The Mage in the Iron Mask

Author: Brian Thomsen
Published: August 1996

I must admit I’ve been dreading the day when I’d have to pick up this book, the second full-length novel by TSR manager Brian Thomsen. I described Thomsen’s first Realms novel as “not just the worst Forgotten Realms novel I’ve ever read, but the worst published novel I’ve ever read, full stop,” and I meant every word. I have read and reviewed over seventy of these books so far, including several remarkably terrible ones, and Once Around the Realms was the only one that I couldn’t bring myself to finish. It was bad on a different plane from all the others — bloviating prose, self-congratulatory “humour,” loathsome characters, scores of jarring real-world references, and a thin excuse for a plot. I could not find a single aspect of it that I enjoyed, and even getting halfway through was an exhausting experience.

So how, I wondered, am I going to work up the energy to tackle its sequel? Judging by Thomsen’s subsequent short stories in Realms of Magic and Realms of the Underdark, his writing hasn’t improved over time. Improving one’s writing skills takes serious self-criticism and self-awareness, but Thomsen doesn’t come off as the kind of person who did that sort of introspection. We can’t hope that the plot will be original; whereas his first book was a clumsy pastiche of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, the title of this one indicates that it’s riffing on the swashbuckling adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas. It stars the same two unendurable characters from the first book, so there’s no hope from that quarter either. And what was I supposed to say about Thomsen’s writing that I haven’t already said? I feel that all my points have been fully made, and there’s nothing new for me to add.

Thoughts such as these filled me with dread for some weeks, and I found myself subconsciously seeking any excuse to avoid picking up The Mage in the Iron Mask and getting started on this review. But then one day, it struck me… why don’t I just not read the book? This isn’t my full-time job, after all. Nobody’s paying me to do this. If I’ve already lost a few fingers by sticking my hand in a running lawnmower, why would I deliberately stick my hand in there a second time to see if it’s still sharp?

Immediately, a great weight was lifted from my heart. Outside, the clouds parted and the sun warmed the good earth. Chirping birds gathered on my balcony to harmonize with me as I burst into song. I immediately started planning an afternoon where I’d do all of the things I’d rather do with the hours I saved by not reading The Mage in the Iron Mask. In lieu of a review, here’s a full report on what I did instead!

1. Played with a dog

A picture of a happy dog with a playful expression on a red couch.

Many scientific studies have shown that performing bonding activities with pets is directly linked to decreases in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, loneliness, anxiety, symptoms of PTSD, and cognitive loss from age. So what better way to start my Mage in the Iron Mask-free time than romping around with a happy dog? After twenty minutes, I had a feeling of physical well-being from the exercise and mental well-being from the unalloyed love and companionship of a faithful friend, neither of which I would have gotten had I been reading this book.

2. Stopped for a coffee

A picture of a cappuccino on a green plate with three small chocolate cookies.

What better way to relax afterwards than with a homemade cappuccino and a light snack? Inhaling the heady aroma of coffee mixed with freshly frothed milk, I was reminded of the many simple pleasures one can experience in life when one is not forcing oneself to read a bad novel out of a sense of obligation. Plus, cookies! Hooray!

3. Went for a walk

Picture of a tree-lined footpath next to a park.

Regular walking is widely known to be an effective defense against depression, heart disease, obesity, and, according to a 2017 study, even cancer. The scientific literature is less clear on the health effects of reading The Mage in the Iron Mask, but I suspect that studies would link it to depression and anxiety. Instead, I took a brisk walk in the sunshine. It yielded both exercise and social interaction, as I stopped to speak with a few passersby who wanted to pet my dog.

4. Had a short nap

There’s nothing in the world more relaxing than a short afternoon nap on the couch! I wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket and peaced out for about twenty or thirty minutes. When I awoke, I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the day. My mood improved even further upon remembering how nothing I was going to tackle for the rest of the day involved The Mage in the Iron Mask.

5. Read a good book

Picture of the interior of a hardcover book, opened halfway.

I curled up on the couch with a used hardcover copy of The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough, a history of the building of the Panama Canal which had been sitting unread on my desk for a couple of months. I’m only a few chapters in, but so far it’s been a gripping real-life tale of hubris and folly. I’m looking forward to reading more of it with the time that I won’t be spending writing a review of The Mage in the Iron Mask!

All in all, it was an excellent afternoon and I felt thoroughly enriched and invigorated by the end. If you’re thinking of reading The Mage in the Iron Mask, why not reconsider and try one or more of these activities instead?


Grade: No.

I’ve been aiming for an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek tone for this post, but the basic premise is quite real. I knew that reading this book would be both unpleasant and tedious, without even the consolation of “at least I’ll have something interesting to write about afterwards!” that’s gotten me through so many other bad novels, and a quick skim through it confirmed my fears. I hate to disappoint anyone who came here looking for a wry evisceration, but there are only so many hours in my finite life and I’ve already spent enough of them talking about Brian Thomsen’s prose. There’s nothing more to say.

Next up: an actual review!

8 Replies to “The Mage in the Iron Mask

  1. I was wondering why you posted two reviews at once.
    This is a hilarious way to throw some shade on Thomsen without dealing with the grief of actually suffering through his work.
    Oh, and your dog is absolutely adorable!

  2. I must admit to being one of those who anticipated you tearing this piece of garbage apart. Cannot say I’m disappointed, though. In fact, your post is very much, if not exactly, doing just that. Congratulations for investing in your own well-being.
    BTW, if I ever happen to pass by your neighbourhood (not likely), I would very much like to pet your lovely dog too. What an adorable little friend you have.


    I’m so happy!

    Btw, I have a review of the new novels that serve as tie-ins for the upcoming movie that will be going up for an online publication soon! I’ll try to let you know when it drops.

    1. I understand, and I take your comment in the complimentary spirit in which it was meant. I’ve slogged through many a terrible book because I knew that afterwards I would have fun writing about it and others would have fun reading about it. But Brian Thomsen’s work is bad in a way that defies criticism. It’s so fundamentally poor that there’s just nothing valuable to say about it.

      Imagine that you’re a reviewer for, I don’t know, a car magazine. You spend a lot of time driving new cars, comparing their performance, comfort, quality, etc., and writing critically about them. You’ve reviewed a lot of garbage cars over the years — Ladas, Yugos, and so on — and they always give you plenty to complain about. Then one day, someone hands you a four-year-old’s finger-paint drawing of a car and asks you to review it. You’re like “Umm… it goes from zero to sixty in… no time? Because it’s not actually a car?” You cannot offer meaningful criticism about the performance, because it doesn’t actually move. You can’t describe the comfort, because you can’t sit in it. You can’t rate the build quality, since it’s never been built. There are just no meaningful criteria, from a car reviewer’s perspective, to talk about. All you can do is say “As a painting, it’s not very good,” and that’s not a useful piece of criticism for anyone because it’s by a four-year-old, so of course it’s not going to be good.

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