Realms of Magic

Author: Various authors
Published: December 1995

Another year, another anthology! This year’s theme is “wizards and magic,” and it must be quite the well of inspiration indeed, because there are no fewer than seventeen stories this time around plus a prologue and epilogue. Realms of Magic still has roughly the same page count as the previous two anthologies, though, so I expect the severe length limits on these stories will pose some difficulty for the authors. Can they rise to the challenge and create some well-crafted bite-sized stories, or will this be a disappointing smorgasbord of undercooked vignettes? Even if some of them are terrible, surely an anthology such as this must contain enough good bits to cleanse my palate of the last several bad novels I’ve slogged through.

Without further ado, let’s plow right in! But given that there are seventeen stories to review this time, I might be a bit brief for some of them.

Brian Thomsen, “Prologue”

This is exactly the prologue you’d expect Brian Thomsen, author of the execrable Once Around the Realms, to write. Authors are often advised to “write what you know,” but given that he was the head of TSR’s fiction department, opening this anthology with a framing story about Volo and his publisher having a business meeting seems extremely on-the-nose. It’s full of bad puns (the publisher’s name is “Justin Tym,” for God’s sake), distracting real-world references, and mystifying asides which go nowhere and feel like in-jokes that only TSR employees would get. Everything about it feels artificial and affected. It’s a ghastly way to kick off the book, and the only positive thing I can say about it is that it’s short.

R.A. Salvatore, “Guenhwyvar”

The actual stories in this compendium aren’t off to a much better start. I very much enjoyed the beginning of this one, which purports to be the origin story of the magical panther Guenhwyvar from Salvatore’s Drizzt books. In the ancient elven empire of Cormanthyr, an elven bladesinger and his human wizard friend debate the moral implications of creating the panther statuette that will house Guenhwyvar’s spirit, since doing so involves ritually sacrificing the still-living panther. This, plus the secondary “elves learning to be tolerant of other races” theme, orients the story firmly towards ethical dilemmas rather than the tedious violence which often characterizes R.A. Salvatore’s fiction.

But the back half of the story lets this premise down in a big way. Josidiah, the bladesinger, runs into a bunch of random wandering monsters and has an overlong combat scene. Guenhwyvar then gets transformed into the statuette anyways via some sort of fuzzy magical miracle that nobody can explain. There’s lots of unnecessary mystery thrown about (why did the panther already have a name, how did Josidiah know it, why did speaking its name cause the statuette to be created, et cetera) but nothing is revealed. It’s not so much an origin story as an origin shrug, a weak and flaccid end to a promising beginning.

Jeff Grubb, “Smoke Powder and Mirrors”

A wizard’s apprentice, disappointed at the unwillingness of master wizards to accept new technologies like smoke powder (D&D’s fantasy gunpowder), gets entangled with some smoke powder smugglers. By the end, he’s learned the hard way why some knowledge should be kept secret. The story deftly balances exposition and action, taking its time setting up the characters and the conflict, switching to suspense and action for the middle, and then taking time for a good denouement at the end. The protagonist gets some good character development in the process; by the end he’s still a callow youth with strong opinions, but he’s learned a bit of wisdom and restraint.

It touches on an interesting theme that’s never been explored before: what does “progress” mean for a fantasy world like the Realms? Faerûn has been in a state of medieval stasis for millennia, with the same pseudo-Western European culture and roughly the same level of technology ever since the fall of Netheril. Now that gunpowder and the printing press have been invented, what does that mean for the world? This story provides an explanation of sorts for why the editors at TSR aren’t going to let the Realms see an Industrial Revolution any time soon: Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun and other mages are actively containing the spread of potentially harmful technologies like smoke powder to keep the pace of progress to a slow walk rather than a race. Better a lampshade than a bare bulb, I suppose.

I was distracted from the story by one of the characters describing people as “name-level wizards,” a bit of technical jargon from the D&D tabletop games that sounds bizarre coming out of a character’s mouth. It’s surprising; I’d expect that kind of intrusion of game mechanics into fiction from, say, James Ward, but not from Jeff Grubb.

Mark Anthony, “The Magic Thief”

The difference in the quality of writing from the previous story to this one gave me a bit of whiplash — in the space of a page, it went from plain-spoken prose to portentous and dramatic first-person narration. This story sees Morhion, the mage from Anthony’s C____ of the Shadow____ books, struggling to recover his mojo from a thief who’s drained him of all his magical potential. I like the general idea: can Morhion use only his wits to solve problems that he’d ordinarily resolve by magic? But the implementation doesn’t feel particularly plausible. Morhion just happens to remember, off the top of his head, an immense amount of convenient knowledge about how ancient Netherese magic works after only seeing a brief glimpse of a rune. In the end the villain is defeated by a child’s toy, which is supposed to be ironic but just makes him look dim.

Worse yet, it still feels like Anthony is fighting to make the Realms into something it’s not. Here, as in Curse of the Shadowmage, he’s still trying to establish this thing about all mages being marked with magical tattoos that nobody else has ever mentioned before and nobody else, as far as I know, ever picked up again. The previous story just now re-established the fact (originally defined in the D&D tabletop rules) that smoke powder is magical and created by mages, and then we get this here:

While the Red Wizards of Thay claimed that smoke powder — which they were infamous for making and using — was a powerful enchantment, this was a lie. Smoke powder was not the result of magic, but of alchemy.

And then Morhion mixes up some improvised battlefield gunpowder out of stuff he finds in a clear nod to Captain Kirk. Given that Anthony keeps trying to invent distractingly out-of-place lore while contradicting existing canon, I get the impression that he’s not an author who plays well with others.

Christie Golden, “The Quiet Place”

Here’s a very standard “tormented good vampire” story from Christie Golden, who’s really got a shtick going by this point. Elven vampire Jander Sunstar finds a brief respite from his curse, but then has to choose between losing his sanctuary or doing what’s right. Is there the slightest shred of suspense about his choice? Of course not! You know from the first paragraph that he’ll eventually do the right thing, especially when it means that he gets to hulk out and kill a bunch of mooks in a cool fashion. But what it lacks in twists it makes up for in solid craft and good pacing, so I won’t complain.

Ed Greenwood, “The Eye of the Dragon”

Ambreene is a young Waterdhavian noble lady, bored with her upper-crust lifestyle, who longs to defy her family and become a wizard. Her dying grandmother gives her a head start by gifting her a powerful magical artifact, but it sets her down a dangerous path. She ends up reckoning with old family secrets and learning a lesson in the process.

It’s excessively dramatic in a very Greenwoodian way, but to my surprise I found myself enjoying it. Ambreene gets some decent character development in two different directions, first developing a taste for vengeance and then realizing what a mistake she’s making, and the conflicts are all oriented around talking rather than fighting. Elminster is an unstoppable deus ex machina at the end of the story, but it feels like it makes sense in context rather than being an “author’s pet” sort of thing. (The protagonist is a neophyte wizard with lots of book learning but no practical experience, so it’s no surprise that she’d get owned by a thousand-year-old archmage.) My only complaint is that important parts of the story are told through indigestible chunks of past-tense exposition — “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” It would have worked much better with proper flashback sequences that could show rather than tell, but I expect the word-count constraints for this anthology were very tight.

Dave Gross, “Every Dog His Day”

For some reason, I’m unusually susceptible to sad stories about dogs. In particular, stories where a dog dies are one of the only things that can coax a genuine tear from my shrivelled soul. So when I saw that this was a suspenseful story about a kid and a beloved mutt, I kept thinking “Don’t you dare kill the dog at the end, you bastard!” Fortunately, it went completely sideways instead. Apparently the dog is, unbeknownst to almost everyone, a polymorphed human who’s hiding as a dog as part of a magical witness protection program — a bonkers premise, but potentially fun.

The story doesn’t add up to much, though. It’s a small, straightforward tale of a child rescuing his sister from kidnappers, and the author spends less time characterizing the kid, the sister, the dog-man, or the villains than he does the kindly old wizard who gets the story rolling at the beginning. The actual “whodunit” part is resolved in about a page and the rescue isn’t much longer. It definitely feels like it needed more time to breathe. Short, light, fun, and undemanding, but not particularly remarkable.

Kate Novak-Grubb, “The Common Spell”

This one is a tale of Alias and Dragonbait, told to a crowd of children by a character who was mentioned (but not present) in Azure Bonds. It’s a delightfully complicated tangle, a story within a story within a story where one of the characters in the innermost story is the narrator of the outermost story. I love narrative puzzle-boxes like this.

But it seems as if the author isn’t able to keep all the threads straight, since the entire construction hinges upon someone knowing something they shouldn’t be able to. In the fictional story that Alias is making up, Stelly survives because she’s able to read and write. She finds a locket in the woman’s cloak, recognizes the name of one of the penanggalan’s victims on it, and then is able to survive because she knows that the person outside her door is the penanggalan. Let’s leave aside, for now, the issues of there being plenty of reasons why someone who is not the penanggalan might have that locket — perhaps it’s the victim’s mother? — and the word “penanggalan” being scrawled on the back of someone’s cloak being enough to incite a mob to kill them, and just focus on the “who knows what” aspect.

In the real world, Kith doesn’t know anything about the locket, or the name on it, or the circumstances of Stelly’s death. All she knows is that her friend got randomly killed by a vampire. Alias, telling her fictional version of the story, would have had no way to know about the cloak or locket or name. Jilly (let’s use that name for the penanggalan inhabiting Stelly’s body) wouldn’t have known anything about it, since the author explicitly establishes that the penanggalan is not the victim, but rather an evil spirit that drives the victim’s body around. But even if you go for a Buffy-style interpretation where the possessing spirit has access to the victim’s memories, even Stelly wouldn’t have had any reason to believe that the writing on the locket would have saved her, because she can’t read! For all she knows, it said “Made in China.”

Nobody in the real world has any reason to believe that Stelly’s literacy would have changed the outcome. The only remaining possibility is that Kith decided, in the absence of any evidence at all, that Stelly would have survived a vampire attack if she’d taught her how to read, which seems like a gigantic stretch even for a grieving person. I love the concept of this story and the writing is generally excellent, but my suspension of disbelief exploded once I noticed the contradictions it was built upon.

Douglas Niles, “The First Moonwell”

Douglas Niles returns after a few years’ absence to contribute a mythological story about the creation of the Moonshae Isles. I was apprehensive about this one, since I found his novels consistently bad, but this is much better than his usual fare. He’s terrible at characters and plots, but this story is almost entirely free of both — and since the characters are all animals, there’s not even a single line of dialogue. Instead it’s entirely description and narration, a little on the purple side but appropriate for the material he’s working with. Nothing much happens, but it’s a nice little vignette.

He’s definitely sketchy on marine biology, though:

The great whale drank from an undersea fountain, absorbing the power and the magic of the Earthmother into himself.

I’m no zoologist, but even I can tell you that’s not how whales work.

Allen C. Kupfer, “The Luck of Llewellyn the Loquacious”

This was the only story that Allen Kupfer, a professor of film studies from New York, ever wrote for TSR. It’s a yarn about a silver-tongued rogue and his uneasy working relationship with a band of unscrupulous halfling adventurers, where nobody can trust one another and there’s a fabulous treasure at stake — a good premise, loaded with potential. But if he planned to write a story about a garrulous protagonist then he should have worked harder on the dialogue, which often comes out clunky and false:

“Though my interest lies in a share of the treasure, I also wish revenge against Talltankard, which I, by myself, could never extract.”

“Indeed, brother Llewellyn. I, too, hate that Talltankard, the braggart. I, too, will enjoy meeting him and his disgraceful excuse for a band of adventurers. Now tell me where they can be found.”

Who talks like that? We don’t really learn anything about the protagonist aside from “his name is Llewellyn, he’s a rogue, and he’s loquacious,” most of which we learned from the story’s title. The climactic combat where two rival adventuring parties fight over the treasure is glossed over by basically saying “A battle started” and leaving it at that. And I expected some sort of ironic “double-crossing the double-crosser” ending, where the informant who gave Llewellyn all this specific information about the treasure would kill or rob him after he’d done all the hard work… but no, everything is solved by a magical deus ex machina, there are no complications, and Llewellyn lives happily ever after. It’s a disappointingly straightforward ending to what should have been a twistier plot.

David Cook, “Too Familiar”

David Cook returns to Ankhapur with a story about Brown Maeve, the alcoholic street mage from King Pinch. Pinch, now King Janol I, has appointed her the kingdom’s royal magister, but she gets no respect from her peers due to her disreputable background and lack of academic knowledge. She gets drunk one night and decides to summon a familiar, but ends up with more than she bargained for.

On balance, I think Maeve is my favourite character from the past year’s worth of Realms novels. She’s pathetic, but not in a “butt of the joke” way — she’s a sad drunk, and it’s a source of genuine pathos to see how it’s destroying her life. And despite that, she’s still cunning, capable, and occasionally funny. Every scene she’s in here furthers her characterization in some way, whether it’s cursing her detractors with magical STDs or cleverly resolving the ethical dilemma with her familiars at the end. I wish more of these stories had been as well-constructed or had as well-developed protagonists.

Jean Rabe, “Red Ambition”

Another story of the Red Wizards of Thay, courtesy of the author of Red Magic. The lich Szass Tam is planning to grant lichdom to his loyal apprentice Frodyne, but then they fall out over the spoils of a tomb-raiding expedition. In the end Tam discovers that he’s not always the chessmaster, and there are still some things that can use him for a pawn. I quite like the “hubris punished” theme and the structure is sound, but the dialogue is clunky and the characters’ motivations are strange. Why is Frodyne betraying her ancient, vengeful boss and giving up everything over some magical doodad that she describes as a “bauble”? She’s only just heard of it that day and has no idea what it does, yet she’s committing career suicide (and angering Szass Tam, which is actual suicide) over it. Doesn’t make sense. The only likely in-story explanation is “a god made her stupid,” which is not particularly satisfying.

Also, it’s hard to take Frodyne seriously when her name sounds like it should be a company that manufactures refrigerators. Frodyne Industries, Inc.?

Mary H. Herbert, “Thieves’ Reward”

This is a sequel to Herbert’s “Thieves’ Honor” from Realms of Infamy, where the horse thief Teza has to deal with the ramifications of owning the fairy murder-horse whom she enslaved in the previous story. There’s a heist bit which is rushed through quickly with a disappointing lack of suspense, but Teza is a fallible and likeable protagonist and the character development between her and the aughisky is great. The structure is good, establishing the conflicts up front and paying them off in a satisfying fashion at the end. One of the better stories so far.

William W. Connors, “Six of Swords”

Longtime TSR game designer William Connors steps in to give us one of the best-crafted stories in this collection. An old adventuring party has broken up and scattered to the four winds, but when their retired members start turning up gruesomely murdered, two of the survivors have to return to their adventuring roots to solve the mystery and keep themselves from becoming the next targets. It’s a great way to set up a story with well-rounded characters: give them backstories which tie into the plot and into each other. Our protagonist, the smith Orlando, has grave reservations about trusting the morally grey wizard Lelanda and only works with her under duress, but they come to rely each other over the course of the story. Along the way we see little flashbacks and anecdotes about their former adventures and their former compatriots, so they feel like real people who are grounded in the world.

The awkward relationship between Orlando and Lelanda is a great example of a relationship that’s more nuanced than just “allies” or “foes.” Every disagreement and little breakdown in communication between them makes them feel like humans with a complicated history rather than a pair of plot devices. It’s not perfect; the switch from mistrust to friendship is too sudden, and this story would have benefited from more time to breathe and develop the characters. Still, the author did a good job with the small space he had available.

Tom Dupree, “The Wild Bunch”

I feel like the victim of false advertising here, because this bunch is not particularly wild. This story (which bears no relation to the classic Sam Peckinpah Western of the same name) describes the adventures of a hapless nerd of a wizard who’s decided that he’s going to become a supermage without all of this boring “training” and “practicing” nonsense. After some improbable exploits with a gang of thieves, he learns that there’s no royal road to magic. In the process he accidentally invents a spell that summons huge amounts of vegetables… but instead of realizing that a low-level spell which creates metric tons of food could end famine forever, he uses it to pelt his foes with veggies. Clever lad.

J. Robert King, “A Worm Too Soft”

This is another one of those stories that doesn’t particularly feel like a Forgotten Realms story, but I’d have been willing to forgive that if the execution had been better. A wizard brings a scrappy street rogue from Waterdeep to her isolated palace to ensure the security of a priceless magical gem. Everything about his new job seems too good to be true… so inevitably, it is. It’s a great premise which sets up a mystery and a potentially interesting conflict, but the follow-through falls flat on its face. The manner in which everything is revealed doesn’t make much sense, rushing to the conclusion and skimping on the details. Somehow the two hapless protagonists survive an encounter with an enraged ancient dragon instead of being killed a dozen times over, more due to idiocy on the dragon’s part than their own efforts. The overall impression is that the story is more a parable about the dangers of misused magic rather than a real story about real characters.

A shame, really. My expectations for it were high after the first couple of pages, but then I kept having to revise my opinion lower and lower with each successive scene. The hard part of writing stories about guileful heroes is that you have to make them convincingly cunning, rather than just having them stumble upon answers or randomly spout information the reader wouldn’t expect them to know.

Roger E. Moore, “Gunne Runner”

I was very much looking forward to the next short story from the author of “Vision” from Realms of Infamy, easily the best story in any Forgotten Realms anthology to date. This one doesn’t quite reach its predecessor’s lofty heights, but it’s a fun little murder mystery all the same. When a Waterdhavian wizard turns up dead, his illusionist friend must team up with a secretive halfling watch captain to find the murderer. The narrator’s grief at his friend’s death is well done, a far cry from the “alas, poor what’s-his-name” that usually passes for grief when one character dies to motivate another, and the characters and setting are ornamented with plenty of little details that make up for the relative thinness of the plot.

Much of it is action-oriented, all spellcasting and blazing guns, but it’s well-written and the violence is handled fairly realistically. Alas, the tension is rather undermined by the protagonist being magically protected from all projectiles, including bullets, so that it never feels like he’s in much danger against a group of gun-wielding assailants.

This is the second short story in this collection to introduce elements from the Spelljammer campaign setting into the Realms, but I don’t think either attempt has worked very well. Mixing the silly space science-fantasy atmosphere of Spelljammer with the serious high-fantasy aesthetic of the Realms is like making a ham-and-cheesecake sandwich.

Elaine Cunningham, “The Direct Approach”

Here’s an interstitial story featuring Liriel Baenre set between the first two books of the Starlight & Shadows trilogy. In Skullport, Liriel runs into a barbarian warrior who’s searching for a time-travelling criminal and ends up aiding her in her quest. Vasha, the barbarian warrior, is a tiresome character, dumb as a post but not very funny, so watching her stumble around Skullport and hit things isn’t all that entertaining. Hell, she’s not even particularly competent; she just wanders around accomplishing nothing until the villain takes pity on the reader and shows up to hurry the plot along. She’s clearly a parody of Red Sonja-style pulp heroines but Liriel is played straight, so the tone is all over the place.

The plot is neatly wrapped up at the end with some time travel shenanigans, but as is typical for most time-travel stories, nobody looks too hard at the interesting possibilities and potential pitfalls of mucking about with time because none of it would make sense if you thought about it too rigorously. The writing is a little more awkward than Cunningham’s usual polished prose, with the occasional sloppy sentence or poorly-chosen word that jumps out at the reader. I’m honestly unsure what to make of this story, and it’s not a great note on which to end this anthology.

Brian Thomsen, “Epilogue”

Technically this is the note on which the anthology ends, but my eyes just glazed over when I realized I had to read through yet more faffing about with Volo and his publisher. I suppose the thing with the doppelganger counts as some sort of twist, but I’m so allergic to Thomsen’s prose that I couldn’t bring myself to care about any part of it. If the space given to the framing story had been used to give an extra page or two to each of the other stories in this collection, this anthology might have worked better.

Conclusion

Grade: C

There are a handful of worthwhile stories in here, but I’d rate even the best of them as only “reasonably good” rather than “great.” There’s nothing in here to equal the best stories from the previous anthologies, which isn’t a huge surprise — cramming in more stories with a shorter page count just means that you deprive the potentially good stories of the room they need to develop interesting twists and details. The inevitable result is bite-sized mediocrity.

2 Replies to “Realms of Magic

  1. -I vaguely recall glancing through this book in my local library many eons ago. I recall being particularly annoyed at a “Greenwood Grubb” reference, probably by Brian Thomsen. There should be a rule that in-jokes and real-world name references should at least be subtle, the way Gary Gygax’s were. “Keoghtom’s Ointment” was named after Gygax’s real-life friend Tom Keogh, but but at least Gygax put some effort into scrambling the letters so the reference wasn’t painfully obvious.

    -Salvatore had something potentially good going with whether it was right to sacrifice the living panther to make it a magical entity (and the Drizzt novels repeatedly emphasize how Guenhwyvar is a living, thinking person, and not just a magical automaton) but then he avoids actually answering the question by having the panther sacrifice herself to become magical anyway.

    When you compare the elves of Myth Drannor to their descendants in the Moonwood that Drizzt interacts with in Starless Night, it’s clear that at least some elves learned more acceptance of other races. The Moonwood elves actually give Drizzt more of a chance than almost all the humans he encounters, even though they’re probably the drow’s most frequent targets. They monitor him while he passes through their lands and put a blade to his neck when Ellifain has a panic attack, but even then they hear him out. If anything, they probably have the most generous reaction to meeting Drizzt for the first time of anyone in the entire series.

    -Does Grubb’s story treat Khelben et al. as in the right for controlling who has access to smokepowder? This raises a potentially interesting point as to who actually has the right to control who can access these kinds of new discoveries that are not objectively evil the way something like the Crown of Horns is. The LN Khelben would justify his ‘right’ to do so because of his superior power and intellect, but it makes you wonder how someone like Elminster or Alustriel would react to his actions if they knew about them.

    -I read Mark Anthony and Ellen Porath’s book Kindred Spirits as a kid, and I didn’t particularly like it for reasons I can’t recall. The entire setup just seemed artificial, and I found it unsatisfying for reasons I can’t really remember.

    -So how does Kith even know who Alias is when Alias never really traveled with the Swanmays to begin with? And is the penagallan a female version of a ‘typical’ vampire, or is it the Fiend Folio monster that consists of a flying woman’s head with undead innards flying around that feeds on living women? (The Fiend Folio is amusing because it had a couple of monsters that were ‘gender exclusive’ in that they only targeted one gender or another. Only women were targeted by penagallans, but at the same time they were immune to being charmed by kelpies, who only targeted men.)

    -When I write guileful characters, I’ve always tried to explain, either in dialogue or in narrating a character’s inner thoughts, just how they reached a particular conclusion. I really hate it when the narration doesn’t explain how a character suddenly knew or figured out some obscure riddle or puzzle. Sherlock Holmes always made a point of explaining his deductions to Watson, Lestrade or anyone else who might ask, while Batman typically explains how he figured out the Riddler’s puzzles to Alfred, Robin or anyone else.

    -A few of the authors like Dave Cook and Roger Moore seem to have real talent as fiction writers along with game design. How many more stories did they each write that are on your list?

    1. Yes, Khelben is portrayed as being in the right for preventing the spread of smoke powder. His position seems to be that great destructive power shouldn’t be in the hands of people who didn’t train for years to wield it responsibly. On the one hand, the fact that there are so many evil, unscrupulous wizards out there disproves his “responsibility” argument somewhat; on the other hand, at least with smoke powder restricted there exist far fewer evil people who can make their enemies explode.

      The penanggalan is the “flying head” type, yeah. This story describes how Kith and Alias met for the first time, years after the events of Azure Bonds, so that’s not a plot hole.

      Nothing more from Moore or Cook in the immediate offing. Moore only wrote one Realms novel, in 1998, and we’ve already seen all of Cook’s Realms novels. Someday when I get around to Spelljammer there will be more from both, though.

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