Author: Troy Denning
Published: June 1996
I can’t say I was particularly excited to get started on this one. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a novel from Troy Denning, one of the Forgotten Realms’ regular authors, and I felt as if I needed the break. His first few novels were decent (Waterdeep, Dragonwall, The Parched Sea), but his subsequent Twilight Giants trilogy was a hot mess that started boringly and ended painfully, so I came into this fearing that I’d find more of the same.
But I wasn’t going to judge it out of hand, since this book has a few things going for it. It’s a standalone Harpers novel, and Denning seems to be a lot better at standalone novels, with their restricted space for plot and characterization, than he is at trilogies. It stars Ruha, the protagonist of The Parched Sea, who’s easily the most interesting character that he’s written. And it’s been long enough since his last book that perhaps he’s had time to reflect and learn from his past mistakes rather than pumping content out on a monthly basis Greenwood-style. “Who knows?”, I thought. “I’ll give it a fair shake and see if he can surprise me.”
Well, he certainly surprised me to some extent, since this is the first ever novel where I have to open the review by talking about the…
Denning did lots of research for his previous two fantasy counterpart culture novels, so it’s no surprise that he’d want to put all that work to use again here. Ruha, the Bedouin Bedine witch from Arabia Anauroch, meets a bunch of Imperial Chinese Shou emissaries who have an embassy and trading post in the Inner Sea town of Elversult. These are both cultures he’s handled reasonably well in his previous books, but he seems to have completely lost his mind this time around.
When communicating with non-Shou characters, the Shou characters speak in a sort of stilted pidgin English:
“Many thanks to you, also. You save Emperor’s ship, and lives of many humble servants. […] Please to allow physician to see leg.”
It’s not great. I can see how playing up the language barrier emphasizes their cultural differences, but the overall effect is more Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s than the suave and elegant ambassadors of a highly civilized society. It plays into cheesy Asian stereotypes that were better left buried.
But then I got a little further into the book, and my head exploded. It turns out that all Shou characters always talk like that, even amongst themselves!
Yuan sounded as though he were mumbling. “We see no one enter garden.”
The prince snorted at the explanation. “How could it be otherwise? If you see intruder, he would be dead would he not?” […]
Yuan kept his brow pressed to the ground. “Great Majesty, your unworthy guards hear nothing, smell nothing, feel nothing. Please to punish.”
Tang ignored the request. “Go search garden.”
[…] At length, the sentries returned with unbloodied weapons and bowed to Tang. “Garden of Flickering Tongues is safe for Mighty Prince.”
Holy fuck, dude. Holy fuck.
The author tries to play up the Shou as a sophisticated and refined culture, then cuts his own story off at the knees by making them all sound like a bunch of barely-verbal cavemen. You could easily have gotten away with this sort of “me speekee Engrish” stereotyping in the 1940s or 1950s, but by the mid-1990s this was already a very offensive trope, and by the standards of 2022 it’s appalling. It’s not even a matter of the Shou language sounding like that, because when non-Shou characters speak to Shou characters in their language, they sound perfectly grammatical. When the Shou characters speak back to them, it’s a sad pidgin. So it’s specifically Asian people who can’t speak right, regardless of language. Holy fuck.
“I thank you for the offering. Now, where is my ylang oil?”
“Where is Lady Feng?” Tang groaned. “You have oil when I have mother.”
I’m inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt and blame this on laziness rather than malice, since he was clearly doing it for an understandable reason. The cultural clash between Western and Eastern characters is an important theme of the plot, and having them speak differently helps underscore how different their cultures and worldviews are. But this is an incompetent way to do it. If your Western characters all speak fluently and your Eastern characters all sound like “Thog discover fire! Cave warm now,” then you’re implicitly infusing your book with a shitty racist message. I can’t believe that the author thought this was a good idea and an editor allowed this to happen.
For a counter-example, let’s look at a classic novel that handles linguistic differences between Eastern and Western characters in a much more clever and nuanced manner: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. Kim is the story of an orphaned Irish boy who grows up on the streets of British colonial India in the late 1800s. As you might expect from his background, he’s a polyglot who speaks awkward and broken English when interacting with English-speaking characters:
“What is it then?” said Father Victor, not without feeling, as he watched the lama’s face.
“There is a River in this country which he wishes to find so verree much. It was put out by an Arrow which — ” Kim tapped his foot impatiently as he translated in his own mind from the vernacular to his clumsy English. “Oah, it was made by our Lord God Buddha, you know, and if you wash there you are washed away from all your sins and made as white as cotton-wool.” (Kim had heard mission-talk in his time.) “I am his disciple, and we must find that River. It is so verree valuable to us.”
But when speaking to the novel’s varied and vibrant cast of Indian characters in Hindustani, Urdu, or Punjabi, he’s a charming trickster who could talk the fleas off of a dog.
“Oho! He is of that sort which may not look at or reply to a woman.” For the lama, constrained by his Rule, took not the faintest notice of her. “And his disciple is like him?”
“Nay, mother,” said Kim most promptly. “Not when the woman is well-looking and above all charitable to the hungry.”
“A beggar’s answer,” said the Sikh, laughing. “Thou hast brought it on thyself, sister!”
But it’s not just him. Every native character in the novel, whether Afghan, Bengali, Jat, Punjabi, Sikh, Tibetan, or so on, are all eloquent in their native languages — often much more so than the English speakers.
“And if thou wilt carry a message for me as far as Umballa, I will give thee money. It concerns a horse — a white stallion which I have sold to an officer upon the last time I returned from the Passes. But then — stand nearer and hold up hands as begging — the pedigree of the white stallion was not fully established, and that officer, who is now at Umballa, bade me make it clear. […] So the message to that officer will be: ‘The pedigree of the white stallion is fully established.’ By this will he know that thou comest from me. He will then say ‘What proof hast thou?’ and thou wilt answer: ‘Mahbub Ali has given me the proof.’”
“And all for the sake of a white stallion,” said Kim, with a giggle, his eyes aflame.
The general impression is that English is a rough-and-ready language which feels out of place in this land, and the native tongues are better-suited to flowery speech and complex, polite discourse. And on a meta level, this is all accomplished in English prose, with the occasional untranslated word explained or just thrown in where it’s obvious from context what it means. The craftsmanship is excellent. Kipling, like Kim, was a European born in India and spoke both English and Hindustani, so he had a natural ear for the different music of each language and the ways in which a non-native speaker of each would make mistakes. Denning, on the other hand, just threw together some lazy early-20th-century “so solly, flied lice” stereotypes of how Asian people speak English.
Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I’m actually suggesting that someone take tips from Rudyard fuckin’ Kipling about how to be less racist. That right there is saying something. I’m not saying that Kim isn’t problematic in many ways — it’s still a fundamentally colonialist story with a lot of racist baggage — but at least Kipling nailed the multicultural language and diction in a way that Denning totally did not.
What’s infuriating is that Denning did this so much better in Dragonwall. The Shou characters in that novel were eloquent and cultured, spoke perfectly well, and were contrasted against another Eastern culture in a way that was much less black-and-white. As I’ve said before, I expect an author’s craft to get better over time, not worse.
Weird racist dialogue aside, though, the writing in this novel is not bad. Descriptions are thorough but not overwhelming, and the narration often reflects the worldview of the current character, like how Ruha consistently thinks of the sea waves as “dunes” in her narration, or a Shou character thinks of swamp water as “thick and dark as plum wine.” It’s significantly better than the writing in Denning’s last novel, to the point where it almost doesn’t feel like the same author’s work.
The desert witch Ruha has been accepted into the Harpers, but she has yet to successfully complete a mission for them. Her latest attempt sees her heading to Elversult, where she’s been sent to help save the ruler of that city-state from powerful evil magic. The story opens in medias res on the ship she’s taking to Elversult, and it’s a rocky start that does a poor job of introducing us to our heroes. Another nearby ship is getting attacked by a dragon, so Ruha insists that they sail to the rescue and then forces the issue. Fowler, the ship’s captain, tries to stay out of the conflict by any means possible. The narration portrays this as sheer cowardice on his part and pure heroism on Ruha’s part, even though Ruha’s intervention gets scores of men killed, destroys Fowler’s ship, and nearly ends the story before it begins. But from the reader’s perspective, Captain Fowler’s arguments actually make a lot of sense! The only reason why the novel doesn’t end during the first chapter is that Ruha has somehow become so much of a magical badass between books that she can casually one-shot dragons, which comes as a surprise to both Fowler and the reader. It’s not a great way to sell Ruha as a clever, thoughtful protagonist.
Once the characters get to Elversult, though, the story picks up speed. There’s a dracolich, the Cult of the Dragon, and some Shou nobles who are all connected somehow and all up to no good. The point of view jumps back and forth between Ruha and one of the villains, who gradually resolve the plot from both sides while being largely unaware of what each other are doing. Both of them are often forced to improvise plans as they gradually gather information and escape danger, which is consistently fun to watch. It’s an energetic novel, leaping along quickly with few pauses for breath, but at least there are almost no wasted scenes or gratuitous battles. It didn’t give me the kind of reader fatigue that I get from, say, an R.A. Salvatore slugfest, only an urge to see what happens next.
We see all sides of the plot as it unfolds, so there aren’t many genuine mysteries here. After the very first scene from the villains’ perspective we know that Cypress is the big bad guy, that Tang is involved with the Cult of the Dragon, that his mother has been kidnapped, and that they need her to make a magical macguffin. The only real unknowns are “what does Cypress want with the macguffin?” and “where is he keeping Lady Feng?” Once those questions are answered, it becomes a “who’s got the macguffin?” hunt. But there’s lots of good deceit going on — just about nobody is being straight with anyone else, and no one person knows everything that’s going on. It’s the sort of novel that’s generally up my alley.
Unfortunately, the intrigue is marred by a few obvious gaps in the plot which are never lampshaded or explained. For instance, there’s a weird bit at around the two-thirds mark where Ruha decides to smoke out the Cult spy and learn the location of their stronghold by leaving a couple of unaware people — including Captain Fowler, who’s been her loyal companion for the entire novel — alone in a room with a murderous traitor while she goes for a nap. When she wakes up, surprise! They’ve been murdered, and the traitor is gone! Who could possibly have foreseen that turn of events? The way she sends Fowler into danger without letting him in on the plan or warning him about the traitor almost makes one wonder if she got him killed on purpose to avoid having to pay back all the money she owes him. Nobody points out how incredibly stupid this was or feels bad about the deaths.
A bit later, we learn that there’s a Cult-infested ruined castle full of magical darkness a short distance from Elversult. The Elversians already knew about it, but decided not to mention it to anyone until it would be maximally dramatic. Hey, did I mention that the traitor has lots of darkness-based magic powers, and refuses to tell anyone what god he’s a priest of? Because that’s a thing that should maybe have occurred to someone. Anyhow, guess where the bad guys’ stronghold turns out to be?
“I should have guessed,” Vaerana growled. “The Night Castle.”
Uh, yeah, lady. No shit. You really should have guessed.
Ruha was a fascinating protagonist in her debut in The Parched Sea, but she’s gotten significantly duller this time around. By the beginning of this novel she’s out from under the thumb of her culture’s repressive social mores, she’s tied up her romantic subplot, and she’s completed her training with the Harpers, so… what’s left for her to do? Instead of character development, the novel is pretty much all action. It’s fun to watch her spy and sneak and talk her way out of danger, but she never pursues any goals more complicated than “I must complete my mission.” Despite all of her cunning plans and narrow escapes, she’s still basically the same person at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning.
The “fish out of water” aspect of her character, where she’s a desert nomad trying to learn the unfamiliar social customs of the Heartlands, could have been played up more. It’s brought up at the beginning, but goes largely unremarked upon thereafter. It would have been a smart way to give her a weakness that would allow her to make grievous fuckups without making her look incompetent, but instead we’re treated to some backstory about a time in the recent past when she screwed up a mission due to her cultural confusion. Why not put that on screen instead of relegating it to a paragraph of backstory narration?
Unfortunately, she comes off as a bit too perfect. She never seems to make a mistake and never finds herself at a loss for what to do. Sometimes, when she instantly intuits secrets based on extremely limited information, it feels like she’s got a copy of the manuscript hidden in her robes. I think she would work better as a protagonist if we had fewer cutaways to the other characters and didn’t learn most of the secrets of the plot up front. If the reader were discovering them at the same time as Ruha, it would be more exciting for the reader and the author would be forced to explain her thought process more thoroughly.
But despite all that, she’s still a fun protagonist to watch. She’s capable and smart, she’s got clear goals that she pursues in a generally sensible manner, and her magic powers aren’t a “solve everything” button outside of the silly dragon-killing scene at the beginning, so it doesn’t feel like the author is just handing unearned success to her. Her unusual element-based magic often takes time during a busy action scene, requires careful concentration, or has tricky limitations, like when she’s sneaking around the Shou compound with an invisibility spell that only works well when she’s standing perfectly still. She would go on to appear in three of Denning’s post-TSR Realms novels, and I’m tempted to look them up just to see how her story continues.
Captain Fowler, the half-orc captain of the ship Ruha sinks at the start of the novel, is a character who had great potential as a foil. He’s the straight man to Ruha’s trickster, a boisterous bruiser with a straightforward approach to problem solving, but he’s also comparatively suave and sophisticated at the kinds of back-alley social interactions which Ruha doesn’t know how to navigate. It would have been fun to see them play off each other more, but alas, Ruha gets him killed at around the two-thirds mark of the novel and he’s almost never mentioned again. Nobody mourns him or gives his death a second thought. It feels like the author planned out a convoluted plot, then spent so much work getting all the story beats to line up that he forgot to include minor details like character feelings or interactions.
Prince Tang, the commander of the Shou contingent in Elversult, is perhaps the only person in the novel who gets actual character development. In fact, given how much screen time he gets, he’s basically a deuteragonist. He starts off as a spoiled, callow fool, a coddled noble who gets in over his head with the Cult of the Dragon and keeps digging himself deeper by doing stupid things. Plot-wise, he serves as a first-act villain who captures and plans to enslave Ruha. But after his rock-bottom moment where he’s thoroughly embarrassed himself by lying to his superior and getting a shitload of his men killed, he begins to grow a sack and starts solving his own problems. In the face of considerable danger, on his own, he uses his environment to kill various foes, avoids being melted, poisoned, or ripped apart, and eventually rescues his mother and smashes the dracolich’s phylactery. He’s never a likeable character, but it’s still fun to watch him grow from a useless twit into a dangerous twit.
What bothers me, though, is that Tang’s misdeeds are forgotten by everyone at the end of the novel and the good guys treat him like one of their own. Did everyone forget that he tried to feed a date rape drug to Ruha, like, two days ago? Or the bit where he ordered a son to execute his own father? Or that he’s lining his pockets by smuggling poison to criminals? Or that he was, until very recently, a card-carrying member of the Cult of the Dragon? One brave deed doesn’t wipe out a lifetime of dickery, especially since his motivations for the deed were wholly selfish. Did the author forget about what a shit he was and that none of the other characters should trust him, or does the author genuinely believe that this cheap redemption excuses his earlier actions? Either way, it spoiled the conclusion for me somewhat.
The negative face of the Shou is provided by both Tang and his wife Wei Dao, who’s a headstrong and vicious asshat that Ruha eventually outwits. They’re amoral, vain, venal, and treat people like disposable tools. One gets a strong Orientalist vibe from the first half of the book, which is all noble Westerners versus evil, secretive, corrupt Chinese people. Fortunately, the positive face of the Shou shows up partway through in the form of Minister Hsieh, a high-ranking bureaucrat who’s generally honest and friendly. He’s a total badass, of course, because I don’t think there are any Asian characters in this book who aren’t either kung fu masters or mysterious shamans. (I get the impression that the author watched too many martial arts movies in his youth.)
The Western faction is represented by Vaerana Hawklyn, the constable of Elversult, whom I’m not sure how I feel about. On the one hand, I enjoy flawed characters whose flaws drive them to make genuine mistakes. On the other hand, her flaws — stubbornness and impatience — are so pronounced that she can’t have even the simplest of conversations without being a dick in some way. She’s ostensibly a good guy, but she’s often an active impediment to her own best interests and I found myself groaning whenever she showed up in a scene. Making a character feel like a complicated human without losing the reader’s sympathy is a surprisingly hard balancing act, and Vaerana is an example of what happens when you overdo it.
Cypress, the dracolich big bad, is a fairly effective villain. He’s constantly active, doing things that further his goals instead of waiting for the heroes to come to him. He’s not infallible, either, since the heroes are able to fool him a couple of times with reasonably clever plans. He’s in a tense détente with his strong-willed hostage, whom he needs to perform a service for him but who can’t be trusted and doesn’t want to help — a problem that can’t be solved by violence. On the couple of occasions when he gathers his forces to attack the protagonists, he poses a severe threat to them, and once he shows up in person he poses a serious danger to an entire city. The only part that I didn’t much enjoy was his introduction in the opening boat scene, where he shows up and then gets swatted like a fly by Ruha. It’s not a great first impression for an evil overlord.
A big theme here is the cultural clash between West and East. The Shou are arrogant, secretive, and some of them are corrupt; the Elversians are stubborn, aggressive, and sometimes small-minded. Despite their frequent clashes, they join forces at the end to take down the dracolich and everyone learns a lesson about tolerance. Ruha stands between the two factions, an outsider who’s trusted by neither. It’s not a bad theme, but it’s constantly undercut by the Shou characters’ stilted dialogue and the author’s choice of point-of-view characters. When your Western protagonist is a hero and your Eastern deuteragonist is an awful shit, the reader gets to see the best of one culture and the worst of the other. At least the evil is fairly evenly distributed across both factions, with traitors and cultists on the Western side and criminals and collaborators on the Eastern side.
This is a tricky one. I’m normally a big fan of intrigue-based plots and clever protagonists, and I enjoyed a lot of aspects of this novel. But the flaws with the plot were distracting, and the characterization was either absent when it was most needed or the wrong characterization for the situation. Worst of all, the aggravating racism in the dialogue shows up in nearly every scene, and it never stops being irritating. I wanted to like this book so much more than I did, but it fought me every step of the way. I appreciate that its flaws are new and different, though, and it’s not just my usual litany of complaints all over again. Even if the book was sometimes grating, this review has been fun to work on.
In any case, this is the last Troy Denning book in the Forgotten Realms’ TSR era. Next up is some more Elaine Cunningham, which I’m always excited for. Onwards!