Prophet of Moonshae

Author: Douglas Niles
Published: March 1992

Well, all good things have to come to an end eventually. There was a long stretch of no books written by Douglas Niles for a while, but now he’s back with another trilogy focusing on more shenanigans in the Moonshae Isles. I can’t say I was looking forward to it, given that he’s the author of one of the only two books I’ve ever awarded an F grade to thus far. I started looking forward to it even less when I saw that the dedication on this book was to Jim Ward, author of the other book I’ve given an F to. Not a great sign.

Let’s start by summarizing the general plot outline of every Niles story thus far, then see if he’s actually managed to deviate from it this time. An evil god — doesn’t matter which one, just pick one at random or make one up — decides to wreck some peaceful, nature-loving place with no particular goal in mind besides “hey, let’s do some evil,” so he sends a bunch of random B-movie monsters. A bland, somewhat dim leading man and his female love interest (who’s severely lacking in agency) are the subject of ambiguous prophecies by a friendly god about defeating this evil. They’re dragged about by various forms of divine intervention from one situation to the next until everything culminates in an unsatisfying fashion.

Okay, let’s see. Very first scenes: Talos, the god of storms, is getting a dracolich and some fish-men to wreck a peaceful, nature-loving place for no apparent reason. After a few minutes of reading, three separate characters have received divine portents and omens. Oh, Christ. We’re really going to do this same plot a third time? I don’t know if I can handle it. And once again, the divine portents are as vague and useless as they can possibly be:

Is it the power of the goddess, somehow miraculously resurgent? Or the presence of evil, once again threatening these shores? I cannot say for certain.

Of course you can’t! Why would we want to give the reader any useful information about the plot or setting? Instead the gods seem to have it all figured out, but don’t communicate anything helpful to the characters — or, often, to the readers — even when it would be in their best interests to do so.

Plot

Talos, god of storms, has decided to destroy the Moonshae Isles by getting the Ffolk and the northmen to make war upon each other. Boy, the Moonshaes really have a thing for improbable gods deciding to show up and wreck their shit for no reason at all, don’t they? This might make a tiny bit of sense if we were talking about the god of war, or the god of strife, or the god of having poorly defined motivations (it’s a huge pantheon, so there’s probably one), but we’re talking about the god of bad weather here. It seems he decided that he was feeling annoyed with some islands today, so he’s summoning a whole horde of monsters and servitors to destroy them. Like Bhaal in the original trilogy, he’s just an arbitrary authorial excuse for bad things happening that will get our heroes in motion.

Tristan and Robyn, the protagonists of the original Moonshae trilogy, have been unceremoniously shuffled off to make room for a new stable of characters. This time around, it’s their daughters who are discovering their divinely ordained destinies — naturally, we can’t have any significant characters in this novel who don’t have a capital-D Destiny.

Meanwhile, some minions of the evil god have been fomenting yet another war between the Ffolk and the northmen, and the fish-men are coming back for revenge after their defeat in the previous trilogy, and the evil god has created a creepy monster to attack the Isles, and a dark wizard acting as an advisor to an evil nobleman is the brains behind it all. The heroes, armed with relics of the ancient king Cymrych Hugh, have to protect the Earthmother’s threatened holy places. If this all sounds to you like a straightforward rehash of the previous trilogy’s plot elements, well, you’re not wrong. With the sole exception of the “evil sister” thread, I’m really struggling to find anything original plot-wise in this book that isn’t recycled from the Moonshae trilogy. It even wraps up with a disappointing deus ex machina where the protagonists are facing certain death but a god solves their problem for them, just like in Black Wizards.

Themes

It certainly bears the (possibly unintentional) theme that runs through all of Niles’ work: “Gods are dicks.” The humans here would be a lot better off if the gods would stop screwing with them and meddling in their affairs. And as in the first trilogy, environmental problems are another clear theme. The balance of nature is disrupted by the absence of the Earthmother goddess. Talos is steadily destroying the islands’ ecosystem and economy with constant harsh weather. A greedy nobleman is rapidly destroying the natural environment of his earldom by mining for gold. But I wrote of Darkwell that the environmental message “is handled with all the nuanced subtlety of FernGully,” and that’s not gotten a whit better here. Bad people do bad things to the environment, while good people are all about nature and the nature goddess. It’s heavy-handed in an early-1990s “let’s all celebrate Earth Day” kind of way.

The one theme I did like, though, was the conflict between the traditions of the now-deceased Earthmother goddess and the needs of the Moonshaes’ modern society. The Earthmother’s druids are powerless but still respected and culturally significant, and the plot is kicked off by a conflict over whether to dig up one of her former holy places to mine for gold there. It’s the one conflict in the book that has the potential not to be purely black-and-white — the kingdom needs that gold to prop up its faltering economy and feed its citizens, but is it worth sacrificing a culturally and historically significant piece of the Isles’ traditions? Unfortunately, the interesting dilemma is immediately undermined (sorry) by having the gold mining faction be a bunch of clownishly evil jerks, and the Earthmother turns out to be not so dead after all, so it gets quickly reframed in terms of “good versus evil.” A pity.

Strangely, this feels less like a Forgotten Realms novel than any of the other books I’ve read so far. Nothing makes sense in the context of the world that we’re familiar with. Dracoliches are being created by gods instead of by the Cult of the Dragon. Gods are giving people arcane magic rather than divine magic. Talos has gone from being a weather god who indulges in occasional fits of berserk rage to some sort of big bad evil supergod who plots and plans. Priests of Helm are venal and wicked rather than serious and duty-minded. (Between this and the Maztica trilogy, I really don’t get what Niles has against Helm.) A medium-level mage fights off a dracolich single-handedly, instead of being torn to minute shreds. It feels like the expectations of the setting are being discarded for the sake of telling this unsatisfying story the way the author wanted it told, and that’s a pity.

Characters

You know, I get the feeling that Niles doesn’t actually like his characters all that much. He’s got this story he wants to tell about wars and gods fighting each other, and he knows that characters are a thing that novels are supposed to have, but he doesn’t seem to know how to use them to tell a story. For instance, let’s take a particular scene from the beginning of this novel which typifies the style of all his books thus far. Alicia and her friends are sent to visit a Moonwell. She gets a divine revelation from seeing it and feels as if some force has commanded her to stay there for the night, so they do. A golem attacks them in the night and kicks their asses, non-fatally incapacitating everyone, but just when things are clearly hopeless, the golem is defeated by the divine power of the Earthmother, who then completely heals the injured characters for good measure. At no point in this scene do they make a decision or take an action on their own that’s actually effective. Look, if your characters are constantly directed by the gods and saved from danger by the gods, and they never accomplish anything for themselves, they’re not characters — they’re mere sock puppets. It doesn’t matter how much characterization you put into them if they’re useless at everything. This has been a grave issue with every book Niles has written so far, and this one is no exception.

Subtlety is a foreign concept in the characterization here. There are two sisters; the good one is fair-skinned and blond-haired, and the evil one is a sullen, introverted black-haired girl. [1] (Basically the fantasy equivalent of a goth teen.) The evil nobleman is obviously evil from his very first appearance, is named “Blackstone” to ensure that he sounds vaguely sinister, and lives in a polluted hell-hole of a province. He has two sons, a moronic sociopath and an obviously nice guy. Everyone is exactly what they seem, character-wise, because apparently it would be a problem if the reader didn’t immediately know whom to root for. The good people instantly recognize that the bad people are evil, so they can’t be deceived or misled. Nobody’s arc changes their characterization in any significant way.

But hey, at least the protagonist is a lady this time! I certainly won’t complain about that. Alicia, the daughter of Tristan and Robyn from the previous trilogy, has turned out to be the next generation’s divinely mandated Chosen One. She may have all the narrative agency of a cow in a chute, but that’s standard for characters in Niles’ novels and not a gender-specific thing. Unlike her mother, she’s the primary focus of the story rather than a tagalong character.

Unfortunately, just like every female protagonist in a Douglas Niles novel, she’s also a completely passive love interest to everyone she meets. As with Robyn and Erixitl, Alicia gets fawned over by every young man she meets without any action or involvement on her part, being completely oblivious to their attentions all the while. It’s a rubbish approach to writing romance, frankly. Her inability to pick up on all the romantic intentions being thrown her way makes her look somewhat empty-headed, and the men don’t get any character development or conflict out of it — they just moon and occasionally snark at each other. Worst of all, it has nothing to do with anything she does or desires; it’s just something that happens to her whether she wants it to or not, which just further highlights how little agency she has in this story.

She’s also got the unmistakeable whiff of the Mary Sue about her. She’s noble, beautiful, kind, and compassionate, with nothing in the way of character flaws. All the good people in the story instinctively love her and shill for her. She never makes any mistakes — but then, it’s hard to when you don’t get to make many meaningful decisions in the first place. Her perceptions of the world always line up with reality. In short, she feels like a placeholder where an actual character should be, because it’s difficult to create interesting drama around a character that idealized.

There are a few returning characters. Newt, the faerie dragon sidekick from the previous trilogy, is still just as annoying as ever; fortunately, his Jar-Jar Binks-style antics get much less screen time here than in some of the previous Moonshae books. Tavish the bard shows up, but her role seems to be limited to spouting historical exposition and telling the reader how great Alicia is. Yak the firbolg is the best of the lot — he was just a random big dumb side character in the original novels, but has more depth now that he’s grown into the role of an unusually thoughtful firbolg clan leader.

The titular prophet is yet another sock puppet for the gods who spouts vague omens at the drop of a hat, yet does nothing at all to advance the plot. In theory he’s mysterious, but in practice he’s just not interesting enough for the reader to care who he is — he never does anything besides heavy-handed foreshadowing and has no apparent personality. I suspect the only reason he’s in the narrative at all is because the author came up with the title first and then needed to invent a character who would justify it.

Writing

To give credit where credit is due, it’s significantly less terrible than his previous work. The writing won’t win any awards, but it gets the job done without the sort of grievous howlers that his earlier books had. I guess if you write the same book seven times, you get some decent practice at it.

That’s not to say it’s good, mind you. There are still plenty of sentences that stagger around in a fog and completely miss their point until a period finally shows up several lines later to put them to a merciful end:

As usual, dawn was an obscure moment in the dark, gray hours of early morning, yet Deirdre sensed it was just at that moment she awakened.

Come on, buddy. “Dierdre woke at dawn” is all you had to say there. All the other words in that sentence are wasted.

Conclusion

Grade: D

The reason this review took so long to write is that I had a very hard time working up the enthusiasm to plow through this book. I’m trying so hard to find things to like in it, honestly. But it just feels like yet another Douglas Niles novel, following his usual template to a T. We’ve swapped out the leading man for a leading lady and improved the writing quality a bit, but the plot is the same, defects and all. If the second book in this trilogy is just another rehash of the same material, I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish it — it wasn’t that great the first time, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to choke down the seventh time around.

Footnotes


[1] Given that the book’s target market was teenage D&D players in the 1990s, doesn’t it seem a bit odd to make the good sister the popular, athletic blonde and the bad sister the introverted, scholarly, quiet one? Not exactly playing to your audience there.

2 Replies to “Prophet of Moonshae

  1. I feel like the next book that might be actually good is Prince of Lies, based on my vague memories, so you’ve got a ways to go to get there. Power through and hope for some nice surprises along the way!

    1. Thank you! I don’t mind reading bad books, as you might imagine from someone who voluntarily undertook this task. As long as they’re bad in interesting ways that make for good review material, it’s kind of fun to savage them. What gets me about Niles’ work is that this felt like the same bad book I’ve already read more than once before.

      I’ve already started reading In Sylvan Shadows, so hopefully it won’t be as long a wait for the next installment. I appreciate the kind words!

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