Author: Victor Milán
Published: October 1995
It’s not often that we see newcomers join the Forgotten Realms’ usual stable of authors. Victor Milán was an odd choice for TSR, a long-time writer of science fiction and fantasy who often churned out three or four books a year. He’s best known for his cyberpunk novels in the 1980s and his work with George R.R. Martin on the Wild Cards shared universe of superhero fiction, but he wasn’t averse to turning out the occasional licensed novel for properties like BattleTech, Star Trek, or Dungeons & Dragons. So is it good or bad that this was the only novel he wrote for TSR? Let’s dive in and find out. The last few novels have been serious slogs, so I’m really hoping for a breath of fresh air here.
We’ve heard about Tethyr before in previous novels like Spellfire and Elfsong, but outside of Elaine Cunningham’s short story in Realms of Valor, this is the first book in which we see it up close. It’s as much of a shithole as those previous mentions would suggest: recovering from a recent revolution, in political and economic free-fall, its people preyed upon by bandits and would-be strong men. Should give us plenty of interesting material for a novel, right?
Well… “interesting,” yes. That’s the key word here.
Zaranda Star is many things: a middle-aged army veteran, a Tethyrian countess, and an energetic entrepreneur. She’s converted her county from feudalism to the free market and makes a living running trade caravans through Tethyr’s dangerous roads. But one day a caravan trip to Zazesspur, the capital city of the old Tethyrian government, goes terribly wrong thanks to the machinations of a scheming, evil baron…
I appreciate stories that don’t hesitate to begin in medias res and throw you in the deep end right away. An unconfident writer will hold your hand and walk you carefully through the book, showing you the protagonist’s origin story and how the setting got to be the way it is. A more experienced writer knows that’s usually boring, so they’ll drop you into something interesting right away and use conversations, environmental storytelling, and little narrative asides to flesh out the details you need to know. Here we meet Zaranda in the middle of her story, already entrenched in the setting and surrounded by allies, and we learn about the setting as she travels through it. It feels like a promising beginning.
But the further one reads, the more the plot becomes an odd combination of obvious and mystifying. On the one hand, there’s a lot of clumsy, graceless foreshadowing that spoils what’s going to happen later on:
“I’m fine.” He waved a hand at her. “It’s just — these pains in my chest and left arm. They soon shall pass, martyred Ilmater willing.”
Guess what happens to this guy? I’ll give you three guesses, but if one of them doesn’t involve heart failure you should probably take a basic first aid course.
Shield stopped and stood with legs wide, seeming braced, gazing at the city. Then he nodded. “My destiny awaits there,” he announced. “I shall die in that city. Torm has told me this.”
Guess what happens to this guy? (Spoiler: He dies there.) And then there’s Zaranda’s old friend Farlorn, whom we’re told early on is behaving strangely:
And still… and still, something about him troubled her.
I wonder what could be troubling her? Could it be that the author is obviously setting him up to be a traitor?
Yet while the foreshadowing is as subtle as a brick, the story is murky and meandering. Until halfway through the book, I had no idea what the central conflict was supposed to be. The party ends up stranded in Zazesspur for a long time due to some bureaucratic shenanigans, and… does very little. They meet some people, see some scenes of unrest, and just sort of mill around. There’s some setting work and a bunch of hazy foreshadowing about something supernatural that’s making people act like dicks, but none of it directly involves the characters until Zaranda finally meets the big bad guy and it becomes clear that her opposing him is going to be the main conflict of the novel. Half a book is a long damn time to wait for a plot to build momentum.
But before we can dig deeper into the plot, we have to talk about the…
Let’s see if we can discern a theme here. We’ve got a hero who’s a benevolent capitalist entrepreneur beset by parasites and wicked tax collectors. The government is useless at best and actively harmful at worst. Anyone who talks about any sort of wealth redistribution is an idle loafer; good people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The bad guys, who control the government, want to crush people’s freedoms and restrict how they think.
What’s that, Wikipedia? You say that Victor Milán was a libertarian? What a shocking turn of events!
The whole book reads like a tract about libertarian politics, right from the very first scene where a bunch of bumbling halflings declare themselves an “autonomous collective,” claim that “the road belongs to the people!”, and then try to extort tolls from passing travellers. Everything revolves around defeating a villain who’s trying to increase the government’s power to satisfy his own ambition, interfering with honest tradespeople in the process. There are some socialists in Zazesspur, and their depiction is about as nuanced as you’d expect:
Hedgeblossom addressed his spiels to the laborer, but it mainly seemed idlers who were drawn by his promises of free wealth. Perhaps, Zaranda thought, the real workers of Zazesspur realize who’d have to pay for Toby’s schemes.
This book has a very cynical outlook on humanity. Rich people are mostly parasites who use their station to enrich themselves by preying on small businesspeople. Poor people are always either lazy, like the aforementioned socialists, or craven, like the peasants of Tweyar — whenever they get a taste of power, they inevitably abuse it. Principled, moderate self-starters like Zaranda have to teach them how to behave. The middle class are the real heroes of this book.
Eventually we discover that the villains’ ultimate plan is to control the government and use it to extinguish all culture, crush all dissent, take everyone’s
guns swords away, enlist the entire city into a cult to exterminate all rational thought, and remake the country in their own self-glorifying image. The scene where this is revealed was the point at which I completely checked out. War in Tethyr starts off as a potentially interesting story, but devolves into a polemic where the author uses this mass-market paperback fantasy novel as a soapbox for espousing his political convictions. It gradually ceases to be a story and becomes a fable instead — a paranoid fable about an evil government versus the virtuous free market. As a reader, once you lose faith that the author wants to tell you a good story with well-made characters, there’s no recovering from that.
It’s not that this is a fundamentally unworkable plot, mind you. There’s potentially compelling drama in a story where a corrupt government tries to curtail its people’s freedoms, and many authors have successfully mined that vein before. But you have to employ some degree of subtlety and nuance in the characterization, not just heroes versus straw men, and you have to prioritize telling a good story over getting your point across. If you tell a good story, some of your readers will get the point; if you beat them over the head with the message, they’ll all get the point but most of them will hate you for it afterwards.
Anyhow, where were we?
Oh right, the plot
There’s a glaringly tone-deaf bit where Zaranda meets a sect of very thinly disguised Hare Krishnas handing out flowers and talking about peace and love. Naturally they’re evil, a bunch of privileged rich kids led astray by a sinister cult leader. Remember, this was in 1995. By the 1990s, slagging off hippies was so culturally dated that it’s hard to fathom why the author thought such a clunky real-world parallel would fly with a younger audience. What’s next? Perhaps he’ll disapprove of a bunch of dissolute flapper girls, or the penny-farthing bicycle?
Eventually the heroes escape the villains, flee Zazesspur, and start forging an army out of the common people by teaching them how to defend themselves from bandits and tax collectors, who are virtually indistinguishable. Zaranda then parlays this movement into a profitable corporation which offers protection and self-defense lessons to settlements, because everything must tie back into free enterprise somehow.
She was herself an employee now, having quit as leader in a dispute last fall over what direction the company should take. To get her back, the others had been compelled to offer a contract making explicit her powers and duties as chief executive.
I swear I’m not making this up. This is now a fantasy novel about the heroic CEO of a corporation making the country safe for the middle class. And the author just can’t stop harping on it:
Cutting Ernest Gallowglass’ tolls for the Ithal Bridge and river passage would serve the economy of Tethyr like a healing spell cast on a wounded warrior.
Jesus Christ, man, shut up already. I get it — free market capitalism good, everything else evil. By this point I’m actively hostile to the book’s message because the author keeps hammering it in like he’s trying to hammer a tent peg into my forehead. It’s not about crafting a believable setting or creating conflicts between well-developed characters; it’s about demonstrating the superiority of his political and economic opinions, and everything else is secondary.
Zaranda’s opponents, unable to match her military or economic prowess, capture her by treachery and have her tortured by sadistic henchmen. This bit ends with a courtroom appearance where she eloquently refutes all of her detractors face-to-face by preaching libertarian philosophy. It comes off as a pastiche of the courtroom scene from The Fountainhead; as with that book’s conclusion, the narrative grinds to a halt so that the author can use the protagonist as a sock puppet for their own voice. (Unlike that book, the speech doesn’t improve Zaranda’s situation any.)
Anyhow, by the end there’s a popular revolution and all the bad people — many of whom are mind-controlled by a Lovecraftian horror, because the author seems to think that nobody in their right mind would disagree with his protagonist — get their comeuppance. Zaranda becomes the Queen of Tethyr, which seems like a paradoxical, possibly even hypocritical, ending for a libertarian hero. There are a couple of subplots that never go anywhere (like, what was the deal with the “Zhentarim kidnapping children and taking them away in ships” business?), but by this point I don’t care and I’m just glad it’s over.
Zaranda Star is a much better character at the beginning of the book than at the end. At the outset, she’s a little bit Mary Sue-ish: self-assured, never taken aback, successful at everything she sets herself to. But it’s counterbalanced by some scenes where we see inside her head and get acquainted with her well-hidden loneliness and self-doubt, giving her more depth than the usual “great at everything” protagonist. Her serious financial difficulties form a good motivation to get her on the road and pointed towards the plot. But the more author uses her as a mouthpiece, the less she feels like a real character with real problems and the more she seems like an author stand-in. She displays a strong, distinctive personality throughout, but it doesn’t do any good when my belief in her as a character is being steadily eroded.
I wonder how much this novel, and Zaranda’s character in particular, stepped on Ed Greenwood’s toes? Greenwood clearly had plans for the Tethyrian Reclamation, having set up Elminster’s scribe Lhaeo as the last prince of the royal house of Tethyr all the way back in 1988. Then this book comes along and declares its new character the queen of a reunited Tethyr, so there’s no need for Lhaeo any more. The Lands of Intrigue boxed set for D&D, published in 1997, had the unenviable job of welding those two stories together: Lhaeo ends up having adventures with Zaranda, marrying her, and becoming King Haedrak Rhindaun III.
Stillhawk, Zaranda’s mute ranger bodyguard, worked out better than I expected. As an author, you have a few directions to take a mute character in: you can make an interesting mystery out of what they don’t say, you can just use them as an extra to round out the battle scenes and forget they’re there, or you can give them some special way to communicate which effectively nullifies their disability. I groaned aloud when I saw that Milán had picked the third option, making everyone in the party understand sign language well enough that they had no problems communicating. But it didn’t prove to be as bad as I feared; Stillhawk’s “dialogue” is halting and awkward when rendered in prose because their shared sign language isn’t as expressive as speech.
It’s not that, he signed. My heart is bad about this city, now. There is great evil here.
So he still meets my main criterion for a character with a disability: the disability should mean something and not be just flavour text. (As a counterexample for how to do this spectacularly badly, check out the blind character in R.A. Salvatore’s Sojourn.)
Shield of Innocence, an orog paladin who joins Zaranda’s band, is something we haven’t seen very often so far: a decent depiction of a paladin. He’s dumb as a post and has zero agency, which doesn’t make me wild about him as a character, but he’s also a genuinely good, self-sacrificing person with a deep faith. He’s the focus of plenty of Drizzt-style racism from humans in settled areas; it’s played a little on-the-nose and over-the-top, but not enough so to ruin his character.
Farlorn, the half-elf bard, feels like a waste. It’s clear from the very beginning of the book that he’s going to betray Zaranda, so there’s no tension or surprise, only a long wait until the betrayal inevitably happens. He’s an interesting enigma for most of the book while we still don’t know his motives, but in the big reveal scene it turns out that his motives are “kill all humans!” for dumb reasons, which cheapens his entire subplot. Even a simple “I did it for the money” would have worked better.
Chenowyn, Zaranda’s young ward, is a decent character for most of the book. Her backstory, which isn’t revealed until the very end, made me laugh out loud at the sheer awfulness. But for most of the book she’s a fallible, stubborn, petulant child learning to live in Zaranda’s dangerous adult world, and it works fairly well. She has a mix of good and bad qualities, gets a fair amount of individual screen time instead of just being a “child in distress” archetype to motivate Zaranda, and grows over the course of the story. I just wish the author had done a better job with her role in the conclusion.
This story is such a paper-thin parable about individualism that Ayn Rand herself shows up as a character at one point, delivering another brutal dick-punch to my sense of immersion. The black-haired Zazesspurian wizardess “Nyadnar” shows up a couple of times to deliver assistance and vague foreshadowing and, in the end, allows the heroes to defeat the final boss. She’s so big into individualism and self-reliance that we learn she gave her daughter to an orphanage so that she’d grow up to be tougher. Seriously?
The villains are so unsubtle and weakly characterized that they literally eat babies. That’s not even a joke. Baron Hardisty (called “Baron Hardly” in the back-cover blurb in a hilarious cock-up on the publisher’s part) is your standard ambitious politician who schemes to become king. He’s cruel and imperious, but successfully hides how evil he is from the credulous peasantry. The cult leader Armenides is clearly a bad guy from the get-go, but at least there’s a little mystery around his plans until he turns out to be an actual demon at the end. Neither they nor their henchmen are particularly interesting; they’re obviously evil from the very beginning, lack any shred of basic humanity, and don’t get much characterization outside of “I like to do bad things.”
I always enjoy when a book goes all-out to give me something interesting to write about in this section — not “good,” mind you, but “interesting.” The author is clearly a competent writer, but he’s aiming for a style that just doesn’t work for a Forgotten Realms novel and isn’t executed well enough to achieve the effect he’s going for. Still, watching someone’s ambition outstrip their abilities is never boring, and I’ll always prefer a failed effort to do something different to something blandly safe.
Let’s start with the vocabulary. Characters mostly chat and banter in a normal, modern-sounding tone, but occasionally pepper their speeches with ancient words like “hight,” “misdoubt,” and “whither” as if they’d just joined this production from a stint as a minor side character in Le Morte d’Arthur. Even the narration gets in on the act, dropping words like “withal,” “bedizened,” and “caracole” in the middle of otherwise modern-sounding sentences. While I appreciate seeing an extensive vocabulary used correctly, this dichotomy gives the writing an oddly schizoid tone. You need to pick a period in English writing and stick with it; otherwise, dusting archaisms over a modern narrative like this is like sprinkling minced garlic onto a chocolate cake.
Milán also seems to never use five words where fifteen will do. The narration is barnacled and overwrought — not quite as terrible as Brian Thomsen’s garbled parody of Jules Verne’s prose, but full of unnecessary details and long-winded descriptions. Take this, for instance:
The tallest of the sell-swords, whose black hair hung in tight perfumed curls to his shoulders and who wore tights that were vertically striped red, blue, and yellow on one leg, and purple with yellow stars on the other, elevated a long and lordly nose.
These three random minor characters get several paragraphs of careful description when they show up, describing everything from their coiffures and facial features to the hilts of their knives and the weight of their swords. They talk with the protagonists for a couple of minutes, then leave and are never seen again. Vivid? Sure, I suppose. Worth the effort? Definitely not. Why spend all that work to describe something unimportant when you could leave it up to the readers’ imaginations? If you just tell the reader that they’re dressed like fops in gaudy, colourful outfits, the reader will form their own picture of how silly their clothing looks without any further effort on your part. This book would have been much easier to read if he would have saved the details for the things that are actually going to pay off later.
And then there are some hilariously bad metaphors:
The blade slid inside him like a serpent’s tongue, and out his back.
Apparently there’s a lot I never knew about serpents.
And yet, for all that the writing isn’t great, it feels bad in a lively and ambitious way, as if the author is having fun and trying to show off. Its sins are often the result of trying to cram in too much detail and decoration and trying to be too clever, which are lesser sins than mere clumsiness. The command of language is certainly much better than the pseudo-Shakespearean theatrics that Niles or Salvatore have sometimes indulged in. So for all of the writing’s many faults, I find that I don’t hate it…
At the table’s left end the crier stood forward. He wore a tabard sporting the traditional device of lion, gules, rampant on field of gold. No one knew why this was traditional, inasmuch as Zazesspur’s emblem was a blue cockatrice on a light-green field. No one knew where that came from, either, cockatrices being exceedingly rare in Tethyr, ever since the monarchy’s collapse. Some savants theorized that was the reason for the symbol’s adoption, that the appearance of such a rarity as a cockatrice in Zazesspur might have been deemed worthy of commemoration. Actually, nobody cared anymore.
Okay, maybe I do hate it some.
I don’t think my opinion about a novel has ever fluctuated so much while reading it before. I started off thinking “Hey, this is competently written and the characters are lively. This is feeling very B-ish!” Then the writing started to get on my nerves. Then the plot meandered around and didn’t go anywhere. Then the characters became mouthpieces for the author’s pet cause. At that point I was thinking “Well, at least it’s bad in a different way than usual. Should I give it extra points for originality?” But it kept getting worse and worse as it went on. By the time the villains were eating babies and Ayn Rand showed up to save the day, I was ready to admit that it was just bad — frustratingly, soul-deadeningly bad. There was a good book in this concept, but it needed a different author to write it, someone who was willing to tell a story instead of grinding his personal axes. It’s a good thing that Milán never wrote anything else for TSR, because I don’t relish the idea of going through something like this again.
Oof. Three D-grade books in a row is tough on the soul.