Author: Various authors
Published: December 1994
Another anthology is upon us! The last collection of short stories had a “heroism” theme going on, so Realms of Infamy breaks things up by swinging to the opposite pole: tales of black-hearted villains doing nasty deeds. A promising theme, at first glance — the Realms has no shortage of potentially interesting villains, and it’s always easier to characterize a villain than a do-gooder hero type.
But the real reason that I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this one is that TSR has finally gotten around to employing several new authors to write Realms material. Most of them have written novels for TSR before in other settings like Ravenloft and Dragonlance, and are now getting their first crack at writing in the Realms. Denise Vitola had a sci-fi book published by TSR’s publishing arm a couple years earlier, but had no prior published fantasy work that I can find, and this seems to have been the beginning of Barb Hendee’s writing career. So do these newcomers bring a fresh set of voices to familiar material, or are they just new line cooks churning out the same old dishes? Let’s find out, starting with…
Ed Greenwood, “So High a Price”
What do we have here? A would-be tyrant has amassed a cadre of loyal followers and is using them to intimidate the government into giving him supreme authority, claiming that their country is beset by sinister (invented) threats which only he can protect them from. Hah! Good thing this is a fantasy story, and such a thing could never happen in real life.
Anyhow, it’s about the rise of Manshoon and the Zhentarim in Zhentil Keep, told as a heavy-handed allegory for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. The difference here is that Manshoon doesn’t manage to become the city’s sovereign after all; he’s thwarted by a disguised Elminster, who teaches him to amass power subtly and cautiously rather than resorting to open dictatorship. This didn’t quite land for me because Manshoon doesn’t come off as the kind of person who takes lessons well. If a beholder tells an ambitious sociopath “We don’t want you to take over the city”, I don’t expect he’d say “Oh, okay. I guess I’ll chill out, then.” The lesson I’d expect him to take away is “I need to invest in some good anti-beholder weaponry before my next attempt to take over the city.”
The writing is very stereotypically Greenwoodian, all antique diction peppered with some “ye”s and “thy”s, and occasionally veers into hilarious territory:
“When next you speak in council, we shall be there. Yet know this, Lordling: unless you and your minions take greater care, a day of harm may soon come to you all.”
A day of harm? Oof. Those critiques aside, it’s not too bad. Elminster gets a couple of good scenes with the slowly dying former leader of Zhentil Keep, and Lord Chess brings a victim’s-eye view to the proceedings that’s much more interesting than just watching Manshoon be sociopathic. It all ends in a big Michael Bay-style magic battle during a government meeting gone terribly wrong, with explosions and dragons and whatnot. A promising start.
Elaine Cunningham, “The More Things Change”
“The More Things Change” is a series of vignettes about my personal favourite Realms villain to date: Elaith Craulnober, the protagonists’ murderous foil from Elfshadow and Elfsong. He starts out as a idealistic, law-abiding young elf lord, ends up disgraced and exiled, and finally tries to keep his daughter from ending up like him. Unfortunately, the montage format doesn’t really work. There’s just not enough space in this several-page-long story to flesh out three very different periods in his life, so it feels incredibly rushed. The last section in particular feels like a tacked-on afterthought, with three characters present but only a single line of dialogue.
This would have worked better if Cunningham had focused on one of these three time periods instead of trying to cover his entire life. If the middle section — exiled Elaith trying to make a place for himself in the human society of Waterdeep and losing his morals in the process — had been expanded into a full-fledged story, it would have been much more compelling. This is why short stories are so hard to write compared to novels: you have to ruthlessly focus on a small scope, and every single sentence has to push forward the plot, the setting, the character development, or some combination thereof. You don’t have time for extraneous detours or padding or secondary themes. The “I don’t want my daughter to end up like me” angle is great, and might have made a good subject for a novella or novel, but there’s just not enough space to cover Elaith’s entire life story here without losing that laser focus that a great short story requires.
Barb Hendee, “The Meaning of Lore”
I’m still trying to make heads or tails of this plot. A venal, conceited loremaster comes to a small city ruled by a violent warlord and flaunts his intellectual and cultural superiority over the inhabitants. His goal is to become respected and important by building a college — because, as any college professor will tell you, academia is a sure-fire route to vast wealth and power. He plans to murder another scholar to steal his books so that he can get smarter, because the more history he knows, the more people will respect him.
How would Teelo [the violent warlord] reward a loremaster who knew more archaic history than any other priest on the continent? What would he pay to keep such a prized scholar within the walls of Rysheos? Yes, in Rysheos, such a loremaster could have anything he desired.
While reading this, I was reminded of the Invader Zim episode where Zim reasons that since humans have organs, then logically having more organs must make him more human, so he turns himself into a bloated flesh-sack full of organ meat. It’s the same basic fallacy, except it’s actually being played straight here.
Anyhow, most of the story is Chane, the loremaster, running around a labyrinth and trying not to die after his murder plot goes predictably awry. It ends with a tidy moral that he manages to take the wrong lesson away from, which was probably the best way this odd little story could have ended.
Elaine Bergstrom, “Raven’s Egg”
You can tell that Elaine Bergstrom got her start with TSR by writing a Ravenloft novel, because “Raven’s Egg” is every inch the classic gothic horror tale. A mad, paranoid Sembian nobleman becomes irrationally jealous and suspects the neighbouring gentry of trying to steal his wealth and wife. In the end he’s hoisted by his own petard, undone by his own scheme for revenge gone terribly wrong. It’s written in an epistolary style, with Lord Sharven’s disembodied spirit setting down the tragic tale of his undoing in a manner which makes clear that he’s learned nothing from the experience.
I found it quite well-crafted: the vivid description of the treacherous streets of Saerloon, the matter-of-fact way Sharven chronicles his own descent into amorality and eventual madness, the clockwork inevitability of his self-destruction. It’s self-consciously aping the stereotypical gothic horror style of the 1800s, but it succeeds in imitating its source material effectively enough that I don’t mind the unoriginality. Bergstrom would go on to write another Ravenloft novel — I wonder if I’ll ever get around to reviewing those? — but this was her only contribution to the Realms. Not bad at all.
R.A. Salvatore, “The Third Level”
It wouldn’t be a proper Forgotten Realms anthology without stories from Greenwood, Cunningham, and Salvatore, after all. This time we get the story of how fourteen-year-old Artemis Entreri kills his first victim, becomes a member of a Calimport thieves’ guild, and defeats a hated rival through trickery. I appreciated seeing some of Entreri’s background, since we’ve never gotten to hear his side of the story in any of the Drizzt novels. His pragmatically murderous mindset is explained (though not excused) by a childhood of constant abuse, where he had to carve himself out a safe space on the streets of Calimport with ruthless violence.
Frankly, this sort of thing makes me very nervous. You have to be very careful when introducing woobie elements to an evil character, or you run the risk of saying “He was abused, and that’s why he’s evil!” Many people are victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse and don’t go on to become heartless mass-murdering assassins, so you can’t just blame all of a character’s moral failings on a bad upbringing and use it as an excuse for their behaviour. I think this story doesn’t go quite that far overboard, but it’s definitely a shade too melodramatic and sympathetic for my tastes.
Most of the writing is less ornate than Salvatore’s usual style, as befits Entreri’s practical outlook. Unfortunately, I found myself intensely annoyed when the viewpoint kept switching between different characters in the course of a scene — not just an occasional slip, but at least once in every single scene. It’s a pet peeve of mine, something you normally only see novice writers do. Every time the reader has to stop and think about which character’s eyes they’re seeing things through in any particular paragraph, you’ve disoriented them and chipped away at their immersion.
Christie Golden, “Blood Sport”
Here’s a tale from a Ravenloft author that gives us a Ravenloft character’s backstory before he fell prey to the Mists. Jander Sunstar, the elven vampire we first met in Realms of Valor’s “One Last Drink”, has left Mistledale and settled down on the outskirts of Waterdeep. He’s living a quiet and harmless life, drinking rat’s blood and carving beautiful sculptures, but a vampire hunter assumes that he’s as evil as your average vampire and tries to kill him. We see it from the perspective of the vampire hunter, a murderous fanatic who will stop at nothing to kill her quarry.
Honestly, it’s a bit disappointing. It starts quite well, but ends with Jander walking into the world’s most obvious trap like a complete idiot, as if his brain were as atrophied as his unbeating heart. It’s hard to have sympathy for a hero who doesn’t seem to be thinking. For instance: There’s a ring of garlic laid around a place he has to get to, with one small break in the circle. He walks through the opening and gets mangled by a trap. Buddy, come on, it’s just garlic bulbs, not claymore mines! Find a branch and brush them out of your way. He heads straight for the person he’s trying to rescue without first looking around for the vampire hunter, whom he knows is present, and gets ambushed like a chump. He loses track of the hunter, then goes back to free the hostage and sets off a booby trap, and then gets attacked again. It’s the sort of predictable foolishness that would make any tabletop roleplayer want to bang their head against the nearest wall in frustration, because they can think of half a dozen better ways to handle that situation. Still, I must confess that I’m a sucker for “angsty good vampire” stories, and the character conflicts in this one are fairly well done.
David Cook, “Gallows Day”
In the city of Elturel, four thieves are mourning a captured comrade who’s sentenced to hang — at least until their leader, the charismatic and cunning rogue Pinch, comes up with a daring plan to rescue him. There’s a traitor, multiple betrayals, and someone dies messily at the end. The setting is very closely modelled on 1700s London in all respects — the pay-as-you-go prison, the hanging as public spectacle, broadsheets about the life of the condemned, executed corpses wanted for dissection, et cetera. (Curiously, the gallows is described as a “triple tree”, like London’s Tyburn gallows, but later it’s described as having a trapdoor, which a Tyburn-style gallows would not — but that’s too pedantic a point to belabor even for me.) In fact, I think that’s my only major complaint: the characters are good, the plot is twisty, but it doesn’t feel much like the Forgotten Realms. If you took out a bit of magic and changed a few names, this story could easily be set in England instead.
The characters’ dialect, an authentic English criminal argot which seems to owe a great deal to Francis Grose’s wonderful 1785 reference work A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, is used quite well. It’s not overused, merely sprinkled throughout to spice up the dialogue, and the words’ meanings are obvious from context. Moreover, it’s an interesting inter-setting cross-pollination — David Cook was the lead designer on the Planescape setting, published earlier in 1994, and Sigil’s cant also owes a great deal to Grose’s dictionary.
Pinch would later get a novel of his own (King Pinch), which we’ll get to before too long in 1995.
James Ward, “A Matter of Thorns”
Both of the authors of Pool of Radiance have a short story in this collection. This one, by veteran game designer Jim Ward, aims for the same gothic horror motif as “Raven’s Egg” but falls well short due to sloppy storytelling and an odd mixture of themes. The short version: the brash young lord of a gloomy castle rages out and kills his loyal gardener, whose blood seeps into the soil and turns the castle’s prize rosebushes into a man-eating plant monster. We see some scenes from the monster’s point of view where it goes about mind-controlling the humans and drinking their blood. So far, not too bad — no secrets or ambiguity, and the setting is pretty bare-bones, but it’s got a few characters, a conflict, and a foreboding mood.
Then a knight and his squire show up, oblivious to the fact that everything is terribly wrong, and the tone goes out the window. It started as gothic horror, but now it’s a situation comedy. The squire is a yokel who bumbles his way into accidentally killing the plant monster in a manner more reminiscent of Gomer Pyle than Jonathan Harker. It feels like a vanilla and blue cheese milkshake: I like vanilla ice cream, and I like blue cheese, but I can’t imagine ever wanting the two of them in the same place. You can do humour in a dark story, but it has to be dark humour, not slapstick.
(As an aside, the castle is named “Castle Stone”? That’s the best name these people could come up with? Do they also ride horse mammals, eat meat pork, and converse in word sounds?)
Denise Vitola, “Stolen Spells”
This is an odd one, a promising story that’s let down somewhat by weak craftsmanship. The premise works great: a thief of antiquities is hired to steal a great treasure, but his employer double-crosses him afterwards and he’s driven to exact revenge. The characters are fine: we don’t get much backstory, but our anti-hero is cunning, self-reliant, and gets the job done with a minimum of bloodshed and fuss, while our antagonist is loathsome enough that we feel no sympathy for his fate. It’s the details where this story falters, continually distracting the reader with little bits that don’t quite work.
For instance, something about the protagonist’s voice grates on me. The first-person narration is full of fifty-cent words that don’t need to be there and which just lie awkwardly on the page instead of sounding like they came from the character’s mouth:
A thief is never far off from his tricks and spells, and knowing that I had come to this place adequately prepared made me feel more confident about meeting the proprietor of this shop. Entering the establishment, I paused to glance around.
The diction doesn’t seem to fit with the practical, plain-spoken character, and the story would have worked better with a simpler approach.
At one point he makes an area dark so that he can ambush some goblins — not magical darkness, just extinguishing lights. Apparently the author wasn’t aware that D&D goblins can see in the dark. (You’d think an editor from TSR would have pointed that out, at least.)
I reined in [my horse] to consider the fern-and-lichen covered corridor ahead. The trees had closed in around me and the sun was at a long slant… Such isolated, gray places give me the jumps.
Wait, how is it gray? It’s covered in ferns, lichens, and trees!
“I’m not interested in being young again. Once around in this life is enough for me. I’d rather have the money.”
…Says a dwarf who lives an ascetic existence in a broken-down shack miles from civilization and who has no apparent use for money. What is his motivation supposed to be?
And so on and so forth. This all seems like nitpicking, and it is — but when you find enough nits in one small story, it gives an impression of sloppiness. You’re yanked out of a comfortable “suspension of disbelief” state and made aware of the artifice, instead of just relaxing and appreciating the fiction. I liked this story, but couldn’t love it.
J. Robert King, “The Greatest Hero Who Ever Died”
Wow, is this ever a weird one. It’s the story of Sir Paramore, an heroic knight exiled through the treachery of his foes at court, as told by an exceedingly unreliable narrator to a tavern full of strangers. I generally love unreliable narrators, but the story around it is just too silly. For instance, the entire plot relies on lots of people being too dumb to notice, on two separate occasions, that they’re not speaking to the actual face of the person they’re paying attention to. Instead, he’s manually flapping the jaw of a decomposing severed head like a Muppet while he hides behind it. Points to the author for sheer audacity, I suppose, but there’s just no way that I can buy that.
There’s a lot of that sort of grisly audacity, actually. A whole crowd of children killed in various gruesome ways. Severed heads used as a ventriloquist’s dummy. Gore, stabbings, beheadings, all in your face. Frankly, it’s not my thing. I think I prefer my horror a bit less Grand Guignol and a bit more “creeping sense of dread.” The scenes from the innkeeper’s point of view in the framing story are much more compelling than the miserable business of Sir Paramore; they edge more into “psychological thriller” territory, with the innkeeper as the one sane man among a crowd of mind-controlled people. All things considered, it’s colorful and memorable, but for the wrong reasons — you just can’t take it seriously.
Troy Denning, “Twilight”
A mythological tale about the gods of the giant pantheon, who were mentioned recently in Denning’s The Ogre’s Pact. (I suppose giants were on his mind at the time.) On the surface, it tells the tale of a domestic dispute between Annam All-Father and his wife Othea, the progenitors of the giant races, after Annam catches Othea boning down with Ulutiu, god of the northern oceans. The real reason this story exists, though, is to serve as a prequel to the author’s Twilight Giants trilogy that explains those books’ backstory. Honestly, this annoys the crap out of me. I spent most of The Ogre’s Pact wishing that he’d explain anything about this Twilight Spirit business that motivates the plot, and now it turns out that the explanation is in a separate collection of short stories? If he’d worked some of this into the novel, it would have given the giants a more interesting culture and shored up a big blank spot in the plot.
The first part is a “just so” story for a number of aspects of the Realm’s far north, like how the Great Glacier and Split Mountain were created, and the origin of the various giant-kin races. It nails the mythic tone pretty well. Then we get to the second part, which is mostly various giants bickering with each other for far, far too long. It manages to rouses itself for a good bittersweet finale by the end, though. A mixed bag.
Mark Anthony, “The Walls of Midnight”
Ravendas, the cartoonishly evil villain from Anthony’s Crypt of the Shadowking, gets a prequel story here — and remarkably, it’s not bad at all! She was a two-dimensional antagonist in that book, chewing the scenery and spouting hackneyed dialogue at the drop of a hat, but here she’s understated, clever, and has moments of genuine vulnerability. Damn, man… if you can write decent characters, why didn’t you do some of that in Crypt of the Shadowking? I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
It’s a nicely constructed story. There are only two characters, they spend almost the entire story interacting with each other, and they’re solving magical puzzles instead of battling things. It’s sort of a “falling to the Dark Side” experience for Ravendas, who has a small degree of humanity here and makes a meaningful moral choice. I liked the tragic subtext set up by the prequel format, where she insists that she’s in control of her own destiny but we already know how her story is going to end. A pleasant surprise.
Jane Cooper Hong, “And Wringing of Hands”
With a title like that, and an opening paragraph about how the protagonist isn’t fond of their hands, you know that by the end of this story something is going to get seriously wrung. It’s a good intro, though, cramming lots of details about the character and his situation into a small space while giving him a unique voice. Tine, an alchemist and craftsman, has a full-time job making poisons and tools for an assassin. He’s also got a moral blind spot large enough to hide an elephant in — he believes it’s wrong to kill people for money, but doesn’t see an ethical issue with making the tools as long as it’s someone else who’s using them, and as long as the victims aren’t people he cares about. But then a couple of harrowing contracts bring home the reality of his situation…
This is easily my favourite story of the lot so far. Watching the moral implications of Tine’s actions slowly dawn on him, then break him by the end, makes for far more effective horror than any number of ghosts or grisly beheadings. I guess now we know who was responsible for the good character bits in Pool of Radiance…
Mary H. Herbert, “Thieves’ Honor”
Teza, a Rashemi horse thief, is tricked by one of the Witches of Rashemen into kidnapping a visiting dignitary for mysterious reasons, but she’s got some tricks of her own up her sleeve. She’s an engaging protagonist, capable and clever, and I’ve always got a soft spot for characters who skate by on guile and trickery rather than resorting to violence at the drop of a hat. It makes good use of the setting, involving the politics of the lands on the eastern side of the Sea of Fallen Stars, and features some rarely-used D&D monsters based on European folklore, which feels thematically appropriate for Rashemen. No complaints!
It’s nice to see a story that ties its plot and characters into the Realms, rather than just “it’s a gothic horror story, but set in…” and then the author picks a random name off the map. There have been far too many of those in this anthology, stories that could easily be taken out of the Realms and plopped down in another setting by just changing a few names. I would be tempted to draw the conclusion that it’s one of the downsides of getting a crop of new authors to write Realms material, but newcomer Herbert has done it well here and veteran David Cook did it badly, so that’s hardly fair.
James Lowder, “Laughter in the Flames”
I kept up my enthusiasm while slogging through some of the weaker stories in this collection by continually reminding myself “There’s a James Lowder story at the end, so it’s worth it to keep going!” Thankfully, my faith was well-placed. This is the story of a cowardly Cormyrian nobleman who’s nurtured an unearned reputation for heroism to earn the respect of his peers, and the Greek tragedy of how his decades of deception come crashing down around his ears.
There’s plenty of horror elements here, like the “body snatchers” bit where a person gets cut up for parts by wizard vivisectionists. But it’s not played for gore — the procedures happen off-screen, and it exists to further the protagonist’s character development instead of being something the author threw in to shock the reader. Still, it’s all just a touch over the top, a bit on the cartoonish side — the protagonists would be caricatures of Victorian upper-crust gentlemen if they didn’t get quite so much characterization, and every event that leads to the climax is inexplicably convenient. But the story does a good job of staying grounded in the characters, so you never lose the desire to find out what’s going to happen to Sir Hamnet next. It’s not deep, but it’s well-written and fun — basically a Hammer horror film in short story form.
Roger E. Moore, “Vision”
Why do an improbable number of Dragonlance authors use their middle initials as part of their pen names? Cook, Herbert, Knaak, Moore, Thompson… anyhow, never mind that. This is the best story of the lot by a huge margin, and I can see why James Lowder (the editor) chose to put it last. It leaves you unsettled and pensive for a long time after you finish it because it makes the other horror stories in here seem like children’s campfire tales.
A tribe of goblins eke out a miserable existence in a warren in the southern Dustwall Mountains, hiding in their caves and occasionally raiding nearby settlements for livestock. But then a hard-headed goblin lieutenant and his troops are assigned to accompany a fanatical half-goblin prophet on a journey into the inhabited lands of Durpar, during which the prophet endeavours to show the rest of them how empty their existence is and how much greater they could become.
Make no mistake about it, this story is fucking dark. From goblin customs:
I knew [the flower’s] scent from the battlefields, where warriors chewed such blossoms to subdue their pain. Sometimes, if badly wounded, the warriors chewed too much and fell into a sleep from which they never awoke. We left them for the dogs to eat.
…to the quiet fanaticism of Zeth, the prophet:
“When I was no more than a babe,” he said in a quiet, dry voice, “my grandfather dug out my eyes with a spoon.” Empty sockets looked out at me from an empty white face. “He loved me very much to do that. Did anyone ever love you like that?”
…to the brutal outrages committed by the goblin converts, it’s got plenty of disturbing material on every page. But, again, none of it is here to shock you. Every dark element of the story reinforces the central theme in some way: the terror and bafflement of a normal person trying to comprehend violent fanaticism, told through a metaphor of sight and blindness.
The goblins depicted here are a far cry from the usual “dumb, short cannon fodder” depictions we get in most D&D fantasy novels. We see that they’ve got a culture, complete with customs and rituals, and a sophisticated understanding of military tactics. Theirs is a brutal, ugly existence, but it’s much more than just monsters waiting in a cave for the heroes to show up.
Zeth is entirely convincing as a religious fanatic. I don’t think any previous authors nailed the right tone for fanaticism in the Realms books; the attempts we’ve seen thus far, like the fascist Oghman patriarch from Realms of Valor’s “King’s Tear”, have been mostly just priests who happen to be self-important assholes. But fanaticism doesn’t just mean believing something that makes you act like a jerk. Real fanaticism means that you believe something so utterly that you disconnect from reality and exist in a world where that belief is true — and if you’re charismatic enough, you can take other people into that world with you. The fact that Zeth is talking to actual deities and doesn’t just have a screw loose makes it all the scarier.
The story treats horrible atrocities in a matter-of-fact way not because they don’t matter, but because they do. Zeth’s teachings are the basic lessons drilled into every real-world terrorist: you can remind the strong of their weakness if you visit horrors upon the weak, because holding the moral high ground is cold comfort for the dead and the survivors. The degree to which the goblins, and even the narration, seem inured to those horrors indicates how completely in his thrall they are, how they exist in a mental state where morality is just a human concept that has no meaning.
It’s a slow burn of a story, with a long introduction before it gets rolling, but every early element is brought back at some later point with a fresh meaning. The quality of the construction is excellent. It’s only a short story, but by the time the inevitable ending hits you, you feel like you need a rest.
Like the last anthology, it’s quite a mixed bag — stories like “Vision” and “A Matter of Thorns” don’t seem like they even belong in the same book together. But the bad ones aren’t quite as bad as the worst stories from Realms of Valor, and the good ones are substantially better. I can’t help but give it a better grade, and I find myself looking forward to reviewing the next anthology at the end of 1995.