Ironhelm

Author: Douglas Niles
Published: March 1990

Welcome, readers, to a particularly baffling and bizarre period in the Forgotten Realms’ history. At some point after the release of the Grey Box campaign set, someone at TSR decided that having a successful fantasy world was all well and good, but what the setting really needed was to be more like the real world, with fantasy versions of Aztecs, Chinese, Mongols, Tibetans, Japanese, etc. which were exactly like their counterparts in reality but with more magic. [1] The Realms duly gained an unexplored jungle continent across the sea to the west, a bunch of new nations across a huge steppe to the east, and two trilogies of novels to introduce them. I can’t fathom the chain of logic which led to that decision, but it would have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall during those brainstorming sessions.

The upshot of all this is that I sure hope you like historical fan fiction, because the next two trilogies are all stories about thinly-veiled duplicates of real-world cultures and events. I’m going to have to grit my teeth to slog through it, I think — especially since this first one (the Maztica trilogy) was written by Douglas Niles, whose work on the Moonshae trilogy didn’t particularly impress me.

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but to me this all seems like a dreadful idea. We play fantasy role-playing games and read fantasy literature to get away from the real world, to explore things outside of our regular experience and let our imaginations run wild. If your fantasy slavishly imitates the familiar, is it really fantastic? Or does it just become history with a paper-thin veneer of the unusual, bereft of imagination? I guess we’re about to find out.

Maztica, the new unexplored land across the Sea of Swords, is a straight copy of Central America in every possible respect. Amidst lush jungles full of colourful parrots and fierce jaguars, the locals build terraced farms and stepped pyramid temples in which they sacrifice captives to their bloodthirsty gods. All the character and place names (Erixitl, Kultaka, Zaltec, etc.) are clearly designed to sound like Aztec names. Obsidian swords, feather cloaks, jaguar masks, feathered serpent gods… it feels like they just transcribed a couple of textbooks on Aztec culture and changed a few of the names. The only addition is their unique indigenous system of magic, with good feather magic (pluma, representing wind and life) and evil talon magic (hishna, representing blood and death).

Plot

You know the plot already; you learned it in high school. A bunch of ambitious, greedy, metal-hatted colonizers from a technologically superior nation land in a lush jungle country and begin to subjugate the inhabitants. They’re even wearing full conquistador outfits in the cover art, just to ensure you don’t miss the historical parallels and confuse this for a fantasy story. (No epidemics, though; at least they left that part out.)

There’s actually a decent twist in all this, though, with the reveal of the truth about the “Ancient Ones” who control the priesthood of Zaltec. Done well, it could have added some spice to the otherwise straightforward retelling of the conquistador story. But the twist is foreshadowed too heavy-handedly; odds are you’ll have worked it out for yourself by the halfway mark. And it makes the natives even less impressive — now, instead of being a powerful empire in their own right, it turns out they’re being duped and used as tools by a more cunning and dangerous faction. They just can’t catch a break, can they?

Themes

Sic transit gloria mundi.

The passing of an empire and a people can be a gradual thing, measured not in days nor years but in generations and centuries. Yet the waning of the Nexala, by this scale, becomes a sudden and cataclysmic plummet to disaster.

Unsurprisingly, the violent collapse of the empires of Maztica is dwelt on at length, with the first third of the book describing a variety of disastrous portents and omens which the native gods show to their worshipers. It’s a good theme, but we see very little of the effect of this collapse on anyone who isn’t a priest or noble, which makes it less poignant. One of the few solid scenes in the book is where one of the protagonists shares a hut and a meal with a peasant lady; she’s worried about her husband and son who have gone off to fight the foreign invaders. If there’d been more bits like that and less priestly bickering, the fall of the empire would have had much more pathos.

Characters

This is another one of those books where most of the characters are utterly devoid of agency. The most narratively powerless character, Erixitl, even lampshades it at the very beginning of the book:

She knew that she could no more choose to go to Nexal than could a piece of driftwood select the beach upon which it would land.

She’s the audience’s window into Maztican culture, a young slave girl who’s especially favoured by the god Qotal, the Plumed One. (Basically your Quetzalcoatl expy.) But she spends the entire book being helplessly pulled from one dire circumstance to the next — the classic Pinball Protagonist — and is always rescued from them by coincidence or divine intervention rather than by her own actions.

Our other protagonist is Captain Halloran, leader of one of the expedition’s military units. He’s basically your traditional Mighty Whitey colonialist protagonist, a trope as old and tired as colonialism itself. This particular instance is the same protagonist mold that we’re all familiar with from movies like Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and Avatar: a white man encounters a native culture and falls in love with a native girl. Relations with the natives are rocky at first, but eventually he proves himself, everyone learns valuable lessons from one another, and in the end he turns on his own people to help the natives. That way, nobody gets overtly offended: the natives get to be noble savages, the villain can be white, and the white people consuming the media can think “Well, white people aren’t all bad! Look how great this hero guy is!” and take away a stealthily positive message about colonialism.

Unfortunately, Halloran has little more agency than Erixitl does. Again, nearly everything that happens to him is the result of coincidence or divine intervention rather than his own decisions. Even their romance feels like the inevitable result of tired tropes rather than a genuine relationship between two well-rounded characters. It’s the sort of story where, when you see a morally upright white colonizer with wavering loyalty to his cause meet a simple, honest native girl, you know with a sinking certainty that the author’s going to have them get it on before Act Three as part of the whole “learning cross-cultural lessons” schtick.

The really sad thing is that as audience surrogate characters go, Halloran isn’t even all that likeable. Erixitl’s scenes were at least fun to read; she’s smart, pragmatic, and defiant, and although none of her attempts to direct her own fate actually work, at least she tries. Halloran doesn’t even make a moral choice to side with the natives against his people — the Legion imprisons him because they blame him for getting someone killed, and he has to run away. He’s mostly just a generic beefcake character: none too bright, short on distinguishing personality traits, and without much interest in learning the language or customs of the natives who are helping him.

Captain-General Cordell is a mashup of various popular myths about Cortés and Columbus: a military leader who convinces the rich rulers of Amn to fund a voyage across the sea to find a trade route to the Orient. [2] He’s portrayed somewhat positively at first — he’s a tactical genius, a father to his men, firm yet fair — but descends into pragmatic tyrannical villainy once the conquest gets underway, treating the natives as nothing more than a source of gold and labour. I quite appreciate that he’s not a completely black-or-white character, because it would have been very easy to make him one. The same can’t be said for most of the rest of the Golden Legion, including the racist religious fanatic bishop, the cartoonish brute who replaces Halloran as captain, and the patently evil, scheming elven sorceress. The former two are stereotypes from Central Casting; the latter has a secret which presumably won’t be revealed until the second book, but was very obvious very early on. (An elf who doesn’t like sunlight — do the math.)

On the other side, the native villains are the high priests of the evil Maztican god of war, who are extremely keen on cutting people’s hearts out. Just to make sure that we don’t forget that they’re evil, they use human blood for hair gel to spike their hair in crazy ways. Ordinarily I’d give the author a bollocking for being too over the top with the ludicrously evil villainy, but that’s actually not far off from the historical record — the real-life Aztec religion was often serious horror movie material. (The priests of fertility god Xipe Totec, for instance, would wear the freshly flayed skins of recently-sacrificed human victims as ceremonial garb.) But they’re minor villains in the overall plot; as cat’s-paws to the spoilery “Ancient Ones”, they serve more as local colour than a serious threat.

Writing

It seems a little bit less terrible than the Moonshae trilogy, but that’s not to say it’s great. It could definitely have used another pass by the proofreader, for starters:

“And what will be the shore she next trods?”

The shore she what now?

It’s got some very strange issues with pacing, where interesting scenes will be interrupted for no apparent reason to focus on some other character doing something comparatively boring, like travelling from point A to point B. A good example is near the end of the book, when Halloran and Erixitl are in a pitched battle with a pack of hellhounds. Suddenly there’s a cutaway to another character meeting a cryptic stranger, and then someone else goes and sits on top of a pyramid and waits for a while, and then eventually it gets back to Halloran and Erix fighting for their lives. I’m all in favour of having cutaways between multiple plotlines, but there’s a time and a place for that sort of thing, and that wasn’t it.

There’s some interstitial material that’s presented in the form of excerpts from a book that one of the Maztican priests is writing to record the downfall of their civilization. They’re generally good; the priest has a broader perspective on events than any of the individual characters, which is very welcome given how little knowledge or agency any of the other characters have. On occasion they end up being tiresome recaps of the material you just read, but those are the minority in this book.

Conclusion

Grade: D+

As explorations of European colonialism go, this is definitely no Heart of Darkness or A Passage to India. The characters are mostly flat, the writing is acceptable but not noteworthy, the plot twists are clumsily telegraphed, and the entire conceit is just too historical and insufficiently fantastical to feel like a proper Forgotten Realms novel. Ironhelm has its occasional good moments here and there, but they can’t disguise the fact that there’s just so much wrong with this book. The one thing it really has in its favour is its depiction of a non-medieval-European fantasy culture — but unfortunately, since the world-building is all copied straight from a familiar real-world culture, it lacks the satisfying flavour of real imagination. Still, at least it’s a stab in the direction of something a bit less Tolkieny.

Footnotes


[1] Later it would even acquire an Australia analogue, complete with fictional counterparts to the Aboriginal people — but that wasn’t until the 2000s, when they were running very low on ideas.


[2] Toril had recently gained an Orient with the release of the Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms sourcebook in 1988, about a year and a half after the release of the Grey Box. Given how little tied this new material to the rest of the Realms, and that none of the authors had written any Forgotten Realms material before, one can’t help but suspect that it was a bunch of setting material for the 1985 Oriental Adventures sourcebook which was transplanted to the Forgotten Realms once the setting became successful.

2 Replies to “Ironhelm

  1. The “authenticity” factor in non-European-based settings always puzzled me somewhat. D&D can’t possibly be seen as an authentic replication of real-life feudal Europe, so why is there a move to “authenticity” in settings based on non-European cultures?

    This is why I wonder how the presence of sentient non-humans and other D&D tropes would impact human cultures based on these non-European societies. How would dwarves and elves get along with the medieval Kongo, Inca or Chinese kingdoms (and would the dwarves and elves themselves have darker skin)? Would clerical magic offset the losses the Indigenous peoples of the Americas suffered to disease and force any European colonists to deal with them more fairly? Would the need to relearn magic from spellbooks lead cultures that didn’t have written forms of their languages before European contact to develop written scripts? How would the constant need to defend themselves and their homes from orc and ogre attacks impact their development?

    Settings like Kingdoms of Kalamar touch on some of this a bit, although I think this is something that would be worth exploring more-not to mention being a perfect place for more diverse representation in design and creation.

    1. I’m not bothered by the question of “is this historical adaptation authentic?”. And it’s not that I’m disappointed that they didn’t ask the question “how would magic and fantasy races and such have impacted the European colonization of the New World?” I’m disappointed and bothered because those are questions that we shouldn’t have needed to ask in the first place. I don’t come to fantasy novels looking for historical fiction, I come looking for fantasy. I expect the characters, plot, and setting to be infused with imagination and creativity, but instead we just got some tropes from a history book in a paper-thin disguise. There are many amazing stories that could be told about the meeting of two cultures, one more technologically sophisticated than the other. (And have been told, in fact, many times — it’s a classic pitch for sci-fi stories.) But if you’re going to do it, you need to have something to say (more than just “colonialism is bad”) and you need to put your own creative spin on it. You need to give each side a unique flavour that makes us want to keep reading to discover more about the cultures and settings.

      If you don’t, then you really screw yourself. Reading a history book about the fall of the Aztec empire would have been significantly more interesting than reading this trilogy. Here, the culture is shallowly depicted, the characters are flat, and the plot is as foreordained as the outcome of any history book. A history book, on the other hand, would show me a complex and fascinating culture, then tell me about the events that led to its downfall — events which are all the more interesting because they actually happened in the real world. That’s your competition when you’re writing historically-inspired fantasy fiction: not ordinary fantasy books, but the rich, complex real world. Most authors aren’t capable of competing with history.

      (The only author in the universe who has earned a pass on this front is Guy Gavriel Kay. He’s the only writer I’ve ever seen make good fantasy out of historical material.)

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