman’s body; after a moment of disorientation, she adopts the new body, name, and identity wholeheartedly. There’s no angsting about her situation, and less than a day after the transformation she’s kissed her first guy. Other people don’t treat El differently based on which body he/she is wearing, and everyone who discovers his/her dual nature accepts it calmly.

“Braer!” El sprang to his feet and rushed down the slope to embrace his old teacher, who kissed him as if he’d still been a maid and then slipped free of Elminster’s arms.

Unfortunately, there’s a leering quality to the way the book handles women and sex that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Once Elminster becomes Elmara, the author goes out of his way to get her naked as frequently as possible. In fact, every attractive woman in the story ends up naked on-screen at one point or another, even when it doesn’t make sense or serve any narrative purpose. Furthermore, women are victimized in this book on a regular basis: abducted, threatened with rape, tortured, killed. It’s used as a cheap way to make the villains seem evil: if a bad guy is some sort of sadist or sexual predator (and most of them are) then the reader will presumably cheer when they die. There are only a couple of women in this book who don’t end up being victims of one sort or another, and one of them isn’t even a real person. The overall impression is one of exploitation: women serve to titillate the reader or to characterize and motivate male characters, but rarely receive the degree of attention or respect that the male characters get.

This reminds me again of Fritz Leiber, whose work had the same unpleasant leering quality. His women were generally treated as villains or sexual objects, but not as people. There’s a good warning for would-be writers here: don’t just imitate your heroes, improve upon them.

There’s also a streak of gender essentialism here that annoys the crap out of me. It’s explained to us that men are self-controlled and stoic, while women are impetuous but more attuned to nature and magic. Mystra turning Elminster into a woman isn’t just a matter of “go experience life from a different perspective,” but also “your new body is better wired to feel magic because women are inherently so emotional.” It feels dated next to the modern conception of gender as a self-perpetuating social construct, where people behave according to their gender stereotypes because that’s how society expects them to behave, not because they’re genetically hard-wired to behave that way. Fortunately, it’s a fairly minor element of the story; if it had been significant to the plot, I’d be complaining at greater length.

In short, while it’s good to see issues of gender and sexuality brought up at all in 1990s genre fiction, we have a very mixed bag here and I wish this theme been handled better. I’m very curious how long we’ll have to wait until someone gets a chance to tackle this material in a more mature way.

Characters

Elminster is okay in this. There, I said it. I was expecting to find some sort of author’s darling, an obnoxious wunderkind with a special destiny whom everything in the world revolves around. What I found instead was a character who, while possessed of some special attributes, is actually fairly humble and fallible. He needs lots of help from friends and teachers and gets his ass kicked on a regular basis by superior foes. The smug “I know what’s going on but I’m not going to explain anything” behaviour which is so characteristic of Elminster’s appearances as an old man isn’t in evidence here. I would have appreciated a bit more agency for him, though. Every section of this book gets kicked off by someone telling him “To further your growth, you should do this thing” and him obediently going and doing it, rather than him choosing what to do. Even the Athalantan rebellion, Elminster’s overarching goal, gets mostly planned by Myrjala after he asks her how to do it.

Myrjala “Darkeyes” is this novel’s supernatural helper, a mysterious (heh) sorceress who comes along to teach the hero how to achieve his destiny… and then, alas, she sticks around. Let’s just say that she won’t be winning the Joseph Campbell Award for Best Semi-Actual Persona any time soon. There’s a reason why there aren’t a lot of hero stories in folklore which include episodes like “And then the hero got his ass kicked, so his mentor appeared and rescued him and killed all the bad guys in the nick of time.” She’s constantly saving Elminster’s ass and killing his foes for him, making everything from archmages to dragons explode every time Elminster gets over his head. How is the reader supposed to feel any tension or sense of accomplishment when they know that the protagonist is being followed around by a massive badass who does much of the work?

Elminster’s other friends are decent characters, but the structure of the novel, where each only appears for a single section and then disappears until the end, doesn’t give us enough time to get to know them or watch El interact with them. There’s Helm, the loyal knight who becomes an outlaw; I appreciated the contrast between his violent profession and his obvious sense of ethics and loyalty. Braer, the elf who teaches Elmara to be a priestess of Mystra, is sort of a wise Yoda figure who gives us a non-human perspective on the novel’s events. And Farl, Elminster’s thief partner, is probably the most interesting of the lot. He’s clever but rash, a box of broken toys with a devil-may-care persona on top. The moments when he and El would have quiet conversations in between the random roguish escapades were the best bits of the otherwise frustrating Hastarl segment. But it’s a shame that Farl’s backstory as the son of one of the magelords never got worked into the narrative; it’s just sort of brought up and then dropped.

I think all of Greenwood’s novels so far have suffered greatly from having organizations as their antagonists rather than individuals. He seems to take Raymond Chandler’s famous dictum of “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand” to its logical extreme: there’s always some random dragon cultist/Zhentarim schmuck/magelord on hand to pop up and create tension in any given scene, none of whom get interesting characterization or motivations, and they die by the dozens. But it’s damn hard to write a compelling novel without villains that the reader cares about, and I’d much rather see him invest the time into a small number of antagonists that we actually get to know.

The role of “organization of anonymous disposable villains” in Making of a Mage is played by the magelords of Athalantar, a cabal of wizards of uncertain numbers and composition who have usurped Elminster’s family’s kingdom. They’re exceedingly tedious. Like all of Greenwood’s villains, they have no motivations beyond “we’re cruel and ambitious, so we do bad things” and few of them get anything you could call a personality trait. Hell, most of them aren’t even lucky enough to have their names mentioned before Elminster kills them. So… why should the reader care if they live or die? When the battle for Athalantar gets underway, there are so many ill-defined magelords whose points of view the narration jumps between that you lose track of which is which — and it doesn’t even matter. They just boast like stereotypical B-movie villains then die like chumps, so there’s no reward for paying attention.

Writing

It’s been said that Greenwood completed the manuscript for this novel in 16 days. While that’s a remarkable achievement for a writer, the unsurprising result is that there are plenty of rough places where it could have been better if he’d spent more time on it.

The characters’ dialect gets harder to stomach with each successive Greenwood novel:

“If this tower stays aloft through Ondil’s own magic, ye too must be able to take wing if we slay him — or ye will fall with the tower, and be crushed when it shatters below.”
Tarthe swallowed, then nodded and put his blade on his shoulder. “Cast your spell, then.”

Hold on, shouldn’t that be “thy spell”? But there’s no rhyme or reason as to why some characters say “you/your” and others “ye/thy”. It’s not a geographical thing, since some people from Athalantar say the one and some the other. It’s not an age thing, since Elminster is young in this one and plenty of the “you/your” speakers are old. It’s not even a matter of portentous speeches or important characters using “ye/thy”, since the Magister consistently uses “you/your”. Even Elminster doesn’t consistently use “ye”! It’s utterly random. And of course few of the people who speak in “ye/thy” use it correctly; it should be “thou” in the singular instead of “ye” for both singular and plural, but there’s only a few randomly-distributed “thou”s, and they seem to be scattered about based on whether they sound good rather than whether they make grammatical sense. It’s discordant, and gets old very quickly.

The narration is also oddly forgetful. For instance, the fade-to-black love scene between Myrjala and Elminster might have felt believable if he hadn’t just had his hands mangled and a bunch of fingers amputated a few minutes earlier. Speaking for myself, at least, I suspect that it would be difficult for me to get into a romantic mood if my arms ended in bleeding stumps and I was in shock, fighting off nauseating, brain-melting pain. But who knows? Perhaps Elminster is made of sterner stuff than I. Or, more likely, the author was so focused on finally getting Elminster laid that he forgot about the grievous bodily harm and didn’t think to drop a mention of him getting healed.

Or the bit where Farl’s hated father is killed, and he seems to have no reaction to the news when Elminster tells him shortly thereafter. It’s like the author completely forgot that the dead man was Farl’s father, so his response to hearing about it is a jarring “Let’s go steal some stuff!” that makes you wonder if he has a functioning brain. Or the scene where Farl makes a woman mysteriously fall unconscious:

Shandathe stared at him. “Are you crazed?” she hissed in sudden anger. “If you think I’m g—”

Farl’s hands glided to just the right places as he pressed his lips to hers. She struggled angrily for a moment, managing to utter some angry-sounding murmurs… and then went limp. Farl promptly passed her to Elminster. “Here,” he said brightly.

Wait, what the hell just happened here? Did he choke her out? Does he know how to do the Vulcan nerve pinch? Do women have off switches? I’m so lost. It feels like there’s a sentence or two missing. (Not to mention that rendering someone unconscious in order to play a really creepy practical joke on them is an incredibly awful thing to do and makes our ostensible heroes vastly less sympathetic. The kind of people to whom you have to explain “Don’t roofie your friends for fun” are usually the kind of people who aren’t legally allowed to live within a thousand yards of a school.)

Conclusion

Grade: C–

It’s not a good book by any stretch of the imagination. The construction is awkward, the action scenes manage to portray big cinematic moments with a complete lack of tension or consequences, and the constant sexualization and exploitation of the female characters rapidly burnt through my goodwill. I gave Crown of Fire, Greenwood’s last novel, a D+ for being a dull book. By the end of it, I had stopped caring what happened to the characters and was just marking time until it was over. Making of a Mage, on the other hand… well, it’s a mess, but at least it’s a somewhat interesting mess. It doesn’t repeat itself nearly as much and there’s some actual character growth, so I found myself curious about how the story would end despite the constant problems.

It’ll be three years until we see the next book in this series, and I’m fine with that.

6 Replies to “Elminster: The Making of a Mage

    1. Of course, of all the self-indulgent obscure references that I’ve dropped over the years in this blog, this is the one that someone immediately recognizes a few hours after the post goes live. I love my readers.

      I hadn’t planned on doing any other publishers’ series, no. There’s enough material here with TSR to keep me writing for years to come, and I like that the project has a fairly focused scope. But I do have a soft spot in my dark, shrivelled heart for The Zork Chronicles. It’s got far too many flaws to come remotely close to being a good book — the constant in-jokes about the SF/F writers’ community, the incredibly dated cultural references, the awkward dialogue, the excuse plot. But when it works, it does for mythology what The Princess Bride did for fairy tales: delivers an hilarious parody of its source material while still maintaining a genuine affection and sincerity about it. It’s got a sweet earnestness, and some genuinely funny moments, but it’s not a book I’d go out of my way to recommend to anyone. Effinger was an excellent writer at his best (I love his Marid Audran books), but clearly he just cranked that novel out quickly for the money and had a good time doing it.

      1. Yeah, the question was mostly tongue-in-cheek, particularly since Dragonlance was my franchise-fiction of choice as a kid, and even then the . I’m on board with your affection for TZC, which I think is an unpopular choice for the in-jokey reasons you mention (among the greater community of people who have read the Infocom novels, Robin Bailey’s Enchanter is generally regarded as the least terrible, inasmuch as if you squint very hard at it you can almost see it as having some serious themes).

  1. Great review, and up so soon! Great examination of the sex/gender stuff going on here too. I really love the intelligent, mature, modern perspective you look back on these novels with. Another wonderful read.

    1. Thank you! I’ve done three posts in the past three weeks, which has been a lot of fun, but I don’t think I can keep that pace up long-term. For now, I’m probably going to take the time to read a couple of non-Realms books first before I get around to Troy Denning’s second Twilight Giants novel. Need to keep the palate refreshed and the expectations properly calibrated, you know?

  2. Fantasy worlds that are eternally medieval-esque no matter how many thousands of years their timelines stretch over are one of my biggest fantasy genre pet peeves.

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