Author: Troy Denning
Published: September 1994
It’s time to kick off a brand new trilogy from Troy Denning! So far he’s written individual parts of multi-author trilogies (Waterdeep, Dragonwall) and one stand-alone novel (The Parched Sea), all of which I’ve consistently rated in the B range. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles the challenge of an entire trilogy, since plotting three individually exciting books which tell one coherent story throughout is no easy task. Is this a promising start to an enjoyable series, or the beginning of a train wreck where you see the catastrophe coming but you can’t tear your eyes away? Let’s find out.
But before we do, let’s consider a different question: What makes a Forgotten Realms book feel like a Forgotten Realms book? Not location, certainly; these books take place all over a gigantic continent, from steaming jungles in the south to frozen wastelands in the north, from faux-Mesoamerica in the west to faux-China in the east. Not theme; that’s all over the map too, from swashbuckling adventure to grimdark. Not characters; there are very few characters here that are shared between different authors. And yet there’s something about this book that, to me, makes it not feel like a Forgotten Realms book at all.
The Ogre’s Pact takes place in the middle of nowhere, a mountain range in the utter north which until now had just been an empty spot on the map but is now a kingdom that we’ve never heard of before. It’s populated exclusively by humans and various species of giants — no dwarves, elves, halflings, gnomes, goblins, orcs (despite being right next to the orc-infested mountains that would soon become the Kingdom of Many Arrows), trolls, or other typical D&D humanoids. Everyone, even the humans, worships the gods of the giant pantheon (Stronmaus, Hiatea, Diancastra, etc.), who have never appeared in the Realms novels before, and none of the gods of the standard Realms pantheon are even mentioned.  This kingdom appears to be completely isolated; we never hear of traders or visitors from other lands, and places outside of the kingdom are never brought up. Arcane magic is based around carving stones on runes rather than the standard D&D Vancian magic system. In short, there’s not one single thing I could find that ties this book into the Forgotten Realms, and it would have been trivial to change a couple D&D-specific names and make this a completely standalone fantasy trilogy. This feeling of “sure, it’s a nice setting, but it’s not the Realms” dogged me throughout the entire book. I appreciate the author’s creativity in coming up with original elements, but it strains my credulity when this completely different place doesn’t tie into the setting in any way.
But now I wonder: Why is this bothering me in The Ogre’s Pact when it didn’t bother me in Dragonwall? That book was also set in a distant, unvisited part of the map, featured different races and pantheons, and didn’t connect with the Heartlands of the Realms in any way, and yet it didn’t feel nearly as improbable. One reason is that Shou Lung’s existence had already been established in Realms canon, mentioned in earlier books like Shadowdale and Ironhelm as a distant, exotic place where luxury goods came from. Ironically, though, I think Dragonwall was saved by the very “historical fan fiction” qualities which I criticized the Empires trilogy so harshly for. It’s impossible not to read Shou Lung as the Realms analogue for China, so the reader is primed to assume that Shou Lung has the same relationship to the Heartlands as China has to Europe in the real world. Even when there’s not much in the books which fixes them in the same world, your knowledge of the real-world analogues bleeds over into the fiction and makes it feel like they’re connected.
The King of Hartsvale’s daughter is kidnapped by ogres on the eve of her betrothal. He seems curiously unbothered by this and acts incredibly suspicious, yet nobody around him seems to notice or care. The commoner whom the princess has a crush on gathers some boon companions and pursues her kidnappers, but is himself pursued by the king’s men. They spend most of the book wandering the kingdom’s frigid wilderness, in the process discovering a “secret” which was obviously telegraphed from the beginning of the book.
All of the inter-character conflicts in this book feel forced and false, existing to serve the needs of the plot rather than arising naturally. The king is acting extraordinarily weird about his daughter’s kidnapping, but the plot needs some people to pursue the heroes and add tension, so all of his followers have to believe his threadbare story. Tavis, the hero, is always completely honest and straightforward, but everyone assumes the worst about him for no apparent reason. Much of the first half of the book can be summarized as “People leap to wildly incorrect conclusions about Tavis which a thirty-second conversation could have cleared right up.” If these people behaved rationally and actually communicated with each other, there wouldn’t have been much of a plot here.
The reveal of the big secret — that King Camden made a deal with the ogres to give them his daughter in exchange for their help securing his throne — comes as no surprise. Every element of it is made clear to the reader through a series of heavy-handed hints long before the characters get around to figuring it out. This just frustrates the reader and makes it feel as if the characters are a bit dim.
The plot is hurried along by Tavis’ uncanny sense of intuition. He’s a veteran scout, so it’s reasonable to expect him to be good at tracking and geography. But so many of his scenes seem to involve him noticing small details about his surroundings and then constructing a complicated story from them that invariably turns out to be the truth. He always accurately predicts circles around his opponents, figuring out not just who and how many but what they’re planning and how best to stop them, based on little more than the sound of a footfall or a changed birdsong. Once you realize that he’s never wrong, you start thinking of Tavis’ dialogue as just a continuation of the narration rather than something a character is saying. Look, even Sherlock Holmes didn’t do that sort of “Allow me to explain exactly what’s going on based on practically nothing” thing more than a couple of times per story — even he had to think, and gather more information, and occasionally he was still wrong. That sort of “look how clever the character is!” thing is a special sauce to be used at dramatic moments, not something you marinate the whole book in.
That said, there are some great individual scenes, like Tavis talking with his mentor’s severed but still animated head, the blind fight in the dark cave, and the climactic confrontation with the king at the end. But they’re set into a plot that made me grit my teeth in frustration, so overall it didn’t do much for me. The basic outline of the plot has promise — important person with dark secret, kidnapped daughter, mysterious forces behind it all — but the implementation is sloppy. What could have saved it? A few things spring to mind. For starters, making Tavis disreputable instead of well-respected would make the “pursued by the law” elements feel more realistic. Having him go from “officially the nicest guy in the kingdom” to “Hartsvale’s most wanted” in the course of a single day is goofy. If the king were a believable cunning villain, able to plausibly convince people that this was all a surprise to him and he’s heartbroken by his daughter’s disappearance, and the hints about his involvement weren’t being dropped from the very first scene, then the revelation that he was in on the plot might have been a shock to the reader. If more of the book had been about the conflict between the king and his daughter and subjects, we would have gotten more setting and character development and less slaughtering random ogres in the wilderness. And most of all: what was it all for? There’s this whole “Twilight Spirit” business that sets the plot in motion, but we never learn enough about it to pique our interest.
But as an aside, it was nice to see another novel that uses cold as a genuine danger rather than mere set dressing. It makes a great source of tension; characters are driven to rush through scenes because they know that people will start freezing to death if they wait too long, and it’s an enemy that has to be defeated by practical cleverness and not violence.
Tavis, the protagonist, feels like an oddly flat character. There’s a lot of promise there on the surface, with lots of pre-existing ties to the setting and the other characters, but it seems underbaked. For instance, he’s an orphaned firbolg raised by humans, which should probably give him an interesting perspective on human and giant society, but it’s just mentioned as part of his backstory and not brought up again. He owns an inn, but after a single scene he leaves it and never returns. He’s got a reputation for unimpeachable integrity and fantastic skill at archery, but how did he earn those reputations? What did he do to get famous for his literal and metaphorical straight shooting? We don’t know because we never hear any stories from his past. He runs an orphanage, which sounds interesting… but it just serves to introduce his orphan sidekick, and the rest of the kids are quickly shuffled out of the way at the beginning of the story. We’re told that he’s in love with Brianna, but we can’t tell why because she’s such a dick and they have nothing in common. In short, all the attributes which should make him well-rounded just feel like boxes that get ticked at the start of the story and then never used again, rather than informing his actions throughout the book.
It would be so much easier to relate to him as a character if he had any flaws at all. I already mentioned his “reading the manuscript over the author’s shoulder” powers of deduction. On top of that, he’s courageous, honest, loyal, kind, and always makes the best decision possible under the circumstances. Every bad thing that happens to Tavis is the result of someone else doing something he couldn’t anticipate, not him making a mistake. After a while you wish you were watching some sort of Solo-esque rogue or Myrmeen-style anti-hero instead, just because they’d be interesting in a way that this guy will never be. Probably the best point of comparison would be Martine, the heroine from Soldiers of Ice. She’s also a ranger exploring a frigid wilderness, but while she’s quite good in a fight, that’s about the only free ride she gets from the author. She’s rubbish at dealing with people, unable to convince potential allies of her point of view because she’s hot-tempered and a terrible diplomat. She takes lots of risks, some of which work out great for her and some of which really screw her. She regularly needs help from other people; Tavis, on the other hand, is the guy whom everyone else relies on to survive. As a result, we can relate to her problems and wince with empathy when bad things happen to her. In this book, I found myself wishing for less time with Tavis and more time with Avner and Basil, his vastly more fallible, deceitful, and interesting sidekicks. When they choose to do the right thing, it means that their better natures have won a struggle over their base instincts. When Tavis does the right thing, he’s just doing what he always does, so it’s not that important.
Brianna, the kidnapped princess, is a particularly baffling character. In her very first scene we see her be gratuitously rude to others and quick to judge people harshly. She demonstrates a particularly ugly strain of hypocritical reverse snobbery, where she enjoys telling rich and important people that they’re jerks when she’s a rich and important jerk herself. She’s introduced as being seriously romantically involved with Tavis, to the point where she wishes she could marry him… and then a few pages later she’s decided that he’s an irredeemable liar and a thief, due to a comical misapprehension which a simple adult conversation could have resolved, in spite of his widespread reputation for scrupulous honesty. Then she threatens that he’ll be tortured in the palace dungeons and starts speculating (with no evidence) that he’s probably going to sell a bunch of his orphans into slavery. What? Just… what? The whole sequence is jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly dumb.
Pro tip: If your novel’s plot hinges on this lady’s fate, maybe don’t make her such an unlikable loser that the reader couldn’t care less what happens to her. Less than a quarter of the way into the book, I’d already written her off as a complete contrivance, a character who exists only to cause conflict and make the plot work but who doesn’t act like an actual human being. And there’s no way you can craft a plausible romantic relationship between these two characters when Brianna clearly doesn’t know anything at all about Tavis and is willing to believe every awful thing that pops into her head about him. She gets somewhat less annoying in the book’s latter half, once she’s finally worked out that Tavis isn’t actually a criminal mastermind, but it’s too little too late. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Avner, one of Tavis’ orphan wards who tags around with him for the entire plot, might have made a much more interesting viewpoint character. He’s a thief who’s theoretically trying to go straight, but his sense of ethics is so warped than he can’t seem to stop himself from stealing and lying. He’s much weaker and less capable in a fight than his huge firbolg guardian, so he relies on guile and cowardice to survive, but remains fiercely loyal to his friends. He makes terrible mistakes, such as when he disobeys Tavis and lies to him at one point, and people die as a result — and then the fallout from that incident is forgotten by everyone almost immediately because the relationship between Tavis and Avner isn’t the focus of the story. There’s a version of this novel in some alternate universe where Avner is the supporting protagonist telling Tavis’ story, and that’s probably a much better book.
Basil, the verbeeg runecaster who’s introduced as Avner’s partner-in-crime, feels like a missed opportunity. There’s a lot there: verbeegs are considered dangerous thieves, shunned and ostracized throughout Hartsvale, but the racism doesn’t affect the plot or seem to bother him much. He’s a cunning criminal, in theory, but he never gets to do anything with that backstory and ends up relegated to the standard role of “the party’s wizard”. He’s mastered an interesting form of magic that we’ve never seen before, but we never learn anything about it. It’s a shame.
The ogres make curious villains. Sometimes they’re described as huge, hulking brutes; other times they’re masters of woodland stealth who can flit silently through a forest and hide behind trees despite being eight feet tall and built like a Mack truck on steroids. Sometimes they’re deadly foes, and sometimes they’re just barely-described mooks who go down in piles to make the battle scenes bloodier. (At one point, Tavis and Morton kill a dozen of them in hand-to-hand combat in the space of two sentences, in a spectacular display of “this doesn’t matter.”) Like an episode of The A-Team, their arrows almost never hit, whereas the heroes’ arrows almost never miss — and they almost always go down in a single hit from an arrow, axe, or thrown knife, despite being huge and theoretically tough. In other words, no matter how many of them there are, they’re always only just as threatening as a scene needs them to be. They don’t receive any interesting dialogue, culture, or internal conflicts. At the end of the day, they’re just a big horde of random mooks. (Again, the gnoll tribe from Soldiers of Ice is a perfect example of how to do this better.)
The only ogre in the story who’s not a nameless mook is Goboka, the ogre shaman who kidnaps the princess. Frustratingly, he starts off looking very promising, but by the end of the novel you’re sick of him and just want him to go away so the book will end. He initially demonstrates all the traits I like to see in a villain: cunning, practical, dangerous, hard to kill, and not given to boasting or foolishness. The protagonists spend much of the novel fleeing from him, and on the occasions when he catches up with them, it becomes clear why fleeing was such a good idea. In the end, however, he overstays his welcome. We get almost no dialogue from him, no characterization, no motivation, so he adds nothing to the story except acting as a reason for the protagonists to keep moving. By the end, “hard to kill” has devolved into “basically the Terminator, but magic” — he can run behind the party for days, take huge amounts of damage without inconvenience, dodge arrows Matrix-style, that sort of thing — and it’s never explained why this guy is such an improbable badass while the other ogres invariably go down with a single light tap. It’s authorial contrivance nearly to the point of parody.
King Camden had a lot of potential as a villain who bargains away his only daughter to cement his own power. But he’s sketched in with very light strokes, briefly visible at the beginning and end of the story but completely out of focus for the rest while the protagonists wander around the wilderness. There are glimpses of a good character in there, a tyrant who could make a strong antagonist for a dark fantasy novel, but we just don’t get enough time with him to see his internal torment or abuses of power. Brianna’s final confrontation with him was good, but would have been so much better if the relationship between the two of them had ever been developed.
“Don’t trust anyone over eight feet tall” would be a good takeaway from this story. Aside from that, I’m struggling to find a theme here. The characters don’t change much over the course of their journey, and we learn very little about the overarching plot of the trilogy in this book. For now, it’s a series of things happening to people.
It’s pretty good. The descriptions are fairly vivid, the locations are interesting, and the prose doesn’t get in the way. There’s the occasional typo, the occasional awkward sentence, the occasional scene where things felt unclear, but they were rare and didn’t bother me much. My main complaint would be the dialogue, which often sounds clunky and not quite natural in the characters’ mouths. It’s curious; I don’t remember Denning having issues with that in his previous books. (Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been reading too many good books lately.)
I quite appreciated the inventiveness of the magic in this book. Giant magic is based around tracing runes onto things, which makes a refreshing change from the standard “bookish wizard waves his hands around and chants gibberish” archetype and allows for creative effects that aren’t straight out of the Player’s Handbook spell list. I just wish that we’d gotten more details about it, because it’s delightfully original but only ever used as a convenient way to resolve specific plot problems. Clerical magic is still fairly D&D-standard, but the effects of their spells vary depending on which god is performing the miracle. A goddess of fire causes wounds to burn painfully when they heal; a god of storms leaves jagged lightning-bolt-shaped scars to mark the healed wound. Details like this make magic feel more miraculous and less mechanical.
The book suffers from involving a dizzying number of giant races. Hartsvale is home to firbolgs, verbeegs, ogres, fomorians, hill giants, stone giants, fire giants, cloud giants, et cetera, and I just couldn’t keep their various physical characteristics straight in my head while reading. Eventually my brain just started differentiating between “normal-sized guy”, “pretty big guy”, and “really big guy”, because that’s all they really boil down to.
Denning’s last two books have both suffered from a certain degree of “I had to do a bunch of research to write this book, and by God, I’m going to make sure you know it.” This time around it’s glacial geography, with characters in a life-threatening situation awkwardly explaining to each other what a nunatak is so that the reader can visualize what’s going on.
There was a lot of potential here: a new setting, characters with potentially interesting backstories and relationships, and a juicy plot about family betrayal. But the new setting doesn’t tie into the Realms in any way and we see very little of its society and culture, so that doesn’t pan out. We spend the entire book watching scenes of survival and battle in the middle of nowhere rather than working through the ramifications of the family betrayal, so the plot doesn’t pan out either. And the characters consistently miss their marks, with the minor characters like Avner and Morton feeling more real and intriguing than the rather flat protagonists. It didn’t hurt to read it, so I can’t see giving it a D, but it does sadden me to see all this good material going to waste.
 In fact, this book gets so confused about its deities that it refers to the Roman god Vulcan at one point, despite the Roman pantheon not existing in the Forgotten Realms.