Pools of Darkness

Author: James Ward and Anne K. Brown
Published: February 1992

As you might expect from someone who started a blog like this, I’ve got a pretty thick skin for bad books. But the intro to Pools of Darkness made my jaw drop on the floor and my brain throw a rod. Never before has an opening scene so thoroughly killed my desire to read a book. I was tempted to just copy and paste the first scene here and use that as the entirety of my review, because there’s really not much I can add to it. The short version: Bane, god of strife, is throwing a childish tantrum. He feels, much like Rodney Dangerfield, that he doesn’t get enough respect (“What does a god have to do to get a little attention down there?”) and needs to be talked down by a bunch of fiends who for some mystifying reason have thick Brooklyn accents. The whole thing plays out like a scene from a sitcom, thoroughly destroying any respect for or engagement with Bane as a villain, and we’re only on page 2. Portraying Bane as an ineffectual lightweight of a villain is nothing new, but I’m impressed at the speed with which they accomplished it here.

This is a sequel to Pool of Radiance, a novel that I regretfully had to give a D grade to. The character work on the protagonists was surprisingly good, but the book was cut off at the knees by a hackneyed plot, weak supporting characters, and a threadbare setting. This time around, I was hoping they’d have learned something from the previous book and put their characters to better use. But it turns out this one isn’t quite by the same set of authors; Jim Ward, legendary D&D tabletop designer, is still involved, and his co-writer is again an editor from TSR who doesn’t seem to have written a novel before, but this time it’s Greyhawk editor Anne K. Brown instead of Jane Cooper Hong. Do they manage to pull the book out of the nosedive it’s in after the first scene and construct a halfway decent plot? Well, here’s a hint: the front cover says “Based on the computer game by SSI.” Brace yourselves.

Plot

Ten years have passed since the previous book. Pools of Darkness returns to the city of Phlan, which is now a thriving metropolis with strong walls, a large and extremely well-trained army, and over a dozen high-level wizards in residence. It seems a little improbable that they accomplished all that in ten years, given that Phlan used to be a shithole whose motto was “Now only 80% overrun by murderous monsters!”, but hey, good for them. And it’s fortunate that they have all this military might, because some random sorcerer has teleported the entire city — including two of our protagonists from the previous book — into a dark cavern deep underground, where it’s being assaulted by armies of evil for… some reason.

Apparently Bane is kidnapping entire cities around the Moonsea region and trying to absorb or corrupt (it’s contradictory) the souls of their inhabitants. It all feels fairly ludicrous — from what we’ve heard about the divine state of affairs, there’s no way one god could directly visit widespread destruction on a vast scale without the dozens and dozens of other gods, some of whom are just as powerful as Bane, directly intervening to oppose him. But apparently they’re all off watching television or something, so now Bane and his minions are opposed by only a handful of mortals. Fortunately Phlan seems to have enough food and fresh water stockpiled to last the entire metropolis for six weeks, so… wait, what? Food, okay, maybe, but did they have a contingency plan for “here’s what we’ll do if the giant river our city is built around vanishes?”

You can practically envision the poor authors in your mind’s eye shrugging at each other and saying “Well, the computer game ran with this goofy plot, so we have to make the best of it.” But there’s no way they’re going to make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear; it’s just too silly.

So Tarl and Shal are left to deal with a mad Bane-worshipping wizard and his unexplained cave-dwelling legions of evil. Meanwhile, Ren (the third protagonist of the previous book) goes on a quest to find them and figure out what happened to the city, accumulating a motley bunch of boon companions in the process. Eventually they find the villain and kick his ass, which comes as no surprise whatsoever, and all remaining loose ends are tied up with an unsatisfying deus ex machina.

I keep harping on how stories with ineffectual villains have no dramatic tension, but this novel is worse in that regard than any I’ve read so far. There is never a single point in the story at which any of the villains seem remotely intelligent or capable, and they spend the entire novel flailing around and defeating themselves without needing any opposition from the heroes. The evil wizard Marcus has somehow assembled an incredibly vast army — twice the size of the entire population of Phlan, apparently, which puts him on par with some entire nations in terms of military might. (How he feeds them, pays them, or houses them is, of course, never mentioned.) Seriously, that’s a titanic army just for conquering a single medium-sized city. Phlan probably has what, 1 guardsman for every 100 residents? The evil army could lose 100 soldiers for every guardsman they kill and still come out comfortably on top through sheer attrition. And yet every time they storm the walls, they somehow get their asses kicked. Some of it can be attributed to Marcus being by far the dumbest Forgotten Realms villain to date — more on that later — but most of it is just that the authors refuse to let any sort of details get in the way of the dramatic battle scenes. The entire plot is just the authors thinking of some sweet scenes they wanted to write and coming up with excuses for those scenes to happen, rather than actually thinking “Hey, what would happen if a city got teleported somewhere?” and working it out from there. The inevitable result is a ludicrous story which burns the reader’s goodwill and immersion immediately.

Themes

There aren’t really any themes to speak of. All the emotional moments in this book are quickly and easily resolved, the characters are too much of a random assortment to share a coherent theme, and the plot is far too wacky. It’s just one scene after another until we reach the merciful end.

Characters

Shal and Tarl from Pool of Radiance are back, now happily married and living comfortably as prominent citizens of Phlan. Sadly, they’re a lot less interesting this time around. In the previous book, Shal was a green apprentice just setting out on her own after witnessing her master’s murder, while also dealing with severe self-esteem and body image issues. Tarl was grappling with questions of faith and his guilt over losing a priceless religious artifact. In short, they had issues. In this book they seem happy and secure, and their only issue is “a mad sorceror has stuck our city in a cavern and thrown monsters at us,” which isn’t a dilemma that does anything for their character development.

Now, I’m not the sort of reader who believes that it’s necessary to torture your characters to make compelling drama. You can have characters who are well-adjusted and still tell interesting stories about them. But characters who have only one problem are only as interesting as that problem, and “monsters attack” is not interesting. In the previous book, they had many different kinds of issues to deal with: internal conflicts, like Shal’s self-esteem or Tarl’s guilt; inter-character drama, where Ren and Tarl were both interested in Shal; external conflicts, like finding Shal’s master’s murderer, recovering Tarl’s hammer, or clearing the city of monsters. There was a lot going on for these characters, and it made them feel well-rounded. Here, though, their only problem is the external conflict of “let’s get out of this monster-filled cavern,” which feels flat by comparison. (There’s a throwaway “I wish we had kids” subplot, but they barely talk about it and it doesn’t motivate anything they do, so it has no emotional resonance.)

Ren, on the other hand, at least has more going on in his life. He’s trying to settle down, but is having weird omen-filled dreams that make him afraid for his friends. When he goes in search of them, he runs across a variety of supporting characters who join his quest for one reason or another, which gives him someone to emote to instead of just wandering the wilderness talking to his horse like he does at the beginning. He’s still headstrong, empathetic, and direct in a way that gets him into entertaining trouble sometimes, but there are so many heroes in this novel — the three from the previous book, plus five new ones — that he doesn’t get much time or attention at all.

Evaine, the sorceress who’s out to destroy the eponymous pool of darkness, gets significantly more screen time than Ren. It’s good to see a character who’s capable, self-reliant, goal-oriented, and worldly in this mess of a novel. She has the most distinct voice of any character in the book, coming off as practical, smart and slightly mistrustful in her dialogue. Unfortunately, she’s also a classic Mary Sue — she’s a pretty girl with a magical panther (sheesh, not again!) who’s a prodigy at magic, has all kinds of esoteric knowledge, is extraordinarily perceptive, always intuits the right thing to do, never makes a mistake, and is so cool that all the other characters are impressed by her. The authors lay it on so thick that it gets hard to take her seriously; it doesn’t quite reach “bad fanfiction” territory, but it veers dangerously close, especially when she’s the one who ends up defeating most of the nontrivial enemies single-handedly.

Authors’ pet aside, the rest of Ren’s new companions are a mixed bag. There’s a pair of druids who are always just as powerful as the scene requires them to be; they don’t get much in the way of characterization, though, and mostly just serve as additional colour. Talenthia gets some decent screen time near the end, but her cousin Andoralson just remains kind of a goober throughout. Both are brought into the story via unsubtle and somewhat cringeworthy divine intervention. Miltiades the undead paladin (not the Athenian general) had a lot of promise with the whole “tortured soul seeking rest” thing, but he doesn’t show up until halfway through the book and gets even less authorial attention than the druids. His role in the group is basically just “the nice guy,” which makes little use of his potentially interesting backstory or motivation. Only Evaine’s shapechanging panther familiar Gamaliel has much in the way of distinct personality — capricious but fiercely loyal, and possessed of a sense of humour.

But this novel has much bigger problems than just some ill-developed protagonists. Marcus, our city-teleporting evil wizard, is quite possibly the worst villain I’ve ever seen in any book. He’s arrogant, short-sighted, fails miserably at every single thing we see him do, and serves as an unwitting puppet in the schemes of his equally incapable infernal handlers. In every single one of his scenes, he’s alienating his allies by being an asshole or sabotaging his own efforts by being a self-absorbed idiot. (Often both at once.) How did someone this aggressively, breathtakingly incompetent ever survive long enough to become a powerful wizard? The reader is forced to wonder why the heroes are even in this book — it’s clear that, if left to his own devices, Marcus would destroy his entire empire single-handedly without any outside interference. There’s not even anything redeeming about him personality-wise; he’s just a fountain of the usual Evil Overlord dialogue clichés, sans backstory or motivations. This character disappoints on every possible level.

It’s instructional to compare him to Akar Kessell from The Crystal Shard. Both are wannabe evil overlords who are poster children for the Dunning-Kruger effect: simultaneously arrogant and incompetent. Both of them are mediocre wizards given power by some external force to make their sad little dreams a reality. But Kessell’s story actually has some pathos and character development to it, where he’s a weak little man who’s corrupted by the crystal shard’s malevolent intelligence and gradually gets turned into its helpless slave. It’s not well-executed, but you can see what Salvatore was trying to do with it, and you feel a bit sorry for Kessell even though you know he’s a jerk. And he’s not even the main villain, since the shard itself is the primary menace and motivating force of the story. Marcus, on the other hand, is a completely static character throughout the entire book, never learning anything or being changed by his experiences. The heroes all think he’s a loser. His own allies think he’s a loser. The reader thinks he’s a loser. Nobody feels any emotion for him that isn’t some variety of contempt. Hell, even the authors seem to hate him. And they can’t play the “pawn of evil powers” card very well because the forces he’s made a deal with (Bane and some devils) are also incompetent idiots. The “deal with the devil” stuff just serves as a weak handwave to explain why a random person we’ve never heard of before now has a world-disrupting degree of power.

The devils in question feel like a waste of perfectly good characters, too. They could have been the creepy “power behind the throne” characters who are using our ineffectual evil overlord wannabe as a figurehead. They could have been masters of temptation and corruption who tricked a hapless fool to his doom. They could have been the orchestrators of this plot. I wish they’d been anything other than what we got, because what we got was just a bunch of dumb mooks. Tanetal, the pit fiend, opens the story by attacking Phlan and getting his ass handed to him by a bunch of wizards, so we’re unimpressed with his abilities from the very get-go. He’s got some sort of evil plan to double-cross Bane and eat a bunch of souls, but the reader never gets sold on him being capable of double-crossing a golden retriever, let alone an evil god, because he never accomplishes anything successfully. [1] There’s an erinyes who’s just there to add a dash of sexiness to the bad guys, and a few abishai as mindless mooks. All of them serve Marcus directly, without any agency to influence or prevent his constant stupid decisions. As immortal masters of evil go, they’re about as underwhelming as can be.

The only relatable villain is one who’s barely even in the novel: Lord Bartholomew, an ambitious, officious bureaucrat who’s willing to abandon Phlan to its fate if it means he gets to rule over the wretched refugees who are trying to build a new city on the site. He only gets one scene, but his evil is a kind of sneering callousness that works on a human level, rather than melodramatic cartoon wickedness.

On the plus side, there are a handful of supporting characters like the gruff city guardsmen and the people of New Phlan who provide the peasant’s-eye view of what our heroes are up to. None of them get much in the way of development or time, but moments like that are good for giving context to the story, even if it still feels like the heroes are the centre of the universe here. And at least most of the minor characters get names now — Pool of Radiance wasn’t great about that.

Writing

Characters are inordinately fond of talking to themselves to explain their motivations to the reader or to reveal details that the authors couldn’t work into the story in any more natural way. All these monologues, most of which are front-loaded at the beginning of the book, are blatantly clunky violations of “show, don’t tell.” Most of that narration-by-character is just recapping things that happened in the previous book, a good three-quarters of which aren’t relevant to this book’s story in the first place. If you cut out all the “talking to himself” or “talking to an animal/inanimate object” bits, the reader would barely notice they were missing.

Ren’s plot thread was marred by a couple of scenes where he and his companions would debate what to do next in a way that added nothing to the story. Watching characters argue about “Should we do X or Y?” is a waste of time if you don’t give the reader any information about either X or Y that would give them context about the problem or make them care. Otherwise, it has all the dramatic tension of watching someone decide “Should I have bacon or sausage with my eggs this morning?”

The battle scenes are often perfunctory, like at the end when Ren and his friends mow down literally hundreds of skeletons and zombies with no apparent danger to themselves. It’s as if the authors were allergic to dramatic tension in all its forms. Having your protagonists monotonously pile their foes’ corpses like cordwood doesn’t make them look like badasses — it just makes their foes look like useless chumps.

The dialogue for the heroes is acceptable. The villains, on the other hand…

“With the forces we now command, we can’t lose. The pathetic citizens of Phlan will soon know what it is to have their lives ripped from their grasp.” Marcus laughed an evil, grating howl.

Oh, come on! What is with this cut-rate Ming the Merciless shit? Why do authors persist in thinking that this sort of dialogue makes their villains intimidating or memorable? This guy just sounds like a first-year drama student who’s chewing the scenery. The scariest villains in literature are the least theatrical, because theatricality makes your world feel less like a real place and more like a cheap sound stage you’ve constructed for your actors to strut around in.

Conclusion

Grade: F

I wavered between D– and F for this one, but the nonsensical, unsatisfying plot and the truly atrocious villains who ruin every scene they’re in pushed me over the line. There are a couple of little good moments, but they’re not nearly enough to redeem all the awkward and awful parts. It’s pretty much the quality you’d expect from a video game tie-in novel.

Footnotes


[1] He also has the odd verbal tic of repeating his own name backwards at the end of every sentence like some sort of bizarro Pokémon. Boy, does that ever get old fast.

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