If you have read my articles in the past, you know that I am a massive fan of Dark Sun. It was the setting that make me want to become a DM in 1994. I then proceeded to memorise the monster compendium to great effect. Once, when one of my friends was running a home-made adventure, he gave a hint of the monster that was about to come. I quickly proceeded to tell everyone that that night we should keep an eye on the water tanks because that flying worm would come at night and steal it all.
I’m not sure my friend has forgiven me for that yet…
Anyway. The reason that I like Athas and the Dark Sun setting so much is because their stories can be very compelling. There is something very attractive about facing totally overwhelming odds and a future that looks bleaker by the day. For some reason, stories based in that sort of universes and situation resonate a lot with me and find them a lot more credible.
So I read the novels when I was a child. Loved them.
Then I re-read them when I found out that Dark Sun was coming to 4th Edition D&D. And found more novels based in the setting and read them. And loved them.
When I found that Under the Crimson Sun was going to be released, I became very happy. When I knew it was related to the Abissal Plague, I was curious and cautious. When I read the author was going to be Keith R. A. DeCandido, I was puzzled. Of course none of that was going to stop me, so I bought the novel and added it to my queue of books to read until recently.
When Rol Mandred and Gan Storvis stumble upon a caravan that’s being attacked on their way to one of the cities, they decide to intervene and lend their hand (always for hire) to the caravan. Joining the caravan as guards, they days later come across a long-dead corpse in the dessert. Unbeknown by Rol, the body contains the Voidharrow, a liquid crystal imbued with the essence and the chaos of Tharizdun, the Chained God. Taken by the Voidharrow, Rol will start to metamorph into a creature of chaos like Athas has never seen before.
Taken by slavers and sold to the gladiatorial arena in Nibenay, where he becomes a beast of incredible power, allies device a plot to deceive the rules of the city and rescue both Rol and Gan.
Does it work?
A bit. But it has too many holes.
The author pays enough attention to the characters. There is a fair bit in there about them and they are shown with both vulnerabilities and with strengths. The relationship between them is clearly explained and they all have a reason to do what they do. So far, so good in that area.
Interesting is that, as well as showing the ruthless nature of life outside the cities, the DeCandido also attempts to show the political ruthlessness of the city states, both at the monarchical level and also at the lower, more mundane level of commerce and trade. The allies of Gan and Rol are traders who make as much coin conning people off their wealth than selling fine wares. They are also some sort of Robin Hood of Athas in as much as they give away to their friends when they feel they deserve it. You could say they are Chaotic Good. They are ingenious and very shrewd and I really liked that.
Where the author goes too far is when the band of merry traders tries to deceive not just other traders, but the Dragon King himself.
As soon as the chief Templar sees the Voidharrow infected Rol, he realises of its potential and arcane magic behind it and tries to harness it. Nibenay, the Dragon King, takes a look at him and doesn’t mention it. Go figure!
The first thing that sprung to mind when I saw who the author is was “but he does predominantly Sci-Fi”. True he has some good fantasy novels out there, but left me wondering if he’d be able to understand Athas.
He has to a great degree, but, on the other hand, has missed on some things that I find basic. Having said that, I think that is more down to editing than authoring. I found disappointing that, yet another Dark Sun novel goes out and mentions creatures that are specific to Athas but doesn’t give a description of such creature. If someone is not into the Dark Sun universe and buys this novel to continue with the Abissal Plague story, they will be totally lost amongst names.
Something that struck me was how the explanation about how the Voidharrow reaches Athas was a bit lame. One of the most idiosyncratic features of Athas is that there are no gods or goddesses. Furthermore there is no contact with any other cosmology and, therefore, pantheons. Yet, a god that’s been cast away from reality, manages to sneak in something into this desolate land.
I know this is a fantasy novel and this might sound silly, but that’s just hard to believe.
In short, this novel has a few very good things and some very poor ones. Although it is entertaining and easy to read, I don’t feel it makes the most of Athas or the Abyssal Plague itself. Yes, the characters are enjoyable, but they are not enough to carry the weight of the Abyssal Plague, and even that mentioned plague doesn’t come as enough of a threat, like it did in the Temple of the Yellow Skulls.
And it’s a shame because the competence of the writer is pretty obvious and he’s got to understand Athas fairly well. This is, although not a bad book, it’s not great either. Worth reading if you are interested in Dark Sun or following the Abyssal Plague series.
Three stars for this book.
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