Short Review: Shadowdale by Scott Ciencin (Forgotten Realms: Avatar 1)

Shadowdale by Scott Ciencin / Richard Awlinson (TSR, 1989).

Forgotten Realms. Avatar 1.

The “Time of Troubles” was a major event in D&D‘s Forgotten Realms storyworld, beginning in 1989 and making its mark at a time when TSR, D&D‘s original owners, was nearing the end of its original peak of popularity in the 1980s and charging downhill into fan disaffection and financial ruin, leading to its sale in 1997 to Wizards of the Coast. I came of age with Wizards’ D&D, which in the early 2000s was popular enough to have its own local store in the mall (to be fair, I lived outside of Seattle, not 15 minutes from Wizards’ home in Redmond, WA). D&D 3.0 and 3.5 were my childhood friends and I pretty much grew up with Drizzt as my best friend in middle school. By then, the Time of Troubles was a thing of the past in the Forgotten Realms storyworld, but it was still regularly referenced in the many guidebooks to the campaign setting (I had every single FR book published for 3.0 and 3.5 before selling them when I entered high school, thinking I would trade my love of D&D for choir, which would definitely make me more popular).

Needless to say, I’ve long been interested in the Time of Troubles and was excited to dive into the series that told its story. The concept is pretty compelling: the gods of all the FR pantheons are deposed and kicked out of their godly realms, cast into mortal avatars, and made virtually powerless. Now, godhood in the the FR storyworld is already a pretty interesting concept, since mortals can become gods by attaining massive amounts of power⁠—in essence, FR godhood makes perfect sense in a game-world like D&D where player characters can become ridiculously powerful that they already seem godlike. Examples include Bane, the god of strife, and his similarly evil gods Bhaal and Myrkul, who were all adventures and, through a pact, became gods by slaying increasingly powerful ancient beings, absorbing their energy, and confronting the then-god of death, Jergal. So FR does not have a theology that is set, stable, and unchangeable⁠—it is something that players and characters in the novels can expect to truly interact with, maybe even become.

The FR theology is further complicated and made interesting by the presence of an ur-deity, the Overgod known as Ao (yes, a pretty transparent play on Alpha and Omega from the Christian Bible). Few mortals know about Ao and he is not a god who, like the others, requires praise and supplication to maintain his position in the pantheon. He created all and established the idea of godhood in an effort to harness the great energies of the universe, charging the gods with retaining the balance between good and evil, chaos and order through a set of laws called the Tablets of Fate, which record the name and purpose of each deity.

The Tablets of Fate

In short, FR theology is in practice polytheistic, but in fact (and unbeknownst to most mortals) henotheistic. It is also dynamic, changing, and is structured as much by the desires of the gods as by their worshippers, whose devotion can make or break the power of a deity. FR theology draws wildly from real-world histories; the Tablets of Fate seem to draw on the Hebrew Ten Commandments but also the Code of Hammurabi; Ao is not only inspired by the Christian Gospels and Hebrew Genesis, but also the Babylonian and Greek creation stories, where a primordial being ushers in a genealogy of competing gods, titans, and more (you can read the character’s history here). FR theology is a fascinating world-building premise and is at the center of the Time of Troubles.

Shadowdale was intended to be the first novel in the Avatar trilogy, written by Richard Awlinson (the pen name of Scott Ciencin), which would tell the dramatic story of the Time of Troubles from the perspective of a group of adventurers (quite literally, they are treasure-seeking adventurers and mercenaries—seriously, what is the economic premise of FR that allows so many people to just be professional “adventurers”?) who become involved in the wars between the fallen gods. The novel offers us Kelemvor, a human fighter affected by a werepanther curse; Midnight, a human wizard(ess); Cyric, a human rogue; and Adon, a human cleric of Sune, goddess of beauty. Yes, a novel set in a D&D fantasy world where every character is a human… Seriously.

The novel opens with Ao banishing the gods to Faerûn (the main continent of the FR storyworld) after the Tablets of Fate go missing (stolen by Bane and Myrkul, who think stealing the Tablets will weaken Ao and allow them to take over all the Realms—this backfires tremendously). Ao reprimands all of the gods and enacts this collective punishment (which is outlawed by the Geneva Conventions), saying that the gods will only be restored when the Tablets of Fate are returned. Only Helm, god of justice and probably the most boring god in the FR storyworld, remains behind to cast out any gods who seek to return without the Tablets. Throughout the novel, the adventurer-protagonists face down Bane and his minions as Bane tries to regain power; they travel across Faerûn and fight in magnificent battles, first to help free Mystra (goddess of magic) from Bane and then to follow her orders to help the great mage Elminster close of the Celestial Stairways that would allow Bane to return to and usurp the Heavens (he has a secret plan to kill Helm).

The novel is, as a novel, quite fun LOTR-style romp that pulls our characters forward into one act after another when, upon completing one mission, things go badly awry and the stakes are raised, requiring them to pursue a new stage of a wholly more complicated quest. The characters are themselves the cookie-cutter doldrums of D&D character creation. They are, with a few exceptions, uninspired, absolutely typical members of their classes in both their skills and their motivations: Kelemvor, for example, is hyper-masculine, very muscular, obviously sexy, and doesn’t believe women are anything but damsels in distress. Midnight has cool magic skills and, although, she has a touch of Ripley or Sarah Connor’s 1980s female badassery, she swoons over Kelemvor’s machismo and falls almost immediately in love (for no reason).

Despite these uninspired characters, Ciencin creates some interesting story arcs within this otherwise quest-busy narrative. Adon, for example, is a devotee of the goddess of beauty and is absolutely obsessed with his own looks (he is, hilariously, very plain looking), but goes through a crisis of faith when he is permanently scarred. It’s an interesting twist on clerical devotion and, rather than casting a cleric of a god like Helm or some other very traditional cleric-esque god, Adon worships a deity of aesthetics and faces personal crisis not because of his actions, but because of his looks. I personally loved that. Cyric, too, has a somewhat interesting arc in that he is an incredibly unlikable character. In a somewhat big departure for a D&D rogue, he’s not just a whacky sleight-of-hand thief, but a straight up cold-blooded assassin. His character arc follows him as he confronts his own selfishness and murderousness, particularly after he sees the death of a mercenary colleague that begins to haunt him. In other words, Cyric is a bad dude who begins to confront his shittiness as he begins to suffer PTSD. Midnight is pretty uninteresting as a character, with her arc mostly focusing on her love for Kelemvor and her being chosen by Mystra; Ciencin seems somewhat unsure how to write a female character that isn’t an object of male desire and interest, and instead opts to forego character development for cliches and throwing her some awesome magical powers. Kelemvor offers a small twist to the fighter type but only because his family has a curse that means he can only undertake a quest if there’s monetary gain in it, otherwise he panthers-out. It’s meh.

Shadowdale is fundamentally a fine novel, as a novel, with some interesting storytelling and a lot of action. As D&D novels go, it’s pretty good plot-wise, though I don’t find a single character interesting, compelling, or noteworthy—and that’s a problem for me. I also think it’s important to note that Shadowdale deals with gods and hyper-powerful beings like Elminster, but all of them seem so pedestrian, just as uncompelling as the adventurer-protagonists. Bane, sure, is an evil dude who just wants to cause strife across the universe; fine, that’s boring but so are most black-and-white “pure evil” bad guys in fantasy, and he lacks the mystery of a far-off baddie like Sauron. Mystra is slightly more compelling, since as the source of stable magic in the Realms she rightfully believes Ao has done something detrimental to existence by banishing her, but rather than blaming Ao she pits herself against Bane.

But let’s talk Ao and Elminster. I think these two face the same problem. Ao is the Overgod. Yet, like the god of the Hebrew Torah, he is petty and competitive and jealous and angry. Still, he provides structure to the universe, which kinda sucks—he’s like your boss’s boss, but created reality. But its discomfiting to see this primordial, created-the-universe being acting like a petty bastard and firing his employees. It really breaks the suspension of disbelief that we’re watching the proceedings of these very serious, all-powerful beings. Similarly, Elminster is the most powerful mage in the Realms, hundreds of years old. But he’s a cantankerous fucker who would rather punish people for annoying him (i.e. coming to the most powerful mage in the Realms to help solve immense problems) than use his powers ethically. Both Ao and Elminster are characters whose stature and place in their storyworld rise to Tolkienian proportions, easily equivalent to Eru Ilúvatar and Gandalf. But here they are cheap imitations of power and responsibility, they are easily knowable as the annoying men in our world whose power could sway the world but who acts instead like petty little shits. It’s incredibly annoying to read these characters. Maybe one could argue that, well, Ciencin is showing us that our gods are just like human (a very ancient conception, to be sure), but I’m unconvinced and think they’re the weakest part of the this novel.

Shadowdale was originally meant to start a trilogy all under the penname Richard Awlinson, but with the first two written by Ciencin and the third by Troy Denning, published in 1989, but it then expanded into a quintet when two sequels were published in 1993 and 1998. Though Shadowdale is a relatively uninteresting novel-as-a-novel, it tells the kind of story that I love: a world-changing, theology-breaking mega-story that, by the end of the series, has totally changed the landscape and cosmology of the storyworld (there kind where 3 protagonists become gods themselves).

Shadowdale marks the beginning of a major event in the FR storyworld and, despite it being somewhat of an eye-rolling chore to read, I’m excited to see where the rest of the series goes.


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