Pool of Twilight

Author: James Ward and Anne K. Brown
Published: November 1993

I must confess that I’m not looking forward to reading this one. The previous book in this series, by the same authors, was only the second book that’s earned an F grade from me so far — a hot mess of too many protagonists, indescribably pathetic villains, and a plot which made no sense whatsoever. So the only way to go from that nadir is up… right? Let’s hope so, for the sake of my continued sanity. If not, at least I can take some solace in the fact that this is the last of the “Pools” novels and neither of the co-authors wrote any Forgotten Realms novels again.

Plot

Twenty-two years ago, the evil god Bane stole the Hammer of Tyr, a holy artifact with the power to do pretty much everything. Without it, the formerly bustling city of Phlan has become a grim urban hellhole, although it’s not particularly clear why. Kern, the son of our heroes from the previous couple of books, is prophesied to quest for it, aided by a small group of unlikely boon companions and opposed by an evil sorceress and her random grab-bag of minions. It’s got a standard Campbellian sort of structure to it, with a call to adventure, helpers, mentors, transformation, gift, return, et cetera, et cetera. But because it’s the third book of the “Pools” series, there’s an obligatory magical pool in it whose plot thread has very little to do with the whole “find the hammer” plot and makes the book feel like two separate stories jammed together.

And when I say that the Hammer of Tyr does everything, I’m not being hyperbolic. It’s a dessert topping and a floor wax! It does point defense for the Temple of Tyr, urban planning for the city of Phlan, saving stranded astral travellers, banishing illusions, destroying undead, and so on. In short, just about every single problem that every character has will be solved by finding this macguffin. The authors lay it on so thick about the hammer being the most important thing in the universe that you can’t help but laugh. The weirdest part is that the authors explicitly link the city’s decline into squalor with the absence of the hammer without bothering to explain why. Apparently there was some sort of bad magic around which drove people evil that the hammer used to protect them from, or something like that, but they don’t bother to mention who, how, or why. It’s a perfunctory and goofy explanation that serves only as another excuse to motivate people to find it. Making an entire city collapse just to make your macguffin seem more important is a bad idea — it adds drama to the characters’ journey by making your setting less convincing, which is a bad trade-off. The city serves as whatever sort of painted backdrop the authors need it to be, rather than a real place with any internal logic. Immediately after the hammer is restored, this happens:

For the first time in recent memory, the tall smokestacks looming over the city no longer belched forth black, sulfurous smoke.

So I guess it’s an air filtration system too.

This book’s plot improves on its predecessors in one way: there’s actually a bit of mystery to it. The others would show you everything from the perspectives of both the heroes and the villains, so there were no surprises for the reader. Here, elements like Listle’s identity, the Hammerwarden, and the pool’s mysterious guardian aren’t explained right away, leaving the reader mildly curious about how they’ll be resolved. I’ll give it credit for that, even if the resolutions for those mysteries sometimes don’t justify the build-up.

The structure is quite strange, however. They complete their big quest around the two-thirds mark, retrieving the Hammer of Tyr and defeating the sinister Hammerwarden who haunted Kern’s dreams, but then instead of immediately returning to Phlan to save everyone, they spend the remaining third of the book hunting for Evaine and the eponymous pool of twilight. It’s cool that you want to help your friend out, buddy, but what about saving your parents, your temple, and your entire city? Maybe, you know, reconsider your priorities a little? Only the presence of the evil sorceress Sirana in both plot sections keeps it from feeling like an entirely unconnected, tacked-on subplot.

There’s a scene that’s lifted directly from Gawain and the Green Knight where Kern and a magic elf guy make a deal to exchange blows with an axe, except without any of the symbolism or metaphor. Perhaps the authors assumed that their teenaged target audience wouldn’t notice the theft because they wouldn’t have read anything so old or literary before. Frankly, I find this sort of thing infuriating. Stealing a scene like that is lazy writing, which is occasionally forgivable. Assuming that your readers are too uneducated to notice is condescending, which is not. And while we’re on the subject of literary theft, how about the “it’s white on this side” bit which they took from Stranger in a Strange Land? Or that bit nicked from The Hobbit where a dragon attacks a city but gets mortally wounded by a lone heroic archer? And how does a wounded dragon crawl all the way from Phlan to the centre of the Dragonspine Mountains anyhow? That’s over one hundred miles. Argh! There are so many little things that annoy me about this plot, I don’t even know where to begin. It feels random, a hodgepodge of borrowed ideas haphazardly glued together, motivated more by what seemed cool to the authors at the time than by any consideration for internal consistency.

Characters

In my review of Pools of Darkness, I mentioned how it was a weaker story than the first book because of the sheer number of protagonists. Pool of Radiance had only three protagonists, which meant that each one got a considerable amount of time for character development. Hell, they didn’t even meet until a quarter of the way into the book — the first part was all backstory and characterization before the main plot got rolling, which let the reader really get to know them. But here we’ve once again got way too many protagonists and point-of-view characters — Shal, Tarl, Ren, Kern, Listle, Miltiades, Daile, Evaine, Gamaliel — and there’s just not enough time in a 300-page mass-market paperback to do them all justice and give them all time to shine. I’ve been noticing that the quality of these novels usually varies in inverse proportion to the number of significant characters. (See Azure Bonds versus Song of the Saurials for another example.) Like good wines, you have to give good characters time to breathe, and there’s just not enough time to go around in this book.

Kern, our divinely foretold hero, is the son of Shal and Tarl, the protagonists of the previous two books. He’s one of my least favourite archetypes for heroes: gormless and naïve, stumbling around the world in a wide-eyed daze and being escorted from situation to situation by his more worldly-wise companions-slash-handlers. I’m fine with inexperienced characters as protagonists, but in order to work they need some sort of agency and motivation, and they need to grow over the course of the novel. Instead Kern’s destiny was fixed before this book even began, and the other characters do most of the work of preparing him, protecting him, and finding the hammer for him. It tries to be Kern’s coming-of-age story, but if everything just happens to him rather than him choosing what he wants, then is he really growing up? It’s not quite as bad as Night Masks in that respect — Kern does make a couple of noteworthy decisions, but they don’t go far enough. They’re obvious, one-sided decisions, like “Should I be a hero or not?”, which don’t make him feel any more well-rounded.

I wrote in my review of Pool of Radiance that it was good to see a character whose faith was an integral part of who they were rather than just a convenient excuse for why someone has magic powers. Unfortunately, that aspect is notably missing here. As a novice paladin, Kern has nominally devoted his entire life to the service of Tyr, god of justice, but it rarely ever motivates his decisions or informs his reactions to situations. The scene where an old man teaches him some paladin powers feels more like Obi-Wan saying “use the Force, Luke” than any sort of religious instruction, and he never does much in the way of soul-searching or religious observance. Why base your plot around having an initiate quest for a holy relic if you’re not going to make religion a significant part of his story? It’s baffling.

Listle, Shal’s elven apprentice, is basically a kender minus the kleptomania — mischievous, irrepressible, annoying, and unfazed by events around her. I think her constant banter with Kern was intended to be witty, but instead it just comes off as irritating in a “pestering little sister” way. It’s very hard to write a character who’s supposed to irritate the other characters without also irritating the reader as well, and I often found myself wishing she’d shut up. Still, I appreciated her backstory as an escapee from a wizard’s laboratory; it’s dribbled out over the course of the novel rather than in one big exposition dump, gives her a history of her own which doesn’t tie into anyone else’s, and makes her the least flat character among Kern’s companions. There’s an interesting character concept in there which could have been explored better if given more space.

In the past twenty-two years, Ren, one of the heroes of the previous novels, got married, had a daughter, then buried his wife. He shows up briefly here, but only adds to the overload of protagonists and doesn’t get much screen time before being unceremoniously removed from the story. You can sum up his entire demeanour, character arc, and motivation with the phrase “I’m too old for this shit.” He deserved a better send-off. His daughter Daile also gets very little time; introduced at the two-fifths mark, she then disappears for a long while before reappearing to be an inessential extra until the end. It would have been very easy to write this book without her in it, so I’m not sure why she’s here. Perhaps the authors were hoping to set her up for some future “Heroes of Phlan: The Next Generation” spin-off novels?

Shal and Tarl are demoted to supporting characters in this one, fighting a losing battle against the random forces of evil which keep threatening Phlan while the other heroes are off hammer-hunting. Shal gets magically curb-stomped and taken out of the story early on, which is probably for the best — it gives Kern a chance to resolve his plot without her help and reduces the number of protagonists by one — but the resulting “now I also need to find the hammer to save my mother” plot thread just adds another implausible power to the already silly magical macguffin. Tarl is more interesting here; he’s lost his sight and starts giving in to despair after his wife’s incapacitation, which is one of the most human bits in the story. Certainly an upgrade from his monster-fighting action hero antics in the previous novel, at least.

The sorceress Evaine returns from Pools of Darkness, but she’s less insufferable this time around. She’s got different goals than the rest of the protagonists, and she doesn’t single-handedly defeat all the major enemies here the way she did in the last book. She gets a few moments of genuine vulnerability, in fact, getting her ass magically kicked more than once and needing help from her friends to survive. Her romance with the undead paladin Miltiades is actually reasonably well-done, based on their similarities of character rather than physical attraction. (Which is good, given that he hasn’t got much of a body left.) In short, she’s much less of a Mary Sue this time around, older and wiser and less irritating.

Sirana, the heroes’ nemesis in this piece, is not quite as bad as the astoundingly awful antagonists from Pools of Darkness. Given that her father is Marcus from the previous book — easily the dumbest and least interesting villain in Forgotten Realms history to date — I wasn’t expecting much from her, and she delivered just enough to meet my low expectations. On the plus side, she’s got sort of a villain power struggle going on with the guardian of the pool of twilight which gives her a two-front battle to fight, and she’s got a personal motivation (revenge for her father’s death) instead of just a generic lust for power. She’s even got a plan that involves personally deceiving the heroes instead of merely flinging monsters at them over and over. However, as is standard for the less subtle of these novels, the good guys always detect the subterfuge right away, instinctively disliking or suspecting the disguised enemy. The only upside is that she at least manages to fool a single one of the heroes, which is better than Porphyrys Cadorna from Pool of Radiance could manage. But it’s a crying shame that she inherited the “excruciating villain dialogue” gene from her father:

“But I have a source of power which I have barely begun to tap. You will never defeat the magic of the pool of twilight! Never!” The half-fiend began to back away from the others. “Vengeance will be mine!”

She has an improbable backstory as a magical prodigy who could do astral travel by the age of nine, but she doesn’t demonstrate enough smarts in the course of the story to live up to that kind of hype. In most respects she’s still a cardboard evil overlord stereotype, lacking in characterization outside of “I’m evil and I like to do evil things.” Still, she’s a less awful villain than either Tyranthraxus or Marcus, so let’s call it a tiny sign of progress.

Themes

“Gods do all the work” might be the main takeaway from this book. A divine prophecy controls the hero’s destiny. The Hammerwarden and the evil wizard’s servitor are destroyed by the power of Tyr rather than being defeated by the characters. Tyr fixes everyone’s problems; humans are powerless to deal with issues like urban decay and magical illnesses, so they have to wait for the gods’ favour to set everything right. Long story short, this book has some serious problems with agency.

Writing

It’s surprisingly bad. The narration is overwrought, to the point where a character doesn’t just put on a gray shirt, he dons “a tunic the color of mist.” Bad grammar choices abound:

Knowledge of this prophecy they had thus far kept from their beloved son.

Metaphors are mercilessly abused:

A smile coiled itself around Sirana’s lips like a small ruby serpent.

The mechanical terminology of the Dungeons & Dragons game intrudes on the writing in an immersion-breaking fashion:

“I’ll grant you that brains have never been a paladin’s primary requisite.”

Characters speak in stilted exposition instead of dialogue:

Before he could wonder what they had been discussing, Tarl spoke exuberantly. “The temple’s sages have been trying to solve the riddle of the hammer for twenty-two years. Are you as curious as I am, Son, to learn if they have discovered an answer at last?”

The first third of the book is an exposition fiesta, in fact. Sometimes it’s long chunks of narration; sometimes it’s characters explaining the events of the previous books to each other in an awkward “as you know” sort of way. It’s frequently not very relevant to the plot of this novel, and reads more like the marketing blurbs from the previous books’ back covers. Here’s a good rule of thumb for authors: if a particular aspect of the backstory doesn’t come up naturally at some point during your plot, it probably doesn’t need to be brought up at all.

All in all, the craft is consistently bad. It gets somewhat less aggravating once the heaps of exposition are out of the way, but it never gets good.

Conclusion

Grade: D

There are occasional moments where it shines, but they’re buried under an avalanche of painful writing and poor characterization, topped by a flimsy plot. It’s not a source of constant pain like the second book was, but that’s damning with faint praise. This makes one suspect that co-author Jane Cooper Hong was responsible for the good character bits in Pool of Radiance, because there weren’t nearly as many in the two novels that she wasn’t involved in. I’m not sorry to see this trilogy go.

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