Friday, August 12, 2011

Downshadow by Erik Scott de Bie [Review] -- The Birth of a New Forgotten Realms Hero Franchise?

Earlier this year I wrote a brief review of Don Bassingthwaite's recent D&D Core World novel The Temple of the Yellow Skulls. In that review, I praised Bassingthwaite as a writer and discussed how the lack of mythological depth in D&D's Core World limited his ability to tell a compelling story. In any Fantasy tale, a rich backstory is a necessity for the creation of compelling stories. A good story requires interesting people doing interesting things in a rich and believable world. Bassingthwaite had two of those -- people and things -- but hadn't been given the third, nor it appears had he been given the freedom to create the third. One of the major limits of media tie-in fiction, as much as I enjoy the genre, are the confines provided by the milieu that the story is tied to. Wizards of the Coast has been, until recently, dedicated to keeping the Core World (aka the Nentir Vale, the Points of Light Setting, or PoL-and) as generic as possible in the hopes that adventures there will be useful to anyone playing in any game world. The lack of success of this experiment, and how it allowed competitors to fill a market desire, are fodder for future posts. Just let it be said that a sparse setting can stifle a writer's ability to tell a compelling story and the Nentir Vale was until recently a very sparse setting.

 The Forgotten Realms, where Erik Scott de Bie's 2009 novel Downshadow takes place, is another story entirely. The setting began as the brainchild of game designer and author Ed Greenwood long before there was a Dungeons and Dragons. The Forgotten Realms was Ed Greenwood's fantasy world, a world he wrote stories for and for which he eventually wrote several articles in Dragon magazine. Eventually, the Forgotten Realms became one of the major core settings for D&D and has had tens of thousands of pages devoted to its characters, its unique rules, its mythology, and its history. One can easily get lost perusing the Forgotten Realms wiki.

The Forgotten Realms is a rich and well developed setting that has endured for decades and has a devoted following.

Downshadow takes place in one of the major cities of the Forgotten Realms world, a city called Waterdeep. Since the God of Murder and Strife (Cyric) killed the Goddess of Magic (Mystra) over one hundred years ago, the Realms have been a place of chaos and despair. With Mystra's death, the Weave of Magic that surrounded the world shattered and much of it fell to the world infecting the world and its residents like a disease in an event called the Spellplague. This event -- and others -- changed the world forever. Many of the great heroes who once protected average citizens have died or been driven mad in the ensuing years. Waterdeep, a once great and wondrous city, was as greatly affected by the Spellplague. Both in terms of physical destruction and in becoming a refuge for those who were cursed by the Spellplague. These cursed individuals now live in a part of the city called the Downshadow, a city that lives under the city of Waterdeep. Strange and dangerous things lie all around the Downshadow in the form of monsters and traps of ancient magic, but strange and dangerous things live in Downshadow as well. Where there is civilization, there is crime and where the shadows are deep the criminal element is even more powerful.

The city watch of Waterdeep has formed a special Guard unit that is given the duty of protecting the citizens of Waterdeep from the dangers of Downshadow and with protecting the citizens of Downshadow, but even they cannot do enough. Aiding the brave members of the watch is a troubled vigilante named Shadowbane -- the main character of Downshadow. Shadowbane was once a beggar, thief, and murderer who had been both blessed and cursed by the Spellplague. He heals faster than most people and has near superheroic strength, agility, and stamina. He used these abilities for evil purposes in the city of Luskan until he met a Paladin who gave him faith in a higher purpose and who provided the young man with a legacy. Shadowbane went from a dark stalker on the edge of society and transformed into a shadowy vigilante who used his knowledge of how the criminal elements operate to combat them where they hide.

As one can imagine from the description above Downshadow is a combination Fantasy and Superhero adventure tale that owes a good deal to many prior stories. Reading the novel one can see the influence of Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Batman. Like the tales of these heroes, Shadowbane hides his real identity from many of those he loves and strives to balance his bloodthirsty nature against his need to provide justice for and not vengeance to those he hunts. The Spellplague has given him power, but it is also slowly killing him and removing his ability to feel physical sensations. This phenomenon is symbolic of his own growing emotional distance from those around him. Shadowbane must learn to love and protect, it is not enough to hide and avenge. And it is in the narrative of Downshadow that Shadowbane must make this choice.

The story of Downshadow is fairly simple. There is a criminal mastermind in town who wishes to stir up chaos in the aristocracy of Waterdeep and expand his influence. To do this he uses his provocateur protege Fayne to create scandalous situations and reveal the secrets of those who wish secrets kept. He also hires an assassin named Rath to eliminate those he cannot ruin. He seeks to ruin the High Priestess of Sune and to destroy Shadowbane whose vigilantism interferes too much with his machinations. Shadowbane must do his utmost to oppose the plans of the mastermind while discovering who he really is and what his true purpose will be. Into this struggle enters a mysterious young woman named Myrin. Myrin appears out of nowhere and has no memory of her own past, but it seems that she too has been touched by the Spellplague (or has she) and given abilities she cannot truly control.

Can Shadowbane stop the plans of the mysterious mastermind? Can he protect those he loves? Can he keep his secret hidden? Can he meet his destiny?

These are the questions that work themselves out in the novel, and the answer to the above questions isn't always yes.

Erik Scott de Bie meets the challenge of writing a compelling story while working within the constraints of a media tie-in novel. Though the tale is based on a D&D world, one rarely sees game mechanics leak into the storytelling. A major challenge a writer in a D&D novel faces is making the magic and action feel like the D&D setting without making it seem too much like a reader is reading mechanics out of a users manual like the Player's Handbook. de Bie demonstrates a deep knowledge of the Forgotten Realms setting and infuses the narrative with bits of history and mythology where necessary. Reading Downshadow, I very much felt that the story was taking place in a larger world that had a rich history. de Bie was able to convey information about Shadowbane's heretical Paladin order and the origins of the Spellplague without the information seeming overly expository. The exposition is presented narratively and only when necessary. The story is compelling and the outcome open enough to compel a reader to desire more. Shadowbane himself is a bit of a cipher, but his character does grow as the story progresses. He starts as a generic superhero, but by the end of the book readers are beginning to see the personality behind the mask. I am eager to see the character develop further. Many likable characters die in the story and there is a cameo or two from other Forgotten Realms tales that provide nice Easter Eggs.

The only flaw with the novel is that the narrative sometimes jumps from one scene to another in a mildly awkward way that caused me to double back and reread past passages to make sure I didn't miss any information. Given the breakneck pace of the book, these slight speed bumps interrupted the flow of the story. That said, I eagerly await the next novel in the Shadowbane series Shadowbane which is being released as an e-book exclusive this September.

POST REVIEW MUSINGS IN WHICH I TELL YOU ABOUT MY CHARACTER

The Shadowbane character is based on either the Shadowbane Inquisitor or Shadowbane Stalker class from the Complete Adventurer book for the 3.5 edition of Dungeons and Dragons, though there are some significant differences.

Shadowbane's sect is heretical because it believes that the essences of two dead gods are still active in the world, rather than the opinion that one god has taken over the "portfolios" of the dead gods.

Shadowbane reminded me of a fusion of the only two characters I have ever played in Forgotten Realms campaigns. The first was a 2nd Edition AD&D Paladin of Tyr who had the Swashbuckler kit from The Complete Fighter. How could one not want to be able to specialize in 4 weapons?! I have always been a fan of Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the Three Musketeers, so I really wanted to play a happy go lucky swashbuckling Paladin. Since Paladins had been typically portrayed as humorless, this was fun.

The other character was a Fighter/Mage/Thief I played in a Living Forgotten Realms campaign. The main character was a fop who investigated troubles with his brave companions, but who fled when the going got tough and let his "bodyguard" take care of all the meaningless little things like combat. This character required buy in from those who played in my group who had to separate character knowledge from player knowledge. Some tried to "cheat" to discover my secret or demonstrate that they "knew" my secret, but most of them discovered it made for better role playing moments -- humorous and dramatic -- to play along. Thus some of those who once "knew" my secret eventually "forgot" as well when they discovered how much fun ignorance could be.
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