Realms of Valor

Author: Various authors
Published: February 1993

Well, we’ve made it to 1993, and there’s a fresh new batch of eight novels this year waiting for me to review them. No chance of me ever running out of material, that’s for sure!

Realms of Valor is the first of a new type of Realms book we’ll see many more of in years to come: the anthology. Here we have a collection of eleven short stories, mostly by familiar authors but with a couple of newcomers added to the mix. It’s a shame, though, that although a couple of the authors represented here are new to writing Forgotten Realms material, all of them are ones who have written for TSR before. This seems like it would have been a good chance to introduce some new voices, but we won’t see any newcomers contributing to Realms fiction until next year’s Realms of Infamy.

Writing a short story is a very different beast from writing a novel. With such limited space to work with, technique becomes critical; you can’t afford sprawling descriptions, irrelevant digressions, or character-building that doesn’t further the plot at the same time. I’m looking forward to seeing how these novelists adapt to the challenge. However, I must admit that I’m somewhat at a loss for how to review this, since it doesn’t fit my usual structure. I suppose I’ll just go story by story, writing down whatever pops into my head about each in a haphazard fashion. Let’s see what happens!

Douglas Niles, “The Lord of Lowhill”

Pawldo from the Moonshae trilogy and a halfling friend explore a mysterious haunted castle and barely escape with their lives. It’s a pretty decent ghost story which does a good job of setting up the atmosphere, though it’s burdened by an excess of clumsy exposition at the beginning where the two characters explain to each other the history and folklore which they already know for the reader’s benefit. It’s nice to see Pawldo getting some personality traits besides just “the nice guy” — greed and foolhardiness, in this case — because he didn’t get much development in the Moonshae books that he was in.

Looking back, I think it would have worked better character-wise if Stefanik had been the suicidally inquisitive one rather than Pawldo. Pawldo is clearly susceptible to flattery, so maybe when Stefanik was all “Of course you can help me! You’re the hero who did all these brave things I’ve heard about!”, Pawldo might have decided to roll with it out of a sense of not wanting to disappoint his fans or look like a coward. That would have added an interesting internal conflict and made him look smarter than he does here, where he strides straight into an obviously haunted castle which is made entirely of actual human skulls saying “Come on! It’ll be great! What could possibly go wrong?” Pawldo, buddy, you’d never survive ten minutes in a horror movie with that attitude.

Ed Greenwood, “Elminster at the Magefair”

Elminster and Storm Silverhand go to a magic convention and do some sneaky spycraft, snark at the other attendees, then battle a scary monster and nearly die. (There are a lot of unkind jokes I could be making here about role-playing game conventions, but I will forbear.) The descriptions of the fairgrounds, fairgoers, and the other locations are all quite good, but the dialogue feels hit-or-miss to me. The plot starts off well with a clear goal and interesting obstacles, but ends up in the weeds with a random monster who’s defeated in a random-seeming manner in a scene that feels like it connects only tenuously to the previous sections.

Elminster’s smugness here, as in most of his appearances, is continually irritating. He’s almost always in a position where he knows more than anyone else but won’t share his knowledge because if he did, he’d unravel all the mysteries of the plot in two minutes and put the author in a bind. (I still think Azure Bonds’ take on Elminster is my favourite, largely because he doesn’t have all the answers and spends most of the book in the background trying to figure them out.) But I did appreciate that he’s not invincible; he nearly gets his ass handed to him in a magical duel here, and only Storm’s timely intervention keeps him alive. Having that moment of genuine helplessness goes a long way towards not making him seem like an author’s pet.

I found myself annoyed, however, at the way magic is treated in this story. Elminster can basically make anything happen with a wave of his hand, with no apparent limitations or preparation, which makes the obstacles they encounter seem trivial. In the immortal words of H.G. Wells, “If anything is possible, nothing is interesting.” I’m okay with Elminster’s use of magic not fitting into the standard D&D Vancian magic system, but magic is only interesting if the reader has some idea of what it can and can’t do. If the author doesn’t establish that early on, it just feels like a deus ex machina to solve problems that they didn’t want to have to deal with. Once or twice in a novel-length tale is fine, but much of this short story is just variations on the theme of “Elminster waved his hand, and X happened.”

Christie Golden, “One Last Drink”

I get the impression that TSR was starting to seriously worry about White Wolf at this point. Vampire: the Masquerade was released in 1991, two years earlier, and made major inroads into TSR’s target market with its grimdark setting, focus on strong narratives, and spot-on exploitation of the 1990s counter-culture zeitgeist. “One Last Drink” is a closed-circle story that wouldn’t feel out of place in any of White Wolf’s published fiction: a gang of vampires comes to a peaceful town, slaughtering, raping, and terrorizing the inhabitants in a manner more reminiscent of a Rob Zombie film than the classic gothic horror I associate with Ravenloft. Jander Sunstar, an elven vampire who’d made his appearance two years earlier in the first Ravenloft novel, makes a prequel appearance here as a helpless thrall of the master vampire who finally seizes the opportunity to slay his sire.

Honestly, it’s pretty good. The story is tightly constructed, with each relevant element established earlier in the story in a gradual build-up. The vampires are appropriately hideous, the constrained setting forces the heroes to get clever to defeat them, and the eventual victory feels hard-won. It’s a bit more over-the-top horror than I was expecting for a Forgotten Realms anthology, with buckets of blood both figurative and literal, but I found it satisfying and well-told. Sure, Jander is a bit melodramatic, but he’s a Ravenloft character. That’s the whole point of them, right?

Elaine Cunningham, “The Bargain”

It’s another road trip with Arilyn Moonblade and Danilo Thann, everyone’s favourite odd couple of Harpers. This time they’re embroiled in the tumultuous politics of Tethyr, carefully setting up contacts in a foreign city while evading multiple feuding assassins. (The Harpers from Red Magic could take some pointers from these two about how to be actual spies.) It’s mostly intrigue and lots of banter between the two protagonists, punctuated by occasional moments of action, but all the action serves the plot and doesn’t feel like filler. Nothing here feels like filler, actually; it’s a well-built story that characterizes the protagonists, sets up their goal, then runs them through some clever twists and turns to get them there. I quite enjoyed it, and I’m sad that I have to wait until I get to 1994 to read the next novel about these characters. Cunningham is the best of all of the Realms authors thus far at stories of intrigue and mystery, the sort where each character only has partial knowledge of the situation and the reader has to remember who knows what about whom.

The contortions that she has to go through to say that a place is a brothel without actually being allowed to come out and say it are hilarious:

The crowd comprised men of all ages and social classes. Only men, Arilyn noted, though a row of doors lining the north wall of the taproom suggested that women were not entirely absent from the establishment.

It’s even sillier that she had to do so given that the previous story completely ignored TSR’s legendarily porous code of ethics.

David Cook, “Patronage”

This story picks up one of the more interesting loose ends from the Empires trilogy: what happened to Koja, Yamun Khahan’s close friend and court historian, after the khahan’s disastrous defeat by the combined armies of the Heartlands in Crusade? Turns out he’s stuck in Procampur, thousands of miles from his homeland, trying to write and publish his first-hand history of the Tuigan invasions for a Western audience. I love the way Cook shows how he’s so obviously homesick and out of his element, stranded in this uncomfortable and unfamiliar place, which gives you plenty of empathy for his plight. He’s an idealist in a messy world; most of the people he interacts with either don’t understand why he’s so dead-set on telling his story or prefer exaggerated, fictionalized accounts of the war to the real thing.

There’s no action whatsoever in this story, but it’s my favourite of the collection for its lovely character work. (Particular kudos go to the banquet scene where Koja is dining with a bunch of racist, ignorant nobles and has to try to correct their attitudes without offending his hosts.) There’s a deus ex machina at the end but it doesn’t feel random or unearned; the deus in question has a good reason to do what they do, and it’s not without its price. I’ll always wonder how Koja’s story ended, since “Patronage” marks his last appearance in the Realms canon.

Scott Ciencin, “A Virtue by Reflection”

A murder mystery where Myrmeen Lhal, protagonist of Ciencin’s The Night Parade, has to discover why a dismembered merchant was found in her palace gardens. The quality of the writing is pretty middling. As with The Night Parade, there’s too much extraneous description and the occasional hilarious melodrama that makes you laugh out loud:

She could almost hear his voice as he raised his armored fist in the air and railed against his enemies, promising that they would experience the dark miracle of his vengeance.

No. Just no. But as with the novel, I’m willing to give it a pass because Myrmeen is a fun amoral badass of a character:

“Understand this, Lord Zacharius: Even if I was attracted to you — which I am not — I could make love to you tonight and order your death tomorrow.”

I’ll prioritize vivid, entertaining characters over high-quality prose any day. All in all a fun read, though not a great one. The plot doesn’t make a ton of sense when you start thinking too hard about it, and it needed more space to drop clues and connections naturally instead of forcing reams of exposition into the big reveal scene at the end.

Mark Anthony, “King’s Tear”

Anthony is a newcomer to the stable of Forgotten Realms authors, though he’d co-written one Dragonlance novel before. His first full-length Forgotten Realms novel is coming up soon in the queue, and this story gives me some apprehension about reading it. I quite liked the protagonist, Tyveris, a retired warrior who’s trying to atone for his bloody past. He’s also the first black protagonist we’ve had in any Realms novel thus far, too, which is well worth celebrating. The slavery angle is weird, though. Apparently he was taken from Chult and made a slave — a painfully on-the-nose approximation of the real-world slave trade — and pressed into service as a warrior. How do you even have war slaves, anyhow? Is that a thing? If you give a pissed-off slave a sword, why will he not kill you with it? Doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The villains are thoroughly unconvincing. The necromancer lady is just your usual boring Evil Overlord stereotype, and the crazy priest doesn’t have the subtlety he needs to make his brand of fascism scary enough, so he just comes off like a raving wingnut. There’s no subtlety in the story at all, actually — the good people and bad people are obvious from the get-go, and the good people instinctively know when someone is bad, so nobody can be deceived or misled. Everyone interprets events correctly, and are never confused or at a loss. Divine intervention saves the day at the end in a random fashion. I didn’t love this one; the many flaws outweighed the good bits.

James Lowder, “The Family Business”

A prequel story to The Ring of Winter, where a seven-year-old Artus Cimber is being taught the fine arts of highway banditry by his father. They end up saving a younger Prince Azoun, not yet king, from some very odd Zhentarim assassins. The characters are well-done, the dialogue feels natural, and Artus’ victory is entirely a matter of cleverness and quick thinking. It’s very action-heavy, but no part of it seems irrelevant — they have a clear goal, and do smart things to further it. I appreciate how Lowder is always willing to let his characters suffer setbacks and injury, like when Azoun loses his sword or Artus gets choked and bashed while falling out of the tree. Too many authors are afraid of inconveniencing their darlings, but danger feels unreal if everything always works out well for the characters. All things considered, one of the better stories here.

Jean Rabe, “Grandfather’s Toys”

Galvin, the druid from Red Magic, is called to an old friend’s tower to help search for his missing granddaughter. Does he do so by wild-shaping into a bloodhound and sniffing around for her? Nope. Instead, he spends pages and pages faffing about looking at crates and junk. The chain of logic that leads to finding her at the end is hard to follow, and apparently sharks are strong enough to drag giant metal-and-glass robots through the water for miles. Frankly, it’s a mess.

Troy Denning, “The Curse of Tegea”

Adon from the Avatar series, now a priest of Mystra, travels to a cursed village ruled by a tyrannical duke in order to lift their curse. It starts out strong, with a sort of “gunfighters entering a scared Wild West town” sort of feel to it, but the more we learn about the plot, the less sense it makes. The story rests on one contradiction that it never bothers explaining: How can a mortal cast a magic spell that would block out the goddess of magic from an area? Apparently the gods can’t see into Tegea because of a spell someone cast, which doesn’t really make much sense. They’re gods — sort of the whole point of gods is that they’re way beyond mortal magic. (At least, they are now.) And using magic to ward off the goddess of magic seems kind of like bear-proofing your house by building it out of delicious honeycomb. Even if you ignore the goofy premise, the villainous duke is still a bizarre caricature who doesn’t make much sense as a character. His motivations are unclear, and his obsession with appearance isn’t really explained. By the time the story staggered to an unsatisfying ending, I was ready for it to be done.

R.A. Salvatore, “Dark Mirror”

Oh god, this writing. Even if TSR hadn’t put attributions on any of these stories, you would immediately know which one was R.A. Salvatore’s because of the incredibly bombastic style. Here’s the first paragraph:

Sunrise. Birth of a new day. An awakening of the surface world, filled with the hopes and dreams of a million hearts. Filled, too, I have come painfully to know, with the hopeless labors of so many others.

And it goes on and on like that, getting more and more purple as it goes. Next to the comparatively plain style of all the other stories here, it feels as out of place as a Sarah McLachlan song on a mixtape of grunge music. (1993, yo.) The story is another answer of sorts to the creepy racist themes Salvatore filled Sojourn with, where Drizzt meets a goblin who defies his expectation of what goblins should be and makes him question some deeply held assumptions. The dialogue is all very melodramatic and you can guess how it’s going to play out from the beginning, but it’s a tragic story where the heroes don’t get what they want, and I’m always a fan of those. Not bad.

Conclusion

Grade: B–

I enjoyed the anthology format. The nice thing about a mixed bag like this is that even when you suffer through a badly-written story, you know it’s going to be short and you’ll probably get to a better one soon. Beats slogging through a bad 300-page novel, that’s for sure. The good stories are a pleasure to read and the bad ones aren’t bad enough to be memorable. I’m looking forward to the next collection.

I’m kind of grimly impressed that they managed to have eleven short stories here where not a single one passed the Bechdel test, though. Sheesh.

4 Replies to “Realms of Valor

  1. Slave armies are actually somewhat common, historically speaking. The Mamluks and the Janissaries are probably the most prominent examples. The Romans also used slave armies. Typically the way this worked however was that serving in the army was a way of earning your freedom.
    Often the idea was that the army or warlord or whoever would buy the slaves, often specifically taken from foreign lands, and place them into their military life and then “free” them, and the result would be that the soldiers were completely dependant on their lords for food, clothing, etc, yet also loyal to their lord/nation as the one who “freed” them, so you would have an army of soldiers who couldn’t desert because they had nowhere else to go and no other connections in the area, and wouldn’t turn against their superiors or switch sides because of their loyalty and also lack of investment in the politics of the area.
    So in a lot of these cases you had slaves who weren’t technically slaves but still effectively slaves.
    Or altneratively you had prisoners of war pressed into service on the opposite side because in many cases you could get better treatment, food, etc, that way, like the Ostruppen in World War II.

    1. I love the historical details, Ben! Thanks! That sort of slavery isn’t what’s described in “King’s Tear,” though. It’s a very North American conception of slavery: black slaves taken away in boats and subjected to whips, irons, and chains. No mention of any sort of incentives or indoctrination, just physical punishment. A better point of comparison, historically speaking, might be that the Confederates didn’t use their slave labour for combat during the Civil War.

      I’m also disappointed that we’re having this conversation, to be honest. The first black protagonist in the Realms after 36 novels should be a cause for celebration, but having him be an on-the-nose representation of real-world issues makes him feel less like an individual character and more like a symbol, if that makes sense. This story could have been written exactly the same without the slavery aspect, and I think it would have been better for it.

  2. I’ve never minded Maztica being a Mesoamerican analogue or Chult being a Central Africa analogue but I do think a mistake was made in attempting to replicate historical colonialism in the Realms setting with regards to those places. Let’s for all means have some fantasy based on the folklore and mythos of other cultures that can then interact with the standard European flavoured fantasy, I think that’s fun, but it sucks to come to the Realms and be told, “Oh yeah, POC got fucked over here too!” It’s fantasy, after all, and a fantasy world that’s mostly meant to be played in for fun. I don’t necessarily mean that to say that grittier elements like slavery and imperialism shouldn’t exist, but rather that the Realms shouldn’t be a mirror to Earth history.

    1. Exactly! If you’re just directly retelling real-world history in your fantasy world, then it’s not fantasy — it’s merely everyday reality with a thin veneer of the unusual. Ed Greenwood has often spoken about his distaste for TSR’s shoehorning of real-world elements into the Realms (here, for instance), so it’s not just us who feel that way.

      It’ll be at least a couple of weeks until the next post. I’ve got a vacation coming up shortly, but I’ll try to finish off The Druid Queen shortly after I get back.

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