Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Books: White Plume Mountain
by Paul Kidd
Part 1 of the Justicar Trilogy
When I started reading these D&D books, I wasn't expecting good writing. I knew that these were basically just assignments that D&D's marketing department tossed out to different authors, in the hopes of cashing in on another form of D&D merchandise. I've only been buying them because they're cheap now, and I've only been reading them to feed my appetite between game sessions. Some of the books have been better than others, but none of them have really exceeded my expectations.
Until now. This is the first D&D book I've actually looked forward to reading each day. I'll find myself at work looking at the clock, waiting for my lunch break so I can read more. I'm not saying this is quality literature, not in the classic sense or even in the modern/popular sense. You're not going to set down a Dean Koontz novel to pick up this one. But within the specific genre of gaming-based spin-off fiction, this is probably the best book I've read. I would definitely put down a Drizzt novel to read this one.
The story stars a brooding ranger called "The Justicar". His personality is very similar to Batman - He's very focused on his mission, he cares little for luxury, and he has almost no sense of humor. He has a shaven head, and looks a little like Vin Diesel on the book cover. He wields an enchanted black-bladed sword, and wears a sentient telepathic fire-breathing hellhound pelt named Cinders. Again like Batman, the Justicar is less of a party joiner and more of a one-man army. I'm not really into the whole "brooding anti-hero" archetype, but a lot of D&D players love that sort of character. Despite my own aversions, I think the Justicar is every bit as interesting as Drizzt, and I do wish this series had experienced the success of Salvatore's novels.
Eventually the Justicar teams up with Escalla, a shapeshifting fairy with an excess of personality. She constantly cracks anachronistic jokes, many of which almost break the fourth wall. She acts a lot like Lidda in The Savage Caves, but Escalla is written so much better. Some readers might find her annoying, especially when her lack of seriousness puts lives in danger. That kind of character can be risky to write, as you don't want to risk having a Jar Jar on your hands. I never thought she crossed that line, but maybe I'm a little biased, since I've always wanted to play a pixie. As an extreme introvert, I don't know if I'd have the energy to pull it off. I have played similar characters in NeverWinter Nights, though.
The Justicar and Escalla mix together about as well as you would think, making it feel like a cop buddy-film. "He's an obsessed loner. She's a perky pixie. They fight crime!" They remind me of Spike and Chester from Loony Tunes. Also along for the ride is Polk, an annoying NPC who provides more comic relief. I found Polk to be a completely unneccessary addition to the story, since we already have plenty of humor with Escalla and the fire-obsessed Cinders. By surrounding the one serious character with all these jesters, the Justicar becomes the embodiment of the "Only Sane Man" trope. It's like having Wolverine team up with Snarf, Orko, and Scrappy Doo. But as much as I disapproved of Polk's presence, he didn't drag things down too much.
And really, the humor was one of the things I liked most about the book. There were some groaners (there'a "pixie stick" pun that made my eyes roll), but there were also a lot of great moments that hung a lampshade on D&D's most prominent tropes. There were jokes about the standard adventuring gear, particularly the ten-foot pole. It made fun of outfits adventurers (especially female characters) wear. There was even a subtle joke about staying "in character". Granted, I'd heard a lot of these jokes before (Escalla makes a "Did I say three wishes?" joke ripped straight from the Far Side), but it was still a lot of fun reading them in a novel.
just-a-car. The fact that he insists on being called "THE Justicar" (because it's a self-imposed title) only makes it more cumbersome. I'll admit that does add to his Batman-esque cool factor, but it also makes some of the sentences a bit cumbersome to read. Eventually they do start calling him "Jus" for short, which makes things a bit easier.
So, let's talk party balance. The Justicar, Cinders, and Escalla make a neat trio. It's the kind of party you wouldn't see much in a real D&D game due to balance issues. All the characters fill multiple combat roles, so it's the kind of party that pretty much breaks the overly-structured Fourth Edition. If this is the kind of party we typically saw in older editions, it really makes me want to try them out sometime. Would Cinders even be considered a party member (played by a separate player) or just equipment? I'm guessing the latter, since there are sentient swords and the like in D&D. But he's a developed-enough character that I think it would be neat to play something like him in a game. A character who can't walk, is worn by another PC, but can still help out the party through skill checks and his breath weapon. Sure, he won't be the next great action hero, but it would still make for some interesting sessions.
This is part one of a trilogy, and I'll be starting on the second book ("Descent Into The Depths Of The Earth") soon. If the rest of the books are even half as good as this one, I'm sure I'll enjoy them.