The Night Parade

Author: Scott Ciencin
Published: June 1992

Scott Ciencin is back with his first novel since the Avatar series, which marks the Forgotten Realms’ first tentative foray in the direction of grimdark. Does the change of tone serve as a breath of fresh air for the series, or does it just feel horribly out of place next to its more heroic counterparts? And will the freakish excuse for a cover illustration, which has the distinction of being by far the ugliest of any book we’ve seen yet, prejudice my review of the contents? [1] Let’s find out.

This novel takes us back to Calimshan, the stereotypically Near Eastern area of the Realms, all pashas and sultans and camels and wretched poverty. We were last here in The Halfling’s Gem, a novel which played up every negative Orientalist trope it could find, so I was bracing myself for the same sort of vaguely racist cliché abuse. Surprisingly, The Night Parade is much better in that respect — while Calimport is still depicted as a brutal slum, its citizens run the gamut from good to evil in a more believable fashion, and there are far fewer Arabian Nights-style stereotypes in evidence. It’s heartening to see some progress on that front.

Plot

Myrmeen Lhal, lord of the Cormyrian city of Arabel, discovers that the daughter she’d believed was stillborn many years ago is actually alive, then goes on a quest with some Harper allies to find her. (Apart from the presence of a few Harpers, this book has much less to do with the organization than any others in the Harpers series; it’s really all about Myrmeen.) They travel to Calimshan, where they track down the child and battle Myrmeen’s childhood fears in the process, which turn out to be a secret conspiracy of very real monsters.

The plot suffers from an overabundance of magical macguffins — the gauntlet, the locket, and the extraordinarily vague “apparatus.” The first just sets up a bunch of fight scenes, the second is a suspiciously convenient exposition machine, and the powers of the third are whatever the plot needs them to be. None of them prove to be nearly interesting enough to deserve the build-up they get. If you’re going to drive your plot with magical macguffins, you really need to set up why they exist or how they work; otherwise, they just feel like convenient contrivances on the author’s part.

One thing I liked about the plot is how much of it is driven by characters making bad decisions. Not understandable mistakes, or plans going awry in a way that they couldn’t have known about beforehand, but full-on fuckups out of frustration, overconfidence, oversight, or just plain foolishness. Many authors seem to be allergic to letting their characters make real mistakes, but if done in moderation it strikes a happy medium between “unrealistically perfect” and “too dumb to live,” making them feel more like real humans.

Themes

One can’t help but notice from the very first chapter how much darker this book’s tone is than any previous Forgotten Realms novel. Some of the darker elements are handled in a subtle manner that makes the narrative feel more mature. Others are… very much not. At around the point where a thug threatened to have his minions brutally gang-rape a fourteen-year-old girl, I started feeling a distinct sense of being unmoored in time.

All manner of fantastic media slanted darker over the course of the 1990s. In literature, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones was first published in 1996, part of a wave of grimmer, less heroic fantasy stories. In tabletop gaming, White Wolf’s first World of Darkness game launched in 1991; their products soon began stealing market share from TSR at an alarming rate. And in comics in the 1990s, you couldn’t throw a brick without hitting some murder-happy anti-hero with too many pockets. This novel doesn’t feel like a piece of media from 1992, but rather like something from a few years later that’s trying to ape the darker and edgier zeitgeist. It’s not that I’m surprised that TSR published this, but rather that they published it so early.

The vast majority of the novels we’ve looked at so far have been straightforward good-versus-evil heroic quests, so I’m always ready to applaud any author who tries to vary the formula. A darker, more morally ambiguous narrative is one way to do it, but “darker” is something that’s very hard to do well; it’s always one wrong step away from alienating the audience or veering into self-parody. The golden rule for writing a dark story is simply this: don’t make the dark elements gratuitous.

Let’s consider a couple examples to illustrate that point. Let’s say you have a hypothetical character — anti-hero, anti-villain, villain, doesn’t matter. You want to impress the reader with how mature your book is, and how badass your character is. So you decide to name them “Raven Darkblood,” because that sounds dark and edgy, and introduce them in a scene where they torture some children, kill them messily, then rig up some festive party streamers from their intestines. [2]. You were aiming for dark and mature, but you’ve ended up with just the cheap thrills of a low-budget splatter horror film: lots of gore, shamelessly tugging at readers’ heartstrings, bad things happening to random bystanders that nobody cares about. Could you have written the book without that scene in it, or with the character being named “John Smith” instead, without losing anything? If so, you shouldn’t have included it in the first place, because it’s merely exploitative and makes your character look like a caricature rather than a real person.

Then let’s consider a scene from A Game of Thrones where Jaime Lannister throws a helpless child out of a high window, crippling and nearly killing him. It’s a shocking turn of events which serves to establish the tone for the rest of the series, and it’s necessary for multiple purposes. It serves the plot, because Jaime fears that Bran has overheard sensitive things which he needs to conceal, so he’s trying to tie off a loose end. It serves the character, because it establishes that Jaime is a ruthless and pragmatic person who’s willing to commit murder to protect himself. And it’s an important event which continues to have repercussions later on in the series, rather than being a single-scene shocker that’s never mentioned again. When done like this, the dark elements end up being meaningful and integral to the novel rather than just a spice that the author sprinkles on top of an otherwise bland narrative. [3]

So where does The Night Parade lie on this continuum? Well… somewhere in the middle, I’m afraid. Some of the dark elements are integral to the story. The eponymous Night Parade needed to be really strange and creepy to live up to the build-up they got, because if they’d just turned out to be an ordinary gang of humans or tribe of goblins it would have hamstrung the “what is the Night Parade?” mystery element. The recurring theme of parent/child relationships is the beating heart of the story, and it gets pretty dark: dead and kidnapped children, abusive orphanages, missing and bad parents, et cetera. But others are rather less necessary, particularly where it comes to sex. Every female character seems to receive threats of sexual violence on a constant basis, and minor characters like Pieraccinni’s prostitute assassins just seem like exploitative cheesecake thrown in to titillate the teenagers. The book wouldn’t be that different if those bits were missing, since they don’t tie into the plot or characters much. Overall it’s an interesting change in tone from the rest of the Realms books, but it doesn’t quite work. Especially when its definition of “horror” is sometimes quite odd:

That same journey just as often led them to scenes of abject horror, such as children with bellies bloated from starvation fighting their parents for the disease-ridden rats they had captured in the gutters, or street people openly relieving themselves before the disguised Harpers.

Okay, sure, that first one is pretty awful. But wow, your protagonists are so sheltered that they’ve never seen anyone urinating in the streets before? To me, that sounds less like “wretched hive of ultimate suffering” and more like just “New York City.”

When it does actual horror, it feels like it’s very deliberately trying to ape the feel of a John Carpenter movie: lots of grisly body horror, hallucinogenic weirdness, madness, shapeshifting monsters which mean that nobody can be trusted, and so on. (And the scene at the end where the monsters are unmasked owes more than a little to They Live.) But the Night Parade gets less scary halfway through when they become monsters who can be killed in droves D&D-style, rather than unique and powerful creatures. Once you make your villains vulnerable you orient your story towards action instead of suspense, irrevocably losing some of the tension in the process. It would have worked better if there were fewer of them and they’d each gotten more screen time and attention, rather than being a huge secret army of nightmare mooks.

It’s also interesting to note how much more this book relies on adult fears. Stillborn children, being a failure as a parent, epically dysfunctional relationships, child molestation — these are all elements that feel darker, scarier, and more real to an adult than they do to kids. It’s a big change from the usual “oh no, a dragon attacks!” sort of drama that most D&D novels rely upon, and not exactly playing to the typical teenage audience for the Forgotten Realms. But it certainly makes the book feel more grounded and emotionally honest, even if it does employ those elements ham-handedly at times.

Characters

Myrmeen is immediately presented as a much more morally grey character than any of the previous Forgotten Realms protagonists when, in the first chapter, we watch her execute a helpless prisoner in cold blood. Granted, the guy was an asshole who had it coming, but it’s still a departure from your typical pulp fantasy protagonist characterization. Like Alias and Arilyn, she feels like a well-rounded person rather than a Mary Sue or stock “strong female protagonist” archetype. She’s a capable warrior and a natural leader in times of crisis, but full of self-doubt and suffering from a bunch of recently re-opened psychological wounds. By the end of the story, she’s a different person from the character we met at the outset. I found myself liking her more than I thought I would.

Her lost daughter Krystine is a pleasingly realistic portrayal of a difficult young teenager, headstrong, unwise, and independent. The interactions between Myrmeen and Krystine are handled surprisingly well; Myrmeen has no idea how to be a parent and Krystine doesn’t feel that she needs one, so their relationship is appropriately fraught. We get glimpses inside each of their heads to see how their struggles affect them, and by the end they’ve both been changed for the better by the experience. Krystine’s story arc also has plenty of twists and turns in it which, despite their sloppy execution, help round out her personality and backstory. I appreciate that she’s not a straightforward “kid in need of rescue” character who only exists to drive the plot; once she shows up, she gets about equal screen time with Myrmeen, including plenty of point-of-view scenes.

The Night Parade is a menagerie of bizarre horror movie monsters, each with unique and often freakish abilities. In theory it’s an interesting concept for the villains, but in practice they’re sometimes used as disposable mooks in a way which cheapens the coolness factor. They would have worked better if their dialogue weren’t so unforgivably cheesy:

“You should have taken our warning,” the thing said. “To appear during the day is abhorrent to our kind. But we were forced into it by your foolish tenacity, which you are now going to pay dearly for.”

Seriously? We’re supposed to be afraid of stilted dialogue like that? But despite that, I have to give Ciencin major points for using his imagination and coming up with something that’s more than just your standard D&D monsters out of the Monster Manual. I wish more authors would do that; imagination is what fantasy literature is best at, after all.

The leader of the Night Parade, Lord Sixx (whom I can only assume is named after the bassist of Mötley Crüe), is a little less terrible than the usual fantasy novel villain. He’s pragmatic, able to implement reasonably successful plots, and isn’t afraid to cut his losses when things aren’t going his way. There’s a little time spent on the internecine intrigues and conflicts between the Night Parade members vying for his mantle of leadership; I wish we’d seen more of that, because it does a lot to make them not feel like a faceless horde of bad guys.

The Harpers who accompany Myrmeen on her quest vary in quality. Varina and Burke are basically red shirts, so the author doesn’t spend much time characterizing them. (This is the sort of novel where, when you see a happily married couple, you know one or both of them aren’t going to make it out alive.) Lucius gets a bit more time, but not enough. Ord doesn’t have enough personality besides “young and stupid.” Reisz is probably the best of the lot; he’s got old history with Myrmeen that complicates their relationship throughout the novel, then gets wrapped up satisfyingly at the end without intruding too much into the main storyline.

Halfway through the story, a character appears who’s a fabulously wealthy philanthropist with a secret identity, extensive combat training, and a tragic past who’s waging a one-man vigilante war on the forces of evil in his city. Yes, the author actually put goddamn fantasy Batman in here, and it’s impossible to not hear his lines in my head in a gravelly Christian Bale voice. It’s a serious misstep that’s left me scratching my head in puzzlement; he sticks out like a sore thumb as a cartoony caricature among a bunch of well-rounded humans, and it wouldn’t have been hard to write this story without him in it.

Writing

It’s not very good, to be honest. The prose labours under a regrettable excess of detail:

The man was strongly built, but the muscles of his bare arms and partially revealed chest were not meticulously defined. He walked barefoot upon the floor, which was carpeted in a fine, eastern-style weave, and paused before the red silk curtains of his black marble four-poster bed.

The whole thing is like that — not excruciatingly bad, just clumsy. Adjectives are smeared over every sentence as if generously applied with a trowel, and every paragraph drips with extraneous details which add nothing to the story and are never mentioned again. In particular, Ciencin seems to have a real affection for describing attractive characters of either gender in long paragraphs which depict their exaggerated pulchritude in ludicrous detail. (One attractive minor character is introduced with seven sentences of over-the-top physical description.) It’s amazing how quickly phrases like “hypnotic beauty” and “gorgeous, shining hair” become so tiresome that your eyes just skip over them.

Some sloppy storytelling shortcuts are in evidence, like the Calishite information broker who possesses a remarkably omniscient degree of knowledge, including knowledge of small details that happened 1,200 miles away in a room which only two people were in, one of whom was the protagonist and the other of whom didn’t leave the room alive. Without the author giving us some indication of the scope and means of this character’s information gathering, it just looks like he’s handed them a copy of the novel’s manuscript. (A similar thing happens at the climax, where Myrmeen becomes inexplicably omniscient about how weird magical things work just so the author doesn’t have to explain it again.) And then there’s the 1,200-mile overland journey that’s glossed over during the break between chapters. Even assuming an uneventful journey, that’s still well over a month of hard travel which doesn’t even get mentioned; the characters just seem to have teleported from Arabel to Calimport. Things like these give the reader the impression that the world is a small place and that Calimport and Arabel are right next door to each other.

The battle scenes are confusingly written; it’s often hard to tell what’s happening and where things are in relation to each other. The excess of detail paradoxically obscures the combats, interrupting the flow of the action to explain minute details of appearance and behaviour that nobody would have time to notice in a real battle. It feels cinematic, but I don’t mean that in a positive way; rather, it feels as if the author had a dramatic scene for a movie storyboarded in his head, but couldn’t translate that image into words very effectively.

Conclusion

Grade: B–

It’s a wild, shambolic farrago which subverts my expectations for a Forgotten Realms novel, a horror story that’s grossly out of place among these heroic fantasy epics and owes more to Stephen King than Tolkien. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone read it, necessarily, but I had much more fun reading it than I did the previous few books because even when it’s not good, it’s bad in interesting and novel ways. I’d take a weird hot mess like this over a cookie-cutter Douglas Niles novel any day.

Footnotes

[1] The Night Parade has the dubious honour of being the only TSR book whose cover ever featured on Paperback Paradise, as of this writing. (NSFW, adult content.)

[2] With very, very slight exaggeration for comic effect, this example is taken directly from a Terry Goodkind novel. The 1990s were kind of a stupid time for this whole “dark and edgy” business, where for every book that successfully pulled off a dark tone there were two dozen more which failed dismally.

[3] This isn’t to say that Martin doesn’t also overindulge in gratuitous scenes of pointless cruelty, because wow, he really does. It’s the reason why I burned out on the series; his characterization and world-building is fantastic, but if you don’t have anything positive to contrast against the darkness, the constant hopelessness and suffering just gets mind-numbing and boring. Why would you get invested in characters when you know nothing’s going to go right for them and they’ll probably die a grim, degrading death? Still, the defenestration bit is a great example of an author getting darkness right.

3 Replies to “The Night Parade

  1. I really enjoyed this review for the breakdown of “grim n’ gritty” media from this period and the distinctions you made between when it’s done right and when it’s gratuitous.

    1. Thank you! It’s a distinction that I find myself quite sensitive to. If you root the darkness in the setting, in the plot, in the characters’ motivations and backstories, I’ll have vastly more appreciation and patience for it than I would for gory scenes which are there to shock the viewer or say “this guy does bad things, so he’s the bad guy.” There’s no quicker way to turn me off of a story.

      Next up: more R.A. Salvatore! Holy hell, he wrote a lot of books in 1992.

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