Author: Ed Greenwood
Published: March 1995
After R.A. Salvatore, Ed Greenwood is the most prolific author of Forgotten Realms novels, with twenty-eight published Realms books to Salvatore’s forty-five. He was notorious among TSR’s authors and editors for being able to crank out reams of words for twelve or more hours per day, and by one account once produced 11 books in a single year while still holding down a part-time job as a librarian. Immediately after finishing Elminster: The Making of a Mage, he produced the trilogy we’re about to examine in a matter of months.
The sheer quantity of his output is impressive, but what about the quality? Is it possible for an author to create thoughtful, engaging stories at that speed, or will it just be an assembly line for extruding books by the yard? Greenwood’s previous output has been of variable quality so far: Spellfire and Making of a Mage were flawed books kept afloat by some decent setting and character work, but Crown of Fire was a dismal slog through endless pointless battle scenes. Alas, the further I got into Shadows of Doom, the more I realized that Crown of Fire wasn’t a one-off aberration. Nearly every complaint I had about that book applies here, with some new ones thrown in.
To say that Shadows of Doom has a plot would be exceedingly generous. It starts with a solid premise: when the Time of Troubles begins, the immortal mage Elminster is rendered powerless by Mystra’s absence, completely losing his ability to wield magic. He’s made many long-lived enemies over the centuries, and now is the perfect time for them to come gunning for him. It’s a good chance to humanize a powerful character, and it potentially solves the issue I’ve pointed out in a couple of Elminster’s previous appearances: he often just waves his hand and makes problems magically disappear in a way that kills drama. But this is all a bait-and-switch — after establishing this premise, the novel immediately throws it on the floor.
Instead, Elminster goes wandering alone in the wilderness with no magic and no supplies. Sharantyr of the Knights of Myth Drannor catches up to him and saves him from getting shanked by bandits. Then some Zhentarim wizards open a magical gate to their campsite, so they kill a bunch of mooks and decide to walk through it, having only a vague idea of what’s on the other side, with the intention to single-handedly fight dozens of Zhentarim once they get there. Elminster is an old man with only a handful of magical items; Sharantyr has a sword. They never consider going back to Shadowdale to call for backup or get better equipment. Oh, and did I mention the stakes? Elminster is the unwilling repository for most of the goddess Mystra’s power now that she’s been exiled. They know that if Elminster dies, much of Mystra’s power will be lost and the world will be screwed; if he’s captured, the Zhentarim can steal Mystra’s power from him and the world will be screwed. Truly, the proper word for an excess of heroism is “lunacy.” (My notes for this scene are just the words “UNIMAGINABLY STUPID” in capital letters, double-underlined.)
The next three-quarters of the book is spent watching Elminster, Sharantyr, and a couple of random Harpers trying to free the High Dale from its Zhentarim-controlled government by killing half the dale’s population. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the Avatar crisis, magical instability, Elminster’s old enemies gunning for him, or any of the other themes which were so carefully set up at the beginning. Instead it’s just Elminster and friends going on a Zhentarim-slaughtering rampage, with battle after battle after tedious battle where hundreds of random bad guys get killed in heaps and piles. I thought it was bad in Salvatore’s books when the last third of a novel would be one long running battle, but Shadows of Doom is practically nothing but combat — an entire book of meaningless violence with practically no plot and only occasional pauses for breath.
What is anyone’s motivation here? Why did the Zhentarim open a gate from the High Dale to a ruined farmhouse in the middle of the Daggerdale wilderness? (There’s some lip service to “oh, they can secretly move supplies to the High Dale through it,” but you know where would be a great place to put the other end of the gate if you wanted to secretly move supplies? Zhentil Keep, geniuses.) Was it a complete coincidence that Elminster and Sharantyr happened to be in this random spot in the middle of nowhere when this gate was opened? Why is Elminster doing suicidally stupid things when he knows that the entire world will be permanently screwed if anything happens to him? Isn’t this guy supposed to be wise? The only people here with a clear motivation — don’t let Elminster get killed — are the pair of Harpers sent after him. Heaven knows someone has to do it, because he seems to be trying to get himself killed as hard as he can, repeatedly throwing himself into extremely dangerous situations without a plan more complicated than “pretend to be a goofy old man” or “shoot lots of people with my wand of magic missiles.”
At one point the heroes rescue the imprisoned old lord of the High Dale and I thought, “Hey, here’s a character with an interesting story. Maybe now someone will get some character development!” Then he immediately declares “I must slay all my foes!” and starts more battle scenes where Zhentarim mooks get pounded into paste. Sigh. So much for that. Every time a new character is introduced, they pick up a weapon and start killing people. The only “characterization” any of them get is briefly explaining why they want to kill Zhentarim before they’re set loose to join the endless butchery.
By the time I was halfway through the book, I was bored — deeply, soul-crushingly, brain-meltingly bored. I couldn’t find a reason for anyone’s actions, and the combat felt constant, exhausting, and completely purposeless. Eventually I just started skimming some of the innumerable fight scenes in search of any nuggets of plot advancement or characterization, but they were few and far between. You’d think that someone with the creativity to invent such a detailed world could think of something better for his characters to do in it than just relentlessly kill each other.
The “Elminster’s old enemies want revenge” plot picks up again at the very end, after the Zhentarim in the High Dale have been thoroughly genocided. By this point it’s a false conclusion — the victory in the High Dale feels like the climax, and everything afterwards feels like a secondary climax that aggravates an already exhausted reader, complete with more disposable villains and meaningless violence. We eventually discover that the Zhentarim leader Manshoon has some sort of vague supervillain plot afoot that we don’t learn much of and that I was far too weary to bring myself to care about. It’s a baffling structure for a novel.
It’s interesting to see Greenwood do everything wrong here that he did better in Elminster: The Making of a Mage. In that book, Elminster was the main character and nearly all of the scenes were from his point of view, so he got plenty of time for characterization. There was an overarching plot — reclaim the throne of Athalantar from usurpers — and each section of the book furthered that plot in some way. Here, there are many point-of-view characters: Elminster, Sharantyr, the Harpers, lots of random folk from the High Dale, the villains. None of them get much characterization because the book spends all its time on fighting, and since they spend almost the entire book broken up into separate small groups and don’t meet up until the end, they don’t have many interesting interactions with each other. The “Zhentarim controlling the High Dale” plot has nothing to do with Elminster or anyone else; it’s just a completely random thing that they stumble upon with no setup. Everything about this novel suggests that it was written off the top of the author’s head without any planning or forethought.
Elminster watched him topple and wondered briefly why it is that men find it necessary to spill each other’s blood so often and for so many reasons. More than a thousand years after he’d first asked himself that question, he asked it now and found no new answer.
Sharantyr answered his smile, briefly, but her eyes grew somber when she saw the dead. “I like this killing little,” she whispered with sudden urgency, turning to him. “Believe me, won’t you?”
“I’m getting a little weary of all this bloodshed,” Itharr said quietly.
You and me both, mate.
Characters keep expressing sentiments like this about oh, isn’t it terrible that we have to keep doing all this slaying? Then they keep slaying, and slaying, and slaying, and slaying. And just when you think they might be done with it and the plot might move forward a little, they slay some more. So many mooks, such unclear stakes, so few reasons for the reader to care.
Frankly, it feels like a sort of hypocrisy on the author’s part. Why make your characters bemoan the slaughter if that’s all you give them to do? The violence doesn’t deepen any characterization or further the plot, so it’s obviously just there to excite the audience. It’s a titillation every bit as vulgar as Greenwood’s recurring “get all the ladies naked” theme. In the best of the Realms novels, the violence feels real, dangerous, necessary to the plot, and tells us something about the characters. Here the characters do meaningless gladiatorial combat for the audience’s benefit, then periodically turn to the camera to say “Are you not entertained?“
I am decidedly not. I feel the same way about the excessive combats in most of R.A. Salvatore’s novels, but at least he rarely tries to play this false-feeling “oh, woe is us for we must kill” card and just assumes that you’re there to enjoy it. I think that’s why I find the non-stop violence in his books merely boring, whereas in this book I find it actively aggravating.
Elminster’s characterization is all over the place here. He starts off as his normal “wise sage” self, then becomes increasingly reckless and devil-may-care with his life, despite knowing that his death or capture would be a global catastrophe. There’s some ink spilled about how being depowered gives him a new perspective on life and makes him decide to keep living, but it would have worked better if we’d actually seen his ennui earlier in the book so we knew why this was a noteworthy change. In the end, he’s as much a macguffin as a person: other people wanting to protect him or kill him is what drives the story.
Sharantyr, a ranger of the Knights of Myth Drannor who made a brief appearance in Spellfire, gets considerably more screen time here. After finishing this book, however, I don’t feel as if I know her any better. Her entire motivation is basically “I was traumatized as a Zhentarim slave when I was younger, so now I’m going to kill every Zhent who comes within a mile of me” — and boy, does she ever. She heaps bodies like a serial killer, occasionally stopping to say “Isn’t it a shame that I have to slaughter all these people?”, then goes right on killing. Elminster has a good avuncular dynamic with her at first, but after a while the constant banter becomes forced and tired. He keeps doing increasingly life-threatening things and Sharantyr just goes “Oh, you!” and backs him up instead of clocking him on his fool head and dragging him to safety the way any sensible person would.
Storm Silverhand appears at the beginning of the book in a manner more aggravating than fingernails on a chalkboard. This made me laugh out loud:
Many came, some skeptical that one woman could really be so special. They left amazed and changed, and spoke of their meetings with her in awe and with fondness.
If the author were laying it on any thicker, he’d need to use a cement mixer. She’s training a couple of Harpers, where “training” means swordfighting with them, sleeping with them, and letting them watch her be awesome. She also spends much of her screen time naked or half-naked, which is more tiresome than titillating — it feels like something thrown in to entertain the author and the audience rather than something which makes sense for the characters or the situations.
Itharr and Belkram, the Harpers she’s training, aren’t much to speak of. They’re fairly major viewpoint characters, spending most of the novel chasing after Elminster at Storm’s behest, but it’s never particularly clear who they are. We get some bits of their backstory, but it’s the sort of backstory that just tells you what they’ve done and not why they are who they are. Unsurprisingly, the reason why we don’t get any more detailed sense of them than “nice guys, good at stabbing people” is because that’s pretty much all they do in this book: be nice to good people and stab bad people. They certainly don’t seem particularly bright; their approach to finding Elminster is to walk into rooms full of bad guys and say “We’re Harpers. Where’s Elminster at?”, starting more monotonous fights that any sane person could have easily avoided.
They also get a weird homophobic moment at the start of the book, where they’re shocked after meeting Lhaeo:
Itharr and Belkram looked at Storm, then at each other, and spoke at once.
“Is that Elminster’s scribe?”
“What now, lady?”
Storm looked at them both. “Be not hasty in judgement of Elminster’s true friend,” she said calmly. “He is not as he appears, for good reasons, and he is very worried for the safety of Elminster.”
Here, let me translate that for you:
Itharr and Belkram looked at Storm, then at each other, and spoke at once.
“Whoah, Elminster lives with a gay dude?”
Storm looked at them both. “Chill, bros. No homo,” she said calmly. “He’s just pretending to be gay, so it’s okay.”
Once again, the antagonist role in an Ed Greenwood novel is played by an organization of disposable, mostly anonymous villains. The Zhentarim here are so aggressively incompetent, so self-defeating and easily disposed of, that one can’t even muster the enthusiasm to care what happens to them. They die by scores, slaughtered by the protagonists, random villagers, old ladies, and each other at a prodigious rate. How did the Black Network recruit so many hapless schmucks for such a shitty job — and why did they bother? As is standard for Greenwood’s villains, none of them have motivations more complicated than “I’m greedy and ambitious.” Most of them tend to gloat and taunt instead of attacking, or otherwise give their foes plenty of time to do whatever they please in a clumsy B-movie villain way.
Speaking of which, their leader Manshoon puts in an unimpressive appearance at the end. He had a little humanity and personality in Spellfire, but here he’s just another cackling, pompous bad guy who, once he has the heroes at his mercy, blathers at length about how smart he is and how he’s going to destroy Elminster before someone else kicks his ass six ways to Sunday. Why do so few authors get villains right?
Very, very dramatic.
What befalls that world if all the bounds and enchantments of its magic should burst at once, to let the fire flash free?
The world perishes in flames, of course, and so this must not befall.
Seriously? The battle scenes have fairly gritty, down-to-earth narration, but the prologue and some of the quieter scenes use a high-flown diction and style that just doesn’t work and sticks out like a sore thumb. The author uses words like “doom” or “befall” as frequently as other authors would use “and” or “the,” and the results feel clunky and unnatural. And since it’s an Ed Greenwood book, it’s inevitable that some of the characters will be speaking in a butchered Ye Olde Englishe. It gets on my nerves more and more with each one I read. There’s not even a semblance of grammar to it:
“I need thee to take on my tasks while I am unable to do them — if ye deem the doing necessary and good, for I will not tell thee how to judge, or that I have been right in what I’ve done.”
It varies between “thee” and “ye” in the same sentence! I understand that this sort of thing can happen when you’re writing at a thousand words a minute, but if there’s one thing that’s a basic part of an editor’s job description, it’s fixing the grammar. I suppose when you have only a few editors and a multiple-books-per-month schedule to adhere to, things slip through the cracks.
When it’s not aiming to be high fantasy, though, the craft is acceptable but not great. It feels like this book didn’t get much polish from either the author or the editor before it went out the door.
I wavered between D– and F for this one, but there were just enough acceptable moments here to pull it back from the brink. It’s not an affront to the concept of literature; it’s just boring and repetitive and uninspired. It could have been cut down to a short novella without losing anything of value.
If there’s a lesson to take away from this review, perhaps it’s this: Just because you can write an entire novel in a month doesn’t mean you should. I’m not the sort who believes that authors must completely outline their books before they start writing, but there’s a happy medium somewhere in between outline slavery and cranking out this sort of pure stream-of-consciousness “write whatever pops into your head” stuff for hundreds of pages. Spending some time up front thinking about where you want the plot to go and what story beats you want to include will give you a stronger foundation to improvise off of.
Or, for the tabletop gamers among us, think of it this way: When a Dungeon Master gives themself plenty of prep time and has a thick stack of notes to draw on, odds are good that they’ll run a great session. But a DM who walks into a session with no preparation at all will probably spend the entire session nervously looking at their watch and saying “Uhh… another six goblins appear!” every time things slow down. There’s only so much of that a player can stand before they gaze numbly at the empty potato chip bags and wish they were doing anything else.
11 Replies to “Shadows of Doom”
I think your comparison with an unprepped DM is very apt here. I suspect this trilogy started in a good place: “Hey, what was Elminster up to in the Time of Troubles?” That event changed so much of the Realms, it makes sense for Greenwood to get to have his say on it. Heck, there are grognards on the Candlekeep website who still speak of how TSR ruined the Realms with the transition to second edition and how only the Realms from 1987-89 is the legit thing, which – hey guys, it’s 2020? There’s much more post-Avatar Realms than not.
But then I think Greenwood’s ability to dash off so much content so quickly combined with TSR’s “just pump out more product, surely someone will buy some of it” policy in the 90s contributed to this whole series being dashed off rather carelessly, written by the seat of the pants and with more care to getting it on the shelf than making it good.
The year Greenwood wrote Spellfire, which is your highest ranked work by him so far, he also worked on the Forgotten Realms Waterdeep City System, and the Lords of Darkness, Waterdeep and the North, and Magister sourcebooks. One novel, four game supplements.
The year Greenwood wrote all three books in the Shadow of the Avatar trilogy, he also wrote a piece for Realms of Magic, and the sourcebooks The Seven Sisters, Volo’s Guide to Cormyr, and Pages from the Mages. Three novels, a short story, and three game supplements.
And that’s not to mention however many Dragon articles he was probably pumping out at the same time.
When it comes to the faux Shakespearean talk he has people doing, I really wish it was consistently from the characters like Elminster who are like a thousand years old. That would really make more sense. I feel like that might be the intent, but at this point it’s more of an affectation than anything.
My thoughts about highly affected styles of writing in fantasy are largely shaped by this essay by Ursula K. LeGuin. While I don’t agree with her on everything — I think there’s plenty of room in fantasy for characters who don’t talk like heroes, as long as you’re still exploring the fantastic and not just dressing up the tropes of other genres in a fantasy veneer — I think her opinions about language here are important.
The section about using archaic language as a way to distance the reader from the real world is particularly relevant. Her position is that the novice writer of fantasy knows that they should be doing something with language to create that sort of distance, but they’re not quite sure what or how. So the novice will start out by creating a messy soup of ungrammatical “thee”s and “thou”s and overused important-sounding words like “tenebrous” and “ichor”, and then will eventually progress past that to find their own unique, memorable voice if they put in the hard work to improve their style. It doesn’t feel to me as if Greenwood ever did. (Though to be honest, I like his D&D supplementary material considerably more than his novels.)
I have no patience for any species of grognards who complain about canon. One must adapt, move on, or die.
Agreed on all counts.
I’m reading a Greenwood novel now, Spellstorm from 2015, and I’d say he’s much the same as Salvatore in the sense that I do feel he’s gotten much better, but he’s still Ed Greenwood. The use of “hey, I’m a librarian” vocabulary is still there (I had to look up a word from a novel for the first time in years) but it’s not as dense. The faux archaic language is there, but not as pronounced. The interest in sex is still there, but Greenwood’s writing in a different cultural context that allows him better ways of expressing that kind of thing without feeling as skeevy as it did in the 90s. There’s still a lot of “Because Mystra said so” as a plot justifier, but Elminster and Mystra are no longer treated as necessarily always trustworthy or in the right. Etc.
There are places for debates about canon when it reveals an unwillingness on the part of creators to do their homework or respect the context they’re working in. And I can get how people who spend a lot of time learning all the lore can feel offended if suddenly the lore doesn’t matter anymore. But the desire of D&D players, of all people, to have everything set in amber and for the story of the world to never move forward or change is maddening to me.
Re “I need thee to take on my tasks while I am unable to do them — if ye deem the doing necessary and good, for I will not tell thee how to judge, or that I have been right in what I’ve done.”
That doesn’t seem too inconsistent to me, even if it’s still incorrect (he should be using “thee” and “thou” if the speaker of the sentence is conversing with only one other person). Greenwood’s using “thee” for the object of a verb phrase, and “ye” for the subject of a verb phrase.
My understanding — and please correct me if I’m wrong, because these are grammar rules that one doesn’t have to use very often — is that the object form of “ye” is “you”. So it should should be “if ye deem the doing necessary and good, for I will not tell you how to judge.” But then you run into the problem that it’s one person speaking to one other person whom he knows very well, so there shouldn’t be any “ye”/”you” in it at all and it should be “if thou deem the doing necessary and good, for I will not tell thee how to judge”. But then “thou deem” sounds weird because the verb isn’t conjugated correctly; it should really be “if thou deemest the doing necessary”. So there are layers of problems here.
Right, I agree that Greenwood’s attempts at archaic diction are incorrect. I’m just saying they’re internally consistent in this one sentence. If he’d stuck to using “ye” for the subject and “thee” for the object throughout the whole book, it would be fine. I doubt he does that, though, otherwise his incorrect use of thees and thous wouldn’t be so irritating that you’d point them out.
You’re quite right; it feels basically random, which is what makes it so grating.
I should probably qualify this by making it clear that I’m not being pedantic about the language here in order to show off my erudition or to mock the author. Rather, I’m doing it because I feel that style and diction is more important to fantasy than to any other genre. The works of the greatest artists of fantasy language — people like Tolkien, Lord Dunsany, Hope Mirrlees, or Ursula LeGuin — have an inevitable quality to their writing. The story is told in a particular tone and voice unique to each author, something strong and consistent and beautiful, and if you were to tell it in a different voice it wouldn’t be the same story any more. (In other words, if you hired Brandon Sanderson to write The Lord of the Rings, you might still get a fun fantasy story, but you wouldn’t get The Lord of the Rings.)
Could I imagine Shadows of Doom told without the archaic dialogue? Yes, easily. No problem. It’s inconsistently applied, doesn’t add much to the story, and doesn’t feel right to the ear. By that metric, it just doesn’t work for me.
I haven’t read this book, but your review of it leaves me puzzled about something.
In response to criticisms like yours about the inept Realms villains, Greenwood and other Realms authors say that a lot of this came from editorial mandate. Keep in mind this was the era of Jack Thompson trying to get video games banned, parents complaining about the violence on Power Rangers and the Satanic panic still being fresh in everyone’s minds. As part of this, the villains in Realms novels couldn’t be seen to be winning too much.
That said, though, I wonder how much of that is editorial mandate and how much of it is just Greenwood’s writing style. In your reviews of books like this one, “Soldiers Of Ice” and “Red Magic”, the Harpers often come across as incompetent boobs. The only reason they win is because their enemies are that much stupider. In “Soldiers Of Ice”, which I have read and I’ll be commenting on later, Martine only succeeds in her mission through her own initiative and the help of the impromptu party of locals she puts together. The larger Harper organization doesn’t contribute much of anything. Say what you want about Salvatore, but at least his protagonists generally act more sensibly, moments when their thinking is clouded by grief notwithstanding.
So how much of the ineptitude displayed in some of these novels is editorial mandate, and how much of it is author fiat?
It’s an interesting question! Personally, I feel that it’s not fair to blame the useless villains purely on editorial mandate. The authors were definitely under restrictions, but I think the vast majority of the books with bad villains are clearly the author’s doing. There are a couple of points here, so let’s break it down.
First of all, you can have a villain who doesn’t win and still make them interesting. The authors may have been forbidden to have dark stories where the heroes lose, but there are many ways to make villains who don’t succeed in a way that’s fun to read about. There are villains who work at cross-purposes to each other, like the fractious cabal from Azure Bonds. There are villains with fatal flaws like Matron Malice, whose megalomania leads her to make terrible decisions. There are villains who are good at what they do but unable to deal with the situation at hand, like Pasha Pook. There are villains who are off the wall and larger than life, like Kaverin Ebonhand or Cyric from James Lowder’s books, so that they’re fun to read about even when they’re losing. There is so much you can do to make villains interesting even if they’re not going to win.
As I wrote in my review of Waterdeep, I have three criteria for what makes a good villain:
Authors were still able to pull off the “some degree of success” part under TSR’s restrictions. Consider The Ring of Winter as an example: Kaverin kills one of the heroes and steals a powerful magic thing, and the situation looks very bleak before Artus turns things around. Or Waterdeep: Myrkul releases his denizens and Cyric steals the Tablets from the heroes. Or Azure Bonds, where the heroes are easily captured and imprisoned once the villains start working together. There’s clearly room to make things tense and make the villains look competent before they lose.
The villains in Shadows of Doom, by contrast, fail on all of these levels. I don’t know what their motivations are (except “be evil”) or why they’re opening random gates to accomplish them. They don’t just lose, they never succeed. Everything they do fails against the unstoppable hero juggernauts who steamroll over them. And they have little characterization because they’re entirely disposable — every time a Zhent is introduced, you know he’s going to be dead within thirty pages at most. The author keeps running out of villains and having to introduce new ones right up until the very end of the book. (This is what I meant when I wrote that Greenwood’s writing suffers from having organizations as the villains rather than individuals: individual villains have to be characterized.)
Second, they were able to get away with a lot with the villains in these books. Just two books ago in Making of a Mage, there was a villain who enjoyed hunting helpless humans for sport and more than one who were psychopath serial rapists/torturers. The Night Parade and The Chaos Curse aimed for a dark horror vibe with their villains, there were dark short stories like “Vision” and “One Last Drink,” the drow have a creepy dark society, et cetera. It doesn’t look like authors were restricted to purely family-friendly material. I’d be very interested to learn more specifics about what they tried to do that management didn’t let them get away with.
I glanced through one Greenwood book (I think it was “Silverfall: Tales Of Seven Sisters”) and one very tedious fight scene involved several Red Wizards throwing some of the most powerful spells in the game around like they were cantrips, and the Simbul reflecting on how stupid they supposedly were for wasting their spells on an illusion. That steamrolling seems to be a really irritating part of Greenwood’s writing style, as you showed in your review of “Spellfire”. It’s also a more general criticism of the Realms having so many uber-powerful wizards running around. Writing my own D&D fanfiction, I’ve found Greyhawk to be an easier setting to write in because the lower power level makes it easier to justify not having some immediate all-powerful magic fix the problem.
I really enjoy your summary about what makes villains so much fun to read. It’s a good explanation of why the Joker remains such an iconic character when he’s gotten his ass kicked by Batman literally hundreds of times by now. The catch with some of these Realms novels is that even the heroes can act pretty stupidly too, which ties into your belief that most of the stupidity we see in books like “Shadows Of Doom” is just authorial sloppiness.