#043 Shadows of Doom by Ed Greenwood (Shadow of the Avatar 1)
Read 8/1/20 to 11/1/20
Right then, it took me a while to get going with this one, I picked it up on the third day of reading and I was only on page 38... which is not a good sign. But... but then I read the rest of the book in a flash, and there seemed to be a reason for that.
The first 50 or so pages (and the last 50) could almost be from somewhere else. It's a slow start to Ed Greenwood/Elminster's take on the Time of Troubles (which this book isn't)- the gods are out their heaven's and stalking the land, magic is fading or else gone wild, and Elminster is having to carry a great big chunk of Mystra's load (her raw power).
So, it begins with much oddness, let me explain-
1) Sexuality, every woman we meet is somehow attracted (in some way) to the tall and thin Mr. Mage that is Elminster. More than that the lady knight (Storm) is wont to do her weapon training sans any upper body protection, or indeed sans anything on her upper body at all- au natural. She spars with our pair of Harper heroes and we are treated to a flurry of innuendo, 'swords gripped tight in hand', 'twin orbs' etc. that kind of thing. There's a lot of this, and much kissing throughout, and waking to find the millennial mage has thrown an arm over his sleeping female companion. It's not massively inappropriate just more than a little jarring (at times), and slightly creepy at other times.
2) Ego, everyone- and I mean everyone from Mystra down is happy to queue around the block to tell us how great Elminster is, and that he's the man, the one, the grand fromage. It gets a little grating after a while, Elminster doesn't say this kind of thing, although there's a little hubris here and there, but Mr Greenwood is keen to let us know how great his mage is- goddesses, and young beautiful warrior knights, gather to mourn (light candles and sway hypnotically) when Elminster goes missing. It's a bit...
3) Emotional, everyone for a bit (at the start) is 'cast down to the darkest place, where feint hope fear not to tread', or some such. Elminster goes for a walk in the woods, and soon after is reported missing. Even the five year old little girl he meets in the woods is left low by the great mage's words and passing. It's all a bit teenage angsty, with the dark cubby-holes of the mind probed for shadows prior to the tears and the forlorn wailing.
So, there's a lot of this in the first fifty or so pages, too much- we get it. Elminster is the rock star mage that all women (of all ages) want to be with, he's better than the gods because he's so... sexy? Cool? Powerful? He's so... ELMINSTER!
Then all that stops, or at least just goes away- Elminster heads off in to the woods, now that his magic is bust, and the next thing you know he and Sharn (female Knight of Myth Drannor- a looker, of course) find a gate, then some Zhent, and then they go through the gate and find a lot more Zhent. Suddenly we're in the High Dales and the Zhent have usurped power there, the people are enslaved and/or mostly broken. Thank Elminster that Elminster has arrived to save the day.
Oh, and the plot- such as it is, has at last turned up.
It seems so random, sure we get a cut scene earlier in which Manshoon gurns at some of his Beholder chums as the head of the Zhentarim learns that magic has gone all awry, but the troubles in High Dale seem totally disconnected from the Time of Troubles, and Elminster's arrival unplanned, its all a bit random.
That said the next 200+ pages race by, Elminster & Sharn- followed in to action by the sword-practicing Harper heroes conjure not spells but revolution. There's a pile of great action here, nice stories- and some great insights in to the lives of the down-trodden, and for that matter the machinations of the Black Network petty tyrants. Great stuff, the battle for High Castle is fantastic- Greenwood has a way with these kinds of confrontations, it's visceral and terrible- folk are sick, and scream. Not because they're dying or being slaughtered, but because they're terrified and are being forced to fight- to kill, it's a lot better than many of the other novels in this regard. The bad things that the good people have to do in order to achieve the end goal- the guilt that haunts them... again, all great.
Then there's another odd section at the end, the fight is over in High Dale and the heroes have lead the common folk to victory- suddenly we're whisked away to Spellgard, and soon after a series of 'final' confrontations with a succession of Zhent magelings, culminating in the arrival of the big Kahuna. Manshoon himself turns up for the final showdown- it's all very exciting (which makes it much easier to ignore all the continued kissing, flattery and the now slightly less creepy sexual chemistry on display) the intro and the action with the (sexy- in an undead sorta way) female Archlich is particularly good.
But, save for the odd bit of failed magic- and Elminster's failure to hurl spells there's little made of the Time of Troubles, and the Zhent's taking of High Dale, and the latter attacks in Spellgard, all seem remarkably disconnected.
If you asked me what was the book about, I'd answer you with one word- Elminster.
It's good, great in places- but a day later and I still can't make the plot sit right in my head- Elminster just wandered in to the woods (to hide his broken magic) and ends up leading a revolution and defeating the head of the Zhent. No plans, no plot- the reader/writer just dives in to the battle for freedom.
Last bit- there are plenty of strong male, but mostly female, characters here- which is great, strong women in Fantasy Fiction are good, particularly back then- but they're all in various stages of enamoured with our guy. Which is less helpful for the genre/sex, I think.
Elminster himself is very cool throughout, although at times prosaic, at other times surly(-ish) and always on the look out for a little more sugar in his life. As I say, a bit- how to put it nicely- creepy. Perhaps I'm reading it wrong, too sensitive- maybe it's just a rip-roaring lark in which the heroes (as always) eventually defeat the dark side.
It's odd, and there's more to come.
Last, last bit, it's also hard to read because there's a lot of High Realmsian language, Greenwood has a different word for everything- a Realmsian language which is unexhibited in almost all of the other novels, this is interesting and tiring in equal measure. On the whole I'm more positive about the use of language here, there are phrases that Elminster (and others characters) use that I will take in to my game. But, you need to get used to it, to build up a tolerance, while at the same time learning to smile wanly as another Realmsian phrase is uttered- "hence, many wonders for your seeing eyes bedeck the pages of this august and telling novel, which dipped in twilight searches for naught but the stars."
That kind of thing- makes it a bit harder to read at times, just sometimes.