When Everything is Special, Nothing Is

Wednesday , 10, October 2018 17 Comments

Beating up on Dungeons And Dragons Official ™ licensed works rightfully has a reputation for playing the literary criticism game with the difficulty set to “I’m Too Young To Die”. The lifestyle brand sells the books, and the community, not the actual prose, and Wizards of the Coast has only rarely made an effort to improve on the well-earned reputation of their novels. They sell enough to turn a profit, and keep the brand alive, and these days reinforce the usual political narratives, and that’s enough. Back in 2011, they took a shot at it by assembling a solid team of well-known writers such as Alan Dean Foster, Mike Resnick, and Kevin J. Anderson to contribute to short works to Untold Adventures: A Dungeons and Dragons Anthology.

Curious to learn how an author such as Alan Dean Foster might approach such a herculean task, reading his entry, The Steel Princess provided some insight into why the D&D style of fiction always feels so hollow. Alan Dean Foster has long been a workhouse of traditional publishing. While his prose never truly excels, his ability to take the lighter fare of screenplays and enhance them with considerable world-building and depth in settings and characters has earned him a reputation as a man able to spin, if not gold, at least a valuable thread of silver from cinematic straw. If anyone could make D&D fiction interesting, certainly it’s Alan Dean Foster.

That being the case, The Steel Princess provides further evidence that no one can make D&D fiction interesting. He makes a valiant effort, and the core of this story shines through despite the thick covering of D&D tropes. Long ago a princess was cursed to guard a battlefield until all the fallen and broken swords, and her new metallic body composed entirely of blades, rust away to nothing but crimson dust. Our hero seeks out this Queen of Swords to trade his life that she might command a sliver of steel lodged in his brother’s breast to release its hold and spare the man’s life. Those two sentences might make for an incredible tale of sacrifice and redemption and love. If handled right, the set-up, the setting, and the resolution could resonate deeply with the reader and provide a rare glimpse into a world of wonder and alien beauty and magic.

If handled wrong, and they most certainly are handled wrong, the core of this story becomes just another everyday occurrence. Boy meets princess. Boy breaks curse. The end.

The trouble begins right from the start. The first half of the story actually consists of a bar-fight to showcase how noble and strong the hero of the piece is. This being a D&D novel the bartender has to be a dwarf. The antagonists three brother ogres who don’t cotton to the hero’s kind around these parts, what with these parts being fit only for decent folk, of which the hero most certainly is not. Because he is a snow leopard Rakshasa. A sorcerous snow leopard Rakshasa. Who is, most strange of all, also a Ranger. With a sword with not one, but two personalities of its own, and personalities that don’t get along with each other. Oddity piled on oddity with even the passing mention of the patrons fleeing the impending barfight requiring a reference to an elf.

It’s all so tragically mundane in its everyday acceptance of the wondrous that it sucks all the magic and mystery out of the tale. When our Rakshasa does journey to the creepy strangeness of the blasted rubble filled battlefield, the alignment of the broken blades pointing at a central point carries no weight and no mystery. It’s just one more-light on the Christmas tree and conveys no more novelty than blades of grass or wind-swept sands.

Even the accursed princess, a clockwork demon of blades with hair of garrote-string and wrists and ankles like hilts, cannot be simply a cursed woman. Her natural form is some sort of elven creature, and not just any elven creature, but an extra special sub-race of elves! It’s all just too much to carry any real impact. With all of the casual disregard for any firm foundation to the story, the journey from the everyday magic to the dire magic of the battlefield conveys no more suspense than stepping from a parking lot into the cool confines of the local Wal-Mart.

How much more powerful the mystery of the cursed princess had the tale been that of a knight errant wandering the French countryside? The opening fight to establish his character – no mean killer, but an honorable man in search of a means to save his brother’s life – would work just as well had he fought three local farm toughs, and it would have grounded the story in the mundane so that the journey to find the Steel Princess would build the suspense and allow more of the dreamlike ambiance of her waking tomb to shine forth, rather than serve as just one more layer of frosting on an already heavily frosted cake.
A little magic goes a long way when set against the gray backdrop of a mundane world. We are creatures of habit, we humans, and our immunity to wonder grows swifter than a drunk’s to alcohol. You need to use a deft touch when dealing with the supernatural. An over-reliance on the checkboxes of the D&D game and setting forces writers to wield magic with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and all the nuance of a Michael Bay movie. Unfortunately, that kitchen-sink approach to fantasy settings has so become a part of D&D’s genetic code that you can’t have one without the other. As a result, it becomes nearly impossible to use the D&D style of fantasy setting to instill in the reader the same sense of wonder that one gets from a more sedate passage into the realms of wonder such as one finds in more remarkable literary fantasy works written by men not hobbled with the heavy load of expectations inherent in D&D fiction.
Thanks for trying, Mr. Foster. You did your best, but not even the man who made George Lucas’s Star Wars novels interesting could do the same with D&D books.

17 Comments
  • Bruce says:

    No one can make D&D fiction interesting-

    The exception that proves the rule is Nancy Varian Berberick, who must have grown up inside Sheed and Ward’s Word Hoard– her feel for Old English as in Beowulf would impress an Inkling. Her Kingsblade was good enough to confuse lots of D&D readers, though not a patch on the stuff she did outside D&D like The Panther’s Hoard. And then she drifted into stuff about gully dwarves and kender and gafiated, and who can blame her?

  • 'setting says:

    You’re doing it wrong. You don’t read DnD fiction for ethereal wonder. Just like you don’t read David Weber for ancient alien artifacts being discovered by Honor Harrington.

    • Jon Mollison says:

      That’s an interesting take. Care to elaborate? Why *do* you read DnD fiction? What do you get out of it that you can’t get out of superior literary works?

      • 'setting says:

        Its been years since I read it, but I think the best comparison is McDonalds springing up across the land as the Interstates were built. Steady, reliable, not too complicated and not insane. Similar to some advengtures sort of.

        If you read other better stuff, you run the risk of reading some truly terrible stuff. And except for one series, DnD tended to be solid, and sometimes better, and once in a great while much better.

        Its a risk adverse choice. You’re not wasting your money when you find out that the author is a Feminist harpy, or that the author wants to talk about how pacifism is morally and intellectually superior, or the author is plain boring, etc, etc..

        Another thing you get is a lot of magic and odd characters. And some people like the FX of a book. Fireballs, planets e xploding, etc.

        Enjoy your McDonald’s cheeseburger with your fries and a coke.

        ======

        As to my other questioner…..dude….ease up a bit. I’m not a furry. Don’t want to be a furry.

        I partnered on writing The Temple of the Dying Sun which is a dungeon focused on traps.

  • Jake says:

    It is absolutely disgusting that someone would say you don’t read DnD fiction for ethereal wonder. DnD was a tool for kids to live in the wondrous fantasy worlds of their books and live adventures they had only heretofore dreamed about. Now it is about living out your degenerate otherkin fantasies. I was going to comb through the dmg from second edition that says careful allowing exceptions for races and stuff because it takes away from the specialness but I can’t get dl’d, but it is in there somewhere. The whole reason they gimped the non human races by level capping them was to make them less desirable. The PHB talks about using 3d6 6 times to roll stats so that elite stats would be special and to “treasure” the characters that have them. The entire AD and D second edition rulebook tries to limit player options to keep the adventure, the shared adventure amongst the players, the thing that’s special. This is the rulebook that was written just after they ejected gygax, but its the one i’m most familiar with.

    Also just for fun from the second edition:
    A Note About Pronouns
    The male pronoun (he, him, his) is used exclusively throughout the second edition of the
    AD&D game rules. We hope this won’t be construed by anyone to be an attempt to
    exclude females from the game or imply their exclusion. Centuries of use have neutered
    the male pronoun. In written material it is clear, concise, and familiar. Nothing else is.

  • Skyler_the_Weird says:

    I’d forgotten that Alan Dean foster ghost wrote Star Wars. I finally have an explanation for The Last Jedi. It’s set in the Universe of Splinter of the Minds Eye.

    You know Luke was boinking Leahin that one. He was so Traumatized by the Revelation she was his Sister that’s the Real Reason he became a Seacow milking Hermit

  • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

    This is an odd sentiment. A least insofar as coming from a blog that is, if not a Pulp Revolution blog, at least friendly to that sensibility.

    I may be reading it wrong but it reads way too much like the snobby criticism we see on the “Literary” side of things.

    You said to a prior commentor:

    “What do you get out of it that you can’t get out of superior literary works?”

    Superior? By what definition? And how is that different from the tactic used by those literate a-holes who look down their nose at us pulp and genre lovers?

    For whatever D&D fiction’s faults (and they are many; I myself am not a fan), a case could be made that for the past 20 to 30 years, they have upheld the pulp tradition as well as anything.

    People like to read of a scimitar wielding drow ranger and his friends overcoming adversity. Or saving the world. Or dragon riding knights. They want to read to get a sense of the same game world they play in on a regular basis, be it Faerun or Krynn or whatever.

    All of those are valid reasons.

    Maybe you didn’t mean to come off like such a snob. In fact, I’d give you the benefit of the doubt about that. But that was certainly how it read.

    • Jon Mollison says:

      Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because people reject the prevailing yardstick of quality that they reject ALL yardsticks of quality.

      Let me disabuse you of the notion that I am not a snob. I am a snob. I turn my nose up at far more literary works than I turn up my thumbs. Pink slime sf/f is trash. Gray goo sf/f is trash.

      Most works that derive from the D&D aesthetic are clearly the latter. They are pale and flat imitations of the deep magic foundations lain down by the men who inspired D&D in the first place. That’s where a reader should go to get a sense of the game. If the licensed game world fiction hewed closer to the sensibilities of the pulp authors than the modern day gelded fantasy writers, then players could both have their D&D inspired cake and have it frosted in the inspiration for D&D, too!

      • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

        Fair enough, Jon. But still, I was shocked at the snobbery on display. I never got that impression before from you. Also, I’m unfamiliar with the terms Pink Slime Sff and Gray Goo SFF.

        • Blume says:

          I don’t know how a person familiar with Vox doesn’t know about pink slime and grey goo. Also everyone is a snob because you only have so much time to devote to any hobby. The pulp revolution wad about being skinny about craftsmanship and not adherence to the narrative.

          • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

            “I don’t know how a person familiar with Vox doesn’t know about pink slime and grey goo.”

            And yet, here I am. There is more to this world than just the people and things you know and understand.

          • Jon Mollison says:

            We’ve picked up a lot of new readers over the last year, so it might be worth revisiting some of these things.

            Pink slime is the soft-communist writing favored by the NYC publishing houses in which 600 pages go by of nothing much happening except tedious reinforcement of left-wing political dogma. Usually with lasers or spells.

            Gray goo is my own term for the apolitical blandness that makes up so much of the current publishing. No heart, no fire, no virtue. A great example is “Wool”. The first three pages are an old sheriff climbing the stairs inside a massive silo, ruminating on the rusty handrail. A total snoozefest searching for literary relevance rather than passion and interest.

  • Taarkoth says:

    The very very first Drizzt novel, “The Crystal Shard”, while not the greatest book is still an enjoyable enough read because it’s largely pure pulp filtered through the lens of 1e AD&D. All the heroes are warriors. The villain is a decadent sorcerer. What magic there is is largely weird and is not slavishly beholden to the rulebooks.

    The following books rapidly plummeted in quality, but that first one is good enough I still re-read it on occasion.

    • Jake says:

      Hard disagree here.

      Homeland exile and sojourn are superior to the icewind dale trilogy.

      This is me remembering it from when I was twelve mind, I probably won’t bother to re read

  • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

    Thanks Jon!

  • deuce says:

    There has not been a single novel to come out of TSR/D&D publishing that can be called “great”, IMO. I say that after reading (or trying to) about a score of D&D novels. Strangely, some of the Warhammer Fantasy novels (especially those by William King) are quite good. Better than anything I ever read from D&D.

    • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

      Absolutely. Gotrex and Felix are great.

      I’m also a fan of the WH40K Caiphas Cain books. A lot of fun-and surprisingly so- for the ‘Grimdark’ setting.

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