Monday, May 31, 2010

The Conqueror’s Shadow: A D&D Novel that is Different

Like many gamers that started reading fantasy in the 80's my first experience (after The Hobbit) was TSRs line of Dungeons & Dragons shared world novels like Dragons of Autumn Twilight and R.A. Salvatore's Crystal Shard. As pretentious as it sounds, I out grew these stories set in their ridged worlds that evolved with the next gaming supplement that was put out and moved on to the older, richer history of fantasy fiction. Not to say that there were no gems in that mound of dead tree pulp, only that I moved away from it. So it was with expectation and trepidation that I picked up The Conqueror's Shadow by Ari Marmell. This is his first novel that featured his own setting, as he had been writing novels for Wizards of the Coast. Fortunately for him he proved that his writing skill did not come just from the "setting bible" given by the publisher of his previous works.

The Conqueror’s Shadow follows Corvin Rebaine, the once Terror of the East seventeen years after his failed bid to conquer his nation. Now a new force has risen, called The Serpent, he slithers across the land with an army of mercenaries and undead to finish the job Corvin failed to; following Corvin's own battle plans in his bid for power. Corvin dons his skull and bone armor once more and gathers old allies to aid him. He realizes that the war will be at his door step and this foe threatens the domestic retirement he cherishes. Corvin regains the power and allies he once possessed, fighting with himself not to become the man he had been before, yet yearning to do so because of his deep seated belief that he could rule far better than the collection of guilds and nobles that spend more time bickering with each other than dealing with the threat that is before them.

Marmell's world, characters, and plot are well woven; an enjoyable tapestry of pulp and high fantasy. I have my usual nit picks, but the one thing that I was looking for I found only hints of and that is simply a pastiche of his work that came before. So many writers allow the shared world concepts of their previous novels to influence their own world setting. He seemed to avoid this pitfall and made the story impactful and relevant with the omission.

My chief nit picks stem from his writing style itself, the characters are all sarcastic and snipping. Everyone wants to be a wiseass, from demons to trolls, to the "heroes" that stand against Rebaine. Admittedly I chuckled out loud at the humor for my own wise-assery knows no bounds. But it did get tiresome when every conversation is in this vein. As well as the modern speech patterns for the characters; it was jarring to the world setting. As always I fall back on a caveat: The author's intent, or simply style, is very similar to Karl Edward Wagner who wrote the Kane novels in the '70s. Wagner wrote the characters speaking as we do in a sense, because to the characters in their time, that is how they would sound to one another, as we do in conversation. I just prefer a more immersive reading experience.

That said there was far more that I enjoyed in this novel to easily overlook any failing I may have found with it. Marmell has successfully written a sympathetic villain (read: anti-hero) in Rebaine. He has broken from the tropes of the deep seated evil that many fantasy villains carry, and without Rebain serving some dark god or blood thirsty agenda. The Terror earns his name, but is rationalized and, in a chilling way it makes sense. He hates what he must do, but he is driven by what he sees as a clear purpose that will one day benefit those he must first harm. How many tyrants in reality felt the same? This makes him flesh and blood and not a caricature with a curled mustache and black hat. The supporting characters are as well fleshed out with personal motivations and various reasons to hate Rebaine. The battles that are fought are not as detailed as I like, but this story is character driven so that is easily forgiven by me as a reader.

As much as I try to support writers with my dollars by buying their books I was put off by the writer's resume, I had been burned too many times by shared setting writers that could not stand alone, so I picked this novel up at the library to satisfy my curiosity. I regret that I did so, because at the very least I would have picked this book up in soft cover and thought my self well served by the money I spent. Perhaps I still will when it comes out. So to those who want to support a writer that can write and is not simply banking on past success and carry over fandom pick up The Conqueror’s Shadow.

(I dedicate this article on this Memorial Day to my grandfather and my father, Richard served in Europe in WWII, receiving two purple hearts. Raulston Sr. served in Vietnam, leaving a wife and a son on the way. Both men were reluctant warriors that served their country with honor. They were called and they answered. Their memories have always been the moral compass that guides me.)

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