Red Magic

Author: Jean Rabe
Published: December 1991

For the third book in the open-ended Harpers series, another new writer briefly joined the Forgotten Realms’ usual stable of authors. Jean Rabe’s only credits to this point had been tabletop D&D materials for the RPGA, but TSR gave her a shot at writing a full-length novel. Daring decision or terrible error? Let’s find out.

This novel explores the hitherto unexamined land of Thay, an expansionist nation where an aristocracy of powerful and evil wizards holds sway over hordes of slaves. They’re one of the “designated villains” nations in the Forgotten Realms, along with Zhentil Keep — whenever you see a character from Thay show up, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be evil and probably magical in some way. I actually appreciate the setting work in this book, because Rabe goes out of her way to point out that not all Thayvians are evil and it’s actually a rather visually lovely place. Their society may be messed up and the aristocracy may be a bunch of malevolent prats, but it’s not a Mordor-style evil land of evilness. It’s always nice when a Realms novel doesn’t lean hard on easy “good versus evil” tropes. If this book had extended the same moral ambiguity to its characters, I’d probably have liked it better.

Plot

The short version: Two Harper agents and an Aglarondan sorceress have a vague idea that something bad is going down in Thay, so they blunder into the country and bumble about in an incredibly unsubtle fashion. Seriously, their actual plan is “Let’s go into this city and just ask random people questions until we find an evil plot.” No leads, no contacts, nothing — not exactly James Bond material. And of course they bring their Harper pins along and are recognized because someone spots them. You’d think the Harpers would eventually figure out what a horrible liability those things are.

Eventually they’re found out — no great surprise, given the degree of spycraft they demonstrate — and are railroaded into working for Szass Tam, the undead leader of Thay’s fractious wizard rulers. That cringeworthy conversation basically goes like this:

“You will serve me or die!”
“Never!”
“Are you sure?”
“…Okay!”

Sheesh. So they have a big battle with the evil overlord and things get all dramatic until the end.

The ratio of plot and character development to action scenes is good; I appreciate books that are more talk and less combat. Unfortunately, instead of arising as a consequence of the plot, the fight scenes are often just random encounters where they’ll stumble into a bunch of monsters, or monsters will stumble into them, and they’ll slug it out for a while. Even if something plot-relevant comes out of the aftermath of the combat it still feels forced, as if it were motivated more by the author feeling a need to ratchet up the dramatic tension than because the book actually needed a battle there.

Themes

There could have been some good themes in here. The nation of Thay is rife with rich veins of political and social commentary which an author might mine, and maybe you could work in something poignant about the ruinous cost of unchecked ambition to one’s soul. But nothing really stands out as a theme as I’m looking back over the book — just maybe “nature is good” and “don’t piss off immortal archmages who command vast armies of the dead,” neither of which come as much of a surprise.

In particular, the system of slavery entrenched in Thayvian society could have made for some good drama, but aside from a couple of characters saying “Man, I hate slavery” and a couple of scenes of Maligor being cruel to his slaves, little is made of it. We don’t hear their stories or see what life is like for them, and the only dialogue the slaves have with our heroes is to deliver exposition, so it all feels like window dressing.

Characters

Galvin, a druid who works for the Harpers, had a lot of potential to be an interesting protagonist. He’s agoraphobic and misanthropic, preferring to live by himself in the wilderness and uncomfortable with social interaction. If the author had played up the vulnerable aspects of that characterization — shyness or awkwardness, for instance — he might have been a memorable and better-rounded character. But instead he’s a callous, self-centred jerk whose tone-deaf interactions with his companions make you wince. I get the impression that the author was expecting us to feel sympathetic towards him, but she doesn’t give us many reasons to.

This isn’t to say that protagonists necessarily have to have positive or humanizing characteristics — that’s the whole point of an antihero. But for the antihero thing to work, they have to be engaging. You have to be intrigued about what drives them, as with Meursault from L’Étranger, or curious about the conflict that they’re embroiled in, as with Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. If you’re not going to make the protagonist likeable, you still have to give the reader something to care about, and Galvin fails hard at that. He doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, he spends most of the book not being very competent, his motivations aren’t much more than just “the Harpers told me to do this,” and his characterization is too shallow to keep one’s attention for long.

Brenna is his designated love interest. She gets little character development — pretty much all we learn about her is that she’s a member of the governing council of Aglarond. But who is she? What does she like? What motivates her? The only answers we get are “a sorceress,” “pretty dresses,” and “not liking Thay,” respectively. She also serves as the not-very-bright character whom the other characters have to explain things to for the benefit of the reader, which doesn’t make her any more likeable or even make sense at all. What are the odds that an educated, accomplished wizard and politician would need basic things like “what’s a druid?” or “what’s a ghoul?” explained to her?

Galvin and Brenna’s interactions make me feel like I’m watching a cheesy 1940s screwball comedy. You know the type: he’s kind of a demanding jerk, she’s fussy and impractical. He’s all “This dizzy dame is going to spoil everything!” She’s all “Why, I never! You brute!” They have the usual slap-slap-kiss relationship development with lots of belligerent sexual tension. Finally, they learn to appreciate each other, which mostly means her learning to appreciate him and him not having to change much. That’s our protagonists’ relationship in a nutshell, even down to the obligatory scene where he picks her up, throws her over her shoulder, and carries her off when she’s being obstreperous. Their interactions feel like they belong in a black-and-white romantic comedy, but stand out as anachronistic and cheesy next to the otherwise fairly serious tone of the rest of the book. It’s as if the author was aiming for Much Ado About Nothing, but forgot that both characters need to be likeable and well-characterized for that story to work. Instead the pattern is that she acts rather dim, he behaves like a dick to her about it, and the reader loses sympathy for both of them.

Wynter, Galvin’s centaur companion, is much better. He’s a sensitive, clever fellow who’s conflicted about returning to his hated homeland, so right off the bat you’ve got a fair amount of material for characterization. Once it became clear that he was sensible, competent, and not a complete tool, I quickly started wishing he’d been the protagonist of this novel instead. Unfortunately he gets sidelined partway through the novel, leaving us saddled with the other two as viewpoint characters.

Maligor, the evil wizard who sets the story in motion, is your standard evil overlord from Central Casting. He’s got no backstory, few distinguishing personality traits besides the usual “calculating and cruel”, hardly any connections to other characters, and he’s even introduced in a scene where he tortures animals just to make sure the reader is crystal clear on who the bad guy is. So much for subtlety! He gets rather a lot of screen time, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, we learn a lot about Thay and its society by watching how its leaders live and work, and their constant plotting against each other is reasonably interesting to watch. On the other hand, he’s just so bland that all of the other characters he interacts with — Asp, Szass Tam, Willeth, et cetera — overshadow him. I’d rather spend a scene with any of the minor characters he interacts with than see what Maligor is up to, because I’ve seen the “standard evil overlord” template so many times that it just doesn’t do much for me any more. As villains go, Cassana from Azure Bonds got about a tenth the screen time this guy gets, and she was still more vivid and well-characterized. The best thing I can say about him is that at least he’s competent; he effectively executes his evil plan and cleverly turns situations to his advantage, so it doesn’t feel like he’s an ineffectual roadblock for our heroes.

His adjutant Asp, a naga, actually has the beginnings of a decent characterization: ambitious, petulant, fallible, and anxious for approval. But she spends most of the book doing things that aren’t relevant to the plot, doesn’t get a chance to interact with anyone besides Maligor, then goes down like a chump at the end. So it goes.

Szass Tam, the lich archmage, could have been such a great character. He’s creepy, amoral, collects corpses like some people collect stamps, and could have been a mysterious chessmaster positioned on either side of the conflict. But he’s hamstrung by a great deal of incredibly hammy, clunky dialogue:

“Harper spies,” Szass Tam said evenly. “I don’t like the Harper organization and its politics. Harpers are nothing more than meddlers in other people’s affairs. I remember many decades ago when I crossed paths with some meddling Harpers. I defeated them with ease and needed no potent sorcery to do it. Your organization is unruly and ineffectual, poking into everything and commanding nothing. Your membership is secret, so you have no single strong leader. You are fools.”

Who talks like that? Rather than a compelling antagonist who subtly intervenes in the plot, what we end up with is a deus ex machina who suddenly provides our “meddling” heroes with a big army and a ton of sweet magic items, then turns them loose on his enemies. Instead of, you know, gutting them like fish, turning them into mind-controlled vampires, and then turning them loose on his enemies. Such a waste of a villain.

I think the only characters here that I’d actually want to read a book about are the dwarven slaves whom Wynter buys midway through the book. They’re hilariously surly, rebellious, and uncommunicative, and probably have way more interesting stories than our ostensible protagonists, so of course they disappear and are never mentioned again.

Writing

The writing is not great. Most of it is in the mediocre-to-decent range, but there’s so many little rough edges all over that could have been sanded down without much work.

The wagon, which must have been from a local farm, was filled with some type of crop.

It was also driven by some type of hominid, and pulled by some sort of quadrupedal mammal! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author tell me “I thought about putting a detail here, but decided not to” in quite such a straightforward manner before. Or there’s this fun bit:

He sauntered from the chamber as erect as his aged back and the liqueur allowed.

I get the “bad back” thing, sure, but I can’t read the rest of the sentence without parsing it as “he’s drunk so much that he’s having a hard time getting erect.” Also, the dialogue often sounds incredibly clunky coming out of the characters’ mouths:

“I had wanted glory at the head of an army, but the subtlety of this intrigues and excites me. When do we move?”

This sort of thing is pervasive; characters speak woodenly, like they’re narrating what’s happening to themselves rather than carrying on a conversation with another person. There are lots of problems like this, each individually small, but so numerous that their cumulative effect breaks your immersion and makes the artifice obvious.

One quirk that quickly becomes apparent is that the writer has a very tenuous grasp on how nature works, which is a problem when you’re writing a novel where a druid is the main character. For instance, apparently rubbing some plants on a deep, near-fatal spear wound will cause it to heal overnight. With natural healing like that available, why do people even bother with clerics? Later, Brenna loses a boot, so Galvin makes her a pair of moccasins out of antelope hide. A freshly killed antelope hide. Which he hasn’t tanned. So basically she’s going to spend the rest of the novel walking around with squishy rotting skin on her feet.

Look, I know I’m not the best person to be criticizing this stuff. I grew up in the suburbs. Most of my days involve some form of sitting in front of a desk staring at a computer. I can barely tell poison ivy from mint. The outside and I don’t generally get along, is what I’m saying. But even I know enough about wilderness survival to be sure that you shouldn’t treat a freely bleeding stab wound by rubbing a bunch of ferns into it, and you shouldn’t try sliding around the forest on gobbets of raw antelope.

Conclusion

Grade: D+

It’s not quite as excruciating as some of the other books we’ve seen so far, but it’s far from good. I was initially going to give it a higher grade, but as I was writing this I noticed that I kept finding only negative or lukewarm things to say. This isn’t a travesty against literature like Feathered Dragon, but it was certainly a slog to finish it, so I’m not sorry to see that this particular author didn’t get the chance to turn this into a series.

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