by Paul Kidd
Part 2 of the Justicar Trilogy
The previous book in this series, White Plume Mountain, had one of the most "gamey" plots I could imagine for a D&D module. The dungeon is very obviously set up like a stereotypical RPG dungeon. Some fantasy stories (or gaming modules) have flimsy explanations as to why such a large variety of creatures have an ecosystem in the villain's catacombs, but WPM actually makes these dungeon tropes part of the plot. Upon entering the dungeon, our heroes are greeted with a message along the lines of, "Come explore this dungeon, fight its monsters, avoid its traps, and discover its treasures." It's as if they were advertising a live action video game.
At the end of the book they find out the reason for all this. (Spoiler Alert) The dungeon's owner needs souls for a ritual, but only the best of the best souls will do. By using the dungeon's traps and monsters to weed out the not-quite-epic adventurers, the villain can make sure that only the strongest souls reach the heart of the dungeon. It's a simple plot, and the author could easily have churned out a few generic heroes and just followed the module. Instead, he created what are now two of my favorite characters, and gave them a decent plot leading them to the dungeon's entrance. Considering the genre, I thought it was above and beyond the call of duty, and I ate it up with a spoon.
The second book of the trilogy, Descent into The Depths of the Earth, feels much less like a module. Keep in mind that I haven't played any of these modules, so I have no idea how closely the books follow their plots. The first half of the book - Actually, let me interrupt myself here. Now that I've read five or six of these Greyhawk Classics, I've noticed a pattern. Apparently it's boring to simply add lots of flavor text to a module and call it a novel. So most of these books spend the first half introducing the characters and setting up their motivations for entering the Lair of Unspeakable Doom. One thing I've noticed looking through my past reviews, is that I'm always surprised that the heroes don't reach the dungeon until the final third of the book. I should know better by now.
So, as usual, the first half of this book is character development and plot. The Justicar, Escalla, Polk, Cinders, and Enid get lost on their way to Hommlet, and end up pawns in fairy politics. It turns out that Escalla's dubious boasts of royalty in the first book are actually true, and her parents try to force her into a kingdom-uniting arranged marriage. When she tries to escape this fate, she finds herself falsely accused of murder. The gang has to flee the fairy court and solve the crime while on the run. The trail eventually leads them into the Underdark, and that's where the adventure really begins. There's a lot of action as it gets closer to the climax, but it never reminds me of the way a D&D module is laid out. I kept wondering what the actual module is like.
I like that there's actual character development in this book. Escalla and Polk both mature a lot, and the Justicar actually shows a sense of humor now and then. I haven't seen much of that in the Greyhawk books so far. But then, most of the these books are one-offs with characters you never get to read about again. I wish more Greyhawk books had been able to reuse and develop their characters.
You know how when the Justice League would fight a villain that Superman could easily beat, Superman would happen to be off on some deep space mission at the time? Well, there's a bit of "Holding Back the Phlebotinum" with Enid the sphinx. It's like the author didn't know what to do with her, so he kept finding excuses to leave her behind while the gang had adventures. I hope she gets more screen time in the third book.
In Enid's place, the book adds two new party members. Private Henry is a rookie soldier, who doesn't show a lot of personality in the book. Hopefully he shines more in the next book, but so far he's practically an NPC. Benelux is a sentient sword with a personality like C3-P0. The sword even has a gold blade, which strengthens the 3P0 connection in my mind. Henry was okay (if bland so far), but I'm not yet sold on Benelux. Once again, the Justicar seems like the straight man for a party of comedians, and I'm not sure another comic relief character was the best addition.
Bottom line: Great book, just as good as the one before it. It's got a fairy-heavy plot that will probably turn some people off, but as a fairy-lover I was quite happy. I'm already sad that there's only one more book with these characters. Coming up next: Queen of the Demonweb Pits.