Author: Various authors
Published: April 1996
It’s time for another anthology! Realms of the Underdark was the last short story collection that TSR published, a mere five months after Realms of Magic, and I’ve got mixed feelings about diving into it. On the one hand, it looks like they’ve learned from past mistakes. The previous anthology was overstuffed, with no fewer than seventeen stories crammed into a little mass-market paperback, and many of them felt stunted by the severe limits on word count. This one has only five stories plus a prologue and epilogue, which should give the authors plenty of room to work with. On the other hand, the prologue, epilogue, and one of the stories are written by Brian Thomsen, author of the only Forgotten Realms novel so awful that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, not even to review it. Can I grit my teeth and struggle through his sections to get to the interesting bits? I guess we’ll find out.
For reasons which will soon become apparent, this post includes a lot of back-room TSR history. Much of it is a matter of hearsay and conjecture, cobbled together from Facebook and ENWorld posts by former TSR authors and editors. I’d like to preface this post with the disclaimer that I’m not a first-hand authority on this subject, but am merely reporting what others have said or intimated, and I’d welcome any corrections or comments from anyone who was actually there at the time.
Brian Thomsen, “At the Publishing House (Prologue)”
Brian Thomsen was the head of TSR’s fiction department and an occasional contributor of novels and short stories, and the impression I get from reading his work and hearing what other people have to say about him is one of breathtaking incompetence. I can’t speak directly about his abilities as a manager. Some people, like Jeff Grubb, posted glowing obituaries after his death in 2008; others, like his editorial predecessor James Lowder, pointed out how he went out of his way to alienate TSR’s stable of authors by slashing freelance rates, playing favourites with underlings and freelancers, and refusing to allow authors any control over the characters they created. These days he’s mainly remembered as “the guy who nearly prevented R.A. Salvatore from writing any more Drizzt books,” which is definitely in the running for the dumbest decision ever made by TSR. It’s telling that Thomsen wasn’t among the roughly 80% of TSR employees who were kept on board by Wizards of the Coast after the acquisition.
But regardless of his managerial performance, as an author he was not merely inadequate, but so thoroughly incapable that I described his debut novel as “not just the worst Forgotten Realms novel I’ve ever read, but the worst published novel I’ve ever read.” I don’t like making negative reviews personal, but Thomsen’s work is bad to the degree that I can’t imagine any of it would have been published were it not for his position as the head of TSR’s fiction department. And yet here we are, with three of the seven sections of this anthology written by him and another of his Volo novels scheduled to come out in August 1996, four months from this point.
I suppose I should talk about the prologue. As with Realms of Magic, Thomsen takes “write what you know” to a ludicrous extreme by opening the book with a little mini-story about the manager of a fictional publishing house in the Forgotten Realms. It seems to be nothing more than an excuse to make a great many in-jokes about various people at TSR and the projects they were working on. Like the previous anthology’s prologue, the only positive thing I can say about it is that it’s short.
Mark Anthony, “The Fires of Narbondel”
Buckle up; we can’t talk about this story without first dredging up some ugly TSR history. “The Fires of Narbondel” is the only published Drizzt story which wasn’t written by R.A. Salvatore, and Realms of the Underdark is the only anthology that doesn’t include a story by him, despite his fame for writing New York Times-best-selling stories about dark elves and the Underdark.  Why? Because Brian Thomsen wanted to teach Salvatore a lesson, apparently.
In those days, TSR was at war with their own authors because they were deathly afraid of letting their authors become famous again. Famous authors, as TSR discovered during their acrimonious break with Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, have leverage. They can throw weight around when negotiating contracts and control how their material gets used. In extremis, they can even punish TSR by writing novels for other publishers instead and taking their fan bases with them. So how do you avoid having writers become stars? Simple: don’t credit the authors at all. Former TSR author and editor James Lowder had this to say on the subject:
The “no stars” idea was applied to various people at various times, usually whenever management wanted someone to do something and was refused. Around 1990, the book department had to fight to keep author names on the spines of books, because management went through a phase where they thought author names only caused distractions in bookstores. Around [April 1994], Bob Salvatore ran afoul of the head of the book department [Thomsen], who targeted him as a unwelcome “star” and started separating him from Drizzt.
(This is also why the Avatar trilogy was credited to the pseudonym “Richard Awlinson” instead of the actual authors.)
Editorial policy at TSR in the early days gave authors a great deal of say over how the characters they created were used in other works. It wasn’t a legal requirement, since TSR technically owned everything they were publishing, but rather a gesture of respect by the editors to the authors. This good-faith policy died a public death when Brian Thomsen took over as the head of fiction. After wrangling with various authors, especially Salvatore, over how their characters would be used, he wrote Once Around the Realms as a way to say “screw you, I’m in charge here.” It included cameos from a wide array of characters from many other authors’ novels so that TSR could establish a legal precedent that they could use those characters however they wanted, and one of the more prominent walk-on roles was Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden.
At this point, Salvatore was writing books for other publishers as well as TSR. His outside commitments meant that he couldn’t sign a contract to crank out new Drizzt novels at the grueling three-books-a-year rate that TSR reportedly wanted, so TSR’s management decided that Salvatore had to go. Thomsen shopped the next Drizzt novel around to several authors, all of whom refused to backstab Salvatore by stealing his characters. Finally Mark Anthony agreed to take on the project, which would have been entitled Shores of Dusk and released in 1997. It was written, edited, and mostly typeset, but never saw the light of day. Instead, after Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, they managed to mend fences with Salvatore and brought him back to continue the Drizzt series with 1998’s The Silent Blade. You can read Anthony’s somewhat self-aggrandizing version of the story here, and Salvatore’s side of the story here.
But enough of the politics! Let’s talk about this short story. Given its messy backstory I was expecting the worst, but it actually does quite a creditable R.A. Salvatore impression. The characters are familiar-feeling versions of the Do’Urdens we met in Homeland, and their interactions follow the same well-worn patterns: Zaknafein is bitter, young Drizzt is a wide-eyed naïf, Briza is stupid and aggressive, Malice is… well, malicious, and so on. They’re all less subtle and more exaggerated, but at least the soliloquies about the characters’ inner torment are mercifully brief by comparison. The narration is stiffer and less natural, with a few noticeable clumsy moments, and the fight scenes aren’t nearly as well-written as Salvatore’s. (I suppose when you write a dozen books where a third of the scenes are combats, you get a lot of practice at it.) Still, it’s quite serviceable.
The weakest part is the plot, which is more or less just a magical macguffin hunt. Malice sends Zaknafein to track down an artifact that’s sacred to Lloth on the eve of a great festival so that their house can win extra favour with their psycho demon goddess, but complications ensue, some of which feel random and unnecessary. Zaknafein lets himself get cornered and nearly killed at one point instead of escaping, which seems out of character. At the end he somehow gets off scot-free after killing a couple priestesses of Lloth, which seems extremely improbable. There are some nice details that flesh out the setting, though, like the aforementioned festival or the existence of other discontented drow besides Zak and Drizzt.
I quite appreciated the characterization of Matron Malice, who demonstrates a previously unheard-of degree of humanity in her occasional point-of-view scenes. She’s not a sociopath who’s incapable of feeling regret and sorrow; rather, she pushes away whatever negative emotions she feels and follows her self-interest regardless because that’s just what you learn to do in this culture. It’s a more compelling approach than simply saying “She’s evil, so she does evil stuff.” Young Drizzt, on the other hand, is the weakest of the characters. He’s gormless and naïve to an irritating degree, like a child from a 1950s sitcom, so it’s good that he doesn’t get much screen time.
All things considered, it’s one of Anthony’s better short stories and not nearly as dire as I expected it would be given the circumstances of its creation.
Ed Greenwood, “A Slow Day in Skullport”
We’re heading back to Undermountain again, but this time we’re in the hands of its original creator. You’d think that the guy who came up with the setting would have whipped up a story that uses the setting to its best effect, but it doesn’t land very well. Greenwood aims for a “lawless hive” depiction for Skullport, a sort of fantasy Mos Eisley where life is cheap and violence is commonplace, but goes way overboard and ends up with a city that’s a ludicrous meat grinder. Apparently you can’t walk two steps down any street without someone trying to kill you, and things blow up all the time for no apparent reason. It seems less like a functioning city and more like a highly efficient corpse factory, but everyone is strangely blasé about it.
Plot-wise, the concept is sound. Many people suspect that Durnan, the old innkeeper of the Yawning Portal tavern, is one of the masked Lords who run Waterdeep. Deep beneath the city, a beholder mastermind schemes to lure Durnan into Undermountain on a bogus rescue mission so that he can be replaced by a doppelganger. His former adventuring buddy Mirt the Moneylender realizes that something is fishy and heads into Undermountain to protect him. There’s plenty of potential there: deceit, danger, a villain with a halfway decent plan. If Greenwood had stuck to that plot, this would have been a better story. Instead, we get loads of padding around that basic framework that inflates the word count but does nothing for the plot or characterization. There’s a long scene-setting introduction that spends several pages to say “Undermountain is a dangerous dungeon.” Durnan runs into a bunch of kobolds, whom he kills in a one-sided slaughter. Archmages who have nothing to do with the story chat with each other. A pair of new villains are introduced, explain their evil plan for the reader’s benefit, and are annihilated all in the same scene. Mirt gets jumped by multiple parties of hilariously incompetent thugs in Skullport. A dragon makes a cameo at the end. Not a single word of these scenes matters.
You can’t get away with that sort of meandering in a short story, not even in a collection with as much space to work with as this one. What this story needed was a laser focus on Durnan and Mirt and the scheme they’re embroiled in — no Elminster, no cutaways to other random events elsewhere in Undermountain, no scenes that are purely set-dressing, and no omniscient perspective that explains the villain’s entire plan before the story starts. The beholder bad guy is further undermined during a scene where some Chosen of Mystra observe his plans and yawn to themselves: “Ho hum, another villain trying to take over the world. I guess we’d better stop him.” Like many appearances of the Chosen in Greenwood’s stories, this scene serves only to kill the story’s drama and portray the villain as a loser.
The writing is typical Greenwood: gratuitously archaic vocabulary, point of view constantly flitting between many characters, and awkward phrasing in places where he was probably writing too fast to notice. The dialogue is often over-dramatic and excruciating. Weirdly, he seems aware of some of the problems and lampshades them a couple of times:
The beholder smiled down at him. “Your memories will be mine first… before I take the tiny candle that you call a mind — and blow it out!”
Durnan rolled his eyes. “You sound like a bad actor trying to impress gawping nobles in North Ward!”
Lampshades can be funny and ironic, but most of the time they just indicate a serious problem with your writing. Instead of being all meta about how bad the dialogue is, why not come up with a clever villain who doesn’t speak in ridiculous clichés?
Curiously, after all this, I don’t feel like I know the characters any better. Durnan is a nice old guy, and Mirt is basically a more competent but less witty version of Falstaff. They bluster, trade barbs, and kick asses, but rarely do anything that demonstrates who they are. Asper, Mirt’s adopted daughter and wife, comes along to help, but she doesn’t get much screen time or characterization. She just serves as another sword to round out the overlong battle scenes, and should probably have been cut. (As an aside, can I just point out how incredibly creepy that relationship is? The whole concept of “old man adopts a daughter, raises her as his own child, then marries her after she comes of age and gets super hot” makes my skin crawl. Eugh.) The only character who gets any decent depth is Halaster, the mad mage who runs Undermountain, and he only appears occasionally and never interacts with the heroes.
At the end, all of the skullduggery and plotting is thrown away in a long fight scene where the villain explains his plan to Durnan and then starts a big battle, a straightforward slugfest of spells and swords that goes on for much too long. So much for subtlety. It’s very dramatic in a Hollywood-ish “the heroes aren’t in real danger” sort of manner. The doppelganger goes down like a chump right away. Durnan gets a building dropped on him and walks out of the rubble unharmed. The protagonists have items that protect them from magic, so the beholder just flails at them helplessly, eventually resorting to trying to chomp them instead of escaping and plotting revenge like any sensible villain would.
There have been archmages (Elminster, Halaster, Laeral) sniffing around the edges of the story during several cutaway scenes. None of them serve much purpose story-wise, but I was pleased to see that none of them end up being dei ex machina who save the day in the end. (At one point, Halaster even prevents another character from intervening on the heroes’ behalf.) Once the heroes are rendered helpless, the day-saving comes in the form of a lamia ally of Mirt’s whom we met earlier in the story.  Since we saw her preparations for intervening, it doesn’t come out of nowhere and doesn’t feel too cheap.
Apparently Greenwood realized there was a limit to how many pages he could fill with combat, since this story ends with a baffling dramatis personae that gives brief biographies of all the characters who appeared in the story, no matter how minor. They must have been hard up indeed for material for this anthology — yet another sign that this book was rushed through production without much thought for its quality.
Elaine Cunningham, “Rite of Blood”
As expected, Elaine Cunningham’s contribution to this collection of stories about the Underdark is a tale of Liriel Baenre‘s upbringing in Menzoberranzan. It’s surprisingly good! At first, young Liriel is every bit as annoying as I remembered from Daughter of the Drow — amazingly precocious, excellent at everything, and inspiring murderous jealousy in everyone she meets because they can’t be as awesome as she is. But once past the initial setup we get to see more scenes from her point of view, and she gets some good character development from the shitshow that unfolds.
The pitch: Liriel’s coming-of-age ceremony, like that of all drow nobles, involves hunting some sentient creature to death. Her treacherous mentor, who is (of course) insanely jealous of Liriel’s potential, has arranged to have her pitted against a captured human wizard from the surface who’s been secretly coached about everything Liriel knows. Liriel, meanwhile, would prefer to not have to kill anyone and is deeply disturbed by the entire affair. I knew from the outset that she’d eventually come up with some sort of unconventional “take a third option” kind of solution, but I wasn’t expecting how hollow and uncomfortable her victory would be. In the end nobody gets what they wanted, and the mood of the conclusion is somewhere between bittersweet and depressing. I always appreciate any story that confounds my initial expectations, and I love when authors are wise enough to know when tacking on a happy ending will make their story worse.
The difference in construction between this story and the previous one is striking. Every scene here furthers the plot or characterization — explaining Liriel’s perspective, showing other people reacting to Liriel, or placing all the guns above the fireplace for the main conflict. The combat, when it finally comes, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the outcome is tense and uncertain. (We know that Liriel survives, of course, but it’s not obvious how she’s going to resolve the conflict until the last minute.) The dialogue is tight and occasionally clever. There’s a little fat that could have been trimmed, but none of it felt useless. I’d say it’s the best short story that Cunningham has written to date.
Roger E. Moore, “Sea of Ghosts”
I’m always up for another story by the author of “Vision”, which is still head-and-shoulders the best Realms short story we’ve seen yet. Moore’s work stands out from that of TSR’s other authors for its maturity. Not “mature” in the sense in which it’s used by, say, media ratings systems, where “mature” is usually a synonym for “gratuitous blood and sex” and is often the antithesis of actual maturity. Rather, Moore’s writing tackles dark subjects — despair, hatred, tragedy — in an unflinching and honest manner, which is a rare departure from the fun but unchallenging adventure stories that TSR usually delivers.
Our story opens with two traumatized ex-slaves, newly escaped from a drow enclave, deciding to return to take care of some unfinished business they left behind. You know from the very beginning of this story that these characters aren’t going to get a happy ending. Neither of them are heroes — one is duplicitous and the other is unhinged, and neither trusts the other. Doom swirls about them like a palpable miasma. Every sentence of the introduction tells you that something bad will happen at the end, and that the place where the characters are going isn’t the kind of place where things go well for anyone. And yet, somehow, knowing that doesn’t dull your appetite for the story. You want to know what terrible threat would impel these two grizzled survivors to return to near-certain death to stop it. You want to learn what happened in their past to damage them so badly. And you especially want to know whether they succeed in their goal — you’re pretty sure they won’t survive, but that doesn’t mean they won’t win.
Much of this is due to Moore’s skill at characterization. In the first few pages of the protagonists’ first scene, he deftly sketches out their personalities and their weird relationship, an odd mix of distrust and mutual reliance, while leaving lots of unanswered questions about them both. Every scene thereafter serves to develop the characters further, either answering the questions asked earlier or giving them interesting reactions that demonstrate their personalities. In Greenwood’s story, combat scenes are ends unto themselves where you’re supposed to have fun watching the invincible heroes kick some ass. Here, the combat is an extension of the characterization. Will these ostensible allies help each other, or betray each other, or leave each other to die? Will they survive? Do they even want to?
It’s not perfect. In particular, one of the characters’ motivations doesn’t feel sufficiently well-explained, and there’s a sequence of constant danger that feels like it goes on for too long. But it’s gripping and genuinely dramatic, and the quality of the writing is excellent. It makes me really regret that Moore didn’t write any Realms novels that I’m going to review, but at least he’s got some Greyhawk and Spelljammer novels that it’s conceivable I might eventually get to.
Brian Thomsen, “Volo Does Menzo”
Never have I suffered such whiplash from finishing one author’s work and starting on another’s. Imagine finishing a tin of fine caviar and opening another, only to find that it’s full to the brim with mouse droppings instead.
The fact that this story’s title is a reference to a 1970s pornographic film didn’t exactly sharpen my anticipation for reading it. Thomsen’s writing is full of this sort of weak reference humour, dragging in all sorts of real-world cultural artifacts for no apparent reason, and I find the constant assault on my suspension of disbelief intensely aggravating. Case in point: this story’s protagonist is named Percival Gallant Woodehous [sic], an obvious take-off on famed British humourist P.G. Wodehouse, so every time I read the word “Woodehous” I found myself gritting my teeth. He’s a ripoff in behaviour as well as in name, too, stiff and formal and stereotypically British. It smacks of weak Wodehousian parody, borrowing only the outward trappings but missing the wit and humanity.
The writing is the same barnacled, pleonastic mess that I remember from Once Around the Realms: people referred to by awkward recurring epithets instead of names, rampant said-bookisms, a narrator who explains jokes to the reader, complete disregard for many existing details of the setting, and characters who talk like the worst of community-theatre thespians. It depicts an Underdark that’s about as dangerous as a state fair’s haunted house, populated by a variety of comic dimwits.
I could spend a while pulling out quotes to illustrate each specific thing that’s bad about this story — the gratuitous puns, the willful ignorance of even basic details about the setting, the real-world references, the unfunny comedy, the bad dialogue, and so on. But it’s one thing to criticize a work because you think your criticism might illustrate interesting points about storytelling or show the gulf between a story’s potential and its execution, and quite another to laugh at dumb things and say “Look how dumb they are!”. The former is edifying; the latter is demeaning for both the reviewer and the reader. There was no potential here, so the only way this story could have been better was to not be this story at all. What more can be said?
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t object to this story because it’s comic. Comedy and fantasy are quite compatible, but I’d argue that good comedy requires even more talent than your typical dramatic fantasy. You still need a dramatic author’s skill at characterization and description, since your readers will never become attached to characters or settings they don’t care about, and then you need a healthy dose of wit to boot. “Volo Does Menzo,” on the other hand, is the short-story equivalent of a bad sitcom pilot where one-note characters constantly deliver puns and one-liners, then break the fourth wall by winking at the camera after every line. My advice to anyone trying to write comic fantasy is simple: start with good characters, then add a good plot, then try to make it funny. Without the first two, there’s no point to the third.
Brian Thomsen, “Back at the Publishing House (Epilogue)”
You know what? No. I’ve written more than enough about Brian Thomsen already. It’s exactly what you’d expect this epilogue to be.
With fewer stories in the anthology, the variance in quality between them is even more stark. The entries from Cunningham and Moore are impressive standouts, but the others range from merely acceptable to excruciating. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been grading the individual stories instead of rating the book as a whole, since it doesn’t seem fair to lump such good and bad stories together into the same grade.
I found this quote from James Lowder interesting:
As with Once Around the Realms, the real-world machinations show through in Realms of the Underdark if you know the backstory — the book as a whole is all about Brian [Thomsen] showing Bob [Salvatore] that the Underdark and drow in the Realms will go on at TSR without him.
So in a nutshell, Realms of the Underdark exists so that TSR’s management could give a giant middle finger to one of their authors. Think about that for a minute. It’s a plausible reason, since it explains why this anthology appeared out of order (Realms of Mystery was originally planned to be the fourth anthology, but got bumped to 1998), was rushed out so soon after the last one, and has Brian Thomsen’s fingerprints all over it. Small wonder that we’re nearing the end of TSR’s lifespan here.
One last point before I sign off: Much of this review has been about Brian Thomsen in one way or another. I’d like to stress that I don’t have anything personal against him, and I don’t want this review to come off as a vituperative rant about a person who’s no longer around to respond. I don’t think he was a capable writer, and the stories that have come down to us about him don’t paint him in a good light, but that’s not a reason for me to bear malice towards someone I’ve never met. Given that he was so intimately involved with both the writing and the back-room creation of this anthology, though, there’s no way to review this book without singling him out for a healthy share of criticism.
 However, a prominent yellow banner on the cover proclaims that this book includes an excerpt from Salvatore’s forthcoming Drizzt novel Passage to Dawn. Despite their business disagreements, TSR was smart enough to realize that putting Salvatore’s name somewhere on the book would shift more units, and this way they could shoehorn him into this anthology without having to pay him to write any new material for it.
 Interestingly, Greenwood depicts her as the original Greek version of a lamia — a creature with the upper body of a beautiful woman and the lower body of a serpent — rather than the usual D&D lamia, which follows Renaissance tradition by having the quadrupedal lower body of a lion.