Ahhh, Dungeons and Dragons novels…
A while back, I decided to re-read an old D&D novel again. I mean, I have a whole stack of them, so I ought to read them occasionally. I’m not expected them to be Tolstoy, but some of them are probably fun. So this time, I picked (largely because it happened to be through chance on top of a prominent pile) Christie Golden’s Dance of the Dead.
And then I didn’t read it. Every time I thought about it, I thought… “oh, do I have to? Really?” And then I’d go and not read anything. Or get distracted by another Discworld or something. Anything but this. Because really, I know I liked this stuff when I was a kid, but do I really still want to be wading through this tripe?
…turns out, yes, yes I do. Because it turns out that this was actually a really fun read, and I should have read it earlier, when I first planned to, and I don’t know why I didn’t.
We should probably begin with some backstory. Here’s the big picture: in 1974, a pair of wargamers, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, sold around 1000 cheap paper copies of a new game they’d invented called ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, and modern role-playing games were born. In 1975, they followed up with some supplements giving brief details of two potential settings for the game: Gygax’s ‘Greyhawk’, and Arneson’s ‘Blackmoor’. In 1979, they got one of their players – established novelist André Norton – to write a novel set in Greyhawk. Although originally most of their published ‘adventures’ were placed in generic or ad hoc settings, gradually they (and the company they founded, TSR), came to focus on a number of defined ‘campaign settings’ or ‘worlds’. To launch those ‘worlds’, they comissioned tie-in novels: this began in 1984, when the Dragonlance setting was introduced through Dragons of Autumn Twilight and its sequels, but hit full speed in the first part of the 1990s. By the late ‘90s, this approach had proven suicidal (resources were being devoted to increasingly recondite niches that few people were interested in, and rather than drawing in more players as originally intended it was found that each campaign setting merely drew existing players away from the others), leading to a series of take-overs: the near-bankrupt TSR by a company called Wizards of the Coast, which in turn was consolidated into entertainment megagiant Hasbro, which in turn was consolidated into the Illithid God-Brain entertainment hyperomniultraleviathan Disney, because apparently we don’t give a shit about that whole monopolies-distorting-free-trade business anymore, but that’s a rant for another evening.
The strategy may have made no sense financially, but it brought the adoration of legions of fans, and created probably the largest edifice of linked fictional material the world has ever seen: a dozen fully-fledged campaign settings and a few dozen more sketched-out ones, a TV series, a range of films, hundreds of pre-written adventure modules, nearly a hundred computer games including bestselling and critically-acclaimed games like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Planescape: Torment, and somewhere around 600 novels, including dozens of bestsellers. For many of those of us who were teenage fantasy geeks in the ‘90s, fantasy was TSR… sure, their novels may not have been our favourites, and few of the individual novels achieved the readership of the biggest fantasy writers outside the stable, but the sheer number of their books meant that – in an age when far fewer fantasy novels were being published – whenever you finished reading another author’s books there was always a shelf of TSR you could turn to. Unparalleled in its range and diversity, the D&D line spanned Sword and Sorcery (Greyhawk), magic-rich high fantasy (Forgotten Realms), heroic epic fantasy (Dragonlance), political and military fantasy (Birthright), magitech (Eberron), combined-tech-and-magic (Blackmoor), wasteland fantasy (Dark Sun), Arthurian fantasy (Pellinore), ultra-weird space fantasy (Spelljammer), and even weirder metaphysical-with-a-big-slice-of-bizarro-urban-fantasy fantasy (Planescape), and spanning pseudo-mediaeval-Europe, pseudo-‘Orient’ (Kara-Tur), pseudo-Arabia (al-Qadim), pseudo-mesoamerica (Maztica) pseudo-ancient-mesopotamia (Dark Sun again… well, if the mesopotamian city-states were ruled by draconic god-kings draining the land of life-energy, and if the desert tribes were wandering mind-controlling elves and strange alien insect-people… which in real life they probably weren’t), and of course pseudo-bizarro-semi-Victoriana-semi-high-fantasy-semi-whateverthehellyoucanthinkof (Planescape again) pseudo-SF (Spelljammer again) and plain entirely-non-human-civilisation (eg. Council of Wyrms, there the player-characters were all dragons) environments.
And there was Ravenloft. Originating in the seminal 1983 adventure Ravenloft, in which the villain was as much an active character as the players themselves, and in its 1986 sequel, Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill, and finally developed as an open campaign setting in 1990, Ravenloft was the horror branch of the franchise. It intentionally made life difficult for its players – the original intention was for this to be somewhere that established player characters could temporarily be sent for a ‘weekend in hell’ adventure – and it inverted many of the expectations of the genre. The villains were one step ahead of the heroes, evil could hardly ever be truly defeated, victories came with collateral damage, it was impossible to tell the good guys from the bad (spells to ‘detect alignment’ simply didn’t work in Ravenloft), and the former could easily turn into the latter (via enforced game mechanics – those who do bad things become evil), or just go insane (also via mechanics). Just getting through the game without feeling morally uncomfortable is meant to be a challenge. The memorable characters of the setting are not famous heroes but famous villains. In particular, the world is divided into ‘domains’, each ruled (sometimes in a non-obvious way) by a being who has passed beyond hope of redemption: these darklords are immensely powerful, but are trapped in their domains, and in Ravenloft itself (a sort of hell-dimension that characters from other worlds could fall into), and each subject to some personalised tormenting curse*. The concept of the domain allows the setting to have a great deal of internal variety, with different domains reflecting the origins and nature of their domain lord – Saragossa is a weed-choked stretch of water haunted by a vicious pirate trapped in the form of a shark, whereas Pharazia is a patch of mud with some hovels ruled by an ancient mummy, and Dementlieu is a sophisticated early-modern urban European society.
In short: it was grim and dark long before grimdark became popular. But it was also a little bit fun. Many of its major characters were transparently filched from gothic horror novels and films (Strahd=Dracula, Mordenheim=Frankenstein, van Richten=van Helsing, Hiregaard/Malken=Jekyll/Hyde), and the setting had fun with these borrowings, as well as with a baroque, over-the-top sort of tone. It was grim enough not to seem camp, but ridiculous enough not to seem too grim.
There were twenty Ravenloft novels published (and more recently another three novels with the Ravenloft logo on them but no substantial connexion to the setting). Dance of the Dead is the third, and to be honest, by my memory of the books, things were not that promising at that point. Vampire of the Mists had plenty of fans, but was also accused of being dull, overly cliché, and unimaginative; Knight of the Black Rose, as I remember it, was just page after page after page of Lord Soth cutting lesser evil beings into pieces as he marched through the world in straight lines (accompanied by an evil werebadger).
Dance of the Dead is much more interesting.
We should be clear from the beginning that if you’re looking for reasons to dislike this book, you don’t have to look that far. I actually burst out laughing within a page or two, thanks largely to the prose, which is just so D&D I couldn’t help myself. It’s stilted and verbose, more in keeping with Dickens or the like than with a modern horror thriller, and it out-adjectives Conrad. Looking beyond the prose, there are some clunking moments of cliché, particularly in the head-smashingly conventional obligatory romance plot, and some oddly-fitting weirdness that… well, back to that in a moment.
Romance plot. If this were published today, you’d call it a paranormal romance, and it has some of the worse sins of that genre: feisty heroine falls in love at first sight and beyond reason with implausibly perfect young man, whom she instantly trusts absolutely for no reason at all just because. Oh dear.
And the weirdness? Ravenloft is horror, but it’s fantasy horror. The book starts out in the very fantasy domain of Darkon, a land packed with elves and dwarves and magical beings (as well as the lich-king Azalin and his secret police (the Kargat) of werewolves and vampires… of course, the real danger of Darkon is that if travellers stay too long they lose all memory of their lives outside Darkon and instead ‘remember’ wholly fictional new lives), and spends a fair bit of time in Souragne, a domain based on Louisiana or the Caribbean, with its own, more voodoo-influenced, sort of fantasy. Some readers may find themselves put off by mixing elves and vampires, zombies and nereids, and any vestige of sanity with talking, flesh-eating rabbits.
You could also, quite fairly, complain that the plot is basically “Mary Sue gets helped out by a Deus ex Machina”. It’s true that it basically comes down to “the heroine is wonderful and someone or other is sure to help her if there’s something she can’t do herself”. But thing is: this is Ravenloft. It’s not really about achieving particular goals, it’s about the moral journey. And in Ravenloft, there are no gods in the machine – only devils – and any sort of striking talent is just setting a character up for corruption. That’s a difficult thing to convey in a modern novel – again, it’s another way in which the book feels surprisingly anachronistic (apart from those weremink, I don’t think the original gothic really went in for weremink) – but Christie Golden is actually able to handle it pretty well here. It feels natural. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s a book where victory is earned not through hard work or education but through a moral fire, a coming into the proximity of evil.
And talking of evil… one of the great elements of the Ravenloft setting is that there is always something worse out there. Little villains are overshadowed by bigger villains, who are overshadowed by the darklords, who are overshadowed by the shadowy real powers of the world. You find yourself rooting for the devil to put an end to the petty villains. And – again without getting into the plot itself but only the setting – Golden has a pretty fun devil in her back pocket here, one of the biggest devils in Ravenloft, for all that he’s overshadowed by the more famous darklords of the Core Domains. Ravenloft novels – and indeed adventures – can live at any level of villainy: some deal only with the petty local evils, some involve direct confrontations with a darklord (these rarely end well) and some even make the darklord into the protagonist (as in the pair of I, Strahd novels, the (possibly propagandistic) diaries of the setting’s wry, no-nonsense Dracula-substitute). The advantage of that is that it’s hard to know what’s going to happen: everything occurs, in essence, because it is either desired or ignored by some or other power vastly greater than the protagonists. Some readers will hate that sense of impotence; others will revel in the disquiet it provokes. Golden addresses that side of the setting extremely well, in my opinion.
Anyway, in more concrete terms, the book tries to overcome its handicaps of clunky prose and clichéd (they would say ‘heightened’, ‘baroque’) plot beats through a couple of tricks. One of those tricks is investing the little character work in some unexpected places, creating, surprising moments around the main narrative that I think help create an illusion of depth. Another is thinking about things just a little harder than the reader expects: several things that the reader at first might roll their eyes over do actually make sense in the end, making the reader a little more willing to accept all the other eye-rolling moments.
But the big thing is audacity. You can carry off a lot if you have enough audacity. Find the writing style too dull? Have a murder. No, have more than one murder. I say without exaggeration: for a substantial percentage of this book (until we start to seriously run out of characters and need to save some for the ending), Golden gives us an average of around one brutal death every ten pages. Try putting it down when that happens… the pace of the thing pulls you in to a point where you get used to the style. I found myself reading through at a right old pace… sure, I didn’t overwhelmingly care what happened, but I still wanted to find out! Audacity…
And audacity too with the ‘sillier’ fantasy elements. It’s as though Golden is saying: “yes, it’s a talking flesh-eating rabbit. You got a problem with that? You want to laugh. Go ahead, laugh. But if you do, I’m going to kill another character.” It’s a perfect level of self-seriousness: enough dry lines, enough dare-you-to-laugh bits of absurdity that I didn’t find it self-important or stuffy, enough that I feel I can mock the silliness without mocking the book… and yet it never lets itself crack a smile itself, never lets you forget that everything is deadly serious for the characters themselves.
And that extends to the brutality too, which at times is on a level where you don’t know whether to laugh or throw up and up just sort of shocked that it went there. I mean, at one point somebody/something wins a fight by biting through the skull of their enemy and eating their head… and they’re on our side! At another point, a zombie arm claws through a man’s chest and rips his beating heart out. And these bits aren’t over-writen and baroque, they’re dealt with as being fairly run-of-the-mill events (in gothic horror, after all, it’s what you don’t see that you’re worried about… mere gore and violence is a nice relief by comparison). It’s hard to really explain this, but… it takes a setting and a story where really terrible things can happen, and presents it as it appears to the people involved who, yes, are on some level traumatised by it perhaps, but who don’t have the time or energy to run around being melodramatic about it.
So in the end, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable book. It’s an old-fashioned, story-telling book, relying on the principle that if you tell a good story people will listen. You don’t really have to have deep and important themes, and you don’t really need beautiful and economic prose, and so long as you do have some twists and turns along the way it doesn’t even matter too much if some characters, some moments, some bits of dialogue, are quite familiar. It’s not setting out to be great literature, it’s just trying to be a fun read. I might prefer great literature… but to be honest, I’d rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else a novel that only tries to be an enjoyable read than one that pretends to the status of great literature and yet falls short.
I must read some more of my D&D novels. Unfortunately, the real curse of them is not that they’re bad, but that the quality is so much a matter of pot luck…
Adrenaline: 4/5. Never really thrilling, but stuff kept happening, I kept wanting to find out what happened next, and I kept reading when I had opportunities to stop.
Emotion: 2/5. The lack of sparkling quality lets it down here, as it’s not really able to hammer home the emotional moments and make me feel the pain rather than merely think about it. Of course, your mileage might vary… there’s certainly no shortage of things to feel about! I see there are some reviews out there of people crying their eyes out at points. I guess if you’re used to some easy sparkly fairy-magic romance stuff, you might easily mistake this for more of the same, and I could see how that could lead to a real punch in the gut crocodile bite through the forearm. But this is Baltimore Ravenloft, gentlemen; the gods will not save you. (Other things might).
Thought: 2/5. Not a stupid read, but deep thinking is not the point.
Beauty: 2/5. Some good strong imagery now and then.
Craft: 2/5. Does something a bit different and does it quite well. The prose is probably below par, but to give it credit it is solid – it’s stiff, but it never (ok, barring one or two purple descriptors here and there) becomes painful. Certainly a lot of books have worse writing, and once I got into it this stopped being a problem at all.
Endearingness: 4/5. I may be being generous, but I do think it’s at least a 3, and I’m happy giving it a 4. There are certainly things I don’t like about it, but there are also bits I really enjoyed. It may not be sophisticated reading, but it was fun.
Originality: 3/5. A tricky one to score. On the one hand, some bits are clunkingly by-the-book. On the other hand, some bits are clever, and on a third hand some things are nuts. So I guess a par score overall?
Overall: 4/7. NOT BAD.
I feel I may need to remind people here that I mean what I say: ‘not bad’ means just that, and ‘not bad’ is pretty good. I don’t call things ‘good’ unless I really think they are. A ‘Not Bad’ book is usually something I’m happy to recommend to someone who likes that kind of thing: other examples include A Game of Thrones (though the sequels are better), some of the weaker Discworld novels, the first two Feist/Wurts Empire novels, McCaffrey’s Dragonsinger (which I really liked!), and so on.
Just a little reminder there, since I think I’ve been a bit spoilt recently with unusually good books.
Anyway, Dance of the Dead might not be a very fashionable novel in 2014 – though I suspect that large numbers of the equivalent novels of today will fair rather less well with time – but I think that if you turn off the overly critical part of your mind and just read for fun, this can be perfectly enjoyable. And also leave you with a slight sense of discomfort, because this is Ravenloft, damnit.
It may be particularly of interest to those who are fans of paranormal romance or modern grimdark (although it’s a long way from being the darkest Ravenloft novel), just to see how things worked twenty years ago.
Oh, I forgot that footnote on curses. Some examples:
- Strahd von Zarovich, Lord of Barovia, is an immortal vampire, having killed his brother out of love for his brother’s fiancée. She killed herself as a way of rejecting him. Every generation, his beloved Tatyana is reincarnated (or Strahd thinks she is – it’s ambiguous the extent to which he’s a fate-haunted lost but noble soul and the extent to which he’s a psychotic lunatic), but every generation she rejects him and/or dies tragically. He thus lives forever without the one thing he truly wants.
- Alfred Timothy, Lord of Verbrek, is a werewolf who idolises the violent, merciless beast inside him (he’s even created a religion for werewolves out of it). But whenever he gives in to bestial urges – lust, bloodlust, gluttony, etc – he reverts to his natural form as a rather weedy and unimpressive human. His pride and fear for his reputation thus force him to control himself – the whole of his domain is one big orgy of werewolf sex and killing, which he can’t partake in.
- Jacqueline Renier, wererat Lord of Richemulot, is pathologically afraid of being alone. Unfortunately, being in the presence of anyone she truly loves triggers her lycanthropy and traps her in the shape of a rat. Theoretically with the right man this might not be an impediment to romance, but that’s a pretty specific lonely hearts ad…
- Ankhtepot, Lord of Har Akir, is a mummy, but wants only two things in life: rule of a great empire, and humanity. As to the first, he gets one mud-hut village. As to the second: he’s been given the ability to drain life from one person a day, with each killing granting him a day returned to life as a human. Unfortunately, he knows perfectly well that since his entire citizenry is one mud hut, if he actually uses this power he’ll very quickly find himself ruler of absolutely nobody and will never get to be human again.
- Tristan apBlanc, Lord of Forlorn, is trapped in a pair of temporal cycles, reliving two of the worst days of his (really rather awful) life for all eternity
- Yagno Petrovna, Lord of G’Henna, cannot shake the growing suspicion that the god Zhakata, for whom he has performed endless terrible deeds and in whose name he rules his nation, has all along been nothing but a figment of his own imagination
- Vlad Drakov, Lord of Falkovnia, mighty military conqueror, has finally risen to command his own nation… but nobody really cares. No matter how many times he tries invading the other domains, he’s never treated as more than a mild, ill-mannered irritation.