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Monday, March 11, 2024

Review: Bound for Ruin by Jaleigh Johnson

 For some reason the new novel has an insanely long title Dungeons & Dragons: The Fallbacks: Bound for Ruin. This first part is of course the IP, where traditionally Forgotten Realms would have gone. The Fallbacks is the series name, and hopefully we do get sequels. These suggests a shift in Forgotten Realms fiction, one that feels more like game fiction rather than fantasy fiction that also happened to be for a game. Bound for Ruin is the actual title and how I will refer to it.

Following up the movie-tie-ins released last year, this is the first Forgotten Realms novel besides that is not Drizzt since the novel line was discontinued in 2016. It is the first not attached to other media, and maybe a sign the much beloved novel line will see revival. That remains to be seen as one or three novels hardly counts, and neither does the eternal [mediocre] Legend of Drizzt.

Can this band of mismatched misfits stay together in the face of danger? Or are they bound for ruin?

Released on 5 March 2024 readers will find themselves with a novel more along the lines of the movie tie-ins, as stated above, it is very obviously game fiction. I generally enjoy how I can ignore that in older FR stories, but utilize pieces in my games however I like. This is almost certainly not Johnson's call but whoever is in charge of the novel. So, it smacks of emasculated 5e lore, set on the Sword Coast, a cute pet version of an aberration and so forth,

Though cheesy it's not bad (and hopefully leads new releases of novels I so love). The length is wonderful, and I'm glad the novel is not bloated like much fantasy is these days. The characters are many, certainly going for a party like around the gaming table. I've read a few that feel similar to this but not so much like equivalents to a paper stat block. But we have Tess, labeled so much on the nose as "The Rogue"; Anson "the Fighter"; Cazrin "the Wizard"; Baldric "the Cleric" (his getting spells from multiple gods seems alright since everyone in the Realms worships each deity, but it also feels very wrong as that's not how patronage or priesthoods work and it makes deity look for dumb in a very modern, obnoxious, ignoring alignment way); Lark "the Bard"; and the oytugh is fine though awfully silly (and ironic since in my current campaign the party just slayed one). The "party" even has no name as "they haven't agreed on one yet". Sounds like tabletop shenanigans but does set up some room for some good identity forming. While something like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser was silly like much D&D devolves into, it didn't feel like parody.

The plot is about getting a job to become famous and rich. The party finds disaster instead. This starts in a ruined Oghma temple, I was very happy the patron deity was named immediately. I appreciate the in medias res start, it is interesting from the start, though it starts in the Sword Coast (surprise surprise, WotC forgot other parts of the Realms exist). 

We see mind flayers, a lich, shambling mounds, rust monsters, and things more extraordinary; mentions of Selune and Oghma, Tyr and Kelemvor; Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep, plus mentioning of other places along the Sword Coast or in the Sea of Swords; the Zhentarim are a main antagonistic force. I particularly enjoyed the mention of Marsember and Valindra Shadowmantle! Volo, monks of Candlekeep, Beregost, and more to be happy with here.

The characters aren’t all the best of buds, considering this is their first gig together. Anson and Tess were friends beforehand, but otherwise, they had to build the party, this is shown in some flashbacks and the obvious result will be The Fallbacks. There are some characters that are non-binary-gendered.

Having Tessalynde be overweight is a nice change of pace on representation but you don't see it much in fantasy for similar reasons you didn't lots of overweight people in the classic or medieval periods, or even up until a handful of decades ago, there weren't many. Maybe Faerun has heavily processed foods and an exceptionally sedentary lifestyles? It's a little bit jarring since she's an elf, too, but she actually seems the most athletic of the group.

So beyond the parody this feels like, Johnson does a good job. I do worry that every future installment will be drivelous in this satirical fashion. I want stories that feel part of a world, not some fictionalization of a game. You could always peak beyond the pages to the rulebook or dice in some novels but most were obscured and felt like a real world: again this feels like a parody of that. I think this is more excusable as it’s really a young adult novel. If you like family getting involved in things they shouldn’t, or questioning your place with friends, or terrible monsters made cute then you’ll probably like this. But the parody works better in the film, probably not at some objective standard but because what the novels were before. Those new to the novels likely won’t mind.

But for all my complaints I support this novel. I'm glad we have another Forgotten Realms novel. I'm glad it's Jaleigh Johnson who wrote novels before the line was axed and so knows the Realms. If this is all we get I would be a little disappointed in the style but I would take it over nothing, or what is even worse, just Drizzt. Maybe they’ll even try to capitalize on Baldur’s Gate 3's success. 

I should point out my criticisms are for WotC rather than the quality of the novel, this is actually a fun novel and Johnson should be commended for a job well done and doubly for keeping the novel line for the Forgotten Realms alive! 

Honestly the cheeky reference to Alias of Westgate in chapter ten was golden and that alone is worth a Good rating. Alone those lines are the songs the bard actually sings. I appreciate this over “they sang a song”.


You can track my current progress here.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Review: Realms of Valor

Realms of Valor is the first of the Forgotten Realms anthologies, edited by James Lowder and released in 1993. Each story has an accompanying piece of artwork. This is decently common but was certainly a nice touch. These pieces are done by Ned Dameron; Clyde Caldwell did the cover. I've previously reviewed Realms of the Deep, Realms of War, The Halls of Stormweather, and The Best of the Realms II. If you would rather watch or listen to this review, click here.

“The Lord of Lowhill” by Douglas Niles

Pawldo A halfling exits his home in a hill, like a hobbit hole. This is on the Moonshaes, Niles stomping ground for his Moonshae and Druidhome novels. Our Tolkien-esque hero braves the Palace of Skulls. Pawldo is an aging halfling, grey of hair and Lord Mayor of Corwell. He contemplates his duties and a gift he can give to the king and queen in token of their friendship and the couple's anniversary. This is tied to the Moonshae Trilogy and by certain roles certain characters have it is likely best to read after those books. In fact, it released a month before the last of the Druidhome trilogy, The Druid Queen. It may be best read in publication order but I have yet to read Niles' novels.

The story itself involves an item found in the Llyrath Forest, where the Castle of Skulls only appears once in a generation around the Summer Solstice. This reminded me of a Fane in a forest lake in the Erevis Cale books, and it’s a fun trope. There is a dark character here, Ketheryll. Pawldo also has a companion, Stefanik, and there is also a wolf companion. There is good Tolkien-esque changing of legend too, as this Palace has a few accounts of its origin. 

“Elminster at the Magefair” by Ed Greenwood is a classic. We start with Storm Silverhand who is traveling with the physically unimpressive Elminster. They have been traveling by horse for some time, the two enjoying each other’s company rather than using spellcraft to teleport. They go to a magefair, an auspicious event that is exactly what it sounds like. This epigraph that introduces the story tells us what to expect: “What’s more dangerous than a mage out to rule the entire world? Why, a mage at play, of course…” - The Simbul.

The duo meet an arrogant mage on the road, he is sentinel to the fair and cries a challenge to Elminster. The exciting yarn only goes more into a silly romp, the campiness and immolation Greenwood is known for and does well. Storm is mostly a bystander since she is not a mage herself. Elminster enjoys the journey more than Storm, and we get her irony wryly. You can imagine how dangerous, but full of wonders, such an event is. Elminster desires a key and this gives the story nice twists.

“One Last Drink” by Christie Golden is another classic. Taking place in Mistledale in 892 DR, this an early story of Jander Sunstar from Vampire of the Mist. About 300 years after the start of his undead and life and 200 before his time in Barovia. Our vampire sun elf waits in the town for his sire, Cassiar. With his friend, fellow elf Rhynn Oriandis, a Rider of Mistledale, he is worried that his master will force him to drink blood from innocents. He uses the opportunity of somewhat powerful patrons in the Black Boar Inn to rid himself of the man who turned him into a creature of the night. 

This is a tale of darkness and hierarchy and curses and friendship. I’ve always liked vampires and particularly the trope of a vampire who is saddened by his or her state as one. Jander is a good exemplum because he is a Sun elf and also worshipped Lathander, the Morninglord, before his vampire days. 

“The Bargain” by Elaine Cunningham is a tale of Arilyn Moonblade and Danilo Thann. The latter is a young Waterdhavian noble and the former is a half elf. Both are Harpers at this time. Arilyn is also an assassin and Danilo a mage, albeit a poor one. Their relationship is fun, and you can explore it in Cunningham’s Songs & Swords novels. I have yet to read them but I have heard nothing but high praise. I have read the short stories “Redemption” and “The Great Hunt” starring them. Apparently, it takes place a few months prior to the novel Elfsong, the second of the series.

It takes place in Tethyr as the duo are sent to warn Pasha Balik, a warlord vying for the throne, of a plot on his life. It turns out that there is a lesson for a youth within the pages. 

“Patronage” by David Cook is told in first person, which is a nice change of pace. Master Koja is our narrator and he is told by his secretary that Duke Piniago’s dinner is tonight. He is a lama, a well-known historian. They are in Procampur sometime after the Tuigan horde was stopped. Such events tie into the Horselords novel also written by Cook. 

This story is a bit slower as you can guess when our main character is surrounded by parchment and ink. It’s a cozy one. 

“A Virtue by Reflection” by Scott Ciencin is set in Arabel and follows Myrmeen Lhal like Ciencin’s novel The Night Parade. It starts with a mugging of a merchant on the streets, setting up a dark tone. 

Myrmeen is the ruler of Arabel, a city in northeastern Cormyr. She is expecting a delegation but has to deal with a murder anyway. This story involves the Cat Lord, not Gord nor the one from the comics. 

“King’s Tear” by Mark Anthony starts with a necromancer in the southern portion of the Sunset Mountains. This necromancer, Kelshara, shows herself to be cruel and we then learn what a King’s Tear is: a jewel said to be solidified tears of ancient kings and they supposedly reveal what those kings loved most. Kilshara wants the Tome of Midnight and hopes to find it within the Tears. 

Tyveris is a handyman at Everard Abbey, which gives patronage to Oghma and is named for the ancient Farseer king. Tyveris was originally a slave and then a warrior in Iriaebor. He has recently learned to read and taken up a more peaceful life. Still, he is an outsider and many at the abbey worry he will give in to rage at some point. 

We get a story about necessity, violence, and truth. It’s a nice tale about finding home and overcoming vices. 

“The Family Business” by James Lowder. This is the story of young Artus Cimber, who appears in Lowder’s Ring of Winter novel. Artus is with his father Shadowhawk who is teaching his son to be a highwayman. This is in Cormyr and Azoun may come into play. It’s a very interesting story of trying to please your father. 

This has a tiny amount of politicking but is largely a story of running from assassins and defining a young man’s future.

“Grandfather’s Toys” by Jean Rabe starts with a druid, Galvin, and involves characters from Rabe’s Red Magic novel. Galvin is asked to search an old tower for a little girl. He finds it more challenging and dangerous than he had presumed. 

This is a tale of shape-shifting, saving a child, and parlousness in so doing.

“The Curse of Tegea” by Troy Denning is a very exciting tale as it is about cleric of Mystra, Adon. This is the same character from the Avatar Saga, the only one of the party not to attain godhood. This tale is mentioned in the last Avatar novel, but it’s nice to actually read it. Adon, once a follower of Sune is now high in the clergy of the Church of the Lady of Mysteries. He is joined by young acolyte Corene. 

The village of Tegea is suffering from a curse. This is on the edge of Cormyr, in the Stormhorn Mountains on the coast of the Dragonmere, though Denning mistakenly says it’s in the Dragonjaw Mountains. 

This is fun story dealing with church business. The curse is from an overbearing Duke and affects those that displease him. This magic of his seems to overpower that of Mystra, the goddess of magic herself. 

“Dark Mirror” by R. A. Salvatore is the final story and is of course a Drizzt story. After the retaking of Mithral Hall in Streams of Silver, Drizzt has been invited to Silverymoon. It seems to be near the ending of The Halfling’s Gem. On his way he encounters an odd situation between goblins and humans from Pengallen. 

It is told in first person from Drizzt’s perspective. Rico and Nojheim are interesting characters, and good foils. This experience definitely seems to have stayed with Drizzt as it reminds me of some mercy he wanted to give to goblins in Sea of Swords. It is okay as a story.

This story also appears in The Collected Stories collection for the Legend of Drizzt.

Afterword by Jeff Grubb. I read this piece when I acquired the book a couple years ago. It was here that Grubb mentions “One Comes, Unheralded, to Zirta”, the first Forgotten Realms story. While it was lost at the time it must have been later found, a decade later it appeared in The Best of the Realms II: The Stories of Ed Greenwood. It’s a worthwhile read but in the back rather than being a foreword for those who don’t care. 

Overall I very much enjoyed the anthology. It has some great stories but these are accompanied by more mediocre fair. It is a Good one, either the whole thing or whatever individual tales pique your interest.


You can track my current progress here.