Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: The Brimstone Angels Series by Erin M. Evans

Been a while since I posted a book review on this blog dedicated to book reviews. I've been distracted with other projects. But I just finished reading Lesser Evils, which is the sequel to Brimstone Angels, which I read just before starting Lesser Evils. These are the first two books in a series set in a Dungeons and Dragons universe, centered around a young woman who made a pact with a devil. Whatever you do, don't tell the 1980's parents' groups.

Before I begin this review, I should probably explain where I'm coming from, as I don't think I'm reading it from the same context as the majority of the audience. You see, Brimstone Angels is set in the Forgotten Realms. The Forgotten Realms are a campaign setting that is insanely popular, and doubles as a shared universe, that a number of authors have written books. There is a huge backlog of Realms books, and it has a long and involved history. Iconic characters such as Elminster and Drizzt Do'Urdan call the Realms their home. Classic games like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights are set on the planet Toril. It is a gigantic, heavily-involved fantasy universe with legions of fans.

I am not one of them.

Any Forgotten Realms fans reading this are probably trying to wrap their heads around that sentence. I am going to further anger them by stating that, when it comes to D&D settings, my favorite is Eberron. Furthermore, the warforged are among one of the best races in D&D, precisely because they are robots.

In a current 4e game, I play a Warforged Shaman. My spirit companion is one of  these things

I have two main issues with the Forgotten Realms. The first is very simple, if a bit fallacious: Sturgeon's Law. With the sheer volume of Realms novels out there, a fair number of them are bound to not be very good. I can count the number of Forgotten Realms novels I have actually managed to finish on one hand (That isn't an exaggeration; I have finished five. Two of them I will begin reviewing shortly). And whatever his merits as a world-builder (which seem to be great merits indeed), it boggles my mind how many people seem to enjoy Ed Greenwood's prose. That comic he did recently was an incomprehensible mess, and for a long time I have considered Spellfire the perfect example of how not to write a fantasy novel. R. A. Salvatore is a bit better. I really enjoyed Homeland, but then the rest of the Dark Elf Trilogy seemed to just drag. Crystal Shard is currently sitting on my bookshelf, half-read and gathering dust.

However, my second issue with the Realms is really the major problem, and, oddly enough, it appears to be what most of its fans like about it: the metaplot.

I hate metaplots in Tabletop RPGs. The glory of these games is in allowing the players and GMs to craft their own stories. Settings, in my opinion, should exist as a sea of possibilities for gamers to explore. They shouldn't feel constrained by events that happen in the books. The Forgotten Realms is all-about the metaplot. The novels are canon, and serve to push the metaplot forward. Contrast this with, say, Eberron (yes, maybe I will marry Eberron, thank you very much). In Eberron, novels are explicitly non-canon. Nobody will raise a fuss if I include the Son of Khyber in my game because, even though I have read a novel that kills him off, that novel is non-canon, and therefore has no bearing on the campaign setting. Conversely, if a FR novel brings, say, a zombie apocalypse to the city of Waterdeep, then any DM who hasn't read that book and includes Waterdeep as is in his game will probably that one annoying player who bitches about every possible inaccuracy.

That's not to say that there aren't individual stories or products tied to the Forgotten Realms that I enjoy. There are a fair few. I already said I enjoyed reading Homeland, and I consider Neverwinter Nights 2 one of my favorite computer RPGs. Speaking of which, despite my feelings toward the Realms, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting is one of my favorite 4th edition sourcebooks.

And now I can add Brimstone Angels to the list of Realms stuff I enjoy.

Boy, did it take me a while to get here or what?

Farideh is a Tiefling, one of a race of people with devil blood. She was raised with her twin sister, Havilar, in a small remote town by their adopted father, a Dragonborn (dragon person, exactly what it sounds like) named Mehen. One day, Havilar tries to summon an imp to practice her glaive skills on, but accidentally summons a half-devil named Lorcan, who proceeds to seduce Farideh into making a pact with him, and thus she becomes a warlock; a spellcaster who channels the arcane energies of a patron. In this case, Farideh is an Infernal Warlock, and gains her power from the Nine Hells.

Then their home burns down, and the family is kicked out of their village. Thus, they become bounty hunters and adventurers, travelling Faerun and encountering various other characters and getting sucked into political agendas of both mortal nations and the Hells.

I really like these books. The first book, Brimstone Angels, sets the stage with a plot involving diabolical activity in the city of Neverwinter. The characters are quite accidentally sucked into the schemes of a succubus and her infernal masters, as well as the schemes of something possibly even worse-- a group of aberrant abominations from outside existence. While a bit of background knowledge on Fourth Edition may be needed, it should be easy enough to follow, even for newcomers to this world. I think the only plot detail that's neither explained or obvious from context is the Spellplague, but enough hints about it are dropped and it doesn't play a very large role in the story, so the uninitiated should be fine.

However, the meat of this tale is the characters. Farideh is a complex character, and fascinating to read. She's seen as the sensible twin, and for the most part this is true, and she's also a very kind soul, but at the same time, she yearns for the power the Hells give her, and puts perhaps too much trust in Lorcan. For his part, Lorcan is a delightful mix of malicious and benevolent. His reasons for making Farideh his warlock are surprisingly tame and non-evil, and he does his best to try and stay out of Hells politics. He also seems to genuinely care for Farideh in his own odd way, though his care is more that of an abusive boyfriend than anything else, as he tries to isolate from friends and family-- for her own good, of course. Or so he claims.

Havilar is also a joy to read about. She is far more traditionally "girly" than her sister, but she's also very martial, and a talented and deadly warrior. It creates an interesting dynamic with her sort-of possibly love interest, Brin, who is basically the male version of your basic princess archetype, albeit with a lot more depth and less entitlement issues (in fact, Brin seems to have the opposite of entitlement issues, often putting very little faith in himself). Mehen, by himself, probably wouldn't be very interesting. He's a gruff soldier, and that's basically it. But his relationship with his adopted daughters really brings him to life. He's a stern, but loving father, trying to raise and protect his girls. The scenes written from his perspective show him to be deeply concerned about them, and there's one scene when he is clearly hurt and worried after Farideh insinuates that Havilar is his favorite, and he finds himself wondering if perhaps he's been too hard on her.

Other characters also appear throughout these novels. Tam, a secret agent and priest, Dahl, an apprentice to Tam introduced in the second book, Glasya, ruler of one of the lairs of the Nine Hells and daughter of Asmodeus, the god of evil, Invadiah, leader of Glasya's erinyes and mother of Lorcan, and Sairche, Lorcan's sister, another half-devil. The cast all have such interesting relationships with each other, and one of the driving forces of the story is seeing how their interactions all play out. The books are unusually character driven for Dungeons and Dragons novels.
Farideh and Dahl, in a promotional image for the upcoming Sundering series

The second book, Lesser Evils is also very enjoyable, but it didn't suck me in quite as well as its predecessor. The story this time around is mostly centered in the city of Waterdeep, and concerns a page and stone that may lead to an ancient library, full of forbidden secrets. Said library is also of great interest to the evil shadowy empire of Netheril, and so the race is on to find it before the Netherese. The main plot is really more Tam's story than Farideh's-- she's really just along for the ride. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it allows the secondary cast to shine while freeing Farideh for more introspection and development, but certain parts of it feel somewhat disjointed. There's an antagonist established early on in the book who disappears halfway through, with a final villain being hastily introduced in the last quarter of the story, just in time for the climax. I get that Evans is likely saving this villain for later books in the series, but it still left me feeling like the story was incomplete. Even the first book was mostly standalone, barring a minor cliffhanger  at the end.

I also noticed another problem with Lesser Evils, which is that the editor didn't seem to paying much attention. There were a number of typos and odd sentences, and at least one moment where it looked like someone was being referred to by the wrong name. There was nothing too major, and the prose, for the most part, holds up, but it did take me out of the story.

The next book is going to be called The Adversary and is part of a crossover event called "The Sundering," which will herald the transition from fourth to fifth edition. Given my aforementioned stance on metaplots, I'm wary about this, but I'll give it a try nonetheless. From what I can gather, it doesn't look like I'll need to read every Sundering novel to understand it, but who knows? I just hope that Miss Evans keeps up the quality of these books, and doesn't fall into the usual traps of D&D novels, like transcribing campaigns and expecting them to make good books, or making the story more about fighting monsters than anything else.

So I recommend Brimstone Angels and Lesser Evils to all two people reading this blog. You shouldn't need too much familiarity with the Forgotten Realms to understand it, though obviously it will help.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings,

    sorry that I stumbled in, I hope your expected 2 readers don't feel bothered due it. ;-)

    While I found the first part of your review a bit too detailed (FR vs Eberron), and while I did enjoy my Elven Artificer, I don't consider that necessary to read a book.

    I appreciated that you mentioned the strong and weak points of both novels. Brimstone Angels worries me, as a Warlock should be prudent and charming, still Farideh makes mistakes standard psychology warns about. OK, not your fault, and neither is it mine.

    Your review made me decide against reading the books, as sooner or later they may come as audio, which I find more time-efficient on 'Salvator-Clones'.

    Thank you. Bye!