This summer I decided I would try to go back and read some of those novels that looked so interesting when I was younger, but that I never had the opportunity to buy or read. These are novels that are either direct tie-ins to the D&D world, or are heavily influenced by it. I remember seeing them on bookstore shelves, often positioned next to D&D source books and wondering if they were as good as the game I was playing. However, with limited funds at the time (most of my early D&D books were purchased with paper route money), I had to choose between game books, Dragon Magazine and D&D novels. Generally, it was the novels that got passed by. Now that I’m older and have a bit more disposable income, I’ve decided to make a concerted effort to go back and find those books that called to me but that went unanswered. The first book in this little summer series was The Verdant Passage by Troy Denning.
The Verdant Passage is the first in a series of books called The Prism Pentad. It takes place on the eponymous Dark Sun world of Athas. For those unfamiliar with Athas and Dark Sun, it is a world where the bad guys won. It is lorded over by evil sorceror kings, each in charge of their own city-state. The vast majority of the planet is uninhabitable wasteland and those areas that do sustain life are only barely capable of doing so. It is a harsh and unforgiving place where slavery and raw survival are the rules rather than the exception. Given a few hundred years and an Aussie accent, Mad Max would feel right at home. Characters are often gladiators, dune traders and occasionally a rich merchant. Magic is forbidden, both because the sorceror kings want it only for themselves and because it was the abuse of arcane power that blasted the world into oblivion. Magic is feared and rightly so. On Athas, Magic is literally the destroyer of worlds.
It is in the midst of this world that we are introduced to Tyr, one of the largest and most prominent of the city-states of Athas. It is ruled by the sorceror king known as Kalak. Kalak is provisioning a grand ziggurat to be built in his honor. We are introduced to his first Templar, Tithian. Templars are revered servants of the sorceror kings. They alone are allowed to share in the sorceror kings arcane power. Tithian in turn has a relationship with a Senator of Tyr, Agis of Asticles. It is this trio that is at the heart of the adventure found within the pages of The Verdant Passage. Ultimately, we’re also introduced to Neeva, Sadira and Rikus, all three are slaves of the fighting pits but each has a story of their own that weaves and influences the main storyline of Kalak, Tithian and Agis. Rikus and Neeva are gladiators and Sadira is the slave girl who tends to them.
Over the course of 320 pages, we follow Rikus and his band of stalwart insurgents as they struggle to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Kalak and his ziggurat look to be the source of some incalculable plan to kill thousands in Tyr. It’s only through the interest and intrigue embroiling Agis and Tithian that they are able to finally bring a plan to avert this tragegy to fruition. The first act, or third, of the novel is the coming together of disparate parties and the establishment of each characters motivations. Why would such a group want to work together at all? How do they meet and why? The second act follows them as they slowly but surely build a stronger alliance and overcome the intrinsic difficulties of the world. The third and final act of the book is the plan in action.
Speaking of action, that’s something I wish this book had a bit more of. The introduction of the book teases us with the wildly impressive combat capability of Rikus. A Mul, (The Athasian version of a Dwarf only stronger and generally even grumpier) Rikus has astounding strength and physical presence. However, the only display we really get of it is that of him learning not to mess with a Gaj (getting his ass beat, really); a psionic shelled beast from deep in the desert. This is where we’re introduced to “The Way”, which is what they call Psionics in Dark Sun. Psionics is the magic of mind over matter. It essentially replaces arcane magic in the world of Athas. The idea is that due to a lack of magical focus in the world and as a result of Dark Suns incredibly harsh nature, creatures have developed their mental capacities such that quasi-magical feats can be accomplished. Feats such at telekinesis, telepathy and other “tele” words that don’t quickly come to mind.
So now we have an honest-to-goodness ragtag band of adventures. We have a noble Senator, two gladiators, a slave girl with burgeon magical abilities and a self-serving apostle of the sorceror king. Throw in some petty jealousy between the ladies who both like Rikus and the same ingredient between the guys who both like Sadira and you’ve got an interesting mix. What could go wrong? Answer: A LOT of things!
To start the critique of the book, I’ll say it does feel like it plods in quite a few places. The punctuated action I’ve come to expect in this type of work was lacking. Denning gives us quite a few interesting situations that the characters have to get out of, but most fall somewhat flat in the telling. I felt like we never got to see Rikus in all his combat glory. Conversely, all too often, in a world without magic, it seemed that magic was exactly what saved the day. Agis’ psionic ability was teased heavily early on but wasn’t put to much use. A massive gladiatorial show was reduced to several pages of humdrum action and quick off-screen deaths. Our heroes were completely taken by surprise and at the mercy of a group of halflings without so much as tossing a dagger in the enemies direction. Yet somehow we’re meant to believe this group could take down the almighty Kalak? Why don’t they just send the halflings in?
In the end, I would say the book was fair to decent. It definitely wasn’t poor. I just really expected more. But perhaps the problem was with my concept of Dark Sun. My idea was that it was this savage world where people died and no one even looked twice at their corpse other than to rob it of anything useful. It was that the world was so harsh and unforgiving that even the weakest of its citizens were grizzled veterans by softer standards. Yet, somehow, everyone in the group felt just as vulnerable as any other setting, just as likely to screwup and perhaps even moreso. Perhaps in Dennings Dark Sun, what is truly extraordinary is that no one is. That somehow without all the armor and weapons and forged steel, somehow people carry on. Somehow they stay alive even when it seems there’s no really good reason to do so.
Who should read this book? Well, if you are interested in Dark Sun, this is probably a book worth reading. It was here that Dark Sun got its novelized fame. This series of books is where it all began for those not actually playing in the setting. General D&D readers could probably pass this one up if Dark Sun is not a draw for you. If you’re a Forgotten Realms type, this will likely not scratch many itches. Fantasy readers in general won’t find much here either I’m afraid. So much of this books interest is based on the setting. None of the characters exactly “fly off the page” so as to make it worth reading. The writing is just okay. The editing is pretty solid. Denning is a capable author. It just felt like this book was too soft for what I always envisioned as a world of nothing but hard sharp edges waiting for flesh to land on them and rend them asunder.
If you’ve read this book, please sound off in the comments if you liked or disliked it.