Prince of Lies

Author: James Lowder
Published: August 1993

Prince of Lies strikes out in a new direction from the usual Forgotten Realms novel template: a book entirely about the Realms’ giant pantheon of gods and their machinations, where the gods themselves are the main characters. I have to admit that I was deeply skeptical about the concept. Previous Forgotten Realms books have a terrible track record for portraying gods; they’re generally either childish jerks or devoid of meaningful characterization. Will this be more of the same, or will we see a fresh take on the whole concept of divinity? Well… let’s just say that the fortunate thing about having low expectations is how easy it is to be pleasantly surprised.

Plot

I try to avoid giving too many plot spoilers for the books I like, so I’ll make this section brief. Cyric, the newly-minted god of Murder, Strife, and Death, is mad as a rabid dog. In between attempts to produce a mind-altering book which will transform its readers into his slavish worshipers, he’s killing other gods for sport. Meanwhile, his old companion Midnight, having taken up the mantle of Mystra, the goddess of Magic, is trying to stop him. Those are the broad strokes, but the story is spread across a large cast of characters in a variety of locations both mortal and divine. It starts in an unassuming fashion, with the gods arguing over the fate of one lost soul, but the stakes gradually ratchet up over the course of the novel until both Zhentil Keep and Cyric’s City of the Dead are threatened with destruction. The conflicts in this book run the gamut from physical combat to courtroom maneuvers to mental struggles, with no Salvatorean battles that run on for chapter after chapter. All of the characters’ stories tie into the main plot in some way, with no dangling threads or boring digressions. It’s refreshing to read such a well-constructed story.

During breaks from all the intra-pantheon intrigue we see the stories of several of the mortals who get caught up in the conflict and become collateral damage. I particularly appreciated those parts; as with Crusade, seeing the same conflict from the point of view of both the important people and the common folk who are most affected by it makes it feel much more real to the reader. Gwydion’s arc in particular, from mercenary to damned soul to Cyric’s puppet to firebrand revolutionary, lets us see much of the plot through human eyes and shows first-hand the damage that Cyric causes wherever he goes.

Not that it’s perfect, mind you; I’ve got a handful of plot-related nitpicks. For instance, the more I think about it, the less sense the Cyrinishad plot makes in the context of a world where books have to be arduously copied and illuminated by hand, and where only one scribe in four hundred is even capable of making a successful copy. What an extraordinarily inefficient way to control minds! What’s he going to do, sit everyone in the world down in front of the one copy of the book? If he were really thinking ahead, he would have gone with magical Chick Tracts, something you can print thousands of and then have griffon riders air-drop over cities.

I was particularly pleased with the scene at the beginning where the gods petition Ao, their abusive overlord, for help dealing with Cyric. The conversation basically goes like this:

“Daaaaaaaaaad! Cyric’s being evil again! Make him stop!”

“Shut the hell up, you damn fool kids! Of course he’s evil — that’s his job! Now go away and let Daddy enjoy his gin and tonic in peace.”

It’s a nice “raising the stakes” moment that lets you know from the very beginning that this plot isn’t going to be wrapped up with a deus ex machina; they’re on their own, and if they want Cyric dealt with, they’ll have to do it themselves.

One plot element that really didn’t land well was the whole “Godsbane has secretly been an avatar of Mask, god of intrigue, ever since the original Avatar trilogy” bit. How does that make any sense? Why would Mask be the only god to incarnate himself as an object during the Time of Troubles, when all the others took on mortal forms? It’s not like you can do much intrigue when you’re an inanimate object that just sits there. Why would he be a sword? He’s not a god of assassins or war, he’s the god of being sneaky. Is it just a ridiculous coincidence that, stripped of his divine powers and at the whim of blind luck, he happened to pass from hand to hand until he ended up owned by one of two mortals in the entire world who would go on to become a god? It certainly wasn’t something he could have planned, because at that point he was de-powered and Cyric was just some random human. Like the “Han shot first” controversy from Star Wars, it took something that already worked just fine in the original — a delightfully creepy, sentient, blood-drinking sword — and grafted layers of nonsense on top, spoiling what made it good in the first place.

Characters

After a god-killing rampage, Cyric, the titular Prince of Lies, is now the god of Strife, Tyranny, Death, Murder, and Deception. He’s an excellent character with everything that a good villain needs: he’s got a goal that makes sense for him, he drives the plot forward by constantly taking concrete steps to achieve that goal, and his actions demonstrate his character at every turn. The character in question is that of the multiverse’s biggest solipsist:

She saw for a moment the world from the eyes of the Lord of the Dead… The Pavilion of Cynosure had no other features, the gods and goddesses no faces or forms. They spoke with Cyric’s own voice, and their words came to him as unruly comments from his own mind. He was utterly alone.

He’s a cackling megalomaniac, sure, but unlike the megalomaniacal idiots from novels like Pools of Darkness or Canticle, that’s not all he’s got going for him. He’s got a vivid personality, including a snide, sardonic sense of humour, a low cunning, and a bloodthirsty streak a mile wide. Best of all, when he begins to go mad, it’s not the usual cartoon madness of crazy villains in bad drama. You see his gradual disintegration first-hand, so it feels like the inevitable outcome of his situation. It all adds up to a compelling villain who ruthlessly drives the plot forward and steals every scene he’s in.

Midnight, the heroic mage from the Avatar trilogy, returns as the replacement goddess of magic after the last one got killed off during the Time of Troubles. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to have been changed by godhood at all; she’s still the same old Midnight from the previous trilogy, but with vast cosmic powers. I understand that we needed a human’s-eye view of the godly characters to make them comprehensible to the reader, but this seems like a poor way to do it. I would have loved to see her lose her humanity in some way: loss of perspective, loss of sympathy, loss of morality, something to make her seem both more and less than merely a human who can now think multiple thoughts at the same time. (More on this in a bit.)

Gwydion, the damned soul turned into a Cyric-serving automaton, is a great side character. He covers a wide range of emotions throughout the book: loss, despair, hopelessness, rage, and finally genuine redemption. Most of his story is spent bouncing pinball-like from one horrible situation to the next, but that just makes it all the more satisfying when he finally regains his agency and gets to go on a rampage. By the end of the book, I wanted to hear the rest of his story.

Sadly, Rinda, the 398th scribe who’s forced into attempting to write the Cyrinishad, doesn’t come off as well. Like Gwydion, she’s used as a pawn by various factions and gods; unlike him, she never gets any agency or control over her own destiny, and ends up exiled from her home and saddled with a responsibility she never asked for. She’s aware of her situation and gives her ostensible allies some cutting “the reason you suck” speeches over it, but in the end she doesn’t amount to anything more than a tool for greater powers. It’s hardly surprising — that’s the likeliest scenario for mortals who get mixed up in divine machinations — but it’s not nearly as much fun to read about.

There are occasional cameos by characters from Lowder’s other books, like Kaverin Ebonhand from The Ring of Winter or the orc captain Vrakk from Crusade. Vrakk particularly enlivens the handful of scenes he’s in, fooling people Columbo-style by pretending to be an idiot while fomenting a rebellion under their noses. (I particularly love the scene where he goes to a Punch and Judy-esque puppet show describing the events of the Avatar trilogy, and wish more authors would dare to depict what popular culture in a fantasy world would look like.)

Themes

Simply put, “the gods must be crazy.” It’s a good theme, and deserves some explanation.

The complaint I was expecting to have about this book, just as with all of its predecessors, is that the gods were too human. Indeed, for the first fifth or so, they seem little more than self-important mortals:

The Prince of Lies smiled and gestured to Jergal. “Pen and parchment,” he said impatiently. He took the items that appeared in the seneschal’s gloved hands and scribbled a lengthy note.

So not only do we have a god in his own throne room writing a note on pen and paper the way you’d write a shopping list, but he has to ask someone else to give it to him. What’s the point of being a greater power if you’re not even powerful enough to make a pen appear? Or a pre-written note? Or to magically transfer the information to someone with your vast reserves of divine power? Sheesh.

I have little patience for stories where the gods are indistinguishable from powerful humans. If you anthropomorphize them too much, everything that makes them seem divine and special is lost in the process. It leads to the inevitable conclusion that the Athar were right: sure, gods may be exceptionally powerful creatures, but what makes them divine? How do they differ from mortals in anything but magnitude of power?

Fortunately, Prince of Lies picks up this problem and runs with it, redeeming itself by the end. You see through Mystra’s eyes how the nature of divinity is, in a sense, to be completely barking mad. Each of the gods has a worldview that’s completely defined by their duties, and is congenitally unable to even conceive of the viewpoints of the other gods. Each individual god does what they do not because it’s their job, or because they enjoy it, but rather because they’re incapable of seeing the world in any other way. In short, gods are madmen and each one’s mania is their specific portfolio. I loved the scene in the lunatic asylum where Midnight explains this to Adon; it gets the point across so cleverly that it made me grin as I read it. You almost feel sorry for the gods when you consider their inability to become anything other than what they are, since even the lowliest mortal has more capacity for change and growth than they. Unfortunately, this applies to every god except Mystra. Midnight’s ability to retain a human perspective makes her special, but paradoxically, her character would have been a lot more interesting with less humanity.

I’d love to see more Forgotten Realms authors run with this depiction of godhood, which gives the gods a delightfully alien feel. Alas, I suspect that everyone else is going to keep writing them as powerful, slightly dim humans and I’ll continue to be annoyed.

Another good theme here might be “truth is relative.” There’s a great back-and-forth here between excerpts from the Cyrinishad, the magically brainwashing history of Cyric’s rise to power, and excerpts from Oghma’s “true” version of his life. Both describe the same events in Cyric’s life but from vastly different perspectives: one depicts the mortal Cyric as a messianic master of his own destiny, the other paints him as a pathetic little thug. Both are propaganda of a sort, but Oghma’s version is likely to be much closer to the truth. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the truth of Cyric’s life was — it only matters what people believe of him.

Writing

As I’d expect from a James Lowder book, the quality of the writing is noticeably better than that of the other books I’ve been slogging through recently. The narration uses an extensive vocabulary correctly, characters speak in naturalistic dialogue, and scenes are peppered with small, relevant details which make them come alive. The quality is occasionally uneven, though, particularly in the Cyrinishad bits. Those passages are deliberately written in a purple style, but cross the line into just plain bad sometimes:

In the mortal realms, the corrupting corpses reneged their challenges to his greatness with silent screams and faces frozen in terror.

They what now? But on the plus side, it looks like Lowder was able to give the Code of Ethics the slip here; this book actually contains the word “prostitute”, which is a record-setting first after an endless succession of veiled innuendoes and euphemisms around sex and sex workers. It’s about time, too — you can’t really describe the grim streets of an urban hellhole like Zhentil Keep without sex work at least being mentioned in passing.

Speaking of which, I have to give the author credit for the excellent place descriptions in this book. The action ranges across a wide swath of the Planes — Cyric’s nightmarish citadel, the shadowy alleys of Mask’s domain, Oghma’s Borgesian library, et cetera — and some of the Realms, mostly the filthy slums of Zhentil Keep. All these locations feel very distinct, and are described vividly enough that they stand out in your memory after you finish the book. It’s tricky to find the right balance for descriptive prose. On the one hand, you can fail with bare-bones “They were in a room” sort of brevity; on the other, there’s Scott Ciencin-style “describe every unimportant thing in excruciating detail” logorrhea. Instead Prince of Lies handles the place descriptions deftly, giving you enough description at the beginning of a scene to get your imagination started, then filling out the rest while the scene plays out by describing the characters interacting with the environment.

You can tell that this was published in the awkward interregnum between the AD&D 1st Edition Manual of the Planes and Planescape. All the planes still have their 1st Edition names (Hades, Nirvana, Concordant Opposition, etc.), but it describes demons and devils as “tanar’ri” and “baatezu”. Boy, am I ever glad we’re no longer in the silly period when Dungeons & Dragons writers were forbidden to use the words “demon” and “devil”…

Conclusion

Grade: A–

I have nitpicks, sure. There are some plot elements, like Godsbane, that don’t make sense. There are some characterizations, like Midnight’s, which don’t work very well. But the writing is vivid and solidly crafted, the vast majority of the characters burst off the page in an entertaining manner, and the gradual escalation of the plot kept me hooked, looking forward to seeing what would happen next. Best of all, it’s the first time that a Forgotten Realms author has done a good job of using gods as characters, and I’m always happy to reward that kind of innovation. It makes me curious about Crucible, the next and final book in the Avatar series, but there’s going to be a long wait on that one; it wasn’t published until 1998, five years later, so I’m not likely to be reviewing it any time soon.

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