Author: Elaine Cunningham
Published: April 1996
This year we’re fortunate to have not one but two new novels from Elaine Cunningham. Despite the occasional misstep, she’s got a good track record for delivering entertaining novels with vivid characters. Unfortunately, one of the missteps was Daughter of the Drow, the first novel in the Starlight & Shadows trilogy, and this is its sequel. Can she improve on that shaky start, with its irritating protagonist and slow-moving plot, and create something more engaging? Let’s dive in and find out.
If you’re an author writing the second novel in a mass-market trilogy, you face a difficult dilemma. You’ve undertaken to tell a single story over the course of three books, but you have to divide them into three separate chunks, and each of those chunks has to be worth reading on its own. Sometimes your story’s beats aren’t amenable to that sort of division, or sometimes you find you only have enough plot for two books but are contractually obligated to stretch it to three somehow. What can you do?
There are several strategies that an author on the horns of this dilemma might employ. The easiest is to punt on telling an overarching story altogether and turn your trilogy into three disconnected stories that share the same characters. I can admire that sort of “if you’re in a room with a problem, don’t talk to it” approach — as long as each individual story is fun to read, you end up with three tasty tapas plates instead of one giant dish, and a reader is free to pick up the series at any point. We’ve seen Forgotten Realms authors take this tack before. Consider the Finder’s Stone trilogy, whose books were self-contained stories that didn’t require reading the others, or the Shadow of the Avatar trilogy, which had no single overarching plot.
Another would be to give up on making three individually entertaining books with a beginning, rising tension, climax, and conclusion, and instead end the second book on a cliffhanger that leads directly into the third book. In this case, you only have to write one giant book and arbitrarily chop it into two or more pieces for publication. This neatly sidesteps the difficulties of dividing your plot into discrete chunks, but risks alienating your readers with an unsatisfying and anticlimactic second book if it’s not done well and makes the second book indigestible for a new reader who might pick it up. One example would be Tolkien’s The Two Towers, which ends on perhaps the most famous cliffhanger in all of fantasy. Nearer to home there’s the Realms’ own Viperhand, which strands its protagonists amidst a civilization-destroying apocalypse at the conclusion.
Some authors are willing to face the fact that the material they’re working with just can’t be made into a satisfying trilogy. If you only have two books worth of plot and you’re wary of stretching it too thin, like a little pat of butter scraped over a big piece of toast, perhaps it’s best to set down that plot in two good books and then find some other side story to tell with the third book. This strategy gives you better odds of realizing at least two high-quality books with a consistent vision, but makes it likely that the third book will feel like a pointless appendage to an already completed story. A classic example would be Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, which tells an epic story of intrigue, murder, and betrayal in two books, then gives us a final book where a character we don’t much care about wanders around a brand new setting.  An example from the Realms might be the Cleric Quintet, where the overarching plot is resolved by the end of the fourth book and then the fifth book has to build a second climax out of plot remnants left over from its predecessors. (A sort of narrative scrapple, if you will.)
But most trilogy authors seem to live by the adage “when in doubt, pad it out.” They set up the first half of the series’ plot in the first book, take a detour to do something completely unrelated with the second book, then complete the story in the third. When done well, it’s a good compromise: you get three individually interesting books, and readers will remain anxious to pick up the third book to find out how it ends. When done badly, though, you end up with a second book that feels pointless and tanks the momentum of the series’ plot. Worse yet, the more you procrastinate by pushing off plot resolution to the final book, the more difficult it becomes to weave your many plot threads into a successful conclusion. One noteworthy example would be The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, which is an excellent second book that does little to advance its trilogy’s overall plot and left its creator mired in writer’s block for a decade and counting. An even more egregious object lesson in how not to plot books would be Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which has several entire padding novels that seem to exist for the sole purpose of murdering as many trees as possible, and the author didn’t even live long enough to write the ending. But a more familiar example to readers of this blog might be Starless Night, a Drizzt novel partway through the Legacy of the Drow series where nothing that happens advances the ongoing “war between the drow and Mithril Hall” plot.
When I first picked up Tangled Webs, I was quite curious about which approach Cunningham would choose. At its core, the plot of the Starlight & Shadows trilogy is very simple: by the end of the first book, we’ve established that all of Fyodor’s and Liriel’s personal problems will be solved by taking a magical artifact to a particular old tree and carving a rune into it. So how does one stretch the process of defacing a tree into two more books? You could put the tree very far away, in which case it becomes “pad the second book.” You could make the tree very hard to deface, in which case you’re padding it in a less awkward way by manufacturing new plot complications. Or you could just let them deface the tree in the second book and trust that you’ll eventually think up some new plot for the third book, which is what Cunningham has done here.
It works well for Tangled Webs, which is a solid self-contained novel with a satisfying conclusion. That’s not something I often say about the second book in a series! But it seems to have been tough on the trilogy as a whole because Cunningham didn’t return to this particular series for seven years. She wrote several other books for TSR and Wizards of the Coast between 1996 and 2003, but it took a very long time for her to pick up the adventures of Liriel and Fyodor again. I’d venture a guess that it was because she felt she’d written herself into a corner here. All of the heroes’ major issues — Fyodor’s uncontrollable berserking, Liriel’s magic and goddess problems, their uncertain relationship status — are resolved at the end of Tangled Webs, and then they say “Well, I guess we should go all the way back to Rashemen and tell everyone that we succeeded.” It sounds less like the plot summary to the third book in a series and more like a book-length denouement. This could have been a perfectly satisfying two-book series, but TSR was big on trilogies and Cunningham presumably had a contract for three books.
For all that the plot ties up satisfactorily at the end, it takes a hell of a long time to get moving at the beginning. For the first quarter of the book, neither the characters nor the reader have any idea what the plot is. Liriel and Fyodor have random adventures with the world’s most cheerful, least bloodthirsty pirates; meanwhile, there are cutaways to completely unrelated things that some unfamiliar villains are doing. I kept putting this book down and reading other books during this period because it wasn’t giving me any reasons to care. The plot doesn’t catch up with the protagonists until the pirates finally stumble across some sea elf gherkins and get embroiled in an evil conspiracy to enslave the island of Ruathym, and from there it steadily gathers speed. I liked how the Chekhov’s guns introduced early on (like the tainted mead, or Rethnor’s rings) were consistently paid off later off in the book, and the constant cutaways to the villains did a good job of raising the stakes once we’re finally told who the villains are and what the stakes are.
I can’t shake a persistent sense of irritation, however, about how most of this plot is something that happens to the protagonists rather than something that involves them. The political machinations of Luskan and the Kraken Society have nothing to do with the heroes or their goals; it’s just a situation they stumble onto which puts obstacles between them and the tree-carving. The only connection between this plot and the protagonists’ journey is the presence of Liriel’s old rival Shakti Hunzrin, who’s shoehorned back into the story via an extremely improbable coincidence. (Out of all the creatures in the infinite multiverse, Shakti sends after Liriel a random monster from the Elemental Plane of Water who just so happens to be good friends with the leader of the Kraken Society in Faerûn.) But once you accept the randomness of the plot and slog through the slow beginning, it turns out to be a good tale which gives its heroes a rewarding send-off.
My other main complaint, however, is one that will be familiar to my readers because I keep having to harp on it so often for so many novels. Many scenes here are resolved by having Liriel whip out any power she might find useful at the drop of a hat. Between her arcane magic, clerical magic, and enchanted items, she’s always got some magical trick up her sleeve that hasn’t been mentioned before but is perfectly suited to solving any particular problem. Need to sink a ship? Casually enchant some throwing blades to become anti-ship mines. Need to save the Elfmaid from a sudden tsunami? Enclose the entire ship in a magic bubble. Attacked by a huge water elemental? Just summon thousands of sea creatures to help fight it off. It’s never been established that she’s capable of doing any of these things, so the reader just boggles and thinks “Wait, she’s doing what now?”.
I discussed the topic fairly extensively in my review of Elminster: The Making of a Mage, so I don’t want to belabour it further now. I’ll just point out that if we don’t know the limits of what she can and can’t do with her magic, then how are we supposed to know when a task is difficult or a situation is suspenseful? And the longer the story goes on, the worse it gets. The climactic battle for Ascarle plays out like this, slightly paraphrased:
And then Liriel waved her hand and everyone’s ass got kicked. As her foes writhed under the repeated applications of divine boots to their posteriors, they all thought “Oh man, this sucks! I guess Liriel is way more awesome than I am!”
And just like that, two villains we’ve spent the entire novel building up are booted from the story in the space of a single page. It’s a disappointing waste of good setup that left me feeling cheated — we’ve been building up Vestress as a huge badass for the entire novel, and Liriel effortlessly crushes her before she gets to do anything.
The central question for this review is “Is Liriel a more enjoyable character than she was in Daughter of the Drow?” The previous book suffered heavily in my estimation because everything in the setting revolved around Liriel in some way, and she came off more as a spoiled and petulant teenager than as a sympathetic character. I was braced for more of the same but was very pleased when it didn’t appear. Here, rather than being the centre of the universe, Liriel is merely a minor actor stumbling into a big conspiracy. She finds herself playing a major role by the end, but it never starts to feel like she’s the only person in the story who matters. There’s much less of the “spoiled teenager” impression this time around, too; she displays a surprising degree of emotional maturity and evinces genuine concern for other people.
Don’t get me wrong, it could still use work. Liriel is still much too perfect. She nails almost every feat she attempts — shark-hunting, high-seas piracy, rune-carving, casting unfamiliar and massively difficult spells — on the first try. (Her only actual failure that I can think of is her first encounter with the banshee.) And as I mentioned above, her magical powers being a “solve everything” button gets very, very old. But it’s counterbalanced by her emotional vulnerability, where she’s often at odds with Fyodor over moral and ethical issues and often ends up admitting that she was wrong. She’s frequently at a loss when dealing with humans and has to accept that there are situations where Fyodor should take the lead. And she has a difficult time handling her first real romantic relationship, which nothing in her loveless upbringing has prepared her for. In short, she’s still perfect in the action scenes but displays more humanity in the quiet scenes, which is a big improvement over the previous book. I’ll take it.
The novel serves as a journey of self-discovery for Liriel. Now that she’s adrift in an unfamiliar culture and surrounded by strangers, she has a chance to examine her values and redefine who she is. It’s no surprise that she turns out to be a good person, but it’s nice to see an author actually show some of the emotional work it takes to get there. One major aspect of the “deciding to be good” conflict falls rather flat, though. Liriel is still tempted by Lloth and is willing to sacrifice her soul to the spider goddess to gain the power to help her friends. On paper, it sounds like a good way to force some interesting moral decisions, but in practice it works out great for Liriel because Lloth just gives her the power to do whatever she wants without requiring anything of her in return. Only once does Lloth force Liriel to do something evil, at the very end, and it’s a matter of Lloth using Liriel as a sock puppet rather than Liriel facing an actual moral quandary and being tempted to do an evil thing for good reasons. Liriel doesn’t even act all that concerned about the possibility of losing her soul, so it’s Fyodor who does most of the worrying. A waste of a good opportunity, really.
Happily, this novel manages to avoid the trap that many of the Drizzt stories fall into: whenever the good-hearted drow hero meets a bunch of surface-dwellers, all the good people instinctively like him and all the bad people immediately hate him. There’s a little of that here (e.g., Xzorsh), but for the most part Liriel’s acceptance in surface society is hard-won. She has to earn people’s respect through her actions, and often requires Hrolf or Fyodor to vouch for her before the good people will even give her the chance to prove herself. It’s a refreshing repudiation of black-and-white morality since, as I’ve pointed out before, the drow’s evil reputation is richly deserved and it’s only sensible for even the most open-minded surface-dweller to mistrust them.
Fyodor was my favourite character from the previous book, so I was pleased to see that he’s still well-handled here. He’s got a great central conflict: he has the power to resolve dangerous situations at great personal cost, both physical and emotional, and with great danger to everyone around him, so it’s much more interesting than just watching a superhero beat up some bad guys. Every time he succumbs to his battle rage, neither he nor the reader have any idea what the outcome will be. He’s pretty far out of focus for much of the novel, though. Most of this novel is told from Liriel’s point of view, and Fyodor spends a fair amount of it off-screen doing human stuff with other humans while Liriel pursues her own goals separately.
The relationship between them, where they start off as close but awkward friends and then navigate the difficult terrain from there to full-blown romance, is done quite well. It’s not an easy journey for either of them, and there are plenty of obstacles that make the eventual resolution feel earned. Their disagreements are real issues that are fundamental to their characters — “Evil goddesses should not be treated like spell-dispensing gumball machines,” for instance, or “I’m not your boss, I’m your romantic partner” — rather than the contrived misunderstandings and love triangles that characterize most terrible romance writing. By the end they’ve gotten a lot of character development out of dealing with their emotional baggage. I wish more of these novels would bother depicting relationships where love is something you have to work at and build, not something that just automatically happens when two people are near each other for long enough, because it feels a damn sight more real that way.
The supporting cast is fairly good as well. The raider captain Hrolf starts off as a sort of caricature of a drunken pirate, but gets enough time and character development to wriggle free of the stereotype and steal some scenes. Xzorsh, his honest and forthright sea elf ally, fares less well; he’s necessary to the plot, and he makes a thematic counterpoint to all of the backstabbing schemers in the story, but I can’t think of much to say about his characterization except “I guess he’s a nice guy.” (In that respect he reminds me of Wyn from Cunningham’s Elfsong, who was similarly tepid.) We also get brief appearances from established Realms characters like Khelben Arunsun, Danilo Thann, and Caladorn Cassalanter. None of them are necessary plot-wise, but they serve to tie the story into the larger world and remind us that there’s more to the Realms than the ships’ decks and small islands where Tangled Webs is set.
There are several villains in this novel. Most of the time, when a novel crams in too many villains, it’s an unmitigated disaster. (Black Wizards springs to mind as a notable example.) There’s only so many words and so much characterization to go around, and bad authors usually want to focus on the heroes as much as possible, so the villains end up underbaked or pull the story in contradictory directions. But here Cunningham spends a long time with each of the villains, giving each of them point-of-view scenes, interesting interactions with other characters, and distinct motivations and personalities. Because they’re all loosely allied and they all interact with each other to some degree, it doesn’t feel as if time spent with one of them is taking time away from the rest. Best of all, despite being generally awful, nearly all of the villains are sympathetic in some small way. One of the apparent villains even turns out to be reasonable and honourable by the end, which sells the idea that people aren’t arbitrarily divided into heroes and bad guys. The only one of the lot who seems completely unnecessary is Shakti, Liriel’s old rival from Menzoberranzan, who spends most of the story doing nothing and then disappears.
The most prominent theme here is feminism, given that you can’t swing a dead cat in here without bopping a woman who’s rejected her culture’s gender-related values in some way. Liriel has many fish-out-of-water moments trying to comprehend Ruathym’s strictly patriarchal society from the perspective of her matriarchal upbringing. Dagmar is driven to cooperate with the conspirators because her culture’s restrictive gender roles offer her no opportunity for social advancement, so there’s no healthy outlet for her ambition. (The scene where an unwilling Dagmar is packed off to her new husband’s house as part of an arranged marriage is particularly poignant and well-done.) But most of all there’s Vestress, a mind flayer who’s developed an independent streak and a sense of gender that runs contrary to the normally communal-minded and genderless illithid society. In a sense, she’s the first trans character in the entire Forgotten Realms oeuvre. She’s even referred to with female pronouns, despite having no physical attributes for any sort of gender. From the perspective of the 2020s, it seems like a quietly revolutionary thing to have written in 1996.
This novel does a skillful job of bringing up feminist issues in a fantasy world. Many bad authors of both genders will make clumsy points about feminism with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. You know what I’m talking about, right? The badass action girl who can fight as well as any man, and the author never lets you forget it. The boorish man who says “You can’t do X because you’re a girl!”, so a girl says “Oh yes I can!” and shows him up. Gender-related conflicts reduced to virtuous women versus a blatantly evil patriarchal system. Whenever I see these tropes, I usually groan; they’re occasionally used well, but such cases are the exception rather than the rule. By contrast, Tangled Webs just shows women in difficult situations that resonate for any female reader — ignored by the men around them, powerless to change their situation, ostracized by their peers — then shows how they deal with them without putting a blinking neon sign overhead that reads “THIS IS THE MESSAGE.” Victories against these obstacles, when they occur, are hard-won. It feels refreshingly honest and true-to-life.
Very good! I had to stretch to spot the occasional diction that could have used work or narration that I would have worded differently. After slogging through so many instances of sloppy writing and editing in 1995 and 1996, this novel is a veritable balm for my nerves.
Tangled Webs has plenty of faults that I could nitpick: the sluggish first quarter of the book, the “magic solves everything” handwaving, a bunch of setup that never gets paid off, and so on. But once it got going, I kept finding myself looking forward to picking it up and seeing what would happen next. It’s very solidly written, there’s lots of deft characterization, and the focus on intrigue keeps the plot exciting. It’s particularly gratifying to see someone write female characters so well. There’s one more Elaine Cunningham Realms novel between here and the end of TSR, and I find myself quite looking forward to it.
 This is an odd case because the Gormenghast books were never intended to be a trilogy, but are usually published and examined as if they were one. Peake had planned for it to be an ongoing series, but died of Parkinson’s disease before he could complete more than fragments of a fourth novel. I highly recommend the first two Gormenghast books, which are a masterpiece of setting and character work that tell a complete and compelling story, but would suggest avoiding the third. The author was suffering from dementia induced by the Parkinson’s by that point, and it shows in the writing.
18 Replies to “Tangled Webs”
Hey – sent you some high-res Elaine Cunningham covers!
Sweet Jesus! Only twenty minutes after this post goes live, I get a pair of high-res cover images in my inbox to replace the reprint covers I was using for this novel and Elfshadow. You’re my hero, Ben. Thanks so much!
No problem at all! Happy to be of service.
Because I found a much higher resolution image than is usually acquirable, I have only now noticed for the first time that the mind flayer has tits.
Of course it does. Sigh. At least this one doesn’t look nearly as much like a traced photograph as the previous book’s cover…
The arbitrary magic issue is so frustrating in these books because, like, at the end of the day these novels take place in a world designed alongside a game which does have limits on how much magic you can do, and thus it would be easy and consistent to follow those rules, and people who both play the game and read the books would nod and say “yes, of course.” Obviously you shouldn’t write the world as if people can only do what they can do in the game system, but like, when there’s a built-in way to compare “hey, is this novel protagonist grossly overpowered?” maybe keep it in mind?
I’ve been rereading some of my Dragonlance books recently and I’ve been struck by how differently they approach magic than the Forgotten Realms books do — as something that grants great power but is also really, really difficult. Someone describes a war against the magic-users to Tanis at one point, and he wonders how the mages could possibly lose. The other person points out that, yes, they wielded terrible spells, but they needed to rest and relearn the spells every day, and we see this first-hand with Raistlin. Which, of course, is how magic works in D&D. But in the Realms it’s more like the great archmages (and most of the other mages, too) can do pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want.
That’s very true that Liriel is way OP (she should be what, a 7th level cleric/mage max), but half the fun is indulging in a power fantasy.
I’m glad you thought Tangled Webs was an improvement. Sadly, it’s probably the best Liriel book…the third one is terrible.
I’m happy to indulge in a good power fantasy, but plausibility is important. You have to set up that it makes sense in the context of the world for the character to be that powerful; if not, it feels like the author is just making shit up as they go along. It’s murder on my suspension of disbelief.
Hmm. I should probably go into more detail and think of a good example. Let’s see… There’s a Dresden Files novel (Dead Beat, I think) where, at the climax, the hero rides a zombie Tyrannosaurus Rex through the streets of downtown Chicago, who then proceeds to eat and stomp all his enemies. It’s hard to get much more ridiculously OP than that! But the author spends the entire novel setting it all up — the exact rules by which necromancy works, the various factors that make it easier to resurrect things, the complete T-Rex skeleton in the Chicago Field Museum — so by the time the protagonist is rampaging through the city on a zombie dinosaur, you realize that the entire book has been building up to this point. Because the author put so much effort into the setup, everything stays plausible, it doesn’t feel out of place, and you don’t lose your suspension of disbelief.
Now imagine that the author hadn’t set any of that up. Instead, at the very end of the book, the protagonist just says “I’m going to make a dinosaur to ride! Giddyup!” and suddenly rides away on a zombie dinosaur. I’d be left thinking “This is the stupidest goddamn book I’ve ever read” and would be wishing that I could get the time back that I’d spent reading it. It would feel like the novel was written by a child playing make-believe. The exact same events would take place, but the difference between them working well and ruining the novel lies entirely in how well those power-fantasy events were set up beforehand.
Liriel is more on the latter end of that spectrum. There are no rules for her magic, we’re never told what she’s able to do with it or what limitations she’s working under, and none of the extremely powerful magical effects she pulls out are telegraphed beforehand. What we want is for her to seem clever because we’re watching her combine her wits and her resources. What we get is Liriel smashing a bunch of paper-thin obstacles without much drama; she waves her hand and problems disappear. There are a lot of things to like about this novel, but this is a serious damper on my overall enthusiasm for it.
I’m not likely to read the third Starlight & Shadows book, given that it was released very far after the TSR era and it’s out of scope for this project. But given that Cunningham didn’t leave herself much to work with after concluding the story here, I’m not surprised to hear that it’s not great.
My favourite recent Realms novels are the Brimstone Angels novels by Erin M Evans, which spanned the late 4e, early 5e era. There’s a moment in one of them, Ashes of the Tyrant, I think, where an enemy gets tripped up by a specific loophole of how the spell they are using works. The kind of mistake a player could easily make. Knowing the spell, as a DM, it was really satisfying to see the main character, a warlock, use her superior knowledge of the spell to trip the enemy up. It didn’t feel like “Oh, the world only works like the game does”, but it did feel satisfying because it acknowledged the limits of the magic and let the hero succeed by exploiting those limits.
Out of curiosity, what else have you been reading lately? I’m curious about your tastes. The TSR reviews aren’t much of a guide…some of these books are just objectively terrible.
Lots! Around the time I was reviewing Murder in Cormyr I downloaded a near-complete archive of Nero Wolfe ebooks for research purposes and ended up reading the entire archive — 36 novels and anthologies — in 44 days. Got kind of carried away there, and that’s the main reason why this review took a while. Been working my way through a collection of Dorothy Parker’s works (fiction, poetry, play and novel reviews) and loving it — she was a very strange and sad woman, and it came out in everything she wrote. I would love to be able to write hilariously acerbic reviews like hers, but it wouldn’t be my style. A friend of mine is loaning me his collection of Discworld novels, so I’ve been going through that; I’d read several before, but many of the ones I’m reading now are new to me. Just finished reading Cassandra Khaw’s noir cosmic horror novella “Hammers on Bone”, which I tried hard to like but couldn’t. On deck are a collection of Mickey Spillane mysteries (I don’t know why I’m on such a kick for detective novels this year!), a biography of Damon Runyon, and a book about the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay, because I could use a break from fiction for a while.
My tastes are… pretty much everything, really. I think that a wide and varied diet is important for your brain, and I’m happy to pull just about anything off a shelf and give it a try. As a result I don’t think I’m particularly expert at anything, but I’ve absorbed a broad range of mostly-useless knowledge that makes me very well suited for doing crossword puzzles. I don’t think I’d be able to make this project work without that sort of catholic outlook — if I were judgemental about genre fiction this would be a much more mean-spirited blog, and if I only read fantasy novels I wouldn’t have the breadth of experience required to find insights.
Ah, I tried to read some Nero Wolfe, but there was way too much casual misogyny for me. You should read some Tana French books if you haven’t already. They’re decent mystery novels, but they have the most exquisite characterization, which I think you’d really like!
I will put that on my list! Thanks!
I know what you mean about the casual misogyny in those books. It’s actually easier to deal with from Wolfe, since it’s made clear that his fear of women is pathological and unusual, and it’s sometimes played for laughs at his expense. But Archie represents the prevailing attitudes of society at whatever time each book was written, so his behaviour towards women often makes a modern reader cringe.
Thanks for another entertaining read; I had waited eagerly for this review. I remember having quite enjoyed this particular novel, like most from Cunningham. I don’t recall much of what happened except that it felt like a good old Errol Flynn -style swashbuckling adventure with a devious twist in the end. I suppose you’re right to point out how the character development makes it enjoyable, although I may have not appreciated it so much 25 years ago.
In fact, I look forward to each one of your reviews eagerly. It’s been great fun to find out it wasn’t total waste of time to read all that pulp back then; heck, a great many of them were even translated to Finnish in the peak of their popularity. The reviews of the novels I had read myself are a nice trip down the Memory Lane. This site is a hidden gem, please carry on.
Thanks so much for the kind words! I’m definitely planning to carry on. There’s only a dozen Realms novels between here and the end of TSR, and then I’ll go back in time and tackle books from other series: Dragonlance, Spelljammer, Planescape, etc. I expect there will come a point at which there’s just nothing interesting left to say and I’m only reiterating points I’ve already made in earlier reviews; when I get there, that will be the time to stop.
Ack! I am so late to the party on this one!
-Our esteemed host’s comments on arbitrary magic feats tie right back into one of the biggest complaints about the Realms. Namely, that many of the authors’ pet characters are so ridiculously high-level that they make PCs look insignificant by comparison.
More authors should try to take cues from how Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman handle Raistlin Majere’s magic in the Dragonlance series, particularly the Legends trilogy. An assassination attempt against a Raistlin who has a power level comparable to Elminster very nearly succeeds without the use of magic in the Legends series. On the rare occasions Raistlin pulls out a magical nuke, it’s done to establish more about his character, either showing Caramon and the reader just how powerful he’s gotten, or to have Raistlin show a rare bit of compassion.
I found that Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels offer some good examples of how to creatively solve problems when there’s no magic at all and the characters only have medieval technology available. Or you could study how real people historically did things-I looked up the use of things like tripwires, pits of sharpened stakes, smoke signaling and impromptu Molotov cocktails for one climactic fight scene along with invisibility and fireballs.
-I recall a discussion I had with our esteemed host about translating game mechanics into prose stories. The main point was that while an author shouldn’t strictly limit themselves solely to the game rules, those same rules can act as guidelines on how the universe works and what the limits are on them. Knowing that monster X has ability Y can help guide how a fight scene will turn out, or knowing the limits of magic item Z can provide an idea on how a clever character can either get around or exploit those limits. All the spells that characters cast in my work are lifted directly from the game materials of older editions, so D&D veterans can recognize many of them.
-How and when could you involve things that happen to the protagonists but don’t necessarily involve them? When you say “involve them”, I take that to mean that they should have some personal or emotional investment in it. That isn’t necessarily the case for a D&D-style plot where the protagonists are hired to rescue someone, investigate mysterious happenings, come across a village being attacked by gnolls and then intervene to stop them, etc. but they do not have an actual emotional connection beyond simply wanting to help out of general compassion and/or greed. The way to get the protagonists involved is often by their learning that their current mission is somehow tied into something they’re emotionally connected to.
I’ve been toying with the idea of having my characters get involved in a dungeon crawl, rescue mission or something similar that doesn’t necessarily tie into the rest of the story. The best way I can think of to make it more than just a general collection of encounters would be for some of the characters to see or hear about something that resonates with them personally, I read Ru Emerson’s Greyhawk novels, which mostly consisted of the characters making their way around the dungeon maps (you could actually trace their paths) and those were execrable.
-The point about driving home the feminist points with a sledgehammer is at the basis for a lot of the complaints people have about diversity in franchises like superhero comics or Star Wars. Namely, the criticism is that there’s more effort put into making the character diverse for the purpose of showing off how ‘woke’ the creators are than in actually making them likable and interesting on their own terms. Everyone’s mileage may vary on whether a given character is ‘diverse for the sake of diversity’, but like our esteemed host I really, really hate it when a story beats me over the head with its message and preaching becomes more important than actually telling an enjoyable story.
The more I think about how to respond to your comment, the more a contradiction stands out in this review. On the one hand, I expressed mild irritation that the plot was something that the characters just stumbled into rather than being something integral to their personal journeys. But then later, I pointed out how nice it was to have the characters not feel like the centre of the universe. I think part of the reason why they don’t feel like the centre of the universe in this book is that the plot isn’t all about them, so I’m both complaining about and praising the same thing.
There’s plenty of room in literature for side stories, since any subplot that doesn’t relate to the characters’ journey can still be worthwhile if it illustrates the characters’ personalities, fleshes out the setting, or reinforces the work’s theme. Hell, I sometimes even give it a pass if it’s just highly entertaining padding. I don’t want to imply that side stories are fundamentally a problem. I think the specific reason why it irritates me here is that it feels like the side story (saving Ruathym from the conspiracy) takes precedence over the main plot (carving rune, fixing all their problems), so that what should be the heart of the story has become the B-plot and this thing they’ve stumbled into is the A-plot. If this were the second book in a trilogy and the characters’ journey was going to be wrapped up in the third book I’d be okay with it, but making the character plot the B-plot makes it feel less important.
I generally dislike any work that tries to hit me over the head with a message, regardless of what the message is. That said, it is much better to do a clumsy and unsubtle job of diversity than it is to not even try. If I have a choice between a work that’s doing “performative wokeness” or a work that pretends that diversity doesn’t exist, I’ll take the former every time, no hesitation.