Sword Play

Author: Clayton Emery
Published: May 1996

I’m back, suckers. Let’s do this.

I’ve been looking forward to this novel for quite some time. It’s not often that we see an author take us far afield from the usual Realms fare, and now we’re getting a whole trilogy that has an opportunity to break the mold. I’ll only be reviewing the first two, since the third is beyond the TSR time span, so I expect I’ll focus more on the setting and characters than on the plot for these reviews.

But before we continue, let’s talk about the Big Stereotype. If you asked the average person on the street to describe a fantasy novel to you, this is what would spring to their mind: a world populated by noble elves, gruff dwarves, and clever humans; full of vibrant cities with taverns, palaces, and absurdly spacious sewers; ruled mostly by monarchies and oligarchies based on Western European history; littered with ancient ruins full of magic and danger; stuck in a permanently medieval society with no technological innovation. I expect that just reading that last sentence probably made a couple of examples spring to your mind. The habit of depicting fantasy societies as basically “medieval England plus magic” stretches back all the way to William Morris in the 19th century, but became endemic after Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings entered popular culture during the 1960s. Many authors were driven to imitate him, almost always badly, and the resulting hodgepodge became enshrined in culture by Dungeons & Dragons and all the subsequent books, movies, and video games influenced by it.

Mind you, I’m not saying that all fantasy settings fit this mold until recently. There have been exotic, creative fantasy stories for as long as the genre has existed — Lord Dunsany’s bizarre theogonies, the wide-ranging pulp fantasy of the 1920s and 1930s, the modern mythologies of Moorcock and Zelazny, and many thousands more — but for better or worse (mostly worse), the Big Stereotype has been synonymous with “fantasy” in the public’s imagination for decades. Fantasy authors have been writing deconstructions of the Stereotype for ages, but only recently has Dungeons & Dragons, and popular culture, begun to reexamine some of the older, stodgier setting tropes. TSR’s game designers tried to vary things up with settings like Planescape and Spelljammer, but none of their attempts to veer away from the Big Stereotype met with commercial success.

I think the main reason why Forgotten Realms became the most popular and profitable setting for Dungeons & Dragons is specifically because it encapsulates all the standard fantasy tropes so perfectly. If you’re trying to reach a mass market, you don’t want prospective players to have to memorize pages and pages of new races, strange societies, and fantastic places all at once. Instead, you can give them something with elements that anyone who’s read a fantasy novel published in the last 50 years will probably recognize and they’ll get immersed in the world right off the bat. Commercially speaking, hewing to stereotypes isn’t a bad thing — prospective customers get a comfortable, familiar feeling when they encounter the work for the first time. But for consumers of fantasy media, after decades of seeing variations on the same thing over and over, it gets really goddamned old.

This is one of the few Realms novels with a chance to shake up the “medieval England with magic” setting. Instead of taking its inspiration from Tolkien, it reaches further back into fantasy’s past to the age of pulp fiction. The fantasy of early-20th-century pulp magazines, christened “sword and sorcery” by later authors, was gritty, violent, and exciting, eschewing epic “save the world” plots in favour of individual stories of conquest, revenge, and ambition. The most familiar example to a modern audience would be Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, but there were plenty of authors writing in the same lurid, exotic vein at the time. Sword Play wears its pulp inspirations on its sleeve from the minute you pick the book up, what with the He-Man-esque barbarian fighting some sort of many-eyed monster on the cover.

This novel takes place about 2,000 years in the Realms’ past, circa –700 DR, when the empire of Netheril was at its height. Unlike Elminster: The Making of a Mage, which disappointed me by showing that the Realms’ centuries-ago past was basically the same as its present, this novel gives us a completely new culture in a very different world. Around this time, TSR also published a series of “Arcane Age” AD&D supplements to allow players to set their campaigns in this era, and this trilogy of novels served as a sort of cross-marketing initiative to promote the new setting — people who read the novels might be tempted to buy the AD&D products and vice versa. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that rather than merely serving as a crass marketing gimmick, Sword Play turned out to be a deeply flawed but still somewhat enjoyable story.

Plot

The class system of this world is as much a physical reality as a social construct. The arrogant, amoral wizards of Netheril rule the land from their great floating palaces in the sky, rarely setting foot on solid ground. They treat their groundling subjects in the world below as idiots at best, beasts at worst. Widespread crop blights are currently threatening the world below, but the two wizards assigned to investigate the problem — Candlemas, a lecherous scholar, and Sysquemalin, a narcissistic psycho — are spending their time coming up with elaborate gambling games instead. They’ve noticed a particular barbarian below, a young tribesman named Sunbright, and are throwing increasingly dangerous challenges at him while wagering on his skill and endurance. It’s the evil wizard equivalent of reality television, more or less.

It’s a promising beginning! The characters are vividly sketched out in their first few scenes, and the gritty, low-fantasy nature of the world is emphasized by the detailed narration:

Not wasting an opportunity to eat — for any minute he might be fighting or fleeing — Sunbright shaved slices from the deer liver as he set out across the forest floor. The deer had been old, and the liver was tough and shot with worms.

I was expecting a plot twist where at some point Sunbright would become aware of the wizards’ machinations and flip the script on them somehow, getting the better of his tormentors. And I kept expecting it… and expecting it… and it never came. Instead Sunbright ends up going on a series of loosely connected adventures, bouncing from situation to situation with little agency. The situations are interesting and varied — hunted by mages, unmasking a disguised lich, tricking a red dragon, etc. — but without agency for the characters, they become just a series of wacky backdrops without much meaning. Mostly it’s just people telling Sunbright “Hey, go do this thing” and then he goes and does it. Eventually he teams up with the wizards to defeat a greater evil, which is a welcome chance for character development that comes much too late.

There’s a remarkable amount of setup that goes nowhere. The novel opens with some background about the subterranean phaerimm’s ancient feud with the Netherese and how their evil plans are corrupting the lands above ground. They’re causing crop blights that threaten the empire of Netheril with famine, and you’re made to think that it’s going to be relevant to the plot. Surprise! All of that is thrown on the floor and ignored for the rest of the novel. There’s a ruby-encrusted tome that briefly serves as a macguffin midway through the novel, goes entirely unmentioned for what seems like ages, and then suddenly brought back at the end long after the reader has forgotten about it. I expect that some of this is setting up the next two books in the trilogy, but it’s a bizarre way to do it — you want setup to be tied into the plot somehow, not just something you establish and then forget about while you go do something completely different.

Instead Sunbright does a bunch of people’s bidding for a while, and then the plot jumps in a completely different direction. A low-ranking Netherese mage manages to accidentally rip thousands of portals between Faerûn and the Nine Hells, a turn of events which comes out of nowhere and forms the main conflict for the book’s back half. How could one person’s mistake cause this sort of destruction on a worldwide scale? “Shhh, don’t ask questions,” whispers the author. “Explanations are boring. Devils just messed shit up, or something.”

This feels like a book where the author didn’t have a clear idea of where he was going. The plot lurches in one direction after another like a drunkard, gradually eroding the reader’s faith in the story. Near the end he just abandons all pretense at plot, trapping the characters in the Nine Hells in a long sequence that feels padded and somewhat pointless. The battle scenes go from gritty and short to Salvatorean and unrealistic, where Sunbright and his friends somehow survive battling the endless hordes of hell and are rescued in the end by a deus ex machina. The denouement, when it finally arrives, is a blessed relief.

Characters

Sunbright, our barbarian hero, starts off with all the qualities I love to see in a protagonist: practical, motivated, and thoughtful. He’s extremely competent but not invincible, and he’s cunning enough to find ways to turn bad situations to his advantage and to run from a fight if all else fails. The end result is that when he succeeds at something, it feels like he’s earned the victory through his own cleverness rather than by just steamrolling the opposition Salvatore-style or being arbitrarily granted success by the author. He’s got a backstory that ties him into the world (driven from his home through the political machinations of his family’s enemies, who prophesied that he would bring disaster to the tribe); while it doesn’t become relevant in this first book, I expect it’ll be a big part of the sequels. He struggles and suffers, but it’s mostly believable suffering instead of the author mistaking misfortune for drama. He’s a fish out of water in civilized society, out of his element and reliant upon others.

Alas, he gets most of his character development early on, then spends much of the second half of the book hitting things with swords. He’s at his best as a character when he’s interacting with the strange and unfamiliar society around him, contrasting his Bronze Age culture against the comparatively advanced culture of Netheril, but he spends too many scenes on his own or on a different plane altogether. By the end he’s become a Drizzt-style unstoppable juggernaut of bladed death, holding his own in combat against ludicrous odds. He’s short on agency and too often saved from dangerous situations by authorial contrivance. On balance he’s a mixed bag, but the boring action-hero bits can’t quite smother my enthusiasm for his early characterization.

Greenwillow, Sunbright’s travelling companion, fares even worse. She starts off strongly as a prejudiced elf forced to travel among humans, and the rocky start to their relationship is a welcome bit of inter-character friction that gives Sunbright someone to react to. The scenes where they slowly earn each others’ respect over the course of their travels were generally well done. But the longer the novel goes on, the weaker and less interesting her character becomes. She falls headlong in love with Sunbright in a way that’s just too sudden, too much of a complete departure from her initial dismissive attitude for me to buy. I don’t think she makes any meaningful decisions after the halfway mark, and at the end she gets fridged to give Sunbright a chance to angst and dramatically kill things. It’s depressing to see an author start strong and then fumble the ball so badly.

Candlemas, a Netherese archmage’s apprentice, is one of the only characters whom I found compelling throughout. He’s ostensibly one of the good guys, but he’s only helping the hero because he has a dangerous wager that Sunbright can stay alive. He comes off as a mensch compared to the rest of the Netherese, but objectively he’s still fairly amoral and motivated by pride and practicality rather than compassion or ethics. I liked the shades of grey in his characterization, and he didn’t show up on screen often enough to wear out his welcome. He seems like he’s got a role to play in the sequels; I hope he stays grey and somewhat selfish instead of falling into the standard “hero wizard” party role over time.

But Sysquemalin, Candlemas’ egomaniacal evil counterpart, isn’t nearly as effective a character. She makes a promising entrance as a giggling, self-absorbed psychopath, then progresses over the course of the story into a full-blown lunatic who’s less interesting to read about. It’s hard to write “crazy evil” in an interesting way, and Emery drops the ball trying to implement it here. A good crazy evil character, like Cyric from Prince of Lies, lets us see inside their head and understand how their delusions motivate their actions. You get a sense that, although they’re not playing by the rules of the real world, they’re still playing by some internally consistent set of rules with their own twisted logic. A bad crazy evil character like Sysquemalin just acts unpredictably so that the author has an excuse for why they’re doing evil things that move the plot along. Her repentance, when it finally comes, is too sudden and thorough to feel believable.

If you’re beginning to sense a general theme in this review of “things start strong, then fall apart near the end of the book,” well… you’re not wrong. Perhaps there was some sort of schedule pressure that caused the author to rush the writing process, or maybe he just didn’t plan ahead very well. Either way, my initial enthusiasm for this novel took a serious beating.

Themes

The contrast between the shining ivory towers of the Netherese enclaves and the lives of the dirty, oppressed people below is a standout theme: life is cruel and brutal for both groups, but the nature of the cruelty is different. The author does a good job of establishing the dichotomy in almost every scene: the leaders of the groundlings cower before the wizards, the wizards treat their servants with casual brutality and hunt peasants for sport, and the lesser wizards are oppressed by their superiors. The scene-setting juxtaposes the opulence and omnipresent magic of the flying castles against the simple Bronze Age technology of Sunbright’s culture and the proto-medieval society of the settled peoples. Every conversation or internal monologue involving a wizard demonstrates how they take their lifestyle for granted and rarely even remember, let alone care about, the people below. In short, Netherese society is unsustainable and self-destructive, and the author goes out of his way to ensure you know it:

“Aye, madness is a way of life for the Neth! They saw off the limbs that support them.”

Presumably we won’t actually see Netheril collapse during the course of this trilogy — that didn’t happen until -339 DR, a few hundred years later — but the sense of impending doom adds a delicious spice to the narrative. [1]

Unfortunately, as with all other aspects of this novel, this theme becomes less effective as the book goes on. We start out with a really interesting non-traditional fantasy setting with great contrasts — the flying castles of Netheril and the gritty Bronze Age tribal society that Sunbright hails from — but then end up with the heroes wandering around a fairly bog-standard medieval-ish groundling kingdom for a long time, falling right back into the Big Stereotype I discussed earlier. It feels like there’s a lot of really interesting material to work with here that goes mostly unused.

There’s some weird racism that goes on partway through the book. The One King has built a kingdom where humans and orcs live in harmony, and the orcs are portrayed as polite, friendly members of Tinnainen’s society. As soon as the One King is out of the way, though, the humans fall upon the orcs and begin killing them en masse. Nobody seems to consider this turn of events odd, care what happens to the orcs, or think about what it means for the setting if orcish behaviour is entirely determined by culture. It’s jarring and creepy, and not in a good way. This could have been a good tragic theme if handled well, but the author didn’t even try to approach it. Instead, the 180-degree switch from “peaceful integrated society” to “mortal enemies” is just baffling and unexplained.

Writing

A very mixed bag! The dialogue flows well, the setting is vividly described, and the narration reflects the personality of the current point-of-view character. But there are plenty of weak or awkwardly constructed sentences that jarred me out of the story:

“You liar! You had no more faith in him than I did!”
“He won; I won. That’s all I care about.”
A sniff replied.

A sniff what now? Clearly he meant “The other person replied with a sniff”, but… oy. Clumsiness like that is everywhere.

“I… built this place on my own, made it myself.”
A vast gobble was laughter. The fiend’s wings twitched to the shaking of shoulders as broad as a ship.

Again, it feels like the TSR novels of this era were first or second drafts that went straight to print instead of being thoroughly edited.

Another way in which this novel differs from the usual TSR fare is that it’s the first to casually use obscenities like “piss” and “shit”. I wasn’t certain what to make of it at first — I detest it when authors do things purely for shock value and confuse it with being “mature” — but after a while I decided that it worked okay here. The ground-level world of this era is a gritty, grimy place compared to the modern Realms, and the dialogue and narration are just reflecting that. Right off the bat the diction tells you that this isn’t a tale of epic high fantasy, but something more grounded and less affected.

Conclusion

Grade: C+

Like War in Tethyr, this is one of those books where I started off with high expectations and kept having to revise them lower and lower as time went on. Unlike that book, however, the end result here isn’t a total disaster. The plot is a hot mess and some of the characterizations are flaccid, but I like the classic “blood and thunder” theme, the setting is reasonably well done, and it only occasionally felt tiresome. It’s the sort of book that fails in off-the-wall ways where the author’s reach exceeds his grasp, and that’s a lot more fun to read and write about than some of the tedious garbage fires we’ve seen lately. If the last quarter of the book had been less of a slog I might have given it a B– against my better judgement, but as is it’s pretty firmly in C territory. Let’s hope that the forthcoming second book in the series does a better job now that the author’s had a chance to find his footing with the characters and setting.

Footnotes

[1] Although it’s a bit odd that a character mentions the archmage Karsus at one point, given that this book takes place shortly before his birth.

11 Replies to “Sword Play

  1. All right, you’re back! Your review here is timely because I’d be interested on your thoughts on something that’s grated on me for quite a while.

    You note that elves, dwarves and orcs are associated with the Big Stereotype, but why does the presence of sentient non-human creatures like them somehow imply that any story set in a world that includes them is automatically some grand struggle against the forces of evil? Why can’t the dwarves and elves be the ones dealing with more personal stakes and their own ambitions and revenge? The original AD&D system had elements of this with player characters being able to carve out their own dominions and gain followers, or Gary Gygax framing the Against The Giants series as being as much about vengeance as it was about justice.

    I wonder if there’s a difference between tropes and themes in a way where an author pioneers the tropes of a particular type of story towards certain themes, but a later author applies the tropes in a completely different way. H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters were often terrifying and unknowable things humans couldn’t hope to understand, much less triumph against, but while aboleths and mind flayers are very dangerous, they still die if you stab them hard enough with a medieval sword or spear. In this case, D&D’s authors have taken Lovecraft’s surface tropes but used them for completely different themes than what he originally did.

    In my own stories, I’ve either had or plan to have some of my characters do morally dubious things…but the main ones to do so are the gnome and the halfling. Three of my first four fanfic novels were initially driven by the gnome’s personal demons and need to atone in more ways than one. Obviously I could have done all that with a human-only setting, but as I have a really strong attachment to D&D, Greyhawk and their related tropes, the thought of doing so left me feeling cold.

    TL;DR: Can’t dwarves, elves and orcs be part of more ‘sword and sorcery’-type stories? Are they stereotypically associated with epic/heroic fantasy, or am I reading something that isn’t there?

    1. I think that the degree to which Tolkien’s vast cultural penetration has associated the stereotypical tropes of fantasy (elves, dwarves, halflings, etc.) with epic fantasy is hard to overstate. It’s not that you can’t tell different kinds of stories in a Tolkien-derived world, but that your readers will come into such a world with epic fantasy expectations and have to readjust their mindset while they’re reading it. Nothing’s stopping you from writing stories about Urist the Dwarven Barbarian who does Conan-style stuff in a grittier, pulpier style, but readers would probably expect Gimli and be mildly surprised when that’s not what they get. I think that’s why most of the grittier fantasy literature out there (Game of Thrones, The Black Company, etc.) isn’t set in Tolkieny elves-and-dwarves worlds. (The Witcher series is the only counterexample that springs to mind at the moment.)

      1. I think that’s why most of the grittier fantasy literature out there (Game of Thrones, The Black Company, etc.) isn’t set in Tolkieny elves-and-dwarves worlds. (The Witcher series is the only counterexample that springs to mind at the moment.)

        Would some of TSR’s own fiction be an exception to that? I’m thinking of examples like “The Night Parade”, any of Elaine Cunningham’s works focusing on Elaith Craulnober, Dave Cook’s King Pinch stories, or “Murder In Cormyr”? And then there’s Richard Lee Byers’ “The Haunted Lands” trilogy, which by its synopsis on the Forgotten Realms wiki goes way beyond gritty and pulpy to full-blown horror grimdark…

        1. Sure, eventually. But The Night Parade was book #31 in the Forgotten Realms series, and it was preceded by thirty books which more or less hewed to the “epic fantasy” genre. They didn’t start branching out until they’d thoroughly milked the epic fantasy shtick and authors started casting about for other things they could do with the setting.

  2. Hey! So glad to see you’re back! So if you aren’t going to read any post-TSR Realms novels, what will come next? Greyhawk, or Dragonlance?

    1. It’s obviously up to our esteemed host, but if I had to guess it’ll probably be Dragonlance. There actually aren’t that many Greyhawk TSR novels. The ones that do exist have a very mixed reputation-some hardcore Greyhawk fans like them, while others say that, as a novelist, Gary Gygax was a very good game designer. And I’ve never heard anyone say anything good about Rose Estes’s novels.

      Meanwhile, Dragonlance had novels for almost anything and everything of significance, from Huma’s original battles against Takhisis to the founding of kingdoms like Thorbardin and Qualinesti to the Heroes of the Lance’s adventures before the Chronicles to other things happening at the same time as the War of the Lance, etc. Our esteemed host could probably review Dragonlance novels until he’s collecting Social Security, if he wanted to!

      1. Yeah, definitely Dragonlance next. Though I’m not sure how far into Dragonlance I’ll go, to be honest. I might cherry-pick a variety of DL novels instead of doing them all in order, since the thought of doing three anthologies in a row is making me tired. But we’ll see when we get there! First I have to get through the remaining dozen or so TSR Realms novels.

  3. Fun fact: it was sometime between the second and third books of this series (note the huge publication gap) that I went to a bookstore trying to find out why the third wasn’t available and if I could special order it (this was before the growth of online booksellers). That’s when I learned that TSR went under and was bought by WotC.

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