Beyond the Moons (Cloakmaster Cycle vol. 1), by David Cook

The great pulp fantasy era of the late 1980s and early 1990s produced some great novels. OK, no, it probably didn’t. But it did produce a few surprisingly good novels.

This is not one of them.

Then again, maybe that’s not the point. After all, this is Spelljammer. Being good is not the point. The point is being batshit insane…

For those not fully au fait with the world of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons circa 1990, Spelljammer was an innovative and unusual roleplaying game setting devised by the good people behind D&D (that is, TSR). TSR had spent the 1980s gradually developing D&D from nothing more than a game system into an entire multiverse of expensive rulebooks, campaign settings, boxed adventures, computer game adaptations, and novels. There were three major D&D settings at this time: the generic high-fantasy, high-magic Forgotten Realms (the sort of place where any plot could be set), the slightly more traditionally sword-and-sorcery Greyhawk (the FR/Greyhawk split was mostly political in origin: after the creator of both D&D and Greyhawk left the company, the company developed FR in response, but later decided to continue to placate the existing Greyhawk fanbase), and the more epic-oriented Dragonlance. TSR wanted to link these worlds more concretely. How could they do that?

Isn’t it obvious? By placing each of those worlds within giant crystal spheres floating in a sea of phlogiston, and then filling that sea with roving alien space-pirates. As you do. Now, all three of these older setting were fairly traditional European mediaeval fantasy worlds, and space pirates do not naturally fit alongside traditional European mediaeval fantasy worlds. This potential problem was dealt with in part by making the space pirates be a weird combination of science fiction and mediaeval fantasy tropes, a sort of retrofuturism before Steampunk became popular – or rather the opposite, a futurohistoricism, because these were mediaeval people (those who were people, that is, rather than, say, floating clusters of eyes, or tentacled brain-eaters) who just happened to be going around in space ships, with the emphasis on ‘ship’, as in big wooden things with sails, only sort of part giant space-fish and part submarine, or in the case of the eponymous ‘Spelljammer’ ship itself, a colossal outer-space manta ray several miles wide. It’s a kind of sailpunk-meets-Verne-with-a-hint-of-Lovecraft sort of thing.

Yeah, this was a strange idea they had. Popular fantasy was young back then, and people hadn’t learnt yet that they were only meant to be writing knights and princesses. So they wrote space manta ray spaceships, and space-empires of genocidal space-elves. [Spelljammer was only the beginning of a period of great experiment in D&D. It was followed by the Ravenloft gothic horror setting, the Dark Sun pseudo-post-apocalyptic pseudo-Mesopotamian desert draconic-godkings-and-telepathic-giant-insects setting, the ‘make all of the characters dragons’ Council of Wyrms setting, the ‘let’s make the characters be bloodthirsty tyrants controlling armies and negotiating political alliances’ setting of Birthright, and finally Spelljammer’s replacement as a metaworld, the downright peculiar bizarro-setting of Planescape, which I’m not even going to begin to describe; at the same time, Forgotten Realms, which had already had a pseudo-China added to its pseudo-Europe, gained new a pseudo-Mongolia, pseudo-Arabia, and pseudo-Mesoamerica. It was an exciting explosion of weirdness and diversity in the genre… and it made TSR bankrupt.]

Anyway, as with most of their big setting ideas, TSR decided that Spelljammer needed some novels. For TSR, of course, novels were not written to be good, per se, but to advertise the campaign settings, which made much more money than the books ever did. So, two years after the campaign setting was launched (and beaten to the punch by the setting’s comic book, published by DC), eager readers got this, Beyond the Moons.

Well, I say ‘eager’, but I’m guessing the reason these books were written was because not enough people were buying into the setting. And that explains why this Spelljammer book has remarkably little spelljammery stuff in it. Events are set not out in space, but in a very familiar location: Krynn, the world of the bestselling Dragonlance books. This is a book that intends to say: “hey, Dragonlance players, look at this new game!”

And you can’t deny that it does: the weirdness of Spelljammer quite literally crashes straight into the staid peasant farming communities of Dragonlance (just outside Kalaman, shortly after the events of the Legends trilogy, I think).

 

OK, you’re smelling a rat here, aren’t you? You’re wondering why I’m waffling on about the history of the setting, rather than talking about the book. Well… the book just isn’t all that interesting. I like it more for being a representative of Spelljammer than I do as a novel.

In fact, as a novel, Beyond the Moons has very little to recommend it. Shockingly little, in fact. After peasant farmer Teldin Moore encounters some people from a spelljammer ship, he embarks on a travelogue across Krynn. Then the book ends.

The problem, though, isn’t that the entire novel is a travelogue, it’s that it’s a travelogue without any descriptions of travel. Teldin crosses an entire continent, but if you didn’t look at the map you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d just popped over a mountain pass to the neighbouring town, and then sailed across a bay (and by the way, novel-writers, having a map that points out exactly when the interesting events of the plot will happen and what they are is… a bold move. It might work if the labels were sufficiently obscure, but when the label is ‘minotaur pirates attack’, it kind of detracts from the tension of the shipboard scenes…). There are a couple of ‘eye-level’ remarks, intended to juxtapose this ordinary peasant’s experience with the epic-level events we saw in the central Dragonlance cycle, but not very much, and nothing particular distinctive. So the novel is not successful as a tour of a fantasy world, even though that’s how the entire plot is structured. Well fair enough in a way – this is meant to be an introduction to Spelljammer, not to Dragonlance. But for some reason the Powers That Be decided to make the introduction to Spelljammer a novel with almost no Spelljammer in it. All we get is a brief glimpse of a ship, a semi-comic-relief giff travelling companion, and some villainous neogi.

The giff, for newcomers, are human-shaped hippopotamuses who form a highly regimented gun-obsessed warrior culture. The giff in this book is mildly amusing (even in a fantasy world, he has to be concealed (difficult when you’re a hippopotamus) or passed off as the hideously mutated semi-amnesiac victim of genetic experimentation, which I’ll admit got a smile out of me), but the fact it just took me two minutes to remember its name is not a great sign. The ‘so militaristic they have no identity beyond their place in the regiment and their battle honours’ trope is difficult to pull off if you want to actually have a compelling character rather than a cliché.

As for the neogi… well, D&D gave the world some fantastic villainous species. And also the neogi. There are features of the neogi that ought to make them creepy and weird – the ‘Great Old Master’ thing, for instance – but the diminutive little slave-masters are too much the embodiment of every cliché about evil and horror, and come off in practice too much like spoiled little brats – to really be effective. Then again, maybe I should be glad the novel doesn’t use illithids instead – I’d rather have a bad impression of some new guys (neogi basically don’t appear outside of Spelljammer) than of one of the classics.

Now, you could make a case for this book not being terrible. The fact that there is no plot can be waved away – this is book one of a series of five, and it may be better to see it as the first part of a book that has been unwisely split up and sold in parts even though those parts don’t make sense by themselves. Though this interpretation is admittedly somewhat dented by the fact that, in true TSR fashion, the instalments were handed out to completely different authors, so book two will have the same characters, the same ongoing plot, but a different writer (which may be a good thing…).

What the book does have is an impressively radical vision of the genre. The author clearly wanted to do something different, which mostly takes the form of setting up a lot of conventional cliché plot points, and then blowing them to smithereens. There is a very clear message: this isn’t anything you’ve seen before, this is Spelljammer. And when the plot demands that cliché is observed, it’s observed to a cliché-breaking success. This is strongest in the early chapters, which are genuinely shocking, even when read in 2015 – my reaction at the time was that the beginning of the book read like Little House on the Prairie meets Predator.

The thing is, though, that the author may have had bold ideas, but he didn’t actually have much in the way of writing ability. TSR had some good writers in its stable (for a relative value of ‘good’), but it also had a habit of getting D&D game designers to write novels, and that’s what’s happened here. I can see how these ideas could work as a campaign setting, or even how this might make a fun RPG adventure (and the author is the guy who wrote the Planescape Campaign Setting, so his heart is in the right place). But the writing is – while literate – uninspired at best and sometimes outright poor, certainly without the skill that would be necessary to overcoming the limitations of the book design. Instead, the writing amplifies all the faults, making it seem much more cliché and boring that it ought to be.

[And it falls victim to a couple of idiotic flaws of this kind of work. One – minor, sure, but irritating – is that a character is casually referred to by the narrator as the Cloakmaster. This is because this whole series is called the ‘Cloakmaster’ series. And we know who the Cloakmaster is because they’ve got a cloak. The problem is – other than the fact that ‘Cloakmaster’ is an unutterably stupid-sounding title – we don’t at this stage have any clue what’s so important about the cloak, why it might have a master, or why we might care, so calling them the Cloakmaster of the blue is just weird. It’s like seeing a man pick up a cup of coffee and walk toward you and saying “The Muglord is approaching!” – sure, once people learn that the Mug he has picked up is the sacred Mug of Ra, giving its user divine powers of mind-control but warping their very soul, calling the guy the Muglord makes sense. When, so far we know, he’s just some guy who happens to have picked up a slightly unusual mug and is otherwise going about their daily business, calling him The Muglord just makes people look at you funny. I spent a lot of this novel looking at the novel funny. And idiotic thing Number Two: half the characters have proper High Fantasy names, and the other half have modern American names (and no, it’s not based on class or culture or anything systematic like that, it’s just random). You can even see this in the name of the main character: Teldin (fantasy!) Moore (modern America!). It frustrates me because it’s so weird and suspension-breaking, yet could so easily be avoided. I’m not expecting a fully-worked-out fantasy language with a coherent naming system, I’m just asking you to not have a character called Telvar Shal and then have his parents be Liam and Eloise, I mean how difficult can that be?!?]

Ultimately, then, Beyond the Moons is a genre-bending, unexpected introduction to an interesting setting (one which, incidentally, continually blends the disturbingly dark with the irritatingly silly, in which regard this novel is fair reflection of the world…), hamstrung by being shit. Not even “it’s basically shit but it’s still fun!” but just shit.

 

Adrenaline: 2/5. To be fair, it felt shorter than it was. Chapter followed chapter in a fluent, easy-to-read way, and there were some entertaining set pieces. However, the lack of any feeling of stakes badly undermined this.

Emotion: 2/5. I’m knocking this up from a 1 just because a couple of bits are effectively horrible. But the author has to go full speed just to get any emotion out of me at all, because I don’t care about the characters and there are no real stakes outside of the early chapters.

Thought: 2/5. Giving it the benefit of the doubt, some setting ideas were actually intriguing.

Beauty: 2/5. The prose is ungainly.

Craft: 2/5. The prose, plot, and characterisation are all fairly bad. On the other hand, they’re not appallingly bad, and the author should get points for the way he subverts some expectations.

Endearingness: 2/5. The novel features tinker gnomes, who are hugely irritating but also inherently funny. Their presence was a big help in making sure I got through the later chapters of the book.

Originality: 3/5. A strange collision between hyper-conventional storytelling and world, and unexpected deviations from those conventions both in plot and in setting (the main character is a mediaeval peasant accompanied by a gunwielding space-hippopotamus while being pursued by a psychotic space-empire of genocidal spider-eels… come on, it should get points just for getting me to write that sentence…) – it’s like this book has no middle gears when it comes to originality!

Overall: 2/7. JUST PLAIN BAD. This one, for me, was right on the threshold between ‘bad’ and ‘bad but with redeeming features’, because I do like the element of weirdness, I do like the subversions of expectations, and I do like the fact that I didn’t find it a really hard read. But overall, to be honest… yeah, no, this is a bad book. It’s not an offensively, eye-meltingly bad book, but it is bad.

And I’m going to read the sequel. Although, admittedly, only because I happen to own it already. And because it has a totally different author, so who knows? And maybe the second Spelljammer novel will actually take place in the Spelljammer setting…

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