When it was revealed that with the advent of 4th Edition that the newest edition of Dungeons and Dragons would be abandoning the setting of Greyhawk for its stock setting there was some outcry amongst fans. Not much, given that Wizards’ utilization of Greyhawk was, to put it mildly, sort of half-assed anyway it didn’t seem like too big a change. The “points of light” setting was an interesting concept, bits of civilization in a sea of darkness and danger that would leave room for players to expand their world however they saw fit. However, over the last few years and with the release of the new Essentials line of products Wizards of the Coast has been moving to form a more cohesive background for their Points of Light setting. The Nentir Vale, first introduced in Keep of the Shadowfell (or maybe before, but that is the first I remember of it) has been slowly becoming a more geographic distinct and well defined, albeit rather small in the grand scheme of things, place. The release of Wizards’ head of R&D Bill Slavicsek’s novel The Mark of Nerath continues that trend. While not quite world defining The Mark of Nerath expands upon the settings introduced in the adventures and supplementary materials that Wizards of the Coast has featured since the release of 4th Edition. Which, while great for people who have explored those places with dice in hand, doesn’t quite work as well for the uninitiated.
One of the things I’ve loved about the D&D novels of yore (your R. A. Salvatore, and old school Weiss/Hickman stuff) was that they frequently introduced a small cast of relatively strong personalities that a reader could easily latch onto. While The Mark of Nerath tries to do the same, it doesn’t quite succeed its characters, each group coming from their own separate plot path makes identifying or getting to know a single character a bit difficult. At the same time the novel often leans a bit too heavily on game mechanics and recognizable spells and abilities to be completely enjoyable. On the other hand The Mark of Nerath is also laying the groundwork for the worlds spanning Abyssal Plague (more on that late) a subplot that I found more interesting than the more immediate threats the characters face.
Now The Mark of Nerath isn’t all bad. Slavicsek has a lot of great ideas that just don’t always mesh into a cohesive whole. He employs some classic adventurer cliches that, while definitely familiar, I still found both enjoyable and somewhat comforting. I particularly enjoyed the Mad Emperor Magroth who was a nice blend of creepy, competent, and comical to be a fun read. On of those familiar adventurer tropes, the halfling Uldane, echoes Dragonlance’s Tasselhoff if somewhat toned down and entirely more deadly so that he is never ever rage inducing. Unfortunately I never felt the rest of the cast came together, they never managed to stand out as unique individuals.
The Mark of Nerath is ultimately both frustrating and disappointing. It never manages to capitalize on the relative unknown of the world it operates in to create a sense of exploration and wonder and leans far to heavily on terminology and conceits of the Dungeons and Dragons game system to work well as fiction. Furthermore it is tied too strongly to the upcoming meta-event of the Abyssal Plague to allow its own story to properly shine. That being said, those elements that do tie it to the Abyssal Plague are actually quite intriguing and for a “old hat” for D&D has me significantly excited to see where this event (which will touch on all the D&D worlds) will go. Why the excitement? Mention of the Elder Elemental Eye and the Chained God (both in the novel itself and in the 2nd part of the Gates of Madness at the back of the book), the alter ego of a certain old school D&D villains deity, tickles the nostalgia bone. I’ll be keeping my eye on future tie-ins to this event. By and large I’d suggest you steer clear of The Mark of Nerath unless your really curious or a D&D megafan that needs to read anything and everything as its troubles outweigh its merits. Still I’d like to see more done to expand the points of light setting but I’m just not sure Slavicsek, this being his first novel and whose design work in Eberron I’ve quite enjoyed, is the man for the task.