Swordmage by Richard Baker
Wizards of the Coast, 2008.
Swordmage is the first book set in the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms and there are some changes to the landscape we’re familiar with. Most noticable, and most hotly debated on the forums around the interwebs, is the death of Mystra and the collapse of the Weave. Apparently this resulted in the creation of Changelands (areas where other realities, planes?, poke through into our own) and the Spellplague. I won’t say yay or nay whether this destroys/ruins the realms we know and love but it certainly makes for a darker more dangerous landscape; not necessarily a bad thing. I will whole heartedly approve of the return of the sun god Amaunator who I’ve been a fan of since he crossed paths with my Bhaalspawn way back in Baldur’s Gate 2. All that is merely background stuff and doesn’t impact the flow of the novel too much.
The plot of Swordmage follows Geran Hulmaster who, surprise surprise, fights wielding a blade with one hand and arcane magics with the other. After a disastrous duel Geran, a human, is exiled from the elven city of Myth Drannor. We catch up with as he returns home, his halfling friend and business partner Hamil in town, to investigate the murder of a boyhood friend. Once home he finds trouble and danger in just about every corner; from undead to political strife.
Geran is a bit of do-gooder of almost paladin like proportions. Sticking up for friends, family and those he sees as done wrong, but with a penchant for brooding over his exile from Myth Drannor and the loss of his elven love. Which is where I have a problem. You see, in the aforementioned duel Geran maims his opponent surprising everyone, including himself, in the process. My first thought was magical compulsion, but nothing is said about it and the event isn’t even explored after the opening chapter. We never see any sort of “dark side” in Geran and his confusion over events transfer far too easily to the reader. The fact that he accepts what happened in the duel rather then questions lends a certain flatness to the character that keeps him several notches below the Realms ‘greats’. He’s not a bad character but he is a bit to shiny for my tastes. On the other hand I liked Hamil a lot. Not necessarily an original character but well drawn. His love of children, his attempted wooing of women (even those more than twice his height), and his dry humor all meshed to create an entertaining read.
I think the novel spread itself a little thin in the plot department. We have Geran trying to solve his friends murder and navigate the political quagmire at home in the process he is investigating barrows that were broken into and encountering a powerful lich. Side by side with that we have a Warlock Knight of Vassa uniting the monstrous denizens of the north to open up trade and, perhaps, for other nefarious purposes. Both plots leave little room to both get aquainted with the new Realms and the new characters but I have to admit that the explosion of colliding plots in the novel’s climax made for some thrilling reading.
As the first part of a series this is an interesting novel. The action seems fairly self-contained with only two real dangling plot threads left to continue the series. Both of which, appropriately enough, come together in the novel’s final pages a fact which actually has me anticipating the next novel. As far as introduction to the new Realms I wish Wizards had maybe gone a different route. The packed plot and considerable action leave little time to stop and look around, with only scant details about what has changed in the Realms having been shared it leaves one wanting a little bit more. It looks like most of the details will end up in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting; a fact that leaves those who prefer the novels (i.e. me) starved for information.
Mediocre characterization and the almost bloated plot are elevated by an exciting extended action sequence in the novels final chapters. A solid C+, recommended with some reservations but still likely to appeal to hardcore Realms fans.