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.

[Book Review] Condemnation by Richard Baker

The third book in the War of the Spider Queen series, the question now really isn’t whether it’s good or bad, but whether it remains consistent and lives up to the plot that’s been established in the previous books. I think I should point out that it’s already mid-way into the series and if you didn’t enjoy the previous books, I don’t think you really shouldn’t expect this book (or this book review) to convert you.

It’s been pretty formulaic and there’s really nothing new to be said about this novel that I didn’t already mention in the previous reviews. The only things that have varied is again, the writer, in this case Baker, favors taking the perspective of certain characters more than others (whether this was subjectivity on his part or really part of the story flow, we’ll never know). If there’s a good reason to buy this book, it’s the advancement of the plot as our protagonists are in the Abyss and finally confronts the evil goddess they’ve been worshipping.

My complaints for the book though was that the finale was a bit too quick. If I didn’t know the events that would happen prior to reading this book, I might have glossed the important details near the end of the novel. Aside from that, everything that went well for the preceding books applies to Condemnation. There’s also closure at the end, but as previously stated, it’s also more of a cliffhanger, especially with all the revelations that’s been uncovered.

More of the same yet like a book by David Eddings, it’s really addicting and enjoyable despite the formulaic approach it follows. A page-turner at the very least if you’re a fan of the series, but otherwise, newbie readers might shirk at this novel.

[Book Review] Insurrection by Thomas M. Reid

A direct follow-up to Dissolution, Reid is given the challenge of being faithful to the first book and maintaining the reader’s attention. The stage has been set and it’s left to Reid to push the story further.

In certain ways, the novel is consistent and different from the first novel. For example, language is more or less the same, since the writing-style is that of generic fantasy. Reid’s writing style though doesn’t really employ the gaming-rules writing that Byers had for the previous book, which is fine with me. There’s also multiple shifts of perspective in this book, but while the first novel did that in order to gather the main protagonists, that’s not the case here as the protagonists are now the typical Dungeons and Dragons party, and the shift in perspective is used to give a foreshadowing of things to come and to reveal to the readers what’s really happening in the world around them.

There’s also been a change in the characterization of some of the characters. They’re not drastic, but it’s evident, as the writer favors his or that character, while some characters are less wittier than the used to be in the previous book. I guess it’s to be expected since the War of the Spider Queen features a variety of writers, and so far, the writing has been more or less consistent, characterization aside.

The plot thickens, as usual, and it pretty much follows the same formula as the first book. There’s closure at the end, but it merely hints at the bigger picture, and whets your appetite for the next book if you enjoyed the novel before that.

Again, while not exactly literary-level fantasy, Insurrection and the rest of the books in the series shows how to weave a tale of epic proportions in a well-known setting, without resorting to blowing everything up. If you’re a fan of Forgotten Realms and dark elves in general, go ahead and get a copy of this series. Otherwise, if the first book didn’t convince you, I doubt this one will either.