King Pinch

Author: David Cook
Published: May 1995

I was so pleased to see that the next book in the queue was by David Cook. Aside from being the author of many legendary D&D sourcebooks, Cook has also been consistently good as a fiction writer: two solid novels (A– and B+) and two short stories, one of which was fantastic and the other of which was pretty good. Hopefully this will be a welcome reprieve from the recent stretch of mediocrity, despite being based on the “pretty good” short story. This is the first entry in a new open-ended series called “The Nobles,” a collection of one-off novels about aristocrats and rulers around the Realms.

King Pinch takes us to a part of the Realms that we’ve never seen before: Ankhapur, a small kingdom far to the south on the Lake of Steam. It doesn’t get as much attention as I would have liked, since this novel spends all its time on plot and characterization but not much on setting. We see a few unique cultural events (a funeral, a festival, a couple of noble parties), and there’s apparently an unusually monotheistic local cult, but on the whole Ankhapur doesn’t feel that different from most other fantasy kingdoms. It features decadent nobility, wretched slums, some temples… and that’s about it. I would have loved to be shown more unusual local customs and cultural idiosyncrasies that would have made it feel distinct from the northern areas of Faerûn.

Plot

Pinch, the cunning gang leader from Cook’s short story “Gallows Day”, has a secret: he grew up as the ward of the king of Ankhapur, but ran away many years ago to become a thief. When the king dies, one of the Ankhapurian factions drags him and his gang from Elturel back to Ankhapur to pull off a job that requires their… special talents. Pinch has to plan the heist of a lifetime while avoiding the wrath of the multiple feuding factions at the Ankhapur court, all of which would be happy to see him dead. As if that’s not bad enough, a job gone sideways in Elturel has left him holding a priceless stolen religious artifact and the church of Lathander is most anxious to find both the artifact and the thief. The two plotlines intersect repeatedly throughout the book, constantly keeping Pinch in danger of one sort or another.

Of course, given the title of the book, you know how it’s going to end — all the fun is in seeing how it gets there. And for the most part, it delivers! It’s slow out of the gate, taking a leisurely two-fifths of the book just to establish the characters and get them to Ankhapur. Once they arrive, though, it’s an exciting maelstrom of plots and counter-plots. Pinch is a gifted liar and schemer, and it’s entertaining to watch him think on his feet and weave deceptions that keep him alive and keep the other characters off-balance. Crucially for an intrigue-based plot, none of the characters feel like idiots. Even the minor ones who don’t receive much screen time still get a quick sketch of their personalities and motivations, so it’s understandable when they make mistakes. Some scenes are genuinely horrifying, like the bit with the maggots in the Red Lord’s temple, and the stakes keep ratcheting up with each major revelation. It’s been a while since I read a Realms novel that felt fun to read, but this time I found myself looking forward to each chance to pick the book up.

By far the weakest part of the novel, unfortunately, is the conclusion. It doesn’t just have a short denouement, it has none whatsoever. The novel just cuts off on the last sentence of the climax, like a movie with the final reel missing. I was left sitting there thinking “Is that it? What happened afterwards?” But since none of these characters ever appeared in any other stories, we’ll never know; they’ll remain forever frozen in a brief moment of triumph, surrounded by bodies and chaos. They deserved better. [1] It feels like the author got to the last few chapters of the book, realized he only had a handful of pages left to work with, then had to rush the ending and drop some plot threads on the floor in order to make it fit.

Themes

Trust is a big one. There’s no honour among thieves; Pinch doesn’t trust his crew and they don’t trust him, but they work together effectively as long as it remains in everyone’s best interests to do so. None of the Ankhapurians can be trusted further than Pinch can throw them, and many want him dead. Thus, Pinch spends the entire story in a fever pitch of well-justified paranoia. It doesn’t feel like this theme ever gets paid off, though — there are moments where it seems as if the lack of trust between him and Therin is going to cause serious problems, but it never quite comes to a head or gets resolved.

Identity is another good theme here. Pinch thinks of himself as just “Pinch”, having discarded his real name and identity years ago. Much of his character development centres around him coming to accept that he’s still Janol and still belongs in the royal court. It gets plenty of time and works fairly well, so it comes as no surprise to the reader when he decides to make a play for the kingship at the end.

Characters

Most fantasy novel protagonists are young, attractive, and heroic. Pinch is none of these. He’s a middle-aged man, no longer as quick as he used to be, eyes bloodshot and skin sagging from years of debauchery and hard living. As for heroic, well… he’s an unrepentant coward, going out of his way to avoid a fair fight whenever possible. He casually entertains the prospect of murdering people, but generally decides against it for practical reasons. He spins webs of deceit while constantly scrutinizing every detail of the people and places around him for potential advantages. Lying comes as naturally to him as breathing. But for all that, he’s got just enough empathy and sentiment underneath his callous exterior to avoid seeming like a sociopath. In short, he makes a fantastic anti-hero protagonist, as morally grey, vicious in a fight, and good at ferreting out plots as any Dashiell Hammett detective. You’re excited to see how he’s going to scheme his way out of his increasingly perilous situation, and even though he’s a terrible person, you want to see the corrupt, decadent aristocrats that he’s up against get what they deserve.

The villains are numerous and not deeply characterized: the old king’s lapdog, the shadowy figure pulling his strings, plus three scheming princes and their henchmen. The princes, in particular, feel like they should have received more attention; we might have had time to get more characterization out of them if the novel had cut most of the “road to Ankhapur” section to spend more time in the city. But we’re shown everyone’s plausible motivations and they feel like credible threats, so it still works out fairly well.

Fortunately for Pinch, he’s got a motley crew of thieves in his corner. The three other members of his Elturel gang were rounded up and sent to Ankhapur along with him, and he makes use of their particular talents like a general deploying his troops. Aside from being interesting characters in their own rights, they give Pinch a good opportunity for character development as he gradually realizes that he’s become sentimentally attached to them. Sprite-Heels, a halfling second-story man, gets the most time of the lot; he’s duplicitous, greedy, and cowardly, but still likable and clever enough that he enlivens the scenes he’s in. Therin, the gang’s muscle, is untrustworthy and none too bright, which makes for a fun combination whenever he tries to usurp Pinch’s authority and Pinch effortlessly puts him in his place.

The last member of the gang, Brown Maeve, is that rarest of things in a fantasy novel: an ugly woman who’s more than a minor side character. Looking back on the fifty-odd books I’ve reviewed so far, I can’t think of a single book that can boast such a character; any plot-relevant woman has always been either beautiful in some way or old enough that physical attractiveness isn’t relevant. Maeve is the gang’s mage, a fairly competent wizard ruined by hard drinking. Her alcoholism is never cute or played for laughs; it’s clear that it’s wrecking her life and she’s barely functional, and you feel sorry for her. She gets the least screen time of all the gang, but I found her the most memorable.

Lissa, a naive and compassionate priestess of Lathander, accompanies Pinch to Ankhapur in search of a thief without realizing that Pinch is the very thief she’s looking for. Her main purpose in the novel is to be his cat’s-paw: someone he can manipulate to pull off his increasingly audacious schemes. To the author’s credit, Pinch tricks her in such a way that she doesn’t seem like an idiot, which is a difficult thing to manage when one character is repeatedly deceiving another. She’s just an honest, forthright person surrounded by masterful liars, so she’s utterly unprepared for the situation she finds herself in.

Pinch’s long-lost mother shows up near the end, but she feels like another dropped thread. He never properly meets her and we don’t learn anything about her, so it wouldn’t have been hard to write this novel without her in it. I think she was yet another victim of the author running out of time at the end of the book.

Writing

It’s been a while since I had something interesting and unusual to talk about in the “Writing” section, but King Pinch gives me plenty to work with. In 1993 and 1994, Cook did a considerable amount of research while creating the Planescape D&D campaign setting, a delightfully bizarre and imaginative world centred around a giant city with a “grimy Victorian London slum” feel to it. As such, Cook’s brain was thoroughly marinated in antique English slang and 18th- and 19th-century British history, and it shows up dramatically in the writing style here. Pinch and his crew speak in an authentic old criminal argot, and even the narration gets in on the act with obsolete words and curious diction. It’s a neat new direction for a Forgotten Realms novel: emphasizing the vast difference between Pinch’s crew and the Ankhapurian nobility by demonstrating how their social classes talk very differently.

But does it work? Well… kind of. There are plenty of places where the cant adds a lovely spice to the dialogue, but plenty of other places where it gets in the way of the reader’s understanding. Take expletives, for instance:

As the old rogue pushed open the alehouse’s creaky door, Therin unexpectedly stepped out from the shadows. “Piss in Ilmater’s wounds — where’ve you been, Pinch?”

Replace “Ilmater” with “Christ” and you’ve got an authentic old English oath. It’s delightfully vivid and spotlights Therin’s desperation in this scene. But then there’s this:

“Cleedis, you borsholder,” Pinch snarled.

I doubt that one person in ten thousand could tell you what a “borsholder” is off the top of their head, and even after looking it up I still can’t see how it’s supposed to be a grievous insult. Hell, it actually makes more sense if you don’t look it up, since you can imagine that it’s some kind of expletive rather than a perfectly ordinary word for a government official in early English law. And sometimes the cant is just flat-out wrong:

“A pox on that!” Pinch swore, shoving the bowl away. “I’ll not be your intelligencer, not when you come here threatening like some piss-prophet.”

Okay, mad props for “intelligencer,” which is a great word. But I happen to know what “piss-prophet” means — a doctor who diagnoses diseases by examining a patient’s urine — and I have a hard time imagining something less threatening.

Sometimes the cant feels natural and it’s obvious what they’re talking about, even if you don’t know what the words specifically mean. Other times… not so much. For instance, at one point a woman is described as having a “rumpscuttle mien.” I scratched my head. Does she scuttle about on her rump? Does she scuttle rumps at sea, sinking them beneath the waves? Does she have cuttlefish where her butt cheeks should be? No idea; I had to look it up, and that distracted me from the flow of the narrative. I’m not saying that authors should never use rare or obsolete words, or we’d eventually converge on an English language where everything sounds like Thing Explainer. But if you’re going to root around at the very bottom of English’s huge bag of weird words, you need to treat the artifacts you pull out with care. They should be used as judiciously as you’d use a foreign word: you should neither stop the narrative to explain what it means nor use it willy-nilly, but rather introduce it such that it’s obvious from the context of its sentence what it means. For instance:

“What do you know about knife fights? Have you ever jumped a man in a dark lane and pulled your blade across his weasand-pipe?”

This is great: you can imply from context that “weasand” means “throat” or something similar, because it’s clear that he’s talking about cutting a man’s throat. Ths book pulls off the antique vernacular often enough that I applaud the effort, but the failures were too frequent to call it an altogether successful experiment.

Cant aside, the writing is surprisingly iffy. Sentences are encrusted with unnecessary details and extraneous adjectives in a Ciencin-esque way:

Brown Maeve nodded her receipt of Pinch’s caution.

Everything after “Brown Maeve nodded” is wasted words — we already know what she’s nodding at, and “nodded her receipt” just sounds clunky. Weird diction abounds:

He thrust a hairy halfling foot into the air and waggled his oversized toes. “You took your time. Find a distraction upstairs?” the little being mocked while at the same time breaking into a yawn he could not stifle.

“Little being”? Dang, that’s cold. Halflings are people, last I checked. You wouldn’t describe a friend of yours as “the being on the sofa next to me.” Some baffling sentences just stagger about like drunkards:

Now it was the bandits’ turn to panic, their previous discipline a fraud unmasked by the conflict of desire to loot and fear of death.

Some over-ambitious metaphors make little sense:

Then the cold-shock settled onto Pinch. The wet, the chill, and the grime stroked his bones with their ferocious touch and drew their cruel pale to his skin.

Apparently getting grime on your bones makes you pale. Who knew?

There are occasional great moments, writing-wise, but they’re far outnumbered by these little sloppy bits all over the place that really break my immersion. I find it strange, since it’s nowhere near the quality that Cook achieved in all his previous works. Again, this feels like a novel where the first or second draft went straight to press without going through a polishing stage — and I’m worried that, given the sheer volume of books which TSR released in 1995 and 1996, the same will be true of all upcoming novels.

(As an aside, why can nobody ever get “free rein” right? People keep writing it “free reign” and I just want to stab someone.)

Conclusion

Grade: B–

What frustrates me about this novel is that I can see how, with just a few changes, it could have been an easy A. There was plenty of good raw material: a solid concept, great characters, and a twisty plot. But it needed to get to Ankhapur faster and flesh it out more, it needed aggressive editing to clean up the distractingly bad writing, and it needed a better conclusion. The end result is still quite entertaining, but I wish I could have read the book that this deserved to be instead.

I need to steel myself for the next review. It’s going to be… something special.

Footnotes

[1] There’s a very brief epilogue of sorts for these characters in the Heroes’ Lorebook, an AD&D 2E supplement which provided game statistics for scores of characters from the Realms novels. But I’m only considering the novels for this project, and even if I weren’t, putting the end of your book into a separate product in a separate medium is still a weird move.

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