Review of Azure Bonds by Kate Novak & Jeff Grubb

Azure Bonds, written by Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb, was published in 1988 and tells the story of a sell-sword named Alias who awakens one morning to find a mysterious tattoo on her arm with no memory of how it came to be there. Her quest to uncover information about the symbols inscribed thereon leads to battles against powerful magic users, assassins, undead Liches, and even a God, all of which leaves her questioning her very existence.

All right. I know I’ve mentioned before that a lot of Forgotten Realms novels read like Dungeons and Dragons modules, but this one is a little out of hand. Not only was this another Realms novel written by authors who started off creating game modules for TSR, it has pretty much the exact arc that a gaming module would. The party leader has a mystery that needs solving, so she assembles a party, sets out to overcome obstacles one by one until the final encounter is met, and afterwards everything pretty much just ends. Heck, a character even levels up in this book, about as explicitly as you could portray it without the Final Fantasy victory music playing in the background.

It’s no coincidence that shortly after this book was published, the PC game Curse of the Azure Bonds was released, and it basically follows the plot of the book. The ease with which it does this goes to demonstrate just how like a gaming module the story turned out to be.

Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Don’t get me wrong, this was still a great book for the exact reasons it sounds like I’m criticizing above. The thing about gaming modules is that they are exciting! They are fun! They keep you engaged! The reason you play Dungeons and Dragons isn’t for the Mountain Dew, it’s to put yourself in the middle of incredible events and get through them. You can feel the level progression throughout the story as they work their way through the weaker minions of the forces of evil, have a boss fight or two along the way, and fight a final epic battle full of cutscenes. And it’s awesome.

There is and always will be something to be said for some good old-fashioned ass kicking, complete with villains monologuing, “you’ll never take me alive”-ing, and all those great tropes of storytelling. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want in a story, and Azure Bonds delivers in spades. It’s actually quite gratifying to see respectable authors publish respectable fiction that is basically the same kind of stories you told yourself with action figures in your bedroom on a Sunday afternoon.

An obviously recurring theme in most of these event reviews is that these early works helped to pave the way for future fantasy (and not just Forgotten Realms fantasy). They helped to bring a lot of things into the mainstream that weren’t previously considered “valid” fiction by a lot of people. While most of the characters and settings in Azure Bonds don’t actually go on to impact much of future Forgotten Realms fiction, it did later grow into a trilogy, which also spawned several connected novels afterwards that were among some of my personal favourites in the Realms.

The conversion of the story into the PC game also went a long way toward bringing PC RPGs into the wider public eye. The “Gold Box” Dungeons and Dragons games (starting with Pool of Radiance, just before Curse of the Azure Bonds) had a huge impact on the future of RPG gaming. These games led to arguably the best PC RPG ever made, Baldur’s Gate from Black Isle Studios. Its emphasis on storytelling, dialogue trees, nested options, and alignment/reputation systems could be easily suggested to have inspired the entire Mass Effect generation of RPGs, actually adding the same role-playing you would have done around the dining room table into a single-player experience.

You should read this book because it tells a great, engaging story of struggle and overcoming odds. You should read it because it is an early instance of fantasy that has a strong female protagonist who solves her own problems and don’t take no crap from no one. You should read it because it laid the foundation for some of the best things fantasy literature and gaming have done in the past 30 years. You should read it because it has a lizard man who smells like freshly baked bread when he’s angry (no I’m not kidding).

Most of all, you should read it because it’s an excellent story, and learning about it by playing the PC game would be murderous. I mean, those graphics have NOT aged well at all! But in all seriousness, as a child and early teen, I must have read this book a dozen times, and the action and pacing keep it engaging every time, even when you know how it ends.

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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