Lord Toede, by Jeff Grubb

As you may have gleaned from my earlier reviews, I’m a Dragonlance boy. That doesn’t mean I like Dragonlance – oh dear heavens no, even at the time I thought most of the novels were sub-par, and I barely dare open them now that I’ve evolved critical reading skills (however rudimentary they still may be). Nor does it mean that Dragonlance is what I grew up reading. I don’t think I  started Dragonlance until I was around 10 years old or so – long after I’d encountered Tolkien, Eddings, Shadowrun, and sundry other genre books, and only shortly before I came across Feist. According to my growing catalogue of books on Goodreads, Dragonlance didn’t even dominate my D&D reading – and in maybe 5 years of casual D&D play, I only one played a campaign set on Ansalon, and even that was a comedy. It wasn’t even my favourite setting (Plaaaaaaaanescaaaaaape…… *removes drool*).

So it’s hard to say what I mean by that self-affiliation, except that Dragonlance was the doorway to something for me, and that everything I found through that door was mentally filed as, as it were, a set of directions from Dragonlance. The D&D world became the prototypical fantasy world for me, their books became prototypical books, and Dragonlance was somehow, ineffably, the default form of D&D (for all that Forgotten Realms was more generic).

But that was long ago now. I haven’t read a D&D book in earnest since… maybe 2001? Charitably, maybe 2003. [Edit: come to think of it, probably Dragons of a Vanished Moon in 2002]. I always knew that most of them weren’t that good – and, more importantly, most of them weren’t even all that interesting. And yet, somehow, I remain nostalgic for them – so every now and then I read one again to see what it’s like, and I always remind myself to read even more in future. Of course, I remind myself to do a lot of things, in the future.

This time around, the book I picked up was Lord Toede (Dragonlance: Villains, #5). I came across it while catologuing my books for Goodreads, and it awoke some happy memories. As I was – and still am, theoretically, struggling through the rather soul-shredding Little, Big, the idea of a light-hearted, short, fun fantasy novel was extremely attractive.

Here’s some background. Dragonlance is a fantasy setting, primarily known for the story of the War of the Lance, as told in the Chronicles. Villains is a series of short books telling the stories of the most memorable villains from that main storyline. Unfortunately, it seems they ran out of memorable villains, or at least of memorable villains who weren’t already covered by more prestigious book series (there are nearly 200 Dragonlance novels, and a disproportionate number of them attempt to tie in to the main storyline, leading to an over-saturation of the major characters and a morass of incompatible personal timelines) – having books about Verminaard and Ariakas, leaders of the armies of darkness, makes perfect sense, but “Hederick the Theocrat”? Does anybody even remember who he is? So, desperate for somebody to write a story about, the powers that were settled upon the peculiar, utterly useless little character of Fewmaster Toede (sounds like ‘toad’, and he looks like one too), a bumbling, obnoxious hobgoblin who the heroes run into from time to time, who manages to claw his way up the hierarchy of evil by being an obsequious, backstabbing git.

Toede is too weak a character to write a proper epic fantasy novel about… so Jeff Grubb doesn’t try. Instead, he produced something very peculiar indeed: an original Dragonlance book.

By the time the book starts, Toede has become ruler of the minor but profitable city of Flotsam (I’m not entirely sure of the timeline – I think it all takes place shortly after the end of the War of the Lance, when evil has been defeated, but the armies of evil are still occupying large tracts of land). He has also become dinner, because a couple of kender poachers have lead him into the mouth of an angry dragon (‘kender’ are a race specific to Dragonlance – they look and act like kleptomaniac children. Think of them as vastly more annoying hobbits). Cut to the Abyss (hell), where two abishai (devils) are having a theoretical discussion about the nature of nobility. Can a mortal be noble without, they wonder, being good? They decide to settled the matter with an experiment, backed by a wager: they will take the blackest, most contemptible soul they can find, and resurrect it, under strict instructions to live nobly. They pick the soul of Toede.

What follows is an audaciously zany fantasy adventure as Toede returns from the dead and tries to reclaim his power from his successors. Without spoiling too much, there is a strong ‘Groundhog Day’ element, with Toede revisiting the same places and characters again and again. We get kender; we get a demonic steamroller; we get ogre pornography; we get an ‘amphidragon’ (like a cross between a dragon and a frog); we get rooms full of corpses; we get a necromancer; we get a surprising interspecies romance; we get everything, in other words, that the author can think of to throw at us. Surprisingly, it works.

Part of this success is the writing. It isn’t very good, but that doesn’t matter – what matters is the style, which is flippant, ironic, detached, and parodic. It’s a little annoying and never hilarious, but it’s fun enough that it never matters how silly everything gets. Meanwhile, that silliness is counterbalanced by the trappings of literary seriousness – the ‘two devils resurrect a villain to see if he can be made to live nobly’ feels like such a classic story, and there is sufficient pathos put into some of the characters, that we wake from the novel with the feeling that something serious has been said, even if, on reflection, we realise that we can’t think what it might have been (and indeed, the ‘live nobly’ plot idea sadly fails to live up to its billing).

The other part of this success is the tightness of the plotting. While the plot is hardly convoluted, there is an admirable cleverness to it – and a real feeling that characters exist even when not being looked at. In many books, the protagonist explores and interacts with an essentially static world; in this book, characters met in one chapter go away and do things before returning in another chapter, helping to enhance the somewhat manic flavour – the protagonist is completely unable to control the world around him, and has to work hard just to keep himself updated with what’s been going on.

I don’t want to overstate the case for the defence. This isn’t a great book, or even all that good a book. It’s very silly, and while it might be funny to a five-year-old, I’ve heard all its jokes a great many times before; together with the prose style, which emulates far better writers than this one, this made me continually mildly annoyed throughout the whole of the book. There is very little character progression, and not really all that much character to begin with – none of the characters have stayed with me, being all fairly carboardy replicas of, and abstractions from, other characters, with little vitality of their own. The world-building is dramatically minimal, limited only to a few ‘as you know, Bob’ [there is, incidentally, a character called Bob – it’s one of those ‘look how funny I am’ fantasy books] discussions infodumping plot-critical facts about the world of Krynn for those who may have forgotten them (e.g. the fact that bronze draconians explode when they die) – as is often the case, while I enjoyed this, and would have done even had I not known anything about Dragonlance, I think that many new readers would be confused. [And they’d completely miss nice little touches like ironic layers when we see Toede’s opinions of the opinions of human scholars regarding the pre-history of the ogre race, which the true Dragonlance scholar already knows the true story of from various worldbooks, obscure short stories, and forgotten little novels like “Dragonlance: Lost Histories: Volume 2: The Irda (Children of the Stars)” – and now I see that the account in Lord Toede actually preceded both the account in The Irda and the appearance of the Irda in Dragons of Summer Flame by a year, making me literally laugh out loud in geeky appreciation of their little games with us – this may possibly be the most obscure in-joke I know].

Anyway, I don’t really have much more to say. It’s not a great book – but if you like (or can tolerate) Dragonlance, and you’re interested in a D&D book that’s a little different and a fun, simple, entertaining read, it’s worth considering.

Adrenaline: 3/5. It rattles along at a decent enough pace, has some fun scenes.

Emotion: 1/5. There’s not a lot to get emotional about, and even if there were, there’s not enough connexion to the characters to make it hit home.

Thought: 3/5. It’s surprisingly cerebral. The plot structure makes it all kind of like a puzzle, and I was constantly trying to work out what had happened off-screen (in a good way) and what was going to happen next. There are also some fun nods to the wider continuity.

Beauty: 2/5. It’s saved from being terrible by its prose – which isn’t excellent, but gains enough from the graceful style it’s imitating to not be a completely horrible read.

Craft: 3/5. I may be being charitable here, but to be honest I think he does as well as can be expected with what he’s got to work with. The technical aspects of the writing may not be up to par, but it’s made up for by the imagination and the interesting construction.

Endearingness: 3/5. I really like the idea of the book. Really. Unfortunately, the execution doesn’t live up to that idea, leaving me preferring the memory to the actual experience of reading it. That said – I found it an entertaining read, which is an achievement given what it has to overcome.

Originality: 3/5. It’s Dragonlance, and much of it doesn’t rise far above that description in terms of originality. On the other hand, it feels like a book that has landed in Dragonlance, rather than a Dragonlance book to the core – in other words, it feels like its own thing. It’s also got a really nice conceit.

Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features. I’d almost say ‘not bad’, but that might be going too far. Most people will probably find this book to be pretty uninteresting. However: if your tastes run to what it offers, you may find it a fun light read.