Sunday, April 24, 2005

[Book Review] The City of Towers by Keith Baker

The carrier novel for Eberron, the winner of the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Setting Search held by Wizards of the Coast, it’s written by the setting creator Keith Baker and guess what, it’s his first novel! This is perhaps the ultimate test of whether you’re a game writer, a fantasy writer, or both. TSR pulled it off two decades ago when they came out with Dragonlance. Will this be a repeat performance, or a flop?

Reviewing The City of Towers needs to be done on two levels: as a gaming-line novel, and as a fantasy novel. As the former, it’s a superb book. Wizards of the Coast knew that this won’t be another Dragonlance Chronicles and so focused on the main theme of the series, which is about the characters. It’s just the first book in the trilogy so it’s too far to say whether this book will have consequences of epic proportions, but I can say this about The City of Towers: it’s an epic microcosm. Which I think is what Keith Baker originally intended.

Why a microcosm? Well, the characters don’t really set out to journey all over Eberron to save the world. Rather, it’s a story about a band of people who try to live out the rest of their lives as best as they can, and inevitably get caught up in the machinations of the villains. It’s not a new concept and the plot isn’t original. But Baker knows this and that’s not where the book excels. Rather, it’s giving a narrative of how personal events can have long-term and world-affecting consequences as they face powerful and mysterious foes.

I did mention that as a gaming-line novel, it’s great. For one thing, you get a feel of the setting, and while the first Eberron novel focused more on gray moralities, this one focuses more on intrigue and mystery. I mean each character has a back story, and everyone is haunted by their past, present, and potentially their future as well. There’s no real single villain throughout the book but rather enemies from multiple fronts, and the one manipulating things behind the scenes remains a mystery, even at the conclusion of the novel (which has good closure, by the way). It also has two appendices at the end, one giving a general background of the world (not only handy for readers unfamiliar with the setting but useful as a gaming supplement for Game Masters running Eberron) and another for definitions of words, places, and names.

As a fantasy novel, it’s ho-hum. To be fair to Keith Baker, it’s a decent first novel. Not too much errors and Baker doesn’t dwell too much on his weaknesses but focuses on what he’s good at: in characterization and intrigue. And ultimately, that’s what it is: it’s your fantasy-mystery with gritty realism. The world still has your Tolkienesque races but Baker modifies it by giving them culture and introduces new races of his own. It’s honestly not too spectacular unless you’re a fan of the setting, but it’s not too horrible either. And as I mentioned before, the book isn’t trying to be epic in feel, which lends to the pulp/noir feel the writer is trying to establish.

As far as it goes for recommendations, if you’re a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, go ahead and grab this novel. You’ll either like it or you won’t (because honestly, Eberron has some nuances that make it different from your generic fantasy setting). For Eberron fans, it’s a must-read. Otherwise, well, it’s a good starting point for new readers. Can’t say it’s that sophisticated, although it does have lots of mystery and intrigue (there’s so much going on!), which might be the clincher for you as to obtain this book or not. Still, on the off chance that you might like it, I highly recommend it, whether you’re a fantasy veteran or someone who’s hungry for fantasy as they await the sixth book of the Harry Potter series.

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