Author: Douglas Niles
Published: March 1993
At last! The final Douglas Niles novel in the Forgotten Realms series! I’m back from a much-needed break, refreshed and ready for this challenge. Will he go out on a high note and manage to impress me, or will this be another difficult slog? Let’s find out.
The short version: King Tristan is trying to find a cleric to magically regrow his amputated hand, but that gets him mixed up with duplicitous representatives of Faerûnian gods who are angling to destroy the Earthmother out of sheer jealousy and greed. His daughter Deirdre finally falls to the dark side, surprising no one, and helps the interlopers. Meanwhile, a band of firbolgs and trolls are plundering civilized villages for booze.
It’s a very slow burn of a plot, without much happening besides “humans skirmish with trolls and giants” for about the first three-quarters, and it’s structured very oddly. The first third of the book is a bunch of completely unrelated plot threads, each happily doing their own thing and not interacting with the others at all. If someone were to have asked me at that point “What is this book about?”, I would have had to say “I have no earthly idea.” It’s not until about the two-fifths mark that you see them all come together and figure out which of the various conflicts we’ve seen so far is the central one. It’s not necessarily a bad approach to plotting a book, but it requires skillful writing and presumes a certain amount of trust from the reader. You have to keep each of those individual threads interesting enough that the reader wants to see where they go, then tie them all together in a natural-feeling way. Instead I kept finding myself frustrated, thinking “Who cares about these firbolgs? They’re off in the middle of nowhere doing small-scale bad-guy stuff. Let’s get back to the bit that looks like the main plot!”
There are a few loose ends that seem to get dropped on the floor. What’s the deal with the Silverhaft Axe? It’s a magic macguffin, but aside from a very unreliable-sounding giant legend at the beginning, it’s never explained where it comes from, who made it, why it exists, or what it can do. How come the troll chieftain Baatlrap can only create new trolls when he has it? And what’s the deal with the talking wolf who accosts Tristan out of nowhere? I kept waiting for him to show up again, but he never did. And how do you fit scores of giants into a single Viking longboat? They must be the tiniest giants ever. How cute!
I appreciate that the characters actually accomplish something at the end. I spent the entire book expecting some sort of ham-handed deus ex machina to tie up the plot, as in Prophet of Moonshae, but here it’s actually the characters’ own actions which save the day with a bit of divine assistance on the side. I only wish that they hadn’t been so thoroughly railroaded for the rest of the plot up until that point: Deirdre is a divine sock puppet, Tristan is mind-controlled, Robyn sits around and doesn’t know what’s going on until the end, Alicia gets lost in the woods, and Keane follows her around quietly. Until the end, when everyone finally gets a chance to do something useful, I found myself growing somewhat bored.
The main theme, which I’ve been hoping to see explored in one of the Moonshae books since the beginning, is the conflict between the Isles’ indigenous nature goddess and her druids versus the polytheistic religious traditions from the mainland. Unfortunately, I don’t love the way it’s handled here. Instead of seeing how the inroads made by the new religion cause cultural or social divides, we get gods straightforwardly battling each other by having their chosen intermediaries fight. And of course it’s framed in terms of “good vs. evil,” with the new gods’ representatives being complete dicks and the Earthmother being awesome. If ever there was a theme that could have used a hefty dose of cultural relativism, it’s this one.
Furthermore, Helm returns yet again in a Douglas Niles book as a villain. Seriously, why? He’s the god of watchmen and protectors who personifies the virtues of loyalty, duty, and protecting the weak. That’s not great material to make an evil colonialist villain out of, yet five out of Niles’ nine books have featured wicked, venal, self-righteous priests of Helm as major villains. What’s the deal here? Did the author have a bad run-in with a mall security guard in his youth and now seeks revenge on the anthropomorphized concept of guards and watchmen? As with Bhaal and Talos sending random monsters to wreck the Moonshaes, it smacks of the plot outline having a blank space where a motivator should be, so the author reached for a random character to fill it without thinking too hard about the implications.
Tristan spends much of the book being a complete idiot, running off to fight a giant horde of monsters single-handedly (sorry/not sorry) and refusing all assistance. I breathed a sigh of relief when it turned out that he had been mind-controlled into doing so, because that kind of blithering foolhardiness isn’t entirely out of character for the same guy who got himself captured by acting like a utter dope in Black Wizards. He gets one of the only good character moments in the novel, where an agent of the Earthmother rebukes him for being a dick to animals, but aside from that he spends the whole novel just doing your standard “brave warrior fights monsters” stuff.
Robyn’s brief conflict at the beginning, where she feels guilty about having worshipped Chauntea during the period where the Earthmother was dead, was a good setup for some interesting character development. I was hoping to see her try to reconcile these two opposing systems of belief, but nothing else is made of it — she just immediately drops Chauntea like a broken toy and goes back to the Earthmother, and that’s almost all the character development she receives. Given that she’s the druid queen of the title, it seems strange that she gets almost no screen time until the end of the novel. Hell, I think Tavish the bard gets more scenes than Robyn does, and she’s just a side character who does nothing of import for the entire book.
Alicia spends some time here as the commander of a contingent of Ffolk soldiers. Given what a Mary Sue sort of character she’s been thus far, it should come as no surprise that she immediately wins them all over; her men love her and follow her unconditionally, Henry V-style, and her inexperience with command causes no particular difficulties. So we get yet another novel where she doesn’t make any mistakes and everyone is impressed by how great she is. Sigh.
She’s got a romance subplot here, but it feels perfunctory and forced. The love triangle between Alicia, Brandon, and Keane seems to be resolved by the start of the book, but it’s not clear how. In the last book Alicia was sleeping with Brandon; at the start of this book she’s all “let’s just be friends” with him and madly in love with Keane instead. When did her feelings change? What made her change her mind? We’re never told. That’s a shame, since it might have given Alicia a chance for some much-needed character development. I think it’s a side effect of the way that Niles often treats his characters like plot devices rather than people — you can’t write a romance scene between two plot devices, after all. Few of his characters have well-developed inner lives, so it’s hard to make personal scenes between them work. The solution, as usual, would be “show, don’t tell”: don’t just tell us that her feelings have changed, but actually show how and why they change.
Part of the problem is that her suitors aren’t much to write home about, character-wise. Brandon has little to do here except hit monsters with an axe and moon over Alicia; he gets rather less characterization this time around than he did in the past two books. She’s a jerk and never gets around to actually dumping him, so he discovers his new relationship status when she starts making out with Keane at the victory celebration. (Once she becomes queen, that’s going to be fantastic for future Ffolk/Northmen relations.) Keane gets a bit more screen time, but except for the bit at the end where he one-shots one of the villains, most of it is spent just following Alicia around and being too shy to admit his feelings. This rapidly gets old. It’s a shame, too, since I think he’s probably the most potentially interesting of the good guys here, excepting perhaps Robyn.
Deirdre, the evil princess, finally falls entirely under the evil gods’ sway here. It didn’t do much for me, though; it was obvious from the beginning that she was going to be the bad daughter to Alicia’s good daughter archetype, and she doesn’t really get a character arc out of it. As I mentioned in my Night Masks review, you can’t have a compelling fall from grace without the possibility for them to have chosen differently or the potential for avoiding their fate. Here, it’s not even a choice she makes. The gods drive her inexorably mad until she submits, so it doesn’t feel like she has any agency in the matter, and once she falls she goes completely axe-crazy and becomes a less interesting character.
The gods, once again, are not so much villains as they are motivating forces for the plot, since in order to qualify as a villain one needs a character of some sort. Aside from Deirdre, the most significant villains are Thurgol and Baatlrap, the feuding firbolg and troll chieftains who go on a dwarf-smashing, rum-chugging, imprisoned god-freeing rampage across the Moonshaes together. I think Thurgol might be the best-realized character in the book, actually. He’s dumb as a post and only tangentially related to the main plot, but we spend a lot of time with him and get to see more of the inside of his somewhat empty head than of anyone else’s. He’s even got a character arc of sorts, where he drifts from evil to neutral over the course of the book and gets a happy ending, more or less.
As with The Coral Kingdom, the writing here feels significantly better than that of his previous two trilogies. It’s not great, mind you, with plenty of awkward diction, weirdly-constructed sentences, and mixed metaphors:
The illumination imparted a magical glow to the imprisoned giant, spilling through the valley and washing the princess in a warmth that was the lightness of the gods.
But the frequency of howlers is definitely less than in the first Moonshae trilogy, and they’re more of a low-level irritant than a severe issue. (Or maybe I’ve just grown a thick skin over the past thirty-odd books.)
I feel conflicted here. I think I’ve been doing too much calling out the author directly in my reviews of Niles’ books. When I write a sentence like “At last! The final Douglas Niles novel in the Forgotten Realms series!”, that’s making it personal — not a dispassionate review of the book, but an indictment of the author himself. I don’t feel good about doing that, since I’m generally not a contumelious sort of person, but I can’t see how to avoid it either.
There’s a quality to these books that’s very hard to describe in these reviews. For lack of a better name, let’s call it “slog.” Sometimes I read a book that’s objectively not good — perhaps it’s clumsily written, or poorly paced, or the dialogue is wooden — and yet there’s still something to it that makes me look forward to picking it up again. Perhaps the plot has some interesting yet poorly-developed ideas in it, or perhaps the characters are fun enough that it helps balance out a ridiculous plot. It’s not enough to save the book from getting a rough review, but I still feel a bit of anticipation about sitting down and reading more of it because I know it will be fun to write about afterwards. But then there are the high-slog books, where I dread each time I pick them up again because I know it’s going to take effort to plow through them.
Every Douglas Niles book so far has felt like work to read. The technical aspects of his writing have gradually improved over the course of nine books, but he keeps repeating the same plot elements over and over, awkwardly yanks the protagonists around from scene to scene, cleans up his messes with dei ex machina, and doesn’t write characters in a way that makes you care what happens to them. I can appreciate a bad book that’s interesting somehow — campy, wild, or over-ambitious. I can’t appreciate a bad book that’s boring, and that’s why I’ve never rated one of his novels above a C–. This one is less difficult than most, but I still don’t see myself ever re-reading it.