After finishing the Dragonlance Chronicles last year, I started feeling the itch to read some more D&D fantasy. My first instinct was to move on to the next trilogy in the Dragonlance saga. But then I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I actually sat down to read a book that was set in the Forgotten Realms setting. Over the years, I’ve read a number of cheap Forgotten Realms paperbacks and admittedly, I always felt that there were more duds than winners. But, like I said, it’s been a while. So, with that thought in mind I decided that it was time to take a step back into the world of Forgotten Realms for my next read. And what better place to start than the very first book set in the Realms, Darkwalker on Moonshae, by Douglas Niles.
This book was published in 1987 – the same year that the original Forgotten Realms campaign setting was released. After the success of the Dragonlance novels, it’s easy to see why TSR would have decided to publish a book that takes place in their new campaign world. That being said, this book, and the part of the Realms in which it takes place, is so unlike the actual focus of the main campaign setting that one has to wonder why they chose this novel to promote their new brand. To clarify this, the majority of the adventures that take place in Forgotten Realms focus on a portion of the world that’s very similar to medieval England and France. This area is commonly known as The Sword Coast. This book, on the other hand, takes place in the Moonshae Isles, a region that’s a bit more like Ireland and/or Scotland. The culture of the Moonshaes is considerably different than that of the main realm. That’s fine, of course. But it certainly doesn’t seem like a good representatives for everything the Forgotten Realms has to offer, in my opinion.
To story focuses on the character of Tristan Kendrick, a young prince in the kingdom of Corwell. Throughout his life, Tristan has always lived in his father’s shadow. The King views his son as lazy and immature. Tristan would rather spend his time hunting or loafing around with his friends than dedicating himself to his studies. The early part of book focuses heavily on the day-to-day life of Tristan and his interactions with his companions. The book then shifts and the reader is made aware of the awakening of an ancient evil. This evil finds its way to a tribe of vikings far to the north. This tribe, a historical enemy of Corwell, is now infused with a rekindled hatred and sets its sights on Corwell, raiding and pillaging every village on its way. As you might expect, Tristan and his companions become aware of this threat and despite opposition, set out on a quest to eliminate this evil at the source.
In summary, the story I’ve outlined above is a solid one. This is true even despite me leaving out a number of details and minor plot elements that should only enhance the tale. Yet, at the end of the day, I found this book to feel long and somewhat tedious. I can’t quite put my finger on what the problem is. The characters are interesting and well developed, the story is unique and moves at a decent pace, yet despite all this it still ends up being a slog of a read.
I think some of the problem comes from what I called “disjointed writing”. All too often in this book it feels like I’m reading a revision of manuscript that was originally written so that it could be used in nearly any setting. What I mean by that is at times, it feels like this book may have been written as a generic fantasy novel. But then, the author got word that he was selected to write a Forgotten Realms book so he just changed the names of cities, continents, and monsters to fit the theme. But in doing so, never went back to tweak the rest of the book to ensure it fits. I say this because so many of the things in this book are just such poor representations of what the Forgotten Realms are all about. For example, Firbolgs are one of the primary enemies in this novel. Yes, they are real D&D monsters and yes, they are regionally appropriate for this story. But again, for a novel that is intended to introduce audiences to the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, why start off in some obscure part of the realms that littered with monsters most players are never going to encounter? Not only that, but there are other oddities as well, For example, at times some of the characters in the book speak modern English. Other times, their words sound like they were ripped from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – a faux old-English that sounds over-the-top for no particular reason.
I love fantasy novels and the Forgotten Realms is one of my favorite D&D campaign settings. But, I can’t help but feel a little confused by this book. Is it terrible? No. Is it good? Also, no.
Story: Starts off pretty solid, but then is slowly starts to weigh down. If I had been the editor for this book, I would have suggested a number of hefty revisions. There’s something good here. I can feel it. But it never manages to break through and shine quite like it should. This problem makes Darkwalker on Moonshae a mediocre novel at best.
Recommended: For hardcore fans of the Realms. Not likely to appeal to casual readers.