Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Gaming Fiction Review - Corsair

This is the second book in the "Blades of the Moonsea" trilogy by Richard Baker which are some of the first books set in the 4E timejumped version of the Forgotten Realms. I reviewed Swordmage, the first book in the series here so you can look that over if you are interested. In short, I liked it and was looking forward to the next book.

Headline: This is another good story with a slightly different flavor than the last

As in the first book I found the writing level to be a step up from most D&D novels. Maybe it's just this author, maybe it's a deliberate move with this series, but for whatever reason it is refreshing.

The main character is again Geran Hulmaster and he is supported by his halfling friend and a tiefling warlock met in the prior book. The characters are not especially deep but Geran is reasonably well drawn for a fantasy protagonist. I would like more motivational insight and less of the "what he has done" type of internal discussion but this is a very minor nitpick. He is mainly motivated by a desire to preserve his family's holding and his friends' safety which is good enough. His friend Hamil is a classic loyal sidekick and not much more while Sarth the tiefling warlock is enigmatic at best, speaking little and revealing less. I would like to see a little more of Sarth's background in the next book or in a completely separate book about him.

The story in this one begins soon after the end of Swordmage. In Swordmage the main character returns home after a long absence, discovers some trouble at home, then discovers even more trouble at home, and manages to resolve both by the end of the book, telling a complete story. I'm being vague to avoid spoilers, but the general arc is that in the end he has resolved the immediate threats to his home but other threats and loose ends remain.In this book, the rising threat is piracy, in particular one group of pirates. Another more subtle threat develops in the background and comes to prominence at the end of the story and will presumably be the focus of book 3. The anti-piracy story however is the main focus of the book and it is a good one. Duels on deck, chases at sea, journeys to a weird new land, ramming speed, and haunted ruins all make an appearance. The latter third of the book in particular felt a lot like some of the 70's era fantasy involving "weird" fantasy ala Elric and some of the stranger places he visited, and I mean that in a good way. I really liked this element and it's the first time I've felt that way about a D&D novel.

The villains both old and new are interesting and have realistic enough motivations in that what they do makes sense. They also are not stupid and do not constantly fail - it's nice to see some of the badguys' plotting actually work out as intended. There are 3 main villains and unlike in some novels they are all distinct and I don't think the reader will have any trouble keeping track of who is who - I felt it was worth mentioning as this is not always the case where evil wizards or priests pile up interchangeably over the course of a novel. This is not the case here.

The resolution of the story is satisfying and has an almost Empire Strikes Back feel to it - major goals are accomplished but significant setbacks are also in place, kind of like Empire. This is also the middle part of a trilogy, like Empire. This is not a bad thing, just an observation. The third book should be interesting.

This is a D&D novel so how does that part work? In short it's good. I like to nitpick game-based novels that don't follow the rules of their own universe but I don't see any of that here. It feels like a high-heroic to low paragon level type adventure. There are no super-powered magic items, no weird powers coming out of nowhere, and monsters behave the way they should according to what we know of them from the monster manuals. Also, let me repeat what I said in the first review:

 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.

I really like that this has continued. It shows that there are other things going on in the wide world of the Forgotten Realms besides the standard villain groups and the heroes that oppose them. More books like these can only improve the Realms as a vast, diverse world where anything can happen and it doesn't always require a deity or an epic-level hero to start it or end it.

So, this is a good story about a hero and his companions taking care of business and expanding their horizons a bit as they try to protect their friends and family from danger within and without and it's one of the best D&D novels out there.  I am really looking forward to the next book.

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