Soldiers of Ice

Author: David Cook
Published: December 1993

Capping off 1993 with an appropriately frigid finish, this December release takes the open-ended Harpers series northwards for a one-shot novel about magical shenanigans atop a giant glacier. It’s the work of David “Zeb” Cook, prolific AD&D sourcebook creator and author of 1990’s Horselords, which I particularly enjoyed. Can he impress me once again, or will he stumble when working outside of the Eastern settings he’s so familiar with? I look forward to finding out.

Soldiers of Ice is particularly interesting because it’s set in a part of the Realms which we’ve never seen before. Vaasa is a sparsely-populated steppe northeast of Phlan, nestled between the Great Glacier to the north and the Moonsea to the south. Given that it shares a name with a real-life city in Finland, it’s not surprising that this book goes with a fantasy counterpart Finland approach to characterizing what little we see of its inhabitants. The gnomes’ decorative arts, musical instruments, and names (Turi, Tikkanen, Jouka, et cetera) are all stereotypically Finnish, and the landscape of pine trees, valleys, and glaciers is right out of a tourist’s guidebook. Fortunately, much of the action takes place in the wilderness or among a tribe of savage gnolls, so the counterpart culture bits don’t grate on me nearly as often as they did in the Empires trilogy.

Plot

It’s interesting how different authors portray the Harpers organization differently. In some novels, like Elfshadow, they’re a fantastic version of the CIA, sneaking and spying and causing good things to happen by working behind the scenes. In too many others, they’re the equivalent of the Justice League, superheroic do-gooders who single-handedly right wrongs. Soldiers of Ice resolves this dilemma by taking a third, much stranger option: a bunch of complete idiots.

Here’s the pitch: The Harpers have detected a rupture between Faerûn and the para-elemental plane of ice on the Great Glacier, so they send Martine, a brand-new recruit, to close it. Herself… alone… with no backup. Her mentor tells her “Oh, you can try to send me a message if you get in trouble. Maybe I’ll see it if you get lucky. Off you go!” Of course, things go horribly wrong as soon as she gets there. One can only assume that either the Harpers don’t care very much about this threat or they don’t care very much about Martine, neither of which makes them look particularly good. The worst part is that she’s not even clear on what the parameters of the mission are until about three-fifths of the way through, when a Harper shows up to say “No, you’ve been doing it all wrong. You should have done it this other way instead.” Seriously, you couldn’t have explained your expectations before sending her out? God, what a bunch of chuckleheads.

The cherry on top is that at the beginning, Martine’s mentor tells her “We’re sending you alone because we’ve been so short-handed lately.” Buddy, did you ever stop to think that maybe the reason you’re so short-handed is that you’re throwing neophyte Harpers into meat-grinder suicide missions like this one, alone? No wonder you don’t have a lot of talent on hand if you’re getting them all killed during their first week on the job.

Later they come up with a clever plan to get rid of Vreesar, the evil ice monster. Their plan is “Let’s make a deal with this intrinsically wicked fiend and give him what he wants, then trust him to keep his word.” It goes about as well as any sane person might expect — with lots of innocents getting killed and the villain escaping with the macguffin. Way to go, geniuses. Then the guy who was supposed to go warn the other Harpers and call for backup gets himself killed by ignoring the plan and acting like a hero. Great work! If this is the Harpers’ general level of competence, it’s hard to imagine why the Zhentarim don’t run the world yet.

The first part of the book is a pinball plot, where Martine gets bounced from situation to situation and has to react to them as best she can. She gets more agency in the second half, but I wish she didn’t spend so much of it making bad decisions. Now, don’t get me wrong here — I think it’s a good thing for characters to sometimes experience setbacks and make mistakes. It makes them seem more human and makes their eventual success all the more satisfying. But the Harpers’ part in this plot is just one bad idea after another, and it makes them look like a pack of fools.

Characters

Martine is a solid character. She’s capable, surviving harrowing dangers which would kill anyone less competent. She’s smart, planning ahead thoughtfully and turning difficult situations to her advantage on the fly. She’s got a goal and plenty of agency to figure out how to execute it herself. She’s got character flaws which sometimes really hinder her, such as when she gets her mount killed or when she fails to persuade the Vani council. She often suffers — not senseless “let’s make the story darker” kind of suffering, but the sort of pain that’s a natural outcome of her decisions under dangerous and uncertain circumstances — and bears up against it as best she can. In short, she’s fun to watch.

She won’t be challenging Alias or Arilyn for the title of “best female protagonist in a Realms novel” any time soon, though. I love seeing her plan and fight and work, but there’s not a strong enough sense of who she is. For instance, what’s her motivation for becoming a Harper? She’s risking her neck to prove herself to them, but we don’t really know why she made that giant life decision. Who was she before she came to Shadowdale at the start of the novel? No idea. We get occasional little details and snippets of backstory here and there, but they’re just anecdotes and asides that don’t really explain who she is, only what she’s done.

I’m certainly not saying that every plot has to include the entire origin story of its protagonist — fitting Martine’s history into this novel would be a distraction from its straightforward mission-oriented plot. Alias and Arilyn had an advantage in that their backstories were an integral part of their novels’ plots, whereas Martine’s history has nothing to do with her glacier investigation. But it’s definitely possible to flesh out a character’s history even when the plot doesn’t require it. Consider Giogioni Wyvernspur from The Wyvern’s Spur, for instance. The novel is all about his gradual transition from a foolish dandy to a hero. So the authors mention little anecdotes about his past throughout the novel, and they all make him come off as a loser, a failure, a helpless fop. They tell the reader how everyone else sees him, which makes it all the more satisfying once he’s outgrown his old persona and the other characters are forced to acknowledge it. Martine’s stories, on the other hand, just tell us “She did adventures.”

The fundamental problem is that Martine doesn’t develop much as a character. She’s basically the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, with new adventures under her belt but no noteworthy changes to her personality or outlook besides perhaps “more worldly-wise” and “sad about dead allies.” Her backstory doesn’t inform the person she becomes because there’s not much difference. There’s plenty of time and space for that kind of development, but it just never happens. So all things considered, I enjoy her as a character but I don’t love her the way I have the protagonists from the best of the Realms novels.

There’s a tribe of gnolls who eke out a precarious hunter-gatherer existence upon the glacier, and they’re one of the best depictions of monsters in the Realms novels thus far. Usually the various monstrous humanoid races are just depicted as fodder for the heroes’ swords, roadblocks to their progress who have to be removed by violence. Members of the Burnt Fur tribe, on the other hand, serve as both foes and allies, and are just as often dispatched with guile and persuasion as they are with combat. Elements of their society, customs, and internal political conflicts crop up whenever they’re on screen. There are a variety of little touches which make them feel distinctly animalistic and non-human, but they’re never treated as sub-human. We see them behaving savagely, but we also see them care for their children and exhibit a sense of honour. They demonstrate a variety of evils, from cruelty to remorseless self-interest, but it’s all small-scale stuff when contrasted against the capital-E Evil of the ice fiends. All things considered, they’re definitely the second-best tribe of hyena people in all of fantasy fiction [1], and I wish that more authors would take this approach to depicting the “monster” races.

Krote Word-Maker, the gnoll shaman whom Martine forges an uneasy alliance with, makes an excellent foil. Like Martine, he’s clever and perceptive, able to turn situations to his advantage through guile. Unlike her, he’s ruthless and amoral. They share a common goal — fix the bad stuff that’s happening on the glacier — but his only real loyalty is to his tribe. The early bits where they’re sort-of-cooperating but constantly scrutinizing each other for signs of treachery are quite well done, and the eventual trust between them is built up gradually and earned with difficulty. He’s one of those secondary characters who enlivens every scene he’s in, and I found myself grinning whenever he showed up.

There’s a gnomish village here, and I was pleased to see that despite being a pastoral community of little people in a fantasy novel, the gnomes aren’t just a straightforward lift from Tolkien’s hobbits. They’re distrustful and suspicious of outsiders and riven by internal dissension. They don’t much care for the protagonist and don’t give a damn about the Harpers or their mission. (The scene where Martine reluctantly reveals her secret affiliation and the gnomes go “So? What the hell is a Harper?” was refreshingly hilarious.) We see a variety of aspects of their society, from governance to entertainment, shot through with little customs which make them feel unique. I was prepared for some serious Tolkien pastiche here, and I was very glad to be wrong.

Vreesar, the extraplanar ice fiend who serves as the antagonist for the “invading ice monsters” plot, is a genuinely menacing villain. He’s by far the biggest badass in the entire book, but even so he’s cautious and sensible. He avoids putting himself in danger unnecessarily, comes up with clever traps for the heroes, and when all else fails, brutally slays whoever gets in his way. Best of all, he’s got an alien, non-human mindset and doesn’t rant like a stereotypical evil overlord. This combination of smart, practical, and dangerous makes him feel like a serious threat to the heroes — a far cry from the underdeveloped plot contrivances we’ve seen serving as villains in some of these novels. He doesn’t get much backstory or characterization, but it’s not needed here; he has a clear motivation that informs everything he does, and being a mystery in all other respects makes him scarier.

Vilheim, a former paladin turned hermit, is potentially a very interesting character. He’s got a juicy conflict built into his backstory — having abandoned his faith years ago, he’s now re-examining his life and wondering if he made a mistake — and he develops a tight bond with Martine which is sort of halfway between romantic and paternal. There’s a lot of material to work with there, but he just doesn’t get enough time to develop it. His character arc is pretty decent as it is, but if there had been a couple more moments in between all the running around and fighting where he and Martine could interact quietly, I think it would have been much better.

On the other hand, Jazrac, Martine’s Harper mentor, gets much more done with much less screen time. He’s introduced early on as the authority figure whom Martine looks up to, then reappears later in the book to save the day when everything looks bleak. Except… it turns out that he’s a bookish scholar with no combat experience who breaks and runs when exposed to real danger, getting lots of people killed. It gives Martine some good character moments where she realizes that he’s only human, not a hero, and it’s a refreshing change from the usual depiction of effortless heroism in these novels. His mistake has real consequences, and his efforts to redeem himself are particularly poignant as a result.

Overall, though, this novel has far fewer characters than most. It happens in the middle of nowhere, so there just aren’t that many people around to participate in the plot. That’s a good thing, I think — we spend a tremendous amount of time with Martine and see the entire story through her eyes, which works much better than a point of view which is constantly jumping from character to character. Every scene furthers her story and is coloured by her perceptions, rather than being diluted by other people’s stories and the personalities of less well-developed characters. For a short novel like this, eschewing those complications is a sensible sacrifice for the sake of thematic unity.

Themes

The standout theme here is what really redeems this book for me.

These novels, and fantasy novels in general, tend to promote a very positive view of violence. Problems are caused by bad monsters and need to be solved by people hitting them with swords. Your average protagonist tends to be very good at killing things in one way or another. Most of the foes tend to be faceless mooks of some variety, separated from the protagonists by differences of species or moral outlook, and cutting them down is a grim but ultimately heroic act which allows good people to live in peace.

And why shouldn’t such novels condone or even glorify violence? There’s something instinctively alluring about good-versus-evil stories where the morally superior heroes have a straightforward way to solve their problems. There is something primal in us which thrills to see someone simply smiting evil; it’s just about the most satisfying form of escapism from our complex world with its difficult problems. But it’s the narrative equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger: it entertains briefly, but doesn’t capture the imagination when you inspect it any closer. Once the audience starts thinking “What happens as a result of the violence?” or “What about problems that can’t be solved by violence?”, you’ve lost them.

Soldiers of Ice is something very different. It’s a first for the Forgotten Realms: a novel that doesn’t glamourize or glorify violence, which is especially remarkable for something based on Dungeons & Dragons.

It’s really heartening to see how seriously violence is taken in this book. Martine attempts to avoid conflict wherever possible. In order to protect his tribe, Word-Maker tries to keep Vreesar from sending the gnolls to war against the gnomes; they nurse old hatreds for the little people, but don’t go out of their way to provoke conflict because survival is hard enough as it is. When the gnomes go to war, they know it’s a terrible thing, not a matter of brave deeds and heroism. They know that even if they succeed, it will mean widowed wives, orphaned children, and hard times for their entire community. Instead of being a battle-hardened hero, Martine’s mentor is a cowardly bookworm who breaks under pressure and flees from combat. The sole character in the book who enjoys solving their problems with violence is an irredeemably evil fiend. Furthermore, the violence is gruesomely described — not in a salacious way, but in a realistic and honest way where the narration doesn’t shy away from showing the suffering that the heroes inflict. All this is such a refreshing change from the bloodthirsty heroics of authors like R.A. Salvatore, where the heaps of corpses piled by the protagonists serve as mere set dressing.

The shaman looked at the bodies of the Burnt Fur, still sprawled over the barricade where they had been cut down. “You killed many warriors,” the gnoll said with a touch of sadness. “There will be many females without mates.”

The Word-Maker went from body to body, turning each so he could see it. “Blind-Eye. Rakk. Broken-Tooth. Fat Belly.” Krote recited the roll of the dead. “That was Varka who spoke,” he said finally. “He must be new Word-Maker. If he says peace, there will be peace.”

Even the monster mooks get names and families. It’s unheard of.

This book understands the value of shades of grey. A lesser author would have just made the gnomes wholly good and the gnolls wholly evil, and then the heroine would be justified in killing off all the bad monsters. Instead, both tribes are deeply prejudiced towards one another — for quite understandable reasons — but under better circumstances with wiser leadership, they could probably live in peace together. The war between them is an unmitigated tragedy, and Cook doesn’t shy away from portraying it as such. It’s a degree of nuance that few of these books have even tried for.

In the end, this book falls into the same old trap: Martine is very skilled at violence, and she uses that skill to make the world safe for good people by killing the bad people. The crucial difference is that here the aftermath is treated more as a tragedy than a victory — everyone involved would have been better off if none of this had ever happened, and the author makes sure that you know it.

Writing

I was very impressed in Horselords with David Cook’s descriptions of people and places, and that talent still serves him well here:

The air was rich with the scent of pines. Martine’s skin prickled from the cold. The trees loomed over the pair, their white-dressed boughs so close together that the bottom branches were hidden permanently from sunlight, leaving them scraggly dead sticks occasionally rafted with needled clusters. The great trunks stirred with the wind till the forest echoed with muted popping and creaking sounds. Winter birds confided secrets to each other and warned of the passing strangers.

Every scene tells you not just what the characters see, but what they experience — the sounds, the smells, the sensations. Here he could have just written “They travelled through a dark forest,” but that could bring any old forest to mind in your memory. The forest described here is a very particular one, and once you read the description of their travels through it, you can imagine it with all your senses. The omnipresent, bone-chilling cold is described in terms which make you want to crawl under a blanket. The descriptions of cross-country skiing were definitely written by someone who’s done it before. (No surprise, given that Cook was living in Wisconsin at the time.) And all the characters, even the minor ones, get some unique little detail about them which makes them stick in your mind. All things considered, the writing is rather good.

Conclusion

Grade: B+

This novel does so many things right. I loved the shades of grey in the conflict, the mature attitude towards violence, and the reasonably high-quality writing. Sadly, the plot is just too threadbare and the protagonist too underdeveloped for me to give this an A. It’s an fascinating experiment that I’d call a moderate success, but I don’t quite think that it’s one of the classics. I’m definitely looking forward to Cook’s next novel, though, which won’t be until 1995.

Footnotes


[1] The best would be the hyenas from Ursula Vernon’s Hugo-winning Digger. There’s more than a little thematic overlap between Soldiers of Ice‘s Word-Maker and Digger‘s Boneclaw Mother, but the latter is by far the stronger character.

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