We now get to the genre of book that is my jam. I know some of you may have been thrown for a loop when my first solo review on the site was Lolita. Well, fear not, I will never abandon the horse that brought me to book review land. So without further ado, let’s get into my first fantasy review.
I just finished reading Swordmage by Richard Baker, published in 2008. Now, I am a fan of lots of different types of fantasy, but I have to admit I have never read a book that was based on Dungeons and Dragons. This is shocking, I know. The idea of a D&D book always seemed cool to me with their various classes and races, but I always shied away from reading one because it is based on a game. Any time another piece of entertainment – a movie, a book, or TV show – is based on a video game or a board game, it is usually really shitty. I never saw Battleship but I am assuming it was real bad. I enjoyed Street Fighter but my soul is forever stained for it.
So I went into my fist D&D novel experience with low expectations and mixed feelings. I was sure I would like the swords and the fighting and the magic, but I feared that the writing would feel a bit stilted because the author would be hamstrung by a Wizards of the Coast (owner of the D&D franchise) edict. They would obviously want to make sure that the book at least alluded to actual gaming mechanics, classes, and skills. Did this happen? Yes. Did it ruin my enjoyment of the book? Read on.
The story is very straightforward, almost cookie cutter. The hero, Geran Hulmaster, returns to his hometown after a long absence and finds that his family, who has ruled the place for generations, has lost control due to the rising influence of foreign trading companies. The conflicts and threats in this book are generated by an undead necromancer, a barbarous orc warchief spurred to violence by a warlock, and a corrupt family member. However, like any good D&D game, the hero finds himself conveniently in a party with himself, a rogue, a ranger, and a sorcerer (who takes on the mysterious wildcard and then frenemy roles.)
The book goes as you would expect. Hero comes back. Hero finds things messed up. Hero has a few setbacks but pretty much kicks ass for 350 pages. Since this book is the first in a trilogy, there is also the “defeated bad guy licks his wounds and teams up with another villain to get that hero good!” Stay tuned for book 2!
The author writes the book competently enough, but for anyone familiar with D&D at all, the references sometimes feel a bit forced. The first time we are introduced to a character, we are usually told what class they are in the narration. Even though spells and abilities are not directly taken from the game by name, fans will immediately recognize them. This can jolt the reader out of the experience, but I think Baker handled it gracefully enough, although there is a scene in the book where the heroes have to basically sleep for 8 hours because the hero needs to recharge his spells. This is ripped directly from game mechanics.
The characters are pretty one dimensional. The hero is honorable with a checkered past. The male sidekick is wisecracking and loyal. The female sidekick is competent to the point that people are shocked by how competent she is. The frenemy is surly but helpful. The villains are bad to core with no real motivation other than greed or lust for violence.
It may sound like I am going to score this book poorly, but that’s not really true. Anyone who avidly reads any type of genre fiction, be it romance, mystery, science fiction, or fantasy understands and accepts that there will be stereotypes and tropes in the story. But to tell the truth, these tropes sell books. People who read fantasy want to read about magic and kicking ass. If they get strong pacing, plotting, and character development to boot then it’s gravy. Authors know this, readers know this, and editors know this. A fantasy book devoid of fantasy tropes is not a fantasy novel at all, no matter how well written. It would then be *gulp* mainstream literature.
Swordmage might not be a great book, but it’s an ok fantasy novel.
5/10 Twenty-Sided Die