Thursday, February 23, 2012

Elminster Must Die (Sage of Shadowdale book 1) review

Warning: A long meandering story about my youth ahead.

    As I've mentioned before on my blog, the Forgotten Realms are a critical part of my childhood. When I was a boy, I was a glutton for fantasy. Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels were my McDonalds and Burger King of ready-made epic fiction. The quality varied tremendously but, for the most part, all of them were entertaining and more than worth the five bucks per novel.

    The star of my two favorite series were Drizzt Do'Urden (as mentioned before) and Elminster of Shadowdale. For those unfamiliar with the Old Sage, he was the signature character of the Realms during the ancient bygone years of Second Edition Dungeons and Dragons. You know, when the pyramids were first being constructed but after the dinosaurs and First Edition. El was also the star of First Edition Forgotten Realms but that was so long ago no one remembers it but Liches and demigods. Goodness, that was released in the late 1980s.

    Who was Elminster? Elminster was, at least to my adolescent mind, the best wizard ever.

    Way back when, when Super Nintendo was the height of technology, me and my friends used to debate whether or not Elminster could take Raistlin Majere. It was the kind of discussion nerds held with the same esteem as Kirk vs. Picard. In my mind, it was no contest. After all, Dragonlance characters were restricted to 13th level and Elminster was 29th.

    Anyway, the Elminster novels by Ed Greenwood were awesome. I enjoyed them throughout my high school years and I am glad to see they're still coming out when I'm a (semi) mature adult. What makes Elminster such an appealing character? I think it's because Ed Greenwood remembered not to take himself too seriously when writing him. 

    Instead, Elminster is just serious enough that he's hilarious and poignant at once. For those of you unfamiliar with El's special brand of humor, the Old Sage is best described as a combination of Gandalf the Grey and Bugs Bunny. I wonder if Ed Greenwood knows how many lives he touched. I wouldn't say Elminster had quite the same affect on my developing morality system as Luke Skywalker or Optimus Prime but he deserves an honorable mention.

    A kind of trickster figure, Elminster is always trying to keep the Realms free by thinking three steps ahead of everyone else. In the Spellfire novels, Elminster served primarily as a quest-giver, world-weary and half-insane. In his later novels, Ed Greenwood chronicled Elminster's almost Hercules-like narrative of learning lessons in humility. All to become Chosen of Mystra, the Goddess of Magic. It wasn't Elminster's job to stop evil but it was his job to prevent magic from being abused by the psychotic mages populating the realms.

    Really, I wouldn't be as fond of Elminster if not for the fact that he was an important part of my home Dungeons and Dragons games. Countless hours were spent listening to the Dungeon Master imitate a faux Scottish accent as he sent us on all manner of adventures. Later, I would imitate the voice myself and try to capture Elminster's peculiar zaniness and tragedy. 

    Elminster Must Die is the first Elminster novel set within the post-Spellplague world. What's Elminster's condition? Pretty bad. He, Storm Silverhand, and the Simbul are all mad as hatters. Who are Storm and the Simbul?  Before Daeneyrs Targaryen, these two and their sisters were the white-haired fantasy heroines of choice.

    (A huge distinction if you know anything about the genre. White hair is about as common as golden irises for marking Chosen Ones.)

    Here, the last three Chosen of Mystra are forced to drain magical items in order to keep their sanity and even then only for a short while. They are hunted by many of their former allies, especially from the land of Cormyr. Ed Greenwood brings back many old favorites for this novel, including the ghosts of old favorites Alusair the Steel Regent and Vangerdahast.

    The central plot of the story follows Elminster trying to find a substitute for himself. His choice for this unpleasant task is his descendant, Amarune. Amarune is a mixed high-class stripper/prostitute meets cat burglar whose personality resembles the Black Cat of Spiderman fame. Amarune and her partner, Arclath Stormserpent, are caught up in Elminster's latest intrigue and end up having a friendly rivalry I am looking forward to reading more of.

    The Amarune sections are, arguably, more enjoyable than the Elminster ones. I'm always a sucker for sexy-funny female protagonists but I think the "ground's eye" view of life in the Forgotten Realms is fascinating. The people in the Realms have different attitudes towards the world from a class, social, and psychological standpoint in ways both subtle and profound. It's entertaining to get into their heads in a way that entering the mind of an archmage really isn't. After all, we expect their minds to be strange.

    What I liked about the book is that, while there's a main villain, he's not really the center of the plot. Elminster is in deep enough trouble that just about everyone in the world is looking for him. Most of these people are well-intentioned but want to inflict grievous bodily harm on our heroes, arguably for good reasons. The actual villain-villain, Manshoon (sort of the Cobra Commander of 2nd Edition Realms), only plays a small role in making Elminster's life worse.

    Manshoon doesn't have any deeper characterization than he did when he was a cackling sorcerer in my high school games but, the fun thing is, he doesn't have to. There's nothing wrong with world-domination obsessed evil doers, especially when there's more than enough moral ambiguity coming from the heroes of the novel.

    Yeah, I'm probably letting the nostalgia goggles color this review a lot. However, I think a big part of what will lure adult fans to these books is the fact that they grew up with the world of Abeir-Toril and its many creators. Just like the revived Transformers and G.I. Joe have received huge boosts from the fans, I'm hoping the same will occur with this series.

    The ending of the novel is a real shocker and will mean a lot to realms fans who were disappointed with the Fourth Edition changes to the Forgotten Realms. For those who are newcomers to the setting, the poignancy of Elminster's plight will probably be lost on readers. However, Amarune will be able to serve as a nice introduction for new readers in the place of Elminster himself.

    In conclusion, I highly recommend this novel to fans of the Forgotten Realms and still recommend it to be newbies. Elminster is, as always, funny and brilliant in his plots while the remaining characters manage to rise above the stereotypical archetypes found typically in fantasy. It's not a terribly serious novel but that's not its purpose. It's yet another chapter in a long-running series about the smartest man in a fantasy world who, sadly, has thought himself into a situation he's unable to think himself out of.


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