Author: Troy Denning
Published: February 1995
Welcome to the first Forgotten Realms novel of 1995! It’s been about seven years since the first Realms novel was published, and they were tumultuous years for TSR. The company was well past its high-water mark by this point, with the momentum from its tremendous success in the 1980s largely spent. On the tabletop games side, White Wolf and Magic: The Gathering were rapidly eroding TSR’s market share. While hard data for the novel sales is hard to come by, I hear that sales of all the non-Drizzt books were also declining steadily. From here on out, it will be a long, slow slide into financial oblivion.
But you’d never know that from the number of books they published! Figuring that the solution to people not buying their product was to produce more product, TSR cranked out twelve Forgotten Realms novels in 1995 and fourteen in 1996, many of them in ill-advised expensive hardcover editions. The next couple of years are going to keep me very busy.
First up: The Giant Among Us, the second book in Troy Denning‘s Twilight Giants trilogy. The first one was a disappointment, a decent premise let down by flat characters and a plot that spent most of its time on ogre fights in the wilderness instead of developing the characters or setting. I’m a little hesitant to dive back into this particular series so soon, but never let it be said that I shirked my duty. Will it improve on the flaws of its predecessor, or demonstrate hilarious new flaws for me to write about? I suppose we’ll soon find out.
We’re once again in not-quite-the-Realms, where only a single brief reference to “the continent of Faerûn” establishes that we’re actually in the Forgotten Realms and not in some random standalone fantasy trilogy. This kingdom seems to have no connections to the outside world at all and nothing in common with any of the other novels, so while the “frozen northland” setting is fine, it still doesn’t feel much like a Forgotten Realms novel to me.
I’ll give it this: the book starts with possibly the best recap I’ve ever read. Instead of long passages of “as you know” exposition, it’s an action scene of sorts. A town is being razed by giants, so an old man is telling the abridged version of The Ogre’s Pact to a group of children to keep them quiet so that the giants won’t find them. The exposition is woven between moments of tension and mortal danger, so even those who recall the last book well won’t be bored. At the end the giants find them, establishing a dark tone for the rest of the book. I’m still no fan of recaps in general, but this is the least bad way to do them.
But what about the plot of this book? Well, Princess Brianna may be queen of Hartsvale now, but the local giant tribes are still keen on kidnapping her for some sort of prophecy-driven eugenics program. She ends up trapped in a castle that’s besieged by an army of giants while her bodyguard-slash-boyfriend Tavis slips out to summon help. At that point the plot splits into two main threads: Brianna and the verbeeg mage Basil stay in the doomed castle while Tavis and his sidekick Avner head out into the tundra to have adventures, a situation which persists for most of the book. Unfortunately, one of these plot threads is much more interesting than the other.
Tavis and Avner’s adventures are actually pretty good. Instead of fighting endless waves of ogre mooks in the middle of nowhere… well, they’re fighting frost giant mooks in the middle of nowhere. But the implementation is much better! The giants get names and speaking parts, and instead of just one-shotting them with arrows, Tavis has to trick them into taking him to their leader — a task which is made significantly more complicated by his innate inability to lie. His victories are plausible and require more cunning than the random Rambo-style bloodshed of the last book, often involving clever applications of his magical exploding arrows. Avner handles himself about as well as you’d expect a small human to acquit himself against giants in a freezing tundra: despite being quick-witted and courageous, he gets his ass captured repeatedly and nearly freezes to death. I particularly liked the scene of him being pitted in gladiatorial combat against a remorhaz: it’s a lopsided fight that he can’t hope to win, but he manages to escape being eaten through guile and good strategy. The pacing bogs down occasionally, but it’s a big improvement over the previous book.
But then we keep cutting away to what’s happening back at the castle, and man, could I ever not care less. Nobody in these scenes has any agency. Basil is quickly imprisoned; the one time he tries to help, he gets his ass handed to him. Brianna is mind-controlled into uselessness, spending her scenes either in a stupor or in a petulant snit. There’s a traitor, but it’s obvious from the very beginning who it is and what their deal is. (In fact, you might say there’s a… giant among them.) These cuts back to the castle don’t ratchet up the tension, since the giant army is taking their sweet time about actually attacking and the protagonists just bicker amongst each other. They don’t flesh out the story because they only tell us things the reader already knows: the obviously evil guy is evil and everyone’s in danger. All they do is frustrate the reader because you know nothing is going to be done to fix it until Tavis gets back. I was expecting an exciting siege that would give the characters interesting choices to make, but instead I found myself sighing and thinking “oh gods, not this shitshow again” every time I came upon a castle scene.
At the start of the book, a stranger calling himself Prince Arlien shows up out of nowhere. (Hey, did I mention that the leaders of the giants are apparently named Arno and Julien? Somehow that seems significant.) He’s a big guy who refuses to ever take off his magical armor. He claims that he’s from a mythical land that the people of Hartsvale don’t believe really exists. He gets grievously wounded but ignores his wounds with superhuman stamina. He knows all sorts of important secrets about everything that’s been going on in Hartsvale. None of this seems unusual to anyone, so of course the protagonists invite this guy into the castle, put him in charge of things, and include him in all their plans. Once Tavis is out of the way he starts gaslighting and being an abusive dick to Brianna, in case the reader still hasn’t worked out that he was a bad guy. Basically, the only way this “oh no, there’s a traitor!” plot can work is if everyone else in the book is a complete idiot. Christ, Arlien even claims to be from the kingdom of “Gilthwit”, and it takes half a book before someone figures out that it’s an anagram for “Twilight.” Why on earth would you choose names which give away your secret identity, genius? If he’d told them his name was “Prince Flopnuts of Hamtown,” the protagonists wouldn’t have figured out who he was.
There’s an important lesson about plotting stories in here, so I think we need to dig into this a bit deeper. Let’s talk about character knowledge versus reader knowledge. When there’s a situation where the characters know more than the reader, that’s intriguing and interesting. If a character has a secret, we want to find out what they know; if they’re up to something, we want to find out what they’ve been doing. When there’s a situation where the characters’ knowledge matches the reader’s knowledge, that’s also interesting. We’re as much in the dark about the situation as the characters are, so we want to keep reading to watch them uncover the plot’s mysteries. In both cases, we keep reading because there’s something we want to know.
But when the reader knows something and the characters don’t, nine times out of ten it’s just frustrating as hell. The only thing we want to know is “what’s going to happen when they find out?”, and until they finally figure it out, we’re annoyed by the wait. It’s a very useful technique for certain specific genres, like tragedy. Think about Oedipus Rex, for instance: we know Oedipus killed his dad and got busy with his mom, and the entire point of the play is watching it gradually dawn on him. But Oedipus is in the dark because there’s no way he could know what’s really going on, and his curiosity and pride drive him to find out, so we empathize with his plight and feel increasing tension instead of being frustrated by how dense he is. Similarly, it’s a classic source of comedy when a character thinks they’re in one type of situation when it’s obvious to the audience that they’re really in another. (¡Three Amigos!, The Man Who Knew Too Little, Tropic Thunder, et cetera.)
On the other hand, this sort of thing is actively detrimental to suspense or adventure stories because those don’t work without an element of the unknown. You can’t have suspense when the audience knows what’s going to happen, and you can’t have an adventure if there’s nothing for the audience to discover along with the characters. Let’s put it this way: Imagine watching a remake of The Usual Suspects, except one of the characters calls himself “Wiser Sushi”, occasionally lapses into Hungarian during conversation, and is covered in blood. After the first ten minutes of the movie, every time the detective comes on screen and tries to figure out who Keyser Söze is, you’d start throwing popcorn at the screen and shouting “He’s right there, you dumb bastard! Quit wasting my time!” That’s a good analogy for how I was feeling for the first two thirds of this novel. It could have worked if Arlien had been less obviously sketchy and if the characters had been understandably suspicious of him — then we’d have the tension of “who is this guy and can we trust him?”, because neither the characters nor the reader would know.
It’s especially frustrating because the author actually pulls this off well with a minor character. Earl Cuthbert is one of Queen Brianna’s vassals who’s trapped in the castle with her, but he’s clearly none too brave and fully understands just how screwed they are. Will he betray her to the giants in order to save his family? Both the reader and the characters know that he’s potentially untrustworthy, and you’re kept guessing right up until the end whether he’s going to lose his nerve and turn traitor. Best of all, he’s portrayed as neither a villain nor a coward, but just an ordinary man who’s in over his head and fears for his family. This was great, and I would have preferred a lot more of this and a lot less of Prince Snidely Whiplash.
Things pick up at the end once all the characters are reunited back at the castle just as the giants finally get around to attacking. There’s lots of property damage, explosions, last-minute character development, and mortal peril, and the protagonists come up with a fairly clever scheme to defeat the villain under difficult circumstances. In summary, it starts strong and ends strong, but there are some serious slogs in the middle.
Trust seems to be a theme here. People trust Arlien for no reason and get burnt. The “can we trust Earl Cuthbert?” question doesn’t get resolved until the very end. Tavis and Brianna get a couple of “trust me” moments at the end. Most folks distrust Avner, even when they shouldn’t. But for every good moment that reinforces the theme, like Avner being caught in a lie and then being unable to convince people of things later, there are silly moments with Prince Arlien where people see obviously fishy things and say “Well, that looks normal to me. Carry on!”. It’s more difficult to believe in the characters’ trust in each other when they seem to trust at random.
I found Tavis a bit less boring here than in the last book. He still has no background that informs his behaviour, but he’s being given more interesting things to do: infiltrating a giant camp while magically disguised as a giant, fighting a duel, surviving in a furious blizzard, that sort of thing. He’s fun to watch, even if he’s still not a particularly well-fleshed-out character. His main motivation is to protect Brianna because he’s deeply in love with her, but it’s still a very “tell, don’t show” romance: the narrator tells us that Tavis cares about her, but never explains why or shows him doing things that demonstrate love aside from bodyguarding her. They feel stiff and formal with each other, even when alone. What does he see in her? What is it about her that attracts him? No idea. But at least we see his discomfort when a new suitor shows up, which helps sell us on the idea that he actually cares even if we can’t see why. He suffers quite a lot over the course of the book — wounds, frostbite, explosions — but it’s mostly in the realm of believable suffering that’s a natural consequence of his actions rather than suffering for dramatic impact.
Brianna is once again the low point of the book, character-wise. She started out much less petulant and foolish than she was in The Ogre’s Pact, and I started looking forward to seeing a brave queen defending a castle against hopeless odds. Instead, she spends most of the book as a mentally dominated mess who can’t speak for herself and responds to any question by either saying “duh, what?” or getting terribly offended. Every time she has a chance to do something, her brain is too hazy and she drops the ball. She’s just a completely passive, useless character for far too long, serving only to motivate various male characters to do things, and that doesn’t give me any reason to care what happens to her. She gets some brief heroics at the end once the other characters get around to repairing her brain, but by then it’s too little too late. I find it odd that Denning is doing such a bad job with the lead female character in this trilogy, given that his female leads in Dragonwall and The Parched Sea got far more character development and agency in one book apiece than Brianna has received in two books. And it certainly doesn’t improve my mood to note that she’s the only named female character in the entire novel.
Avner, Tavis’ roguish young sidekick, actually works quite well here. He’s a pathological liar who tries to fast-talk his way out of situations so often that eventually nobody believes him when he’s telling the truth. His main role in the plot is just “get Tavis to where he needs to be to make the next plot beat happen,” but he does so in fun and interesting ways: spying on people, tricking giants, riding on mammoths, et cetera. He’s smart but not particularly wise, and the author isn’t afraid to let his mouth get him into trouble. It’s nice to see a sidekick character who advances the plot themselves instead of just following the hero around and commenting on things.
Basil, the verbeeg mage, gets to do more to do in this book than he did in the last one. Aside from serving as the magical Q who manufactures Tavis’ enchanted arsenal, he also gets a bit of tragic backstory, a new personality quirk (claustrophobia), and some point-of-view scenes which round him out as a character. His mid-book attempt to stop Arlien is doomed to failure, since it’s obvious that Tavis is going to be the one to defeat him and that’s not going to happen until the end, but at least he gets a chance to try. (Once again, I find myself wishing for more time spent on Avner and Basil and less time spent on Tavis and Brianna.)
The giants make much better villains, in general, than the ogres from the first book. The ogres were just anonymous mooks for the heroes to chop into chum during the battle scenes, but many of the giants here have names, roles, and relationships with each other. There’s a lot more talking with them and a lot less “shoot on sight” combat, especially during the long sequence where Tavis has to infiltrate a frost giant camp while using a magical mask to disguise himself as a stone giant. Their personalities are rarely more developed than “let’s go squash some humans!”, and we don’t get much insight into their culture or society, but it’s a step in the right direction. By far the most interesting of the lot are a pair of stone giants who show up fairly early on: they’re implacable foes yet honour-bound and thoughtful, and I wish we’d spent more time with them and less time with the crude, brutal frost giants. It’s also heartening to see that the giants don’t go down as easily as the ogres: it takes more than a single well-shot arrow to bring down a frost giant, and the protagonists have to get clever to defeat them in combat. (Though the author may have gone a bit too far with toughening them up; the scene where a stone giant falls off a hundred-foot cliff and then gets back up unharmed strained my credulity to the limit. )
There’s a tribe of native people who show up partway through the book to help Tavis against the giants. They’re about as bad as you’d expect from a twentieth-century depiction of an indigenous ethnic group: primitive people who speak in a funny dialect and act as guides or ambushers. In other words, they’re the Indians from an old Western film transplanted to the frozen north. Tavis ruthlessly sacrifices one of them at one point, which is an oddly dark bit of development for a character who until now has been unfailingly heroic.
Fairly solid, actually. As in the last book, the dialogue feels a bit weak, particularly in the Brianna/Arlien castle scenes. (I don’t think Denning quite figured out how to give her dialogue a consistent tone, which is one more aspect that makes her character feel less well-developed.) But the descriptive writing is good, particularly the descriptions of the frozen wastelands Tavis and Avner travel through. The sequence where the two of them and a mammoth are trying to survive a white-out blizzard made me want to crawl under a blanket for warmth, and the battle scenes are generally fast-paced and exciting.
It’s better than The Ogre’s Pact, I’ll give it that. The “Tavis and Avner” bits were reasonably well done, and the battle at the end was a good conclusion, but the long “traitor in the castle” plot thread was a flabby digression that didn’t do the book any favours. Moreover, even now that I know what the deal is with Twilight and what the giants’ overarching goals are, I find I don’t care that much. It’s a fairly straightforward external threat — “Hartsvale was fine until these giants started causing trouble” — and we never really get the giants’ side of the story. What does all this conflict mean to them? There’s a brief mention of rebuilding the ancient lost kingdom of the giants, but we don’t know anything about it besides the name and no giant ever explains their motivations around it. If they had, then maybe the central conflict would be more like “regretfully, we must start a war and commit atrocities for the greater good of giantkind,” and that would be considerably more interesting than “these giants keep turning up and wrecking our shit.” There’s still time for Denning to turn it around in the third book, but there are six more Realms novels between this one and the conclusion, so it’ll be a while before we find out.
 Let’s save the pedantry for the footnotes. Stone giants weigh an average of 1,700 pounds (771 kg). It’s been a while since my last physics classes, but if I’m running these numbers correctly, that means that after a 100-foot fall, he’ll hit the ground with the same force as a semi truck (including empty trailer, approximately 35,000 lbs / 15,875 kg) hitting an immovable wall at about 33 miles per hour. Stop for a second and envision what would happen to any organic tissue between the semi and the wall. Ground to a fine paste, right? So how did this guy fall off a 100-foot cliff and walk away without a scratch? It’s a minor point, but one that’s unrealistic enough to break my immersion. This may be a fantasy world, but the reader has no reason to expect that gravity won’t work normally.