Once Around the Realms

Author: Brian Thomsen
Published: May 1995

Around the World in 80 Days is one of the most famous works by seminal science fiction author Jules Verne. Published in 1872, it tells the story of a rich gentleman who engages a new manservant, then gets embroiled in a ruinous wager to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days or less. Their party bounces through a series of rollicking escapades, avoiding death and escaping arrest on numerous occasions while they take sailboats, steamships, trains, elephants, and sleds from continent to continent. And at some point, someone at TSR read Verne’s novel and got inspired by what must have seemed like a great idea at the time: “Let’s do Around the World in 80 Days, but in the Forgotten Realms!”

Christ, I wish they hadn’t.

I’d heard whispered rumours of this book before, sinister intimations that someone had written a Forgotten Realms novel so bad that it would rend your sanity and leave you a gibbering wreck if you should dare to peer into its pages for too long. Naturally, like the protagonist of any Lovecraft story, I assumed this was overblown nonsense and plunged right in. As you might imagine, I have a thick skin for bad books — why else would I willingly take on a project like this? But this one nearly broke me. Learn from my example: do not read it, not even just to make fun of it. Spend the fleeting minutes of your finite life here on Earth doing things that bring joy to your existence rather than deliberately inflicting pointless suffering on yourself.

I’m going to review this one in an unusual format this time: chronologically, letting you watch the descent into madness as it unfolds rather than trying to impose a structure upon it. Come, join me on a terrible journey! This is the story of Volothamp Geddarm, the travelling scholar who’s the in-universe author of the Volo’s Guide series of guidebooks. He and his new manservant, Passepout… wait, what? Seriously? Clearly it’s supposed to be some sort of reference to Jean Passepartout, the loyal valet from 80 Days, but the author has chosen a goofy-sounding name that sounds like it could easily be some sort of French slang word for farting. I’ve just read the back cover blurb and already I’m losing respect for this book.

There’s a table of contents, which is, I think, a first for a Realms novel. Like 80 Days, each chapter has a long title that gives a preview of what happens in it. Unlike 80 Days, these chapter titles aren’t particularly witty or interesting. It’s already trying much too hard to imitate Verne’s work, and we haven’t even gotten to page 1 yet.

First scene: Two Purple Dragons, Kirk and Duke, are guarding the gates of Suzail. One of them is disgruntled. Then the narration does this:

Duke looked down at his depressed buddy.

Wow, that’s some odd diction. “Buddy” isn’t a word that works in a Realms novel at all. It gives the impression that the narrator is either a long-haul trucker or comes from Northern Ontario. But hey, that’s a minor nitpick. Surely the diction will improve as it goes on, right? Then one of the protagonists shows up:

“It is only I, Passepout the entertainer, star of stage, tavern, and festhall, and only son of the legendary thespians Catinflas [sic] and Idle.”

The great thing about writing novels for a primarily young adult audience is that you can slip in whatever immersion-breaking in-jokes you want and your readers will be too ignorant to recognize them! Surely nobody will notice if you repeat the names of two incredibly famous real-world comedians over and over again from the book’s very first scene? This sort of self-congratulatory cleverness would be appalling if it just happened once, but this is the start of an excruciating running joke that’s beaten to death across the course of the entire novel. [1]

He turned his back to the scapegoat of all his geriatric frustrations. “We’ve never heard of any Passepout the entertainer, but you know what?”

“What?” whispered the now-meek traveler named Passepout, who was afraid that he would be spending the night in the dungeon for vagrancy, or some such other charge of which he was guilty.

It’s very deliberately aping Verne’s Victorian writing style: there are lots of fifty-cent words where a two-cent word would do, the narrator is working overtime to tell us everything about the characters, and the point of view flits from character to character like a caffeinated butterfly. But this is an incompetent imitation. We already know he’s a traveller named Passepout. We already know he’s afraid of the guards. Why tell us again? The “some such other” bit is a vague appendage to the sentence that dangles from it like a crippled, useless limb. None of the verbosity here enhances the storytelling in any way; it’s just useless litter that clutters up the page.

“You must be mistaken,” insisted Passepout, not really answering the question, now sure that his night in the dungeon would be preceded by a beating, and dreading every minute of it.

This is the absolute antithesis of “show, don’t tell”: four words of dialogue followed by an entire paragraph explaining what he was thinking when he said it. Every page is riddled with clauses of expository narration that cling parasitically to otherwise healthy sentences, and almost none of them convey any information that the reader cares about. (Oh, you say he’s not looking forward to being beaten to a pulp? What a surprise!) But lest you think it’s just the writing style that’s giving me a creeping sense of dread:

“Funny. Seems I do recall a pair of pickpockets named Idle and Catinflas from somewhere around Baldur’s Gate. You any relation to them, punk?”

Why would a city guard in Suzail know anything about a pair of small-time criminals in Baldur’s Gate, a city of 100,000 people that’s a thousand-mile journey away, in a culture with no mass communication? Similarly, once Volo shows up:

“This guy is the author of that book on Waterdeep, the one I used to find us that really good festhall last time we were on leave.”

How do a pair of common soldiers from Cormyr take their leaves in Waterdeep? That’s a round-trip journey of nearly 3,000 miles overland. Did they get multi-year sabbaticals? The author clearly doesn’t give a quarter of a shit about geography, which is the last thing you want to see in a travelogue story where the whole point is to watch the characters trek to particular places. Circumnavigating the Realms will be easy if the author thinks that Faerûn is the size of Rhode Island.

Keep in mind that I’ve just written several hundred words about the first scene. We haven’t even started yet.

Next, Suzail, where Volo is properly introduced to Passepout. Surely it must start getting better once we have a chance to flesh out the setting and characters, right?

Purple Dragons policed the street as obvious omens of order, perhaps to impress the dignitaries that may or may not have converged on the city for the meeting of the College of War Wizards.

First of all, that’s not what “omen” means. Second, this is the vaguest narration I’ve ever read. Were they there to impress people? Were the people they were potentially supposed to impress even there at all? The narrator doesn’t care.

This may seem like nitpicking, but sentence after sentence is like this. If I were to call out all the bad writing in this book in similar detail, I’d easily have a document that’s longer than the book itself. Just touching on the highlights is going to be excruciating. Case in point:

Volo tossed the indigent entertainer one of his bags, the heaviest one, almost bowling over the unsuspecting fellow, who seemed to have lost a bit of his legendary acrobatic prowess through the acquisition of a few extra pounds of fleshly body cushioning. Passepout recovered, with a questioning look, but before he could voice his interrogative Volo cut him off.

Has anyone ever used so many words (or commas) to say so little? I get that he’s trying to write in the discursive style of Jules Verne, but this isn’t homage or pastiche — it’s unintentional parody. What made anyone involved think that a parody of Victorian prose would work for a Forgotten Realms novel? Why did they think anyone would want this? How could an author write the phrase “fleshly body cushioning” without feeling the icy hand of doom seize their project?

“Oh, thank you, O wonderful and good sir. I am in your debt,” insisted the grateful, relieved Passepout.

Who would have guessed that the guy who’s saying “thank you” would be grateful? Man, I’m glad he pointed that out. I know I said I wasn’t going to keep calling out every bad sentence, but every sentence I read just keeps making my jaw drop. I’m impressed at how consistently awful it is. If I don’t start growing a thicker skin for it after a few chapters, this will be a very long review.

Phileas Fogg from 80 Days was a strange and fascinating character: a gentleman with a mysterious past, taciturn and reserved, but but whose unflappable demeanour concealed a rarely-glimpsed heart of gold. His fantasy counterpart Volo talks constantly, at great length, using excessively long words. After a single scene, I found myself wishing that the author had stolen the idea of a silent protagonist from Verne as well.

We’ve covered two chapters out of twenty-eight and I’m already reeling. I’m struggling to see how I can get to the end without blood pouring from my eyes. Phew. Okay. Deep breath. I can do this. Let’s keep going.

At the start of chapter three, there’s a gnome named Gnorm. Huh… that sounds vaguely familiar. Wait… oh no.

No, no, no.

This really happened. This is the level of creativity we’re dealing with here.

Come on. Deep breath. Stay centred. Now there’s some sort of argument in a tavern. Volo is dealing with a stain on his reputation caused by an imposter named… wait for it… “Marco Volo.” I shit you not. Every time I try to piece the tattered shreds of my immersion back together, this novel rolls over it with a lawn mower. (The only saving grace here is that this particular book didn’t invent the “Marco Volo” nonsense; it came from a trilogy of AD&D adventure modules published in 1994.)

Suddenly, Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun appears in Suzail for a meeting of Cormyr’s War Wizards, despite living over a thousand miles away and being neither a War Wizard nor a Cormyrian. Somehow every patron in this random tavern a thousand miles away recognizes him, despite there being no mass media in this world that could disseminate a person’s appearance. For some reason he happens to be carrying a magic map and enchanted gemstones for marking locations, and tricks Volo into making a bet that he can… travel a lot?

“A simple grand tour of Faerûn and beyond from west to east should be of no difficulty, then. Eh, master traveler?”

Where in Faerûn should he start and finish? What’s “beyond” mean? Visiting Kara-Tur? Circling the globe? Other planes? What’s the deadline? What’s the reward? Are either of them going to hash out the details of this wager before risking life and limb on it? No? Okay, then. Either this is some kind of con game and the protagonists are incredibly dense to not have noticed how coincidental and convenient all this is, or it’s for real and the author just didn’t care about making it plausible. It’s awful either way.

“In that bag,” the mage instructed, “are the legendary gems of the necromancer Kalen Verne.”

Sweet Jesus. All these constant references to a much better book just make me want to throw this book away and read that one instead.

With a sigh of resignation, the portly thespian joined the master traveler and continued on the road northward from Suzail.

The narration seems to be allergic to referring to people by names or pronouns; instead, there’s always some sort of verbose, redundant epithet in every paragraph. Plus, said-bookisms are absolutely rampant. Nobody ever just says anything. They insist, counter, respond, offer, order, interrogate, instruct, address, interject, declare, agree, and concur, but heaven forfend that they should say. In short, the writing feels excruciatingly artificial in every way possible.

“Shadowdale,” Volo stated.
“Shadowdale?” Passepout questioned.
“Why Shadowdale?” the gracious hostess pressed.

Yes, it’s that bad.

Anyhow, that’s theoretically motivated our protagonists to go travel the Realms, though the details of what exactly they’re doing are vague. They take a caravan up to the Stonelands, then walk to Myth Drannor whilst dribbling exposition. As depicted in Spellfire and other media, Myth Drannor is so full of devils and other monsters that you can’t throw a brick without hitting one. The best possible outcome here is that these two chunky schmucks will be torn apart and devoured by a horde of fiends, and then the rest of the book is just blank pages. Dare I dream?

Dammit, no. They’re rescued from some random orcs by a random adventuring company of hot chicks, because this seems to be the kind of fantasy novel where women only exist to be attractive to the men around them.

Catlindra and her company gathered around the campfire, as was their custom, to wait out the digestion and passage of their meal with conversation, so that bodily functions would not interrupt their sleep later.

Sitting around a campfire after a meal prevents sleep-shitting? I’m learning so much from this book. Catlindra dumps her backstory in an artificial manner which serves to pad out the chapter’s word count. Then we learn that these adventurers are passing through Myth Drannor on their way to Thay. Yes, you read that right. Did the author look at a map at any point during the writing of this novel? Did he not know that Myth Drannor is a hellhole in the middle of a dense, trackless forest, not on the way to anything, and that Thay is a thousand miles away across a sea? Or did he just pick a random name for their destination and not bother thinking about it? (That was a rhetorical question.)

In the middle of the night, Passepout attempts to seduce one of the ladies by creeping on her while she’s asleep, and gets beaten for it. This is played for laughs because the author apparently thinks that sexual harassment is hilarious. Volo is an acceptable, if bland, character, but Passepout is an example for future writers of everything one should not do when creating a sidekick. There is nothing about him which is not loathsome; he lacks any redeeming qualities whatsoever. He’s supposed to be the comic relief, but he’s as funny as cancer — every time he opens his mouth, another scene dies. It looks like the author was aiming for a Falstaff sort of character without understanding what made him work. Falstaff is a gluttonous, cowardly, womanizing brigand, but he’s genuinely witty and you see the softer human side of him often enough that when things go wrong for him at the end of Henry IV, Part 2, it’s heartbreaking. By comparison, all Passepout has done is whine, complain, eat too much, tell racist jokes, and harass disinterested women, so we have no reason to care what happens to him. This would be a better book if he got hit by a truck and Volo continued his journey alone.

By now I keep seeing yet more terrible things that I would give any other author a hard time for — awful writing, obvious real-world references, ludicrous dialogue, things which contradict existing Realms lore — but I’m just ignoring them because I want to get this book over with and do something fulfilling with my life instead.

The protagonists stop in at Shadowdale, where Volo finally starts to figure out that he’s been tricked. Then they ride to the home of a mute Harper… named Marks… oh no. No, no, no. Please, no.

Volo approached the entrance to his domicile, looking for a bell cord that could be rung to summon the master of the manor… but none existed. Instead, in its place, a bladder-horn was mounted by an open window nearest the door. Volo squeezed the bulb. The resultant blare trumpeted into the house with a cacophonous sound that hurt Passepout’s ears.

The front door was quickly thrown open by a strange, wide-eyed man with blond curly hair…

They meet Harpo Marx, who mimes a conversation. Why is this happening? I feel like one of B.F. Skinner’s lab rats, the ones in the electrified cages which give them random painful jolts. I have passed through outrage into a state of numb shock. Everything is terrible and there’s nothing I can do about it.

They take a ship across the Sea of Fallen Stars with “Captain Bligh Queeg,” whose name tells us what’s going to happen on the voyage. He’s a straight lift of Humphrey Bogart from The Caine Mutiny, down to the worry balls and ranting about strawberries. Then they run into a pirate captain:

…as he recalled the albino banshee who had stolen his son, and cursed “the infernal white wail” to the fear and wonderment of all present.

Seriously, “albino banshee.” That’s the best way the author could think of to work the inevitable Moby Dick reference in. The book has completely lost track of the original “80 Days, but in the Realms” conceit; now it’s devolved into a disconnected series of irrelevant references to other, better works. They’re obvious, not remotely funny, serve no function for plot or characterization, and are completely inappropriate for the tone of a fantasy world which needs the reader to buy into its verisimilitude. I’m just calling out the dumbest of them, but they are everywhere. The general impression is that the author was too lazy to think of a story, so he just cobbled together a sequence of random scenes based on other things he’d seen and read before.

Speaking of which… immediately after the sea voyage, they meet the A-Team.

Hannibal, the former captain in the Purple Dragons, shook hands with the two travelers who had provided them with so much entertainment.

“I love it when a plan comes together,” he said.

Let that thought sink in for a second: The A-Team are officially part of the Forgotten Realms canon. They serve no role here; they merely wander on-screen, briefly wave at the camera, and then disappear. Then the protagonists are ambushed by a bandito who calls himself “Eli of the Wallachs” and who doesn’t need no stinking mages.

There’s an unpleasant feeling creeping over me at this point. I’m no longer imagining the author as a lazy hack who’s writing a bad novel. Hell, anyone can write a bad novel — this is different. I’m starting to envision him as a person in the early stages of senile dementia, where he keeps trying to write a story but his damaged brain keeps substituting random bits of other stories from earlier in his life. And with that realization, I’ve lost the will to keep going. We’re only halfway through, but criticizing this novel has begun to feel like laughing at the mentally ill.

I cannot review this novel in any literary sense. I cannot explain the plot, because it is a threadbare excuse for random things to happen whose pitch was swiped from another, better novel. I cannot discuss the character development because there is none; there is merely two losers meeting a series of cardboard cutouts. I cannot talk about the book’s themes because the only consistent theme is “pop culture references”. I’ve already amply covered the quality of the writing. All I can do from here on out is to point at a succession of incredibly stupid things and say “Look how stupid they are!”, and that feels like a tiresome and mean-spirited exercise now that I’ve sufficiently made my point. I will never find out how the story of Volo and Passepout ends, and that thought fills me with a kind of quiet joy.

Conclusion

Grade: Beneath the concept of a grade

I cannot give this book a grade. Previous F-grade books like Feathered Dragon and Pools of Darkness were dull and bad, but understandable: the authors sincerely tried to write a fantasy novel and just got everything wrong. But this? This is so much worse. It takes Verne’s novel, runs it through a wood chipper, then half-assedly tries to reassemble the bits of its corpse into the rough semblance of a fantasy novel based on a third-hand description of what such a thing should look like. It is not just the worst Forgotten Realms novel I’ve ever read, but the worst published novel I’ve ever read, full stop. Giving it a grade feels too much like legitimizing it as an actual book.

How did this happen? At this point in their downward trajectory, was TSR so desperate to move product onto shelves that they had no concern for the quality of the products they were putting their brand name on? I can’t think of any other good explanation, so let’s do some research… oh. Well, that presents a likely conjecture.

It turns out that the author, Brian Thomsen, was the managing editor of the fiction department at TSR. I picture the story going something like this: He sees all these authors and editors at TSR cranking out popular fantasy novels. One day, he says “Hell, that looks easy! I’m going to do one too.” So he gets approval to write a Realms novel — from himself, since he’s the guy in charge — and then proceeds to vomit out the mass of absurdities that we’ve covered above. None of the editors who worked for him had the career-ending courage to call him on the bad ideas or rigorously edit his prose, because telling your boss that his work sucks is a great way to start collecting unemployment. So this bizarre pile of words ended up on bookshelves across the world, basically unedited and unreviewed, and everyone else involved tried as hard as they could to forget that it ever existed. In other words, it’s the story of TSR’s fall in microcosm: the people in charge are making terrible decisions, and none of the talented people under them can change the doomed vessel’s course.

If anyone who happened to actually be there ever reads this post, I’d love to know how close that guess is to the truth.

I’m just glad this is over so that I can move on, because this is going to make the upcoming Ed Greenwood novel feel like Tolstoy by comparison. There’s also a sequel to Once Around the Realms: 1996’s The Mage in the Iron Mask, also by Thomsen. (Gee, I wonder where he got the idea for that one from.) It’s possible that my mental health will have sufficiently recovered by that point that I’ll be willing to take a stab at it, but I make no promises. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read a good novel to remind myself that it’s possible to find joy in literature.

Footnotes

[1] Presumably the reason why the author thought he was being clever here is that both Eric Idle and Cantinflas played Jean Passepartout in screen adaptations of Around the World in 80 Days.

9 Replies to “Once Around the Realms

  1. Gnorm the gnome, whether or not the name was taken from that Anthony Michael Hall movie, here was a setup for a Cheers gag. He walks into his tavern, says, ” Hi everybody,” to which the crowd replies, “Gnorm!”.

    As much of an awful groanfest this was (reading this was the only time I have literally thrown a book in disbelief), I appreciated the utterly unserious tone in comparison to many of the previous Realms books.

    1. Sweet creeping Jesus, I didn’t even notice the Cheers reference there; it’s been so many years since I’ve seen it. You’re absolutely right.

      I can’t say I appreciated the tone. You can do light-hearted fantasy that’s a lot of fun, but Once Around the Realms is in a weird state where it’s neither fish nor fowl. On the one hand, it’s destroying the fourth wall with sledgehammers, backhoes, and plastic explosives. It does not give a quarter-damn about the reader’s immersion because it’s constantly winking at you and making awful real-world jokes — in fact, the plot feels like the thinnest of vehicles for delivering all these bad in-jokes. But on the other hand, it’s not willing to embrace full-on parody à la Bored of the Rings, either. One could probably make a hilarious balls-out parody of the stereotypical Forgotten Realms novel, but this book didn’t have the courage to do it. So it exists in the worst of both worlds: you have no immersion, but it’s not very funny.

      Let’s compare this to something like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. They’re generally very light fantasies, with moments of deeper meaning, and very funny. But they achieve that state with great care and much hard work. There are occasional real-world references, but they’re brief throwaway things, not long, elaborate scene-ruiners. Despite being funny, both making and being the butt of jokes, the characters are also very human and deeply characterized. The plots are inventive and interesting in addition to being funny. So your immersion gets bruised occasionally, but it still emerges intact by the end because you believe in the characters and the story.

      Unfortunately, Once Around the Realms feels like the antithesis of that. The characters are shallow and sometimes awful, and the plot is a threadbare excuse to make random things happen. So we’re left with… what? References to 1980s television shows? They’re not even jokes, really, just reference humour — the sort of technique where the author says “Hey, remember that thing?” and assumes that you’ll laugh. I didn’t.

      1. It is to the Realms like what the disappointing “Castle Greyhawk” module of the late 80s was for Greyhawk.

        This book could have totally worked too. A light comedy novel about Volo traveling the Realms is a no-brainer. But I do wish that “hey look! a reference!” didn’t work on a certain kind of nerd reader – because it totally does, otherwise Ready Player One would’ve never happened.

        1. It’s true. But Ready Player One pulled off the reference-fest less clumsily than this novel did for one important reason: it tried to justify why it made sense for the references to exist in-universe. Here, it’s clear that they all came from the other side of the fourth wall for no particular reason except “the author thought it would be funny.”

  2. I *think* I read this one back in the day, but have NO memory of it other then not being a big fan of Volo, but that is drawn from more then just the one book.

    It is sad, as this sounds like a great way to introduce someone to the realms, giving little samples of the culture, style and issues of various parts of the realms so you know what parts you want to read more about. My first introduction to the Realms was the comic A Grand Tour of the Realms, which at least tried to do this.

    1. Yep, agreed. There was definitely potential in the general concept of a race around the Realms, although it would have been better if they’d just used that concept as a jumping-off point for their own plot rather than trying to do a straightforward pastiche of Jules Verne.

  3. …Yikes.

    Reading this book would be painful, but even just reading about you reading the book was nearly as bad.

    These kinds of blatantly obvious in-jokes completely wreck my suspension of disbelief and take me right out of the story. Gary Gygax and company did a lot of these puns all the time in the early Greyhawk days, but the references weren’t obvious unless you knew who they were addressing. Names like Tenser, Vecna, Melf, Rary and Keoghtom all function in their own right and are presented in contexts that don’t jar the reader out of the story.

    Looking back on some of my own writing, I cringe at how much I used said-bookisms. I thought it was necessary to avoid repeating the same word too much (in this case, ‘said’) and actually describe how the character was speaking (hence ‘smiled’, ‘countered’, etc.) I could swear my junior and high school English teachers saying the same thing, which is where I got it from, although I can’t recall a specific example.

    1. I think that’s a phase every new writer goes through. First you write whatever comes into your head, and then you start to become self-aware and conscious of how you’re writing. Then you get too self-aware and start over-correcting all over the place. But if you stick with it, eventually you get an instinct for what works and what doesn’t.

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