Book review – Death Mark, a Dark Sun D&D novel by Robert J. Schwalb

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Death_Mark_NovelBy Paco Garcia Jaen

This D&D novel was published by Wizards of the Coast in 2011 and was written by Robert J Schwalb ┬áin 2011. Yeah… I’m a bit late on this one. I should have got hold of it a long time ago.

I absolutely adore Dark Sun. It was the first D&D setting I actually got to master and it was so far out from anything else that was going on at the time – and the time is 1994 when is was released in Spain – that I was captivated from the moment go.

I read the Prism Pentad novels avidly and I re-read them not four years ago. Then I read the newer novels. I wasn’t impressed, I’m sorry to say.

You see, Dark Sun is meant to be a truly horrible and brutal world. One that would make Westeros a cozy place. The novels I’ve read didn’t convey that. They offer a rather sanitised version of Athas that I felt belonged more in a Disney production than an HBO, if you know what I mean. So when I found this novel, I bought it out of inertia more than anything else. Yes, the author’s name was encouraging, but then that’s never any guarantee.

When I started to read, though, I started to change my mind pretty much as soon as my eyes hit the pages. Much to my surprise!

The plot takes place one year after the events in the Prism Pentad. King Kalak has been defeated and Tithian has been crowned king in Tyr. The city is in turmoil as it tries to shift from slavery to a free society and the merchant houses, unsettled by the loss of earnings and the threat of invasion from Urik, decide to take matters into their own hands and various plans are conceived to take over the commerce and government of the city, including the tremendously profitable iron mines, now closed. The roles of the characters introduced throughout the novel and the seemingly disconnected actions of all the parts slowly come closer together.

It is difficult for me to tell you much about the plot without giving away key clues and I really don’t want to spoil this one. It’s too good to do that, so please bear with me. Also I can’t help but comparing this novel with the previously published ones. Sorry. Can’t help it because Death Mark is miles ahead from any other novel published before.

The characters, without going into any existentialist essays in the book, are actually really, *really* well crafted. Most of them have perfectly credible motivations and great personalities; they are congruous. That is, they react as you’d expect a character like them to react. The former gladiator is a killing machine; he might not like killing, but he does so, does it well and has the reactions you’d expect from a gladiator brutish, to the point and struggling to keep up with mind-games. The self-centred defiler works to better his plans and status and will step over anyone to achieve that goal, even if his actions put the health of the city at risk.

The best way I can think to describe how the novel is structure is this: most novels feel like they narrate how an adventuring party is out and about on missions and tasks, just like your gaming group does when you get together to play. There is one group of people and they drive the plot. This novel, though, takes several adventuring parties and sets them away from each other, each one with their own adventure to follow. Slowly, as time advances and events unravel, their paths start to converge and, eventually, most of them come to see they were all going in the same direction from different starting points.

The cast of characters is well balanced and there are villains and heroes in both genders. There are strong women and weak men. There are ruthless men and women and there are weak women and strong men. Schwalb doesn’t hold back on that front. Or any other, for that matter.

The novel is pretty hefty at 304 pages with fairly small font, and no description is spared. The fabrics in the markets, the leather armour worn by warriors, the tunics of wizards, smells, textures, spells… Everything is looked into and everything is given to the reader uncompromisingly.

Also no compromise is reached when is about the brutality of the land and its people, though, and that is a good thing. Unless you don’t like graphic descriptions of gore, violence and the unpleasantness of human (and other races) nature. Make no mistake; this novel could give any of the Game of Thrones series a run for their blood. From the quick death by beheading to the struggle to kill another gladiator in the arena with multiple blows, if a detail needs to be there, the author makes sure is there in exquisite detail.

Same goes for the ways of the land. Halflings are unpleasant and untrustworthy – at last a proper Athasian halfling! – and elves are far from the noble race we’re used to; just as they should be in Athas. And magic is lethal; properly and really lethal. And yet, there’s so much of it!

This is possibly the only thing about this novel that has taken me aback a bit. There’s barely any psionic activity. The Way is almost absent. Although I can understand it would add yet another element to follow, add even more material to the book and make it even more complicated to follow, leaving behind something as inherent to the Dark Sun universe feels strange.

One worrying thing, though, is that there’s no editor listed in the credits. The reason I find that worrying is because this wouldn’t be the first novel published by Wizards of the Coast that leaves the printers without any editing. “City Under the Sand” suffered from that oversight, which I consider unforgivable.

Everything else is absolutely fantastic, though, and if that were indeed the case and the editing had been omitted, that only turns the author awesometer a notch higher, because this novel is excellent as it is.

One of my friends complains that D&D novels suffer from a big problem, either they are written by great writers who have no understanding of the D&D universe, or they are written by mediocre writers who do understand it. There’s no doubt Schwalb understand Athas and the Dark Sun universe better than any other writer before him. And that is saying quite a lot. Thank goodness he’s also vey talented as a writer and manages to convey that understanding also better than anyone else. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the perfect storm D&D novels need. Badly.

By now you would have guessed I truly love this book and will be one I read again. I would go as far as to say anyone who’s ever run a game of Dark Sun in any of its editions should give this one a serious go. This is the true Athas.

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