Spellstorm is the latest novel in the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting by its creator, local (to me) author Ed Greenwood, and pushes the iconic character Elminster of Shadowdale into what amounts to a murder mystery party against the backdrop of powerful mages vying for control of a mythical magic spell. Sadly, Spellstorm was not at all up to the standard of entertaining story I’ve come to expect from Greenwood. Silly plot contrivances, really bad logic even for fantasy, and a compulsive need to keep trotting out the same characters year after year work against what might have otherwise been an entertaining little story. My crushed hopes and dreams ahead.
Rumors race around Cormyr regarding the mythical Lost Spell, a powerful enchantment designed centuries ago by the presumed dead god of spells—a spell long thought lost to the ages. Found by some magic-less merchant, rumor has it the Lost Spell is to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
It is a powerful lure, and archwizards of every stripe descend upon the merchant, only to be trapped with him inside his manor by a vicious spellstorm—escape impossible, and their magic useless with the interference from the storm.
Moreover—they find themselves faced with the infamous Elminster of Shadowdale, who claims he’s just there to decide who gets the Lost Spell, but who clearly has an agenda of his own.
But before Elminster can put whatever plan he has in motion, archwizards start dying.
I feel like the Forgotten Realms are in trouble. The world has been around so long, and have so many pieces of media set there. Wikipedia lists over 300 novels and short story collections, and 49 computer and console video games set in the Realms. With that kind of weight behind it, it’s a wonder it has made it this long without collapsing. Any shared fantasy setting like this is going to have a number of iconic characters. Recurring heroes and villains keep a sense of space around the world and makes it feel more real instead of just a set of rules and some vague geography all these authors can exploit. Elminster of Shadowdale is probably second only to Drizzt Do’Urden for being the most well-known character. The problem is that after around 30 years of work being set there, the timeline has necessarily advanced quite a bit. Normally this would be fine. You start with the ‘the next generation’ stuff, with kids of previous major characters, or heavens forfend, create some new ones entirely. Instead, we’re just finding new and exciting ways to prolong the life of the existing characters. Elminster, being a chosen of Mystra, the Goddess of magic, is already going to be living a really long time, and his supporting cast of folks like former Lord of Waterdeep, Mirt the Moneylender, and villainous wizard Manshoon of Zhentil Keep have all their own ways to still be the main characters decades later.
While Greenwood hasn’t quite gone to the lengths that R.A. Salvatore has, and actually had his whole main cast die and then just bring them back from the dead to keep them going in the advanced timeline, it sure would be great if every single Realms book wasn’t the same couple dudes. But forgetting that for now, lets look at the actual story here. There’s a rumour of a thing called ‘the Lost Spell’ which theoretically just makes whoever knows it super powerful. The best I could tell from the exposition is that it would let them largely bypass the usual ‘learn your spells in the morning, and when they’re gone they’re gone’ limit on wizardly power. So anyway, this merchant has the spell and plans to auction it off, so all these wizards from everywhere show up to try and convince him to sell to them. But wait! There’s a plot-contrived magical storm around the guy’s house that magic-users can’t go through. This gives Elminster the chance to plot with Mystra to basically get all the wizards inside, therefore trapping them in there with him. It just so happens that this house is a place where magic is screwy and doesn’t work properly, thus mostly turning all these archwizards into a house full of random men and women who I guess have to just chill out?
This whole thing is so McGuffiny that it hurts. It was just known information on the side of the good guys that this storm thing only lasts a couple days when it starts up, so why nobody just waits it out makes little sense. And then once inside, everybody is obviously hostile, uninterested in any sort of civil cohabitation. Given that we know Mystra’s whole plan here is to try and shove all these archwizards into a room in the hopes that they will come to an accord about how to coexist and care more about magic than their own ends (You know, that thing you do in really bad movies where you lock two bickering people in a room and then with no choice but to talk, hash out their differences and come to a mutual understanding?) one point that Spellstorm gets in its favour is that right out of the gate, people just start turning up dead instead. That’s about the only realistic thing in this whole story. The questions of why all those wizards would have been chilling outside this magical storm that makes wizards brain-dead instead of just waiting until after the weekend when it went away, or why none of them have, you know, a sword or a knife they could be using to stab people when the magic shuts off, or why all the good wizards are just totally fine with Mystra’s position that all magic is great even when you’re using magic to slaughter people and be a tyrant are never really properly handled.
I suppose what it boils down to is that this was not a good mystery novel, and the only thing it was that could have been any good was a mystery novel. Watching Elminster pat himself on the back for the nth time was not exciting. Watching a bunch of wizards posture and threaten without anything to back it up wasn’t exciting. Trying to get my head around the asinine plan that a bunch of good and evil wizards would all decide to get along if you made them sit in a room together long enough was, in fact, asinine. It is important to note though, that in spite of not being very good, this book didn’t suck. Ed Greenwood still puts together the odd clever turn of phrase, and Manshoon remains one of the better Realms villains, so seeing him around is always fun, but I think the Forgotten Realms has sort of been outpaced by the development of Fantasy as a genre. Fantasy characters and stories are becoming a little more complex, a little more about shades of grey than the super black-and-white ‘all goblins are evil because it says so in the Dungeons and Dragons rule book’ setting that is the Forgotten Realms. I think the real problem I had with Spellstorm was that it just really highlights for me that I think Greenwood is capable of a lot more than he can possibly do writing Forgotten Realms for Wizards of the Coast with their need to stay on-brand all the time. It’s time to put Elminster and the Realms to bed, and spend the rest of the night drinking whiskey and telling dirty jokes. It seems like that’s what he really wants to be doing anyway.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this novel from Wizards of the Coast via Netgalley