Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Worst Book of the Year

Ed Greenwood is something of a living legend in RPG circles. Indeed, now that Gary and Dave have passed on, he's probably the biggest name we have left. Primarily, he's famous for creating the Forgotten Realms, the most expansive and most detailed RPG setting in existence. He's also the author of a great many novels, mostly set in those same Forgotten Realms.

I've read two of EG's novels, now. The first of these, "Spellfire", I read back when I was in my mid-teens, and it was the first time I realised something that has since been borne out too, too often: game-related fiction sucks. It's not a universal law, but exceptions are few and far between. (And, in fact, it applies to most licensed fiction - whether it's a TV series or movie, a computer game or RPG, or even something ghost-written with a celebrity's name on the cover, it almost certainly stinks. There are, of course, good reasons for that, but I digress.)

Over the past year or so, I've been reading through the "Pathfinder Tales", a series of, yes, game-related fiction. These have the key advantages that they're pretty undemanding reads, they're mostly pretty decent (within the confines of game-related fiction), and that they're a series of self-contained novels - this isn't the standard, never-ending fantasy epic. I'm not going to claim them as high art, of course, but they were entertaining enough.

Some months ago, I discovered that the "Pathfinder Tale" I was scheduled to read in November was "The Wizard's Mask", written by one Ed Greenwood. This did not fill me with confidence. Still, it's a series, and I wasn't going to read them all but one. Besides, maybe he'd improved in the quarter-century since "Spellfire"...

Or not.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the book did not start terribly well. We're introduced to the first of our two main characters, a sometime-thief who now wears a cursed mask that is gradually stealing his face away. That's pretty cool. And then the other, a halfling former-slave who is now hiding out in a turnip wagon.

Our halfling promptly finds herself on the run from the guards in the new town the wagon has arrived in because... well, for no real reason, actually. So, she runs, and runs, and runs. The chase scene goes on far too long, then ends in an absurdly unsatisfactory manner, and that's chapter one done.

The chase scene then picks up in chapter two, and carries on for the next hundred pages. Somewhere along the way, she encounters our masked friend, and hires him to protect her (because obviously the person to trust is some random guy you met on a rooftop while on the run, and obviously he'll agree to act as bodyguard for a paltry sum). Also, they pick up a nemesis, who is introduced almost literally as a deus ex machina, saves our protagonists for no apparent reason, and then tries at length to kill them, also for no good reason.

And then, after a hundred pages of chasing, we get to The Plot. Huzzah! Our heroes, and their nemesis, must travel to a dungeon and recover a treasure, just because. So, off they go. There then follow some wanderings, during which the nemesis suffers from a clear case of split personality: half the time, he wants to kill our heroes for no good reason; the other half he wants to recruit them to serve his nation, again for no good reason.

Meanwhile, there's a metronomic (but, of course, completely unexpected) set of ambushes. Seriously, the book almost literally has five pages of tedious 'characterisation', three pages of banter, and then ten pages of our heroes running away from arrows sent by either of two ill-defined armies. Huzzah!

Worse is yet to come, because when our heroes reach the dungeon, they are set upon by purple, magic-eating cats. No, really.

Now, that would be fine, if it were just a few pages in an otherwise-excellent book. However, it turns out that those cats are a critical plot device that will form a major part of the scenery for the final hundred pages of the book. Yay!

So, our heroes go through the dungeon, demonstrating just how badly traps are handled in most D&D adventures (seriously, you can practically hear the dice rolling, first for Perception and then for Disable Device). And then one of the characters loses a hand.

But not to worry, because for the rest of the novel, she suffers from a Schrodinger's limb. It would appear that the hand-loss was a late addition to the plot, because in the very next chapter she is said to throw something with both hands, while at another point she catches something with her spare hand.

And then the exciting climax of the novel, wherein our heroes run away from cats, while throwing the treasure from one to the other. Oh, and avoiding ambushes that occur exactly once a chapter.

This isn't a bad book. This is a book that makes "The Da Vinci Code" look inspired.

And, actually, that's something that's worth contemplating for a moment. Back when I read Dan Brown's great work, I came away convinced that a novel didn't need to be good, or even make sense, provided the whole thing was paced at a high enough speed. Keep people reading so fast they can't contemplate the nonsense of the plot, and you should be fine.

But "The Wizard's Mask" puts the lie to that, because it is paced very very fast, and that doesn't save it. It's just awful.

So, that's the worst book of the year. I would say "so far", but I really hope nothing else comes close...

#54: "The Wizard's Mask", by Ed Greenwood

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