The Coral Kingdom

Author: Douglas Niles
Published: September 1992

I’ve been getting some very kind encouragement lately from people who have enjoyed this site, which is enormously gratifying. [1] Turns out that the encouragement is also a practical necessity at this point, because it’s time for another Douglas Niles novel and seriously, people, I don’t know that I have the fortitude for this guy’s books any more. Only the promise that I get to read a book by James Lowder next is keeping me going at this point. Will I manage to finish this book with my sanity intact, or will the review just devolve into pages and pages of “ow ow ow make it stop”? Let’s find out!

Plot

If you’ve read my previous reviews, you know half of the plot already; it’s the plot of every single Douglas Niles story thus far. Say it with me: “An evil god sends monsters to wreck some peaceful, nature-loving place for no apparent reason.” Yes, again. At this point I find myself genuinely baffled. Does he just not realize that other plots exist? That you can have a story that doesn’t start and end with an evil god doing bad things just for evil’s sake? Maybe even a plot where people are in conflict with other people, possibly for reasons other than “Group A is good and Group B is evil”? After eight books of the same basic plot over and over, I’m starting to seriously doubt that he’s familiar with the concept. I just don’t know what to make of this stubborn determination to keep telling the same story.

The randomly selected monster-sending deity this time around is Malar, chaotic evil god of predatory beasts, depicted here with all the characterization of a dog single-mindedly chasing after a squirrel:

But one question was paramount to the Beastlord. “Are there elves? I must smite the elves!”

That quote is a full, complete summary of Malar’s dialogue and characterization. Like all of the other evil gods in Douglas Niles’ novels, he’s not a real character with personality or motivations; he’s just an outside force whose purpose is to kick-start the plot. Talos, the designated villain from the previous book, shows up again here too. He’s gotten one of his minions to give a cursed magic mirror to one of the protagonists so that he can look through it and see what the heroes are up to on the Material Plane. But wait… why does he need to look through a mirror to know what’s happening? Isn’t he a god? Can’t he just know what’s going on down there? There’s no explanation given for his odd lack of awareness, so it just makes him an even less impressive god.

The only author so far who’s managed a halfway decent divine villain at this point is Troy Denning, whose Myrkul and Bhaal in Waterdeep were interesting characters in their own right in addition to being credibly threatening foes. But the gods here seem an awful lot like humans, and not very bright humans at that. You could replace Talos in this trilogy with, say, a powerful wizard and nothing would change. (Heck, it would actually be less implausible that way.)

Fortunately, it’s not entirely about gods and giant murder-beasts. The protagonists’ plot thread centres around the royal Kendrick family’s efforts to rescue King Tristan from imprisonment, with a subplot about Deirdre, the younger daughter, turning evil and crazy. Apparently our hero from the previous trilogy has been captured by underwater monsters and held for ransom; his wife and children have to enlist the elves’ help in rescuing him because apparently elves are specialists in undersea exploration. But the local elves have problems of their own: Malar has sent a giant kaiju monster to destroy their civilization, and they’re busy being eaten. Our protagonists instead have to make a dangerous sea voyage to Evermeet, the hidden elven homeland, to find help, then storm a city full of sea monsters.

For all my complaints about the villains, this plot is probably the strongest that Niles has written yet for one simple reason: at long last, the heroes actually feel like they have agency. There are no gods sending them dozens of vague ominous portents, leading them by the nose from place to place, or constantly intervening to rescue them from danger. Instead they come up with a plan and execute it themselves, which is just so extraordinarily refreshing after his last seven books of divinely-driven bollocks. It still has the distracting whiff of contrivance about it, though, where characters will know things they can’t possibly know because it keeps the plot simpler. For instance, there’s how all the humans and elves instinctively believe that the king’s kidnapping and the giant elf-eating monster are somehow related, even though there’s not the slightest shred of in-story evidence to suggest that — only the author’s need to get the humans and elves to cooperate. Or how Deirdre sees a giant squid in her mirror and magically knows that it’s actually the polymorphed form of the guy she slept with in the last book. Or how the humans effortlessly find the sea monster city on the dark floor of a trackless ocean without a guide or map. Those sorts of things. Still, even if the story is shaky, I’m willing to cut it a little slack for the relative lack of meddling gods compared to his other works.

My suspension of disbelief was mightily stretched at the end, when a single Viking longship’s worth of humans invades an entire underwater city of nine-foot-tall regenerating killer trolls and escapes in one piece. The trolls are individually tough opponents, but in crowds they devolve into just more mooks for the battle scenes, unable to penetrate the heroes’ plot armour. No such protection is afforded to the human crew of the boat, though. We’re never given exact numbers for how many there are, so there’s always just enough of these faceless spear-carriers on hand to die dramatically. The named characters don’t mourn or even mention their deaths, which gives the unfortunate impression that the protagonists are the only people in the world who matter — and makes them look like heartless jerks in the process.

The setting is unexpectedly interesting, going further afield than the other Moonshae books. We see the mysterious elven isle of Evermeet for the first time; it won’t make another appearance in the novels for about six years. And the undersea exploration bits are a welcome change from the usual forests and dungeons, even if the author doesn’t pay much attention to details like light and pressure.

Themes

This book has a running theme of elves being racist, where they keep getting upset at the humans’ presence in their protected sanctuaries and then the humans have to overcome their good-natured racism with honesty and openness. It doesn’t work on a couple of levels. It feels too easily dispelled, for one — if someone’s spent centuries in a cultural bubble absorbing prejudiced attitudes, that shouldn’t get swept away in the course of the first week in which they interact with humans. Characters doing a complete 180-degree turn on their racist attitudes in the course of a couple of scenes is the stuff of television after-school specials; complex characters should have complex problems. And furthermore, the elves’ racism actually has a really good foundation: they point out how the aggressive, expansionist humans are outbreeding them and wearing their species down by sheer attrition. The elves need their hidden sanctuaries like Synnoria and Evermeet just to survive in the long run, so their unease about letting humans in is actually quite sensible.

Thus far, nobody but Elaine Cunningham can write elves well. All the elves in The Coral Kingdom are perfect and good and beautiful, living in harmony in their graceful crystal-spired cities until some outside force shows up to cause problems. They’re just a straightforward utopia, lacking any of the complications or texture that a real society has.

Characters

As is standard for Niles’ novels, there’s no subtlety in the characterizations at all. Everyone is exactly what they appear to be, and very few characters have an arc of any sort. The omniscient narrator tells you right away who all the bad guys are and explains their plans as the book goes along. The point of view jumps into nearly everyone’s head at one point or another, so you’re never left wondering what anyone is feeling or thinking. Thus, without any character-driven uncertainty, the only other source of tension left in the novel is monster attacks.

Robyn, our erstwhile female lead from the previous series, is the best of the lot. She’s now the queen of the Moonshae Isles, and she mixes a wise, regal presence with occasional moments of genuine warmth, like her concern for her daughters. I wish she’d gotten more time in this novel, since it’s refreshing to spend time with a competent, smart character who has potentially interesting problems. She goes out of focus very hard once the sea voyage begins, though, occasionally rousing herself to cast some magic in battle scenes but providing little in the way of dialogue.

Alicia, her daughter, is more or less a younger, more headstrong version of her mother. She’s an even blander character in this one than she was in the last, without a character arc that changes her in any way. She gets all indignant with racist elves, is determined to save her dad, and strings along her suitors, but that’s about all she does here except round out the battle scenes with an extra sword. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems like the characterization for nearly everyone stops midway through the book when the sea voyage begins. At that point the story becomes a standard “overcome obstacles” kind of heroic quest, where the focus is on the protagonists’ minute-to-minute efforts to avoid death rather than on the characters and their arcs.

Her sister Deirdre’s fall from grace isn’t particularly compelling. She’s accumulating arcane power at an accelerated rate, mysteriously achieving in weeks what would take an ordinary mage years, and it’s a cause for great concern to her family — but apparently not quite concerning enough for anyone to investigate or do anything about it. Her character development is hamstrung in this book because she spends much of it hiding alone in a library and watching events through her mirror rather than interacting with the other characters. How is she supposed to show off her jealousy, simmering anger, and teenage angst if she doesn’t have anyone to emote to? The only personality traits she gets to demonstrate are “flat emotional affect” and “likes to study,” which seems like a pity — I think her “tempted by evil” thread is the most potentially interesting character arc here, but it doesn’t get the time or attention it needs. She seems to serve only as a deus ex machina who will occasionally teleport into hopeless scenes and save the day, then disappear again.

Pawldo, the Kendricks’ halfling companion from the first trilogy, dies a messy death midway through this book. It seems like it’s supposed to be a shocking moment, but he wasn’t nearly well-developed enough as a character for us to feel a sense of attachment. Pawldo was just one of several people with no direct relevance to the plot who helped the protagonists out with their quest, but who got no development of their own. What are his likes and dislikes? What does he do when he’s not adventuring? Does he have any family? Friends or enemies? Hobbies? Interesting backstory? Details like these give us chances to get attached to a character, but the only details I can remember us learning about Pawldo were “his name is Pawldo and he’s a nice guy.” Regis got more characterization in one book than Pawldo got in three, and Olive Ruskettle got more characterization in her first few scenes than Regis got in an entire book, so if either of them had died, I’d have been gutted. We’re supposed to be appalled by Deirdre’s dismissive reaction to Pawldo’s death in the next scene, but frankly, I felt the same way — I just shrugged and thought “Well, that’s a shame, I suppose.”

Keane, the royal daughters’ tutor, returns here and wow, his budding romantic moments with Alicia are a wee bit creepy.

He thought of Alicia, touching the private part of his heart, the only place where he dared admit the truth. Keane had finally allowed himself to admit that he loved the princess, had loved her since she was little more than a girl.

I’m fine with every part of that quote except the last bit, because if I have my chronology right, he came to the Moonshaes when she was eleven years old and he was in his early twenties. Now I’m going to try to not think about that as hard as possible while I read the rest of this series.

Speaking of romantic moments, Niles resolves the complication of having three separate suitors for his heroine by playing “pair the spares” with Hanrald and Brigit, the elf warrior lady from Darkwalker on Moonshae. I’m not quite sure why he bothered, though, since Hanrald is barely even in this book at all — he gets maybe four lines of dialogue in the first half of the novel, and most of them are boring. Narratively, it would have been better if they’d left him behind on Corwell to cut down on the number of characters. That leaves Keane and Brandon, which was a subplot that I was pleasantly surprised by. It’s very tempting to split a romantic triangle’s suitors into “nice guy and jerk jock” so that the reader has someone to root for and someone to boo, and they can be satisfied (though not surprised) when the girl ends up with the “right” one at the end. But — unusually for Niles — this isn’t framed in terms of good and bad, since Brandon is a jock but definitely not a jerk; he’s respectful, friendly, hyper-competent, and confident without being boastful, so it turns into a choice between two different good suitors. It’s an unexpected bit of subtlety in an otherwise rigorously straightforward book.

I thought of writing something about the villains here, but then realized that I couldn’t come up with even one paragraph to describe them. They’re just more bad monsters doing bad things just because.

Writing

Unsurprisingly, Niles’ writing is still fairly agonizing. The Coral Kingdom still suffers from the same issue that I called out way back in Darkwalker on Moonshae: the characters spend most of the time speaking in a normal, everyday tone, but at dramatic moments, they revert to an ersatz Shakespearesque style that jars terribly with the rest of the dialogue.

“Your ghastly missive cannot be met with other than loathing,” Robyn declared, pure force running like bedrock in her voice. […] “You tell us that he who is dead lives, and for this you deserve worse than scorn!”

Does bedrock run? I think its distinguishing quality is that it just lies there.

Now, I’m not saying that fantasy novels shouldn’t experiment with new and different diction — in fact, I’d agree with Ursula K. Le Guin that it’s one of the things fantasy does best. [2] But if you’re going to give your characters a distinct style of speaking, there are two prerequisites: you need to be consistent with it, and you need to practice it until it feels and sounds natural. You can’t have your characters swap back and forth between mannerisms in the space of a single scene for no apparent reason, because that’s a guaranteed way to break your readers’ immersion. And you definitely can’t get away with dialogue that sounds like a dinner-theatre actor sending an unsolicited audition tape to Masterpiece Theatre. It’s easy to imagine how much better this scene would have been if, at this horrible, dramatic moment, the proud queen had expressed her grief with something simple and understated instead.

To be fair, the descriptions of places and some of the narration for battle scenes are actually pretty good; I think his writing has improved in that respect over time. But dialogue and characterization are still full of gaping holes, and I think it’s a side effect of the way Niles writes novels. This feels very much like the kind of story whose beats were planned out thoroughly beforehand, with each dramatic scene decided on well in advance, and the characters are just there to make sure that the novel advances from scene to scene on schedule. Put another way, the characters are there to serve the plot rather than the plot being there to serve the characters, and that makes for a more brittle-feeling story without as much depth or emotional connection. In the best of the Realms novels we’ve seen so far, each scene has told us something new about the characters or setting in addition to furthering the plot, and that builds up a rich texture to the writing which makes it linger in your head long after you’ve finished reading it. This book, on the other hand, I’m not likely to remember very well once I put it down. This also causes the sorts of plot contrivances that I complained about earlier — sometimes you have to take the shortest path between two scenes to keep your pre-planned story on schedule, even if the shortcut doesn’t make sense.

The author has a distractingly poor grasp on small details sometimes. For instance, imagine this: a large crowd of people have gathered around some bad guys, and some guards have worked their way through the crowd to surround the villains. They fire a hail of crossbow bolts, “a crossfire of steel-headed death,” at them, but the villains teleport away before they’re struck. So what happens next? If you said “crossbow bolts rip through the guards and the crowd,” you’re paying more attention than the author did, because the missiles seem to mysteriously vanish without further mention despite the press of people on every side. And then there’s the mages tossing meteor swarm spells around with no collateral damage, even when their allies are in melee with the monsters they’re blasting. Now that I think about it, it all feels very much like a game of Dungeons and Dragons rather than a real story:

“I fire my crossbow at the ambassador.”

“Okay, roll to hit.”

“…6.”

“You miss. They teleport away.”

You don’t get the impression that a real crossbow bolt is whistling through the air towards the crowd, or that a real giant flaming boulder is hurtling to the ground and exploding. It’s just characters taking actions when their initiative comes up; if they hit, you mark the damage; if they don’t, you move on to the next player.

I do, however, have to give him credit for this excellent line: “The [animated tree] lumbered beside them.” [3] But I can’t tell if the humour was intentional; if so, maybe he should have saved the distracting jocularity for a less dramatic scene than the giant kaiju fight in the ruins of the elven city.

Conclusion

Grade: C–

There are many things that I don’t love about it: the writing is weak, the characters are static, the villains are boring, and the dialogue is unimpressive. Still, I found it better than the last book by a wide margin. It feels like the characters here are actually choosing their destinies to some degree — a first for a Douglas Niles novel — and the whole “underwater road trip” angle makes for an interesting change of scenery. It’s deeply flawed but not actively painful.

There’s only one more Douglas Niles book to go in the Forgotten Realms series, which is cause for some celebration in these quarters.

Footnotes

[1] In particular, I’d like to thank the Reading the Realms podcast, who had some very kind things to say about this blog in their review of The Halfling’s Gem. They do excellent work; the podcast format gives them plenty of space to discuss books in more detail than I do, and they do a wonderful job of digging up details about the authors and the circumstances surrounding the books. If you listen to only one episode, their interview with James Lowder is not to be missed.

[2] I can’t do the topic justice nearly as well as Le Guin did in her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie“, so I’d suggest Googling around for a PDF of that if you take an interest in the craft of writing.

[3] There’s a wildly speculative part of my brain that wonders if the command word to activate the animated tree (“phyrosyne”) isn’t an Easter egg reference to the Firesign Theater. Niles would have been around the right age for that particular fandom, I suppose.

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