Walking Fantasy Maps

I’ve hurt my knee. So, in the time honoured tradition of one making an epic journey, I will use my convalescence to catch you up on events so far.

One bright and shiny morning, my fitness group discovered a link to the map of all maps, the spreadsheet of all spreadsheets. Distance plotted, days calculated. We were going to walk to Mordor—taking heed of all warnings, of course.

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It’s 1779 miles from Hobbiton to Mt. Doom. Over the past twelve months, I’ve walked 996. And now my knee is buggered. Thankfully, three days ago my party took to the river and we’re currently drifting toward the flats to the north of the Field of Celebrant. Really, I timed it all rather well. The orcs aren’t due to attack for another five days.

My Fitbit has actually recorded enough lifetime miles for me to have reached Mt. Doom and I really think that should be a badge. The badges they do offer are fun, if rooted in this world. I earned the Great Barrier Reef badge while traversing Sydney airport over the summer. I’ve always been one of those people who like to look between the trees on the side of the road, though, and imagine that I’m running between them, either away from a monster, or toward some important destiny.

Obviously, I’m supposed to be living on another world, or in another time.

So I decided to imagine that instead of walking to end of the neighbourhood—again, and when is number twenty-five going to do something about the swamp that is their front yard?—I could be traversing maps of fantasy. All when my knee is better, of course.

 

Ferelden

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In my role as moderator of the Warden’s Vigil roleplaying community, I created a number of tables and charts covering the distances and travel times between map points in Ferelden. For the uninitiated, Ferelden is the principle territory in the game Dragon Age: Origins. Because I’m a stickler for realism, even when playing make believe, I wanted to know how long it would take my characters to travel from Highever to Denerim. It’s 162 miles. About a week’s travel—if you assume I’m not as fit as a hobbit and can only walk about twenty-four miles a day.

Ferelden isn’t a large country, though. In my eighteen months of walking the mean streets of Middle Smithfield township, I’ve managed to circle Ferelden one and a half times.

 

Faerûn

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Faerûn, on the other hand, is huge. Granted, Ferelden is only a small part of Thedas and if I were to map my journey from Denerim to Val Royeaux, I’d be covering an appreciable distance, about the 800 miles.

The same distance would get me from Neverwinter to Baldur’s Gate.

If I were really keen, I’d map Drizzt’s miles—that elf has traveled. He’s also long-lived and extremely sneaky. I’d probably have died somewhere in Icewind Dale…assuming I made it out of Menzoberranzan alive.

 

Pern

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I lived in Pern for a number of years. Really and truly. I put one book down and picked up another for a long, long time. I knew all the halls and holds—major and minor. I had flown between with dragons, and I had my own horde of fire lizards. Basically, I was Menolly.

When I started roleplaying online, I played in Pern. I never really mapped the distances between points, though. Time sort of adjusted according to the requirements of our adventures. Handy, that.

Taking my current miles, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 800-1000, I could have walked from High Reaches Hold to Benden Weyr. That’s pretty much the breadth of the northern continent.

Alas, alack and all that, I live here on Earth, where my miles are less impressive. In eighteen months, I’ve walked from New York to Abilene, Texas. I’m not sure what my final destination is, but I should have timed it better. August is not the time to be south of anywhere.

Maybe when my knee is better, I’ll veer north a little bit and aim for somewhere pleasant like Santa Barbara. It’s only another 1300 miles.

 

Review: The Sentinel (The Sundering, Book V)

SentinelCoverSet during the Era of Upheaval, The Sundering is a multi-author event chronicling the adventures of Faerûn’s heroes, from those just Chosen to some of the Realms most enduring characters. Troy Denning’s novel, The Sentinel, is the penultimate entry in the series. As such, it is suitably thrilling from beginning to end.

Like many during the Era of Upheaval, Kleef Kenric has spent his life worshipping a long-forgotten god. It is said that so long as one person carries a god in their heart, that god is not dead. Helm, The Watcher, god of guardians, could not save his father. While others accept bribes and trade favours for knighthood, Kleef stubbornly clings to the tenets of his faith – coming to the defense of those who ask, leaving his career with the city guard stalled at the rank of Topsword. Kleef’s unswerving faith has turned him bitter.

While battling to win free of Marsember, Kleef accepts payment from a merchant in order to clear the way. He uses the gold to motivate the guards beneath his command to do the job they are already sworn to do. His guilt over the act is not easily rationalised but with priests holding up the evacuation with their theatrics and Shadovar threatening the city, he has little choice but to rally his men the only way he can.

While tracking the Shadovar, he comes to the aid of a mysterious pair, Joelle Emmeline and her short and odiferous companion, Malik. Kleef fights back wave after wave of Shadovar and Joelle and Malik flee across a bridge toward the noble house of Seasilver. They are observed from the balcony by Lady Arietta Seasilver, a young noblewoman who believes she is the Chosen of Siamorphe. Taking up her bow, Arietta joins the fight. Thus fate combines four destinies of four people trying to serve their gods.

The Sundering refers to the separation of Abeir from Toril. While the living (and sort of living) denizens of the world deal with the fallout of the Era of Upheaval – from the Great Rain to falling earthmotes to the literal upheaving of earth – the gods are battling for supremcy. Often, they do so through their Chosen. Joelle and Malik are on a quest for Sune. They carry the Eye of Gruumsh as a gift from one god to another. As such a gift would foil Shar’s plans for the Ever After, the Shadovar are keen to get their hands on the Eye. So are the orcs. The Eye is one of their sacred relics.

Their journey to the Underchasm is frought with adventure. Arietta sacrifices her family and Kleef feels he is sacrificing his principles for a woman who will never return his ardent regard. Joelle uses her god-given charm to ensure everyone follows her plan and Malik is obstinate in his deviancy. By the time the four arrive at Grumbar’s Temple, alliances have shifted many times – as has each companion’s idea of what it means to be Chosen.

It’s this last that really captured my attention while reading The Sentinel. Kleef’s struggle to defend his faith, to himself and those around him is heart-wrenching. In order to succeed on this quest, he has to do away with his bitterness and regret. When he finally does, I reached for the tissue box. Arietta’s journey is equally compelling. She has only been told she is the Chosen of Siamorpeh and as such, has taken her role for granted. This revelation rocks her ideas and ideals, and ultimately brings her closer to what she really wants to be.

I really enjoyed this book and as has happened every time I pick up a new volume of ‘The Sundering’, I am inspired to look for other works by the author. Troy Denning’s writing is accessible and easy to digest. I read The Sentinel in two devoted sessions, breaking only for dinner. As mentioned above, what really makes this book stand out are the characters, particularly Kleef and Arietta. Their thoughts and actions were so appropriate to their situations. At no point did either feel unreal or overwrought. Malik was fascinating in his own grimace-worthy manner. Though he is not likeable, I did manage to muster empathy for him. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about Joelle. I think perhaps she is actually the most devious and unsympathetic of that pair.

The conclusion to The Sentinel was another tissue box moment and another step forward in the world event. Overall, this is an immensely satisfying book.

‘The Sundering’ is nearly done. Only one volume remains: The Herald: The Sundering, Book VI by Ed Greenwood. Through all six books are linked only tenuously, I have enjoyed the experience of reading several stories surrounding the same event. Each has advanced the world narrative and each has introduced me to another, smaller world of characters. My only complaint would be the steadily growing pile of books behind me as I discover new authors whose voices I must further explore.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

 

Review: Night of the Hunter: Companions Codex, #1

Night of the HunterNight of the Hunter is the first book of the ‘Companions Codex’ and book twenty-five in the legend of one of the most enduring heroes of the Forgotten Realms, Drizzt Do’Urden. In cracking open the cover, there is the weight of more than twenty-four previous books looking over the reader’s shoulder. The legend of Drizzt also touches two side series, ‘The Sell Swords’ and ‘The Cleric Quintet’, and directly impacts the multi-author series, ‘War of The Spider Queen’. I mention the last as the central theme of Night Of The Hunter is the ongoing conflict between Lolth, goddess of the Drow, and Mielikki, Forest Queen and goddess of forests and rangers. Drizzt is among her chosen.

There is also the fact Night Of The Hunter follows up on two pivotal events in the legend: The ‘Transitions Trilogy’, wherein R.A. Salvatore tore our hearts asunder and The Companions (volume one of another multi-author series, ‘The Sundering’), wherein he stitched them back together again. This is an important book. As such, it requires a basic knowledge of the realms, Drizzt’s legend and the other players, of which there are many. In other words, while many of the sub-sets of the legend can be read as standalone trilogies and quartets, we are now at the stage where foreknowledge (and a lot of it) becomes essential. Readers will want to have both ‘The Neverwinter Saga’ and The Companions under their belt before tackling this one.

With that preamble, let’s discuss the plot. It’s huge and it’s important. The Companions of the Hall are reunited. This is Mielikki’s gift to her favourite, Drizzt Do’Urden, but in the Realms, all gifts come with a price. The resurrection of the Companions may have ensured Mielikki won the last round, but Lolth is determined to have Drizzt’s soul. Therefore, Lolth is going to spend the bulk of this novel driving her faithful toward this end. The drow respond with their usual combination of fear and calculation. No move is made for the sake of a single gain and their manoeuvres eventually pull together many of the factions Salvatore has introduced and developed over the course of over twenty books.

We have the Companions: Drizzt, Bruenor, Regis, Wulfar and Cattie-brie. We also have Bregan D’aerthe, the elite drow mercenary outfit led by Jarlaxle Baenre, whose motivations are inscrutable at best. Next, we have Drizzt’s more recent companions, Artemis Entreri and Dahlia Sin’felle and the rest of their band. Then there are the many intersecting factions of the drow.

The drow have claimed Gauntlgrym or parts thereof, and have built a new city there. This endeavour will elevate the status of one house, causing the usual tension, of the backstabbing variety. Honestly, you couldn’t pay me to be a drow. Haunting the legendary dwarven kingdom is the vampire Thibbledorf Pwent. Naturally opposed to the drow, he has been causing trouble as best he can, though his grip on sanity is tenuous. Bruenor is determined to end the suffering of his long-time friend and so recruits the Companions to aid his quest. They all agree.

Entreri and his fellows want to get as far from Icewind Dale and Drizzt’s fate as possible. Unfortunately, nearly twenty years of enforced slumber hasn’t cleared the memory of all their foes. Jarlaxle gets word the band bypassed Luskan and sends his agents after them. Roll forward through an always amusing reunion with the Harpell family, combat of every thrilling variety and everyone ends up in Gauntlgrym. Cue epic showdown.

Obviously, there is much more to the plot than that. Salvatore has included the subtle and not so gentle tugs to loyalty, the battle between hope and fear, perfectly executed combat sequences and questions for every character. All the players have been changed, either by death or longevity, certainly through trials. Drizzt ponders this in his eloquent letters to the reader which prelude each part of the book. The theme of change is also remarked upon throughout the novel and while there is the overwhelming feeling that despite how much things might change, some elements always remain the same, we do see a different side of many of our beloved characters here. Most notably: Wulfgar and Entreri, though few escape a moment of introspection and self-regard.

Throughout Night Of The Hunter, I marveled at Salvatore’s skill in juggling so many characters while being able to write each clearly enough for their voice to be distinct. Similarly, I boggled at the number of plot threads intersecting here, hence my long preamble about the suggested preparedness of the reader. Despite the fact I sobbed until my face puffed up throughout The Ghost King, I still considered it Salvatore’s finest book. The Companions vied for the same honour for different reasons, the balm of the plot and the creative way in which he pulled it off. Night Of The Hunter challenges both. It’s an amazing book. There is also the feeling that Salvatore might have saved the best for last.

The plot of the entire legend is starting to come full circle here, leaving me to wonder if ‘The Companions Codex’ might be the beginning of the end. While I would miss twenty-five years of Drizzt, I do take comfort in knowing R.A. Salvatore is up to the challenge of finishing out his legend with superb skill and style. Of course, if he does find a new plot, I’ll always be first in line for the next saga.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

The front page image from this post is borrowed from Wizards of the Coast and features stunning artwork by Tyler Jacobson.

Review: The Reaver (The Sundering, Book IV)

 ‘The Reaver’ by Richard Lee Byers is book four in the multi-author event, ‘The Sundering’. Set during the Era of Upheaval, each novel tells a smaller story, which often include beloved characters and some of Faerûn’s iconic heroes. ‘The Reaver’ takes us to the Sea of Fallen Stars where a small boy is trying to be the voice of a god everyone believes has passed. It’s a good time for the return of Lathander, also known as the Morninglord, an aspect of Amaunator, god of dawn, renewal and spring. The Great Rain seems endless. The lack of sun has crops failing and, well, everything is wet, all the time. It’s a miserable existence.

Not everyone is averse to endless rain. The evil sea goddess Umberlee likes it just fine. As the sea rises, so does her influence or so the waveservants say. Small acts of evil endear ordinary folk to the Bitch Queen, pitting friends and families against one another as they struggle to survive misery and starvation. Understandably, Umberlee would like Stedd, the prophet of Lathander, dead. As Stedd is one of the Chosen, the preferred method of disposal is ritual sacrifice. With a hefty price on his head, Stedd quickly learns he can trust no one, not even the servants of more benevolent gods. Worshippers are jealously guarded, after all.

Enter Anton Marivaldi and Umara Ankhlab, the reaver and the red wizard. They are just two of the agents attempting to capture the boy in order to exchange him for the reward. Anton’s motivation is primarily pecuniary, Umara is driven more by duty. She identifies as an envoy of Szass Tam, who I understand is one of Byers’ regular cast of characters.

Thrown together by circumstance and individually beguiled by the boy, Stedd, Anton and Umara become unlikely allies. Together, they battle their way east. Separately, they each vow to take the boy to complete their own quest. But as Stedd’s power grows, the good within each is illuminated. They stick by him through the proverbial thick and thin, battling friend and foe, Chosen and their gods, and the remnants of the Spellplague, so that Stedd might realise his true potential and purpose.

Again, I slipped seamlessly into another world. The authors of the ‘Forgotten Realms’ write well, really well. ‘The Reaver’ is devilishly easy to read. The story takes off from the first page, quickly gaining momentum before settling into a easily deciphered adventure that combines elements of ‘The Sundering’, Byers own characters and the surrounding lore of Faerûn.

I like Anton. I get the feeling he would outwardly disdain such a comment, but be inwardly pleased. He’s the bastard with a heart of gold. Umara is more difficult to like, but I think she would appreciate that comment as well. With her shaved head and tattoos, she has spent some time perfecting her façade. The woman within is easy to connect with, however. Though Stedd inspires Anton and Umara to help him, they stay true to character throughout. Umara is a red wizard and Anton is a reaver and they use what they know to prevail: dark magic and piracy.

‘The Reaver’ is epic fantasy at its best. Swords and sorcery, swash-buckling action and illusion, twisting and turning politics of men and gods. Combat is fast-paced and some of the battles are truly grand in scale. Byers makes great use of all the tools available to a ‘Forgotten Realms’ author, peppering his pages with fantastic creatures and stunning magic. He definitely makes each his own, however. His characters felt truly unique in a world governed by archetypes.

The plot of ‘The Reaver’ was fairly simple, which is refreshing. The shifting alliances and motivations of the characters and the twists in the purpose of certain situations provided all the complication necessary to give the story a weighty feel. It also adds a great chapter to the Era of Upheaval, and advances the general plot of ‘The Sundering’.

Richard Lee Byers is the author seventeen or so novels for ‘The Forgotten Realms’. From what I can tell, Anton is a new character. I found mention of his name in ‘Queen Of The Depths’, which is from another multi-author series from ‘The Forgotten Realms’. Anton is written so confidently, I was sure I’d find a series about him. I’d like one now, please. The further adventures of Anton and Umara would do nicely.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

The Sundering:

The Companions by R. A. Salvatore (August 6, 2013)

The Godborn by Paul S. Kemp (October 1, 2013)

The Adversary by Erin Evans (December 3, 2013)

The Reaver by Richard Lee Byers (February 4, 2014)

The Sentinel by Troy Denning (April 1, 2014)

The Herald by Ed Greenwood (2014)

Featured Image from the artwork displayed at the D&D website where you’ll find an excerpt (chapter one). Art by Tyler Jacobson.

Review: The Godborn: The Sundering, Book II

The Godborn by Paul S. Kemp

I haven’t read anything by Paul S. Kemp before. After finishing The Godborn, I have to wonder why. The man can write.

The Godborn is the second book in the Forgotten Realms event ‘The Sundering’. Wizards of the Coast plan to release six standalone novels from series authors that will show the events of The Sundering from the perspective of some of Faerûn’s best known heroes. For those unfamiliar with Kemp, his hero is Erevis Cale, shade and chosen of Mask. The Godborn begins with the birth of Erevis’ son.

Vasen Cale is named for his father and resembles him in many ways. Shadows leak from his skin—the descriptions of this phenomenon delighted me throughout the book. He’s not a full shade, though. He’s half human and this is an important part of the story. Vasen Cale’s personal journey is to reconcile his two halves, shadow and light. By accident (or design, this is Faerûn) he is born at the Abbey of the Rose, a sanctuary dedicated to Amaunator, the deity of order, the law, sun and time. He grows up to be First Blade of the Dawnguard; a priest of Amaunator, of the light. In the Dungeons and Dragons world, priests are some of the most talented warriors and Vasen Cale exemplifies the class.

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