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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.

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