There's a maxim used by authors that says that you should never base a fantasy novel on a roleplaying campaign. Why? After all, dungeon masters have to create in a similar way to writers of fantasy novels, with similar skills needed in character creation and world building. Well, here's a textbook example to discuss, because author John Paul Ried is an avid gamer, an experienced dungeon master and now the author of three books in an ongoing series of fantasy novels, which he freely admits are set in a world that he built for AD&D campaigns. And, had I not known that because I've chatted with John about it or because I read the acknowledgements before the novel, it's completely obvious.
All the good here comes out of the creative juices that are shared by DMs and authors, most obviously a strong vision of world building. Ried clearly knows the land of Palamar like it's his own back yard and he can visualise it as he sets his characters about their business within it. He also knows the characters well, having inhabited their skins or directed their actions. In particular, he's played Oliver Wendell Enalan in campaigns and, looking at story arcs, that's hardly surprising either.
All the bad here comes out of the differences between games and novels. In a game, everything has to be oriented around rules, goals and decisions, because that's how things work. Rules are set to define what is possible or impossible, goals are set to guide the players and decisions determine how they move. Novels need rules too but every character needs a goal, not just those being played, and decisions can have much more subtle effects than are usually the case in a game. That especially applies when those decisions are about life or death.
I enjoyed this novel, but I enjoyed it because of the passion that was clearly poured into it. Ried is a man with a twinkle in his eye and he's obviously having a blast letting these stories flow out of his virtual pen onto the printed page. That passion is contagious and I often found myself grinning while reading. That isn't to say that I didn't have a whole slew of problems with this book but we'll get into that soon enough.
At heart, this is a game of thrones, because everything thus far revolves around the battle for the Ruby Throne of the Palamaran Empire, which sits in Paladon City. The much respected Emperor John Cardillion III has died, after a long and successful reign, but his talents at running an empire clearly didn't extend to his family, as his four sons promptly fall to bickering about succession. Each is willing, even eager, to wage war to claim what they believe can only be theirs, everyone and everything else be damned, and the Medford family is stuck in the middle. They're obviously the focus because, as much as Ried talks about the Palamaran Adventures, the label on the front of the book is the Medford Family Chronicles.
There are two key Medfords as we begin. One is Thomas Wilson Oakley, Earl of Medford, Lord Chancellor of the Council of Earls and Supreme Commander of the Imperial Guard Legion. The other is his eighteen year old daughter, the beautiful Lady Christina Cecilia Medford, whom he plans to marry to whichever Cardillion son manages to seize the throne.
In gaming terms, these four sons are respectively a cleric, a warrior, a mage and a thief, each of whom is drawn almost entirely from one easily delineated characteristic.
Prince Philip Canalon Cardillion is first to act. He's the thief, a successful businessman in Paladon City, who plans to seize the throne through fraud, promises and bribes, not to mention a prompt assassination attempt against Lord Medford so as to take over the Imperial Guard. It fails, of course, and Medford sends in the Guard to forcefully arrest him, then raid his estate for valuables and burn it to the ground.
Arch Cleric Samalek serves the Fire God Zemelon, whose compound is in Paladon City. He's a religious fanatic who is more than ready to kickstart a holy war to purge the empire of magic and heresy. Medford sets up this cult as the destroyers of Canalon's estate and has its leadership arrested for treason. His goal is to prompt a riot, which the Guard will suppress, leaving a second faction weakened.
Field Marshal David Nordan, the warrior, is a brutal and militaristic leader who withdraws his armies from the war that they're already fighting so that they can fight his instead; they march on Paladon City with the aim of sacking it and taking the throne by force. At this point, we're wondering what 'brutal and militaristic' might mean, after seeing what Medford has already got up to with Canalon and Samalek.
Finally, there's Wizard Baron Richard Lothar Cardillion, a powerful mage at Gamemasters University, an institution dedicated to exploring all parallel dimensions for new games to play. Under the leadership of headmaster Thedkhan Utas, they all promptly leave Paladon City for the province of Senaria, which they are seceding from the empire, with the goal of returning once everything has calmed down.
As you can tell, there's not a lot of subtlety here. Ried focuses in on a turbulent moment in time and sets a batch of archetypes at each other's throats with a city and an empire as their backdrop. This is a lot of fun on a macro scale. It's also a lot of fun at the micro scale because these larger than life characters are busy folk who never seem to do anything that isn't eventful. There are many more than just those I've mentioned, as Ried's cast of characters is expansive and many of them get their turns in the spotlight.
For instance, Oliver Wendell Enalan, the character with whom Ried identifies in his acknowledgements, has connections to many different subplots and grows substantially, from a minor wizard who drinks at the Drunken Kitty Kat Tavern to... well, you'll have to read on, but Ried does spoil part of that discovery by listing the discovery of his 'latent psionic abilities' in the back cover blurb. I enjoyed Enalan a lot, because he has a lot more opportunity than more important characters stuck playing the roles given to them. He can grow and he does. Other favourite characters do likewise. Many don't.
Unfortunately, most of those eventful moments don't stand up to much scrutiny. In a game, that's fine because we make our decisions, experience the ramifications and move on. In a novel, there's a need for more care in the details to make sure that everything holds up and remains consistent.
For instance, there's a point where a talented nine year old does something important and is recognised for his deeds. No problem there, but he's promptly given a suit of armour that fits him like a glove. Now, do they keep suits of armour on the rack for nine year olds in Paladon City or do they just construct them overnight? The big picture here is great, emotional and rewarding. The little picture makes no sense at all.
And that happens a lot. Never mind nine year olds, every time anyone does anything remotely notable in this book, they're immediately promoted. We often don't see who was in the positions they've just taken over, because that's not important; only the promotions are. Our heroes seem to be as bloodthirsty as those they claim moral superiority over; apparently it's fine to kill, burn and loot, as long as you're on the side of the good guys. The palace's secret passages really can't be deemed secret when everyone and their dog is rampaging through them. And, of course, the Gamemasters University is a great idea for a game but it's really difficult to figure out how it actually works within the pages of a novel.
And much of the problem here comes back to that maxim about not writing fantasy novels based on RPG campaigns. While they do share some of the same needs, they differ on others. Characters have feelings and can't just be manoeuvred through a set of situations without things changing. When one character is raped, it doesn't matter that the rape was interrupted and the rapist killed; it matters that she was raped and she's not going to go talking about it to a crowded room the very next day.
I'll happily continue reading this series because I'm enjoying Ried's big and bold world, but also because I'm interested in seeing how things change as he finds his feet as an novelist as a separate role to a DM. ~~ Hal C F Astell