Monday, August 10, 2015

[Review] Azure Bonds

Summer is once more at an end, and from today it's back to ye olde regular schedule - which means I'll be diving back into A Feast with Dragons pretty soon, refocusing this blog toward George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. It's been a dreadfully slow season for Westeros, though, with barely anything news-worthy happening. Sure, there's a Game of Thrones casting announcement here and / or there, and the world is of course anxiously awaiting yet another re-release of Martin's The Hedge Knight-tales...and there's this "story-telling video game" series that's going on (though it doesn't really make much waves, does it?)...as always, the radio silence is interpreted by many fans as a 'silence before the storm', the storm being, of course, the announcement of The Winds of Winter. Martin himself is busy flying these new-fangled aeromachines, though, so progress is not being made for the time being and nobody has a clue how far he's actually come, because Martin has become wary of saying anything about it on his blog, because...I don't know, because people ask about it? Fortunately he's become so popular that now journalists can ask him the same question instead. From bad PR-stunts to no PR-stunts. I don't know, I liked it more when Martin occasionally fed us a cryptic "update" on A Dance with Dragons. At least we had something to talk about. With nothing to keep my unhealthy passion for Ice & Fire warm, summer's precious few moments of geekery have instead been devoted to other franchises and fantasy-related pastimes, as noted in previous posts, with the Forgotten Realms turning out to be the place I've spent the most time in, with the occassional foray into the Star Wars-galaxy, mainly to check out news on The Force Awakens (129 days to go!) - and, when in a more creative mood, I've spent time in my home-brew world, the one I eventually want to write stories in (and occasionally do, though it's been almost half a year since I last wrote a story from start to finish).

Since I own a pile of Forgotten Realms novels (bargain bin acquisitions), and I love reading about the Realms in so-called 'splat books' for the D&D game, I thought it was about time I got down a few more of those Realms-novels, to see the Realms come alive in a narrative form, as opposed to a faux-atlas/history/geography-book form. I've read a few now, all of them basically slaughtered in my reviews on this blog, but for some reason I keep hoping to find a gem. Because, when it comes down to it, I have realized I frickin' love Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms setting as a setting for high adventure. Many of the sourcebooks released for D&D are absolutely chock-full of fun and creative ideas that inspire. Yet, so far, no author has been able to translate Greenwood's vision to a good tale, which is a shame because I'm sure a lot of people have been turned off the setting through such atrocities as R.A. Salvatore's The Crystal Shard - even though that book is a best-seller for some nefarious, mysterious, nebulous, incomprehensible reason.

Expect spoilers for this 1988 novel below.

So the next Realms-book in my pile was this one. Azure Bonds. The title is pretty cool, in a pulpy way, and the powers that were (at the time, TSR) clearly had faith in this one as it was accompanied by both a D&D game adventure and a SSI computer game (both named Curse of the Azure Bonds). I've also seen this one mentioned (among fans of the setting) as a good choice, and I just can't wrap my head around the fact that people actually like this drivel. While Salvatore makes me stop reading before the book is finished because I'm bored and annoyed, Bonds, written by Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb, presents an interesting premise, then totally screw it up with a meandering vague plot, characters who barely have one dimension between them, all wrapped in some of the most atrocious writing I have ever laid my eyes on. It's so bad I actually feared for my own cognitive abilities while reading. In the end, about 80% into the book, I decided to read the first and last sentences of each paragraph only, and some of the dialogue exchanges, and realized I didn't lose much (if anything) by doing this. Seriously, each paragraph begins with a sentence that gives you a sense of place and which characters are in it, and the last sentence gives you the 'solution' of the paragraph. Everything in between is just a collection of almost random-seeming drivel, inane thoughts, jumping around between perspectives, clunky exposition, and really, really horrid writing. Why do I allow myself to suffer so? The answer is that by reading various stories set in the Realms, it is easier to remember information about the Realms. I like reading about these fabled lands of high fantasy in source books, but the information doesn't tend to stick the same way as a narrative does. It allows me to better grasp what happened where to whom in the vast timeline of the Realms (yes, I know, it would be more productive to learn about something from the real world, but sense of purpose was never my strongest suit).

Better to game in the Realms than read the Realms.
The plot, in a nutshell +2, is that 'swordswoman' (I don't dare trying to count how many times she is referred to as 'the swordswoman' - it's either that, or her name) Alias wakes up in a tavern room and has lost her memory. Not the most surprising start to a story based on D&D gaming, perhaps, but wait! Her arm is covered in a row of tattoos, a row of symbols that glow blue (occasionally). She wants to find out how the hell she got those tattoos and how great was the party that she can't remember a thing. On her quest she finds the tattoos taking control of her body, her arm swinging a sword at a priest and what she believes to be the king of Cormyr, without her own will guiding it. Sounds like fun at the gaming table, if not in narrative form. Not wanting to be controlled by those 'azure bonds' she teams up with a dinosaur-man (a "saurial") she names Dragonbait and a merchant-wizard out of distant Turmish whose name I can't for the life of me remember (and he was a main character throughout the entire novel), as well as the most one-dimensional, annoying, cloying, irritating, underwritten hobbit halfling in the history of books that steal Tolkien's concept named Olive Ruskettle (at least I remember her name). Because the game mechanics of D&D (at the time, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) didn't allow halflings to take the "bard" class, much time is spent on Olive trying to explain that she disregards the common convention and is a bard anyway. It sticks out like a sore thumb worming its way out of the anus of a harpy. The merchant-mage has little faith in himself, yet casts spells like there's no tomorrow, always succeeding and, because the plot needs to move onto the next set-piece, always driving the plot onward (most bluntly when he casts the spell haste which gives speed to his mount so that he can reach the next plot point in time).
Alias herself (that's the swordswoman) is a tabula rasa not only to herself, but also to the reader. As the story progresses, we come to realize that she is in fact an automaton, or a clone if you will, and that what little memories she has, have all been planted by the evil-doers who placed the azure bonds blue tattoos on her arm.

If you think this sounds cool, be warned. The only way I can properly express how this book has been written is as follows: The editors at TSR (makers of D&D and all related products at the time) told Kate and Jeff, who I am sure are very nice people, that "before you write this novel, please read all these interesting and solid books on writing fiction." Then the two secretly decided to go against that order (perhaps they were disappointed with the salary, what do I know) and blatantly disregard all good advice about writing fiction written, ever. Seriously, if you know a golden rule or two for fiction writing, I bet you that rule is beaten and strangled and trampled in the mud in this book. I have to invent a new tier in my categorization of fantasy novels, a tier 0 that goes right underneath tier 1 where most Realms-novels I've read so far reside, far from the lofty heights of the tier where Martin comfortably sits not writing. Much.

So Alias has this quest to find herself, accompanied by a group of adventurers, and in that quest she meets the least interesting dragon ever put to paper. When reading about Mist, I could only picture one dragon in my mind - the dragon in Shrek. That's how cartoony this novel feels and reads. Maybe it was meant for a young audience, in which case I am inclined to forgive the authors a little, but holy repeated slaps to the face, what a terribly written creature. Mist is supposed to be an ancient and wise (and evil, if you will) dragon and yet she comes across as a bland human with scales. Nothing about the dragon is interesting - she (I believe it's a she) is easy to fool, speaks like a D&D-playing teenager, is nonthreatening and ultimately exists only to, toward the end of the novel, ship the characters a great distance in time for the story's finale.

There's also a dead god involved (or rather, an "aspect") - here, the authors had a unique chance to create something scary and bone-chilling - I mean, Alias accidentally (or "by destiny") awakens this "section" of a dead god, Moander, imagine the possibilities. Instead Moander, like the dragon Mist, becomes something of a non-entity with dialogue that could as easily have been spoken by a human character. Also, the Abomination of Moander (which sounds pretty awesome) is basically a large, oozing pile of garbage that grows as he moves about the lands, pulling up the ground and trees and "swallowing" it, like a snowball rolling down a hill. So, a pile of garbage with the most uninspired lines of dialogue ever is the main threat, but it is quickly overcome toward the end of the story when the Turmishman (the one other way the merchant-mage is described when not using his name) casts an embiggening-spell on the dragon so that the dragon can fight Moander (as they sail through the sky above Westgate). Eventually Moander explodes and the dragon dies, and there are some other villains involved with little screentime or memorable presence and it's over. Fortunately.

Among the dumbest ideas found in the book is that the Saurial character, Dragonbait, has smell as a language. No, he doesn't emit a particular smell when cornered, or comfortable, like how a cat shows its mood by its tail, it is supposed to be an actual language. Only the dragon Mist can understand it though; however, whenever Dragonbait exudes a particular smell, it is described as if the character is indeed just signalling his emotional state of mind. Adding to the silly, Dragonbait's smells are "of baked bread" (and other horrid examples). It's so ridiculous and pointless. Whenever they are in danger, Dragonbait smells like baked bread. Well 'kay then.

Another crime against literature is the fact that even though it is set in the Forgotten Realms (mostly in the kingdom of Cormyr, with a trip up to ruined Yulash and a quick glimpse of the ancient forests of Cormanthor being rolled up into the pile of garbage that is this book Moander, and a quick portal-skipping to Westgate on the Dragon Coast), it never builds on that fact - the world feels soulless, empty, just there for the protagonists to lean on, like shoddily constructed sets. The precise opposite of the wondrously detailed and lived-in Realms of the world books produced for the D&D game. As an example, the final set-piece (the finale, if you will) takes place around the port city of Westgate, and yet when the characters are in the vicinity we barely get a feel for the place. Not only do we just get a bare-bones description ("they could see the city Westgate far below on the coast, and there was a hill nearby with standing stones where the bad guys were doing some bad stuff" - admittedly paraphrased), the silliest and most anti-climactic battle in fantasy takes place here as well - that is, a dragon ensorcelled to gargantuan size fighting a pile of garbage above the city. Comparing this to the evocative descriptions of the area in the Forgotten Realms setting books, you wonder why the authors didn't at least try to make the place come alive through their prose. Bah. The characters are cardboard, the setting is cardboard, even the cover of the book is made of cardboard.

SO what's the point of reviewing a bad fantasy novel from 1988, the Year of So Many Great Metal Albums? I don't know. Has this book dissuaded me from reading more Realms novels? Nah, I feel I have to read them 'cause I bought them. Maybe the next Realms novel will scratch that itch that never goes away. The itch to live the fantasy. But the summer is gone, only a memory now of cold days and bitter rain (for the most part) and time spent in worlds of the imagination, and it is time for the Winds of Winter to rise...maybe this year Martin will grant us that coveted Christmas present. He can't let HBO overtake the rest of his material, can he? Will he? Hot damn.

Next: Back to Westeros!

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to hear that. I haven't read Azure Bonds, but Tymora's Luck, also by Kate and Jeff, is by far my favorite Forgotten Realms novel.

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