This time I'm reviewing one of the newer D&D books - Swordmage, by Richard Baker. It's labelled "Blades of the Moonsea Book 1" but it is a standalone story and I have not read the rest of the series. It came out in 2008 and is apparently up to a trilogy as of right now.
Headline: This is actually a good story and a good D&D book.
I have not read any other novels by Richard Baker but I will look for more. I found the writing to be a little more adult than in the older D&D novels I have read, which is a good thing. It's set in Hulberg, a small city on the Moonsea. I have a soft spot for the Moonsea going back to Pool of Radiance and that's one of the things that drew my attention to this book. It's also the first novel set in the current 4th edition version of the Forgotten Realms after the spellplague and all the other changes including an 80-year timeline jump. So the setting appeals to me in several ways.
The main character is Geran Hulmaster, the titular swordmage, and we meet him in an interesting prologue in Myth Drannor. Circumstances ensue, and the story begins with him returning to Hulberg after a long absence after hearing of the death of a friend. It turns out the Hulmasters are the ruling family of this small barony and he is a lesser son of this small noble family. As you might guess some things have happened during his absence and he gets involved, albeit somewhat reluctantly. The opposition is intelligent and a nice mix of supernatural and simple conventional self-interest and greed and there are multiple opposing forces, not one over-arching super-baddie.
What's refreshing is what it's not: It's also not a Zhent plot, not a Bane plot, not some weird new supervillain-esque shape-changing creature from another plane, it's not Cyric attempting to subvert the goddess of magic or Nethereese or Red Wizards or Drow or any of the other overused meta-plot bad guys from the swirling vortex of bad Forgotten Realms novels. There are no harpers. Elves have only a minimal influence on the story - primarily the training of the title character as Swordmages are an Elven thing. No Elminster. No Dracoliches. No Seven Sisters. No personal appearances by gods of any kind.
So if you would like to read a decent story about a normal D&D character type hero handling local problems in an interesting corner of the Realms threatened by local bad guys, then you will find this to be a good read.
Main Characters: Very nicely done. The motivations make sense and are not divinely inspired, the result of a curse, or imposed by an outside party. He's made a bad decision or two in the past and thinks about them at times but isn't tortured unreasonably by them. He's good at what he does but not unbeatable and not invulnerable.
Supporting Characters: Interesting and capable on their own, from the traveling companion to Geran's extended family they do have some distinct personalities. Sarth is not especially well defined but he is probably the smallest supporting role so I'm not terribly upset about it.
Plot: Impressive. Certain things I expected but I was regularly surprised by the timing of events and by some things that didn't happen that seemed to be inevitable. After reading many many fantsay novels, many of them terrible, I am rarely surprised by plot elements but I really like the way this one worked out and I was impressed by the way it all wrapped up. Not every plot hook was wrapped up by the end - there is clearly room for a sequel or two - but it came to a satisfying conclusion.
Action Scenes: Well done. The fights seem like they could happen in a game of D&D (important when writing a story based on a game) and the descriptions of the sword magic is well done - it could be useful to a player playing one in a campaign. There are some big battles in the book as well and they are well done too. I felt there was a Lord of the Rings movie influence at work but that is not a bad thing in my mind.
Resolution: Excellent. Many plots are resolved, some conflicts are settled, enough to feel like a complete story is in this book but with plenty of them left for further sequels. Nothing ridiculous happens to provide a convenient out for any major character, no deus ex machina or uncalled for deific intervention in other ways either.
Overall: Impressive. I'll be looking for the sequels now.