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October 4th, 2011, 11:27 AM #1
The Erevis Cale Trilogy by Paul S. Kemp
Erevis Cale Trilogy #1: Twilight Falling
Erevis Cale is a butler in the service of the Uskevren family, a merchant house of Selgaunt. He is also a skilled assassin and a secret priest of Mask, the god of rogues, whom Cale has an ambiguous relationship with. When the Uskevren estate of Stormweather is attacked by assailants using powerful sorcery, Cale sets out to track them down. He is aided by his old friend, the halfling Jak Fleet, and an old enemy, the Zhentarim assassin Drasek Riven, who seems to have also been granted Mask's favour...
It's been about a decade since I last dipped into the world of Forgotten Realms fiction (in novels, anyway). I'd read many books in the setting during my teenage years and in my experience the good writers and books (Troy Denning, James Lowder, early R.A. Salvatore etc) were massively outnumbered by the bad ones, to the point where I decided to give up on the novel line shortly after the launch of the 3rd Edition of the setting, though I continued to run D&D games in the Realms for many years. Over the last few years I've heard enough good things about Paul Kemp's work in the setting to finally convince me to return to the Realms and give his work a go.
Twilight Falling is a standard D&D novel with a twist. There's some villainy afoot which may threaten the Realms and some heroes have to set out to defeat it. The twist is that our heroes are distinctly morally dubious: both Cale and Riven are murderers and assassins in the service of one of the Realms' dark gods. Cale is aware of his moral conflict and strives to live a good life, using his friend Jak as his moral compass, but at the same time is prepared to use the divine powers Mask grants him as a priest to further his own ends. This is helped by the fact that many of the enemies Cale faces are truly evil or in the service to the few gods in the Realms more heinous than Mask, but this also helps further the possible corruption of Cale: will there come a point when his service to Mask leads him into conflict with someone who can't be dismissed as 'even worse'? Hopefully, though it doesn't happen in this book.
Outside of this moral maze, the book proceeds straightforwardly, with the POV alternating between that of Cale's band and that of the enemy, a bunch of evil adventurers out to acquire a powerful magical artifact. This POV system is entertaining, as we see the two sides trying to outwit one another, and breathes life into a standard maguffin-hunt storyline.
The writing, for the most part, is okay. Some of the cover blurbs for the book hyperbolically claim that Kemp is batting at the same level as Gaiman, Martin and Pratchett, which is not the case (or rather not yet; Twilight Falling is only Kemp's second novel and he has since penned eight others). Rather, his writing gets across the story and characters effectively. Occasionally he summons up some interesting imagery, but there are also some clunkers: a reference to 'programming' a spell jars badly with the setting, for example. Kemp also falls into the painful trap of putting roleplaying elements into a novel, with clunky attempts to rationalise game rules in a fictional narrative that don't work and in some cases are inconsistent: Mask's priests are apparently unable to convert spells into healing magic, but no reason is given for this, whilst elsewhere Cale and his friends undertake several days of hazardous journeying when they could have purchased teleportation magic considerably more easily. There are also moments when Kemp's knowledge of the Realms as a setting seems flawed: several locations are stated to be on the coast of the Dragonmere when they are in fact several hundred miles away. Since the writing flows well and is inoffensive elsewhere, these moments when the story falters are rather unfortunate.
Twilight Falling (***) is an effectively-written adventure story with some nicely conflicted characters. The writing hints at more interesting depths and the book is good enough to make the reader want to come back for the sequel (this book ends on a huge cliffhanger). However, there is much room for improvement. The novel is available now in the UK and USA, or as part of the Erevis Cale Omnibus (UK, USA).
October 4th, 2011, 01:42 PM #2
October 13th, 2011, 03:44 PM #3
Erevis Cale Trilogy #2: Dawn of Night
Erevis Cale and his allies have survived a confrontation with the slaadi servants of the enigmatic Sojourner, but now find themselves lost on the Plane of Shadow with no way home. Meanwhile, Azriim and his fellows seek to execute the next part of the Sojourner's plans and head for Skullport, one of the darkest and most dangerous cities in the Realms.
The second volume of the Erevis Cale trilogy picks up immediately after the first book and once again pits Cale and his band of willing and not-so-willing 'heroes' against Azriim and his fellow slaadi. The first novel, Twilight Falling, was entertaining but also suffered from clunky writing and some bad pacing. Dawn of Night is a notable improvement, with a more notable focus on the battle of wills between Cale and his sometimes-ally Riven to prove themselves the better man. The prose is more polished (though still prone to odd lapses) and there's also a satisfying amount of weirdness invoked when Cale and his friends find themselves lost on the Plane of Shadow. Skullport - one of the most vividly memorable locations in the Forgotten Realms setting - is also brought to life in all its squalid, grubby splendour.
As well as the Cale/Riven rivalry, the book also brings into play several other interesting devices. The duality of having two 'adventuring bands' diametrically opposed to one another is an interesting touch, and Kemp imbues each character with their own quirks and motivations that fleshes them out nicely. It's not the deep-seated characterisation of modern masters of fantasy, but it's enough to make the book more interesting than the average tie-in novel. Kemp also takes an interesting approach to magic, which is so codified by rules and structures (since it is based on the D&D magic system) that it's use has become routine and even perfunctory. This depiction may be slightly dull - the wonder of someone unleashing a powerful magical spell in another book is here totally missing - but it also makes sense in a world where the use of magic has become routine over the course of thousands of years.
On the minus side, the book suffers somewhat from middle book syndrome (there is no beginning or end, which is to be expected) and there are moments when the setting's game origins are again laid bare, such as being able to tell when the characters have succeeded at making a saving roll against a spell. These are much less frequent than the first novel but still a little wince-inducing when they happen.
Overall, Dawn of Night (***½) represents a notable improvement over the first book in the series. It's still, at heart, an adventurous romp with an unusually conflicted band of heroes as its sole major twist (which is less of a twist now than when the book originally came out), but remains an entertaining read. The novel is available now in the UK and USA and as part of the Erevis Cale Omnibus (UK, USA).
October 30th, 2011, 03:46 PM #4
Erevis Cale Trilogy #3: Midnight's Mask
Azriim and his slaadi allies have succeeded in tapping the magical mantle of Skullport, delivering tremendous power into the hands of their lord and master, the Sojourner. They now find themselves joined by Riven, who has betrayed Erevis Cale to choose the winners' side. As the Sojourner prepares to execute the final stage of his plan, Cale and his remaining allies must gather all their remaining resources to thwart him.
Midnight's Mask concludes the Erevis Cale Trilogy in fine form, tying up the trilogy's storylines and plot points in a satisfying and even surprising fashion. In the first two books the Sojourner's ultimate objective is not revealed, but in this finale Kemp executes one of the better surprise endings in the epic fantasy genre when it comes to his main villain's motivations.
Before we get to that ending, the story takes in a number of clashes between Cale and Azriim and their respective bands of heroes and villains, not to mention a brief but highly memorable interruption by a third faction. There's some impressive sea battles and the final showdown is appropriately epic, but Kemp gives more focus to his characters' internal struggles, particularly to Cale's development as he continues to try to keep his morality despite being the chosen servant of a dark god and his battle to retain his humanity after being transformed into a shade. As a parallel to Cale, Riven also develops nicely as he schemes to seize Cale's position as the First Chosen of Mask.
Whilst the book has an impressive ending, the explosions and magical exchanges are but a sideshow to a surprisingly emotional climax, as not all of our protagonists make it to the end and even the Sojourner is revealed to have a sense of the nostalgic (albeit a highly warped one). Ultimately, Kemp's success with the trilogy, after a somewhat rocky start, is to deliver a story where the focus is on the characters and their emotional journey as much as the somewhat expectation-defying narrative.
Problems remain. Kemp's prose and storytelling has improved a lot over these three books, but there's still the odd clunky line. His characterisation is solid, but he occasionally falls back on over-repetition of minor character details (we know Azriim is a fussy dresser already). The odd situation where D&D rules are blatantly being dramatised also still appears, such as characters making their saving throws or praying for spells in a rather mechanical fashion. However, these issues are less prevalent than in earlier volumes, and do not mar an otherwise fine book.
Midnight's Mask (****) brings the series to a successful conclusion, making the trilogy well worth the effort of checking out. The novel is available now in the UK and USA and also as part of the Erevis Cale Omnibus (UK, USA).