Spellfire by Ed Greenwood is one of the very first novels published in the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting, and the first by the creator. It set the stage for what would become dozens upon dozens of books in one of the largest shared-world fictions ever made.
Being the very first major setting novel to be published in the Realms, which was originally picked up as a game setting rather than a fiction setting, Spellfire seems hell-bent on introducing as many characters, places, and concepts as possible. This makes the book a little hectic in places, with very few pauses for breath. However, it also does the job it was intended to do: show as much of the setting as possible in a few hundred pages. Various interviews and statements from Ed Greenwood have suggested that the original book was even longer, and that if he’d included everything he’d wanted to, that book alone would have been better served as a trilogy.
This is an interesting case for how first books introducing new worlds ought to be. I think if you are intending to share the fiction, as the creator, you owe it to your own artistic vision to claim as many pieces of proverbial turf as you can in your debut. With Spellfire, Greenwood sets out hard rules for how magic works, sets up multiple major heroes and villains, and establishes a significant number of rules in regard to religion and politics. He drops enough hints scattered around the world to enable him to come back to them at any time without any future authors doing anything that would make them impossible. I think though, that if you’ve created a large world you aren’t intending to share with other authors, something like Spellfire would have seemed uncomfortably busy and fast-paced to the point of creating comprehensibility problems. It felt like it was trying very hard to grab and hold your attention as strongly as possible, which leads into my next point.
As a lifelong player of Dungeons and Dragons (2nd edition AD&D through 5th edition) and many other tabletop roleplaying games, I was struck throughout this book by how much it felt like the narrative of a game of D&D. The pacing was extremely quick, and the action felt like prepared set-pieces. Even a lot of the dialogue during action and combat felt like what you’d hear around a gaming table. If you’ll forgive some gaming jargon, I’m pretty sure we even saw several skill checks, saving throws, and critical hits. This isn’t exactly a criticism of the book, but it causes it to feel less like a novel and more like a gaming module. This might have been the point given the situation at the time it was written, but it still serves as a caution if you aren’t looking for blow-by-blow action and plenty of it.
Spellfire‘s use of this style to communicate the game elements set the stage for a lot of the early TSR publication in the Realms. Plenty of the early 90s authors in the Forgotten Realms started off designing game modules for TSR and D&D, and it shows in a lot of the fiction. It wasn’t until later years (in and around the Wizards of the Coast buyout of TSR) that we started to see more traditionally styled fiction in the Realms, but I feel it never truly lost that gaming element that was built into it.
For readers who like their fantasy worlds to still be logically structured, Spellfire and the Forgotten Realms are a setting for you. At times, you can see the dice rolling in the background, and the rules help avoid a lot of the really frustrating fantasy tropes. No wizard in the Forgotten Realms has ever been out of magic, but at the dire final moment finds the strength for one last attack to save the day. When these guys are out of spells, they look around for rocks to throw, and it’s actually quite refreshing.
It’s really nice to see a world where the authors can concentrate on actually telling the story they want with the characters they want, and not have to worry about whether something ‘can be done’ or not. The rules are already there, there are sourcebooks for it, and while that may sometimes seem constraining, I would imagine that it is also very liberating to be able to go in knowing that if you follow those rules, you’re not going to accidentally mess up something important for all the other authors sharing the world.
I believe Douglas Niles’ Darkwalker on Moonshae was published a few months before Spellfire, but the Moonshaes were really not used much in the overall fiction (which is a pity as I do love Celt-inspired settings). Spellfire needs to be read for the same reason you need to read Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Weis and Hickman, or The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett. There is always value in reading the first book of a long-running series. For that reason alone, every fantasy reader needs to pick up this book.
But beyond that, Ed is absolutely hilarious. I’ve had the pleasure of playing D&D with him on a few occasions, and he’s actually toning it down for his books, which are still pretty wild for Sword & Sorcery fantasy. His dialogue is snappy, witty, and contains just enough jargon and vernacular to make you know you’re in another world, but in a way that allows tone and context to communicate the meaning exactly. (Stlarn it!) His pacing in this book might be a little break-neck compared to other authors, but it certainly keeps you engaged. He also has this strange knack for just sliding in lines here and there in first-person for the more minor characters; these brief lines give you enough of a snap-insight into their character to make you identify with them a little bit more. The Forgotten Realms is one of the most successful fiction universes ever created, and Spellfire will give you a very good idea why.