Author: Troy Denning (as Richard Awlinson)
Published: October 1989
Here’s the final installment of the Avatar trilogy. It’s still published under the pseudonym of Richard Awlinson, but penned this time by newcomer to the series Troy Denning. And it’s his first novel, to boot! Does it improve upon the previous entries in the trilogy, or flub the conclusion? Let’s find out.
While reading this, I was reminded of a fairly inescapable fact of fantasy fiction: stories like these are usually only as good as their villains. Without something interesting to struggle against, the heroes’ journey feels inevitable and tedious. But what makes a villain work in a story is not how evil they are, or how much screen time they get, or how cool they seem to the fans, but just these three things:
- They have sensible, interesting motivations and goals
- They do things which plausibly further those goals, with some degree of success
- They do them in a way which demonstrates a convincing characterization
That’s it. Without a goal that intrigues the reader, a villain is no more interesting than a fire or earthquake or other natural disaster — unpleasant, sure, but basically random. Villains need agency in a story every bit as much as the heroes do, because as we saw in Tantras, an ineffectual villain doesn’t add any narrative tension or inspire any fear. And like any other character, villains who are well-characterized by both actions and dialogue add a rich texture to a story.
Let’s compare a few of the bigger villains we’ve seen so far in the Forgotten Realms books and how they’ve evolved over time. First, there was Bhaal from the Moonshae trilogy. He was a paper-thin caricature with nothing resembling actual character. “Grr!” he went. “I’m going to destroy some islands because I’m eeeevil!” No character development, no interaction with other characters, no plausible reason for why he wanted to destroy an entire country. As such, he added practically nothing to the story. He failed hard on two of the three criteria: while it’s true that he acted in a way that would further his goals, we didn’t really get a good sense of why he was doing it (no, “because I’m evil” doesn’t constitute a good reason), and the way he went about it made little sense. He’s ostensibly the god of murder in the setting, but the way he was written in that trilogy involved no murdering at all — just hordes of B-movie monsters, for some reason.
Then in this trilogy there’s Bane, the god of strife and tyranny, who is not quite as rubbish but still not great. He’s got goals which make sense in the context of the plot: regain enough power to challenge Ao for control of the Realms, because it’s in his nature to be ambitious and cause strife. His plans further those goals in a characteristic manner: imprisoning the goddess of magic, starting a war to seize the nearest Celestial Stairway, and consuming the souls of the dead to feed his power. A suitable degree of tyranny, strife, and evilness, all things considered. But he still feels like an unconvincing character because we start the story expecting to see a terrifying god, but what we end up with is an excessively dramatic, ineffectual, somewhat foolish person. His actions don’t demonstrate a character that fits our expectations: he postures and gloats like a B-movie villain, fails to kill enemies when they’re at his mercy, and gets repeatedly defeated and fooled by humans. From a human villain that might be understandable, but from a god it’s a pretty depressing performance.
And finally there’s the divine villains from Waterdeep: Bhaal, god of murder, and Myrkul, god of death. Along with the cabal from Azure Bonds, they’re a rare example of well-realized villains in this series. They have goals that make sense for them: lay a trap on the macguffins which, when triggered, will give them the power to challenge Ao. They have a good plan for doing so, which actually succeeds: trick the heroes into springing the trap for them. And they do them in ways which demonstrate their character: Bhaal kills passionlessly, while Myrkul cunningly plots and avoids exposing himself directly to danger wherever possible. Neither are given to the sort of hammy self-aggrandizement which made Bane feel so stereotypically cheesy.
I found Bhaal particularly refreshing here. He doesn’t need spikes or glowing eyes or such to scare people; his avatar is a small, unassuming man. He implacably pursues the heroes Terminator-style, killing everyone in his path in a variety of inventive and bloody ways, effortlessly, casually, and without emotion. Unlike Bane, this is a villain you can actually be scared of — and it involves a lot more murdering people and a lot less random fish-men than the Moonshae trilogy’s version of the god of murder did, so it makes more sense in the context of the story.
The upshot here is that this book has a lot more in the way of actual characters, rather than just devices which the plot needs to further itself, and the villains show the most notable improvement.
The plot, in its most basic form, is that the heroes need to collect two divine macguffins and return them to Helm, the god of guardians, to return the gods to their rightful places and stop their world from crumbling around them. Cyric wants to kill them and return the macguffins himself; the aforementioned evil gods don’t want anyone to return them. The heroes start the novel with the one they acquired at the end of Tantras and hunt for the other, then trade them back and forth with the various factions until someone finally comes out on top with both. The three-way conflict, with two separate evil factions at odds with each other, lends the story a refreshing degree of complexity compared to some of the simple “heroes fighting villains” stories we’ve seen so far.
The novel takes the protagonists from Cormyr all the way to Waterdeep by foot, by horse, by teleport, and by planar travel through a series of misadventures. We don’t see much of the Realms in the process, surprisingly, because they’re usually on the road and tend to only visit places like roadside inns and isolated outposts. As such, the world feels like a very empty place until they finally reach the eponymous city at the end. The planar travel bits are a welcome bit of surreal strangeness, though, which give the reader a good “we’re not in Kansas any more” feeling and reinforce the sense of a universe much larger and stranger than the heroes can comprehend.
Adon spends the last third or so of the novel missing and presumed dead, and turns up at the end in a manner that feels contrived and handwaved. It’s one of the few sour notes in an otherwise reasonably well-executed plot; the author should have either had the courage to kill him off or deigned to provide a plausible way he could have survived.
I suppose the closest thing there is to a theme here is “Gods are dicks.” All of the antagonists are gods, but even the rest of the gods who briefly appear are characterized as a fractious bunch of spoiled brats who require Ao’s chastisement to actually do their jobs. This has been a recurring theme throughout this trilogy, what with all the badly-behaved deities and piteous wailing of abandoned humans, but the arbitrary nature of the divine scheme is particularly apparent in this one. We see unbelievers punished in the afterlife for no other reason than that they didn’t worship a god, or didn’t worship one well enough. In the end, Ao forces them to treat mortals with respect by tying their power to the belief of their followers, so that they’ll die if they neglect their flocks, and they do not take that news well at all.
As mentioned above, the villains in this one are vastly better than those of most of the books we’ve looked at so far. But the heroes, too, are reorganized in a way that feels more compelling than they were in previous books.
In the first two books, the three heroes formed a classic “optimist, cynic, realist” trio. Kelemvor was the cynic, with a callous outlook shaped by the curse which forced him to be cruel to people. Midnight was the optimist, always looking for the best in people and trying to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Adon, as the realist, was stuck in the middle mediating between them.
Problem is, this arrangement didn’t work very well from a story perspective. Kelemvor was sort of an unlikable dick, always calculating and pessimistic in a tiresome fashion. Midnight’s optimism manifested as an inability to accept that Cyric was evil, even when he was so obviously evil in the second book that the only thing he was missing was a moustache to twirl dramatically. Since she was the only one who couldn’t see that, it ended up making her look like an idiot. And Adon just didn’t have much to do except to side with one or the other in any given situation, so there were a lot of “and Adon was there too” moments.
By Waterdeep, though, the roles have switched. Kelemvor is the optimist — now that he’s free of his curse, he’s trying to make up for all the harm he’s done by helping everyone he can, even when it interferes with the quest or causes the other heroes considerable aggravation. Midnight is now the realist, with her optimism tempered by the atrocities she’s witnessed and the unarguable proof of Cyric’s perfidy. And Adon, having lost his faith in gods and men, is now the cynic who constantly badgers Kelemvor to abandon the immediate good in order to serve the greater good.
It’s a much sounder structure this way. Kelemvor is optimistic but not blindly so, and he’s got an understandable reason for his newfound chronic altruism, so it makes him much less of a dick and doesn’t feel like “stupid good” the way it did on Midnight. It’s refreshing to see Midnight without the excessive naiveté, which highlights how clever and resourceful she’s become. And Adon’s a cynic without being unpleasant about it — all of his arguments against Kelemvor stopping to help people are actually rather sensible given that it’s distracting them from saving the world. The upshot is that all of the characters, having experienced a significant amount of character development, have also sloughed off their most annoying qualities.
The intra-party conflict which this leads to is also more compelling. Should they take a break from saving the world to save some people they meet? Should they capture, kill, or try to save Cyric? There are no obvious right answers, and each character has a viewpoint that stems directly from their new roles and their backstories.
Cyric gets a number of good scenes as the leader of his company of Zhentilar deserters. He’s got a foil now, a world-weary lieutenant who gives a nice hint of grey to what would otherwise be a straight-up evil road trip, and a talking magical sword which makes an effective early antagonist of sorts and drives some good conflict at first before fading into the background. (The sword will later get retconned into an avatar of the god Mask for some bloody mad reason, but as of this novel it’s just a magic sword and things are still somewhat plausible.)
The supporting cast is decent. Sneakabout, a halfling whom they meet and travel with for a while, is well-characterized and sympathetically written, with his own well-explored motivations that don’t always overlap with those of the heroes. Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun makes his first non-cameo appearance in the Forgotten Realms novels, but he basically ends up being a brasher, ruder version of Elminster here, without the empathy and sense of humour he’ll demonstrate in later books.
The writing feels much stronger here than in the previous two books. The relationship between Midnight and Kelemvor, in particular, feels more natural and less arbitrary than before. They get frustrated with each other, communicate badly, spend a good chunk of the novel mad at each other — everything you’d expect from two strong, stubborn people who are in love but don’t know each other very well yet. All the characters interact in a more naturalistic way that involves rather more dialogue and less narration. The back half of the book is split between three different characters’ points of view, which has the unfortunate side effect of slowing the pacing to a crawl at times, but once Midnight and Kelemvor are reunited in Waterdeep the pace picks back up again in time for the finale.
I’m highly entertained by Denning referring to the Lords of Waterdeep as a “secret democratic council that governs the city.” It’s not quite clear what his qualifications for a functioning democracy are, then, since the Lords are actually a bunch of unelected autocrats who hide their identities from the people they rule.
Finally, a novel I don’t feel sketchy about awarding a B grade to! It’s not perfect — the pacing drags at points, Adon’s survival feels more preposterous than miraculous, and there are a few duds among the supporting cast — but it’s still a marked improvement over the previous couple of books.