The Reading Canary: Sovereign Stone

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

There was a time, towards the tail-end of the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product line and for most of the 2nd edition era, when Larry Elmore was the artist – not just the guy that TSR came to to illustrate the front covers of major Dungeons & Dragons releases, but the guy all their other artists tried to imitate. His realistic style, eschewing the mixture of the bizarre and the amateurish that characterised earlier artwork in Dungeons & Dragons products, was important in raising the production values of the line, and on top of that became inextricably linked in many people’s minds with the style of fantasy that TSR was pushing at the time with the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance product lines. Less inclined towards massive rippling thews and nudity as a default than the likes of Boris Vallejo, Elmore’s art reflected a shift away from Howard-influenced sword and sorcery and more towards the sort of high fantasy written by the likes of Terry Brooks, Ray Feist, and Weis and Hickman – a subgenre that was itself influenced by the authors’ own experiences of Dungeons & Dragons, either officially or unofficially.

For those nostalgic for “old school” Dungeons & Dragons – or for fantasy fiction as it stood before the late 1970s – this shift represented the beginning of the end, the time when D&D stopped being about the fantasy genre and started becoming the fantasy genre, but for those who, like me, came to D&D in the early 1990s Elmore’s style is, itself, a thing to be nostalgic for – pieces like this looked like our adventurers had come to life and dragged their kills along to Elmore’s studio to get a portrait done, and were an endless source of inspiration.

Part of the reason Elmore’s art captured the spirit of the game, as it existed at the time, was that Elmore himself was an active Dungeons & Dragons hobbyist, who got his big break submitting art to Dragon magazine. It’s no surprise, then, that in the course of his hobby activities Elmore had invented his own fantasy world – the world of Sovereign Stone – which he introduced to his co-workers at TSR.

Fast forward to a couple of years after TSR died and was taken over by Wizards of the Coast. Following the regime change and the inevitable shift in approach which coincided with the development of the 3rd edition of D&D, Elmore and some fellow TSR veterans got together with a plan to bring Elmore’s world to the attention of a wider audience. Thus, in 1999 Sovereign Press put out a tabletop RPG set in Elmore’s game world, designed by Don Perrin and Lester Smith – a game borrowing more than a little from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and whose second edition would be released as a supplement for 3rd Edition D&D under the Open Gaming Licence rather than as a standalone game. Meanwhile, Weis and Hickman would write an epic fantasy trilogy set in the Sovereign Stone world, and Elmore would provide artwork for both the RPG and the novels. (Although, bizarrely, the UK editions of the books don’t sport cover art by Elmore, which seems to completely miss the point.)

The RPG, being a D&D imitator in a vast market of D&D imitators, was successful enough to spawn a few supplements but didn’t exactly set the world on fire. The novels ended up in a library bag sale, where I picked them up for pennies. This is a job for the Reading Canary…

Well of Darkness

The first novel takes on the task both of doing the initial worldbuilding to introduce us to the setting, and of narrating the coming of the great evil against which the protagonists of the subsequent books (and PCs in the roleplaying game) will strive. In other words, it’s in danger of being the Silmarillion of the Sovereign Stone series – filled with encyclopedic amounts of invented facts with a story as an afterthought. It isn’t, actually – it’s an entertaining story with heaps of emotional depth, enjoyable characterisation, and just the right mix of laughs and chills to keep me interested.

The story unfolds in the time of good King Tamaros, ruler of Vinnengael and High King of the human kingdoms of Loerem. Pious and devoted to the cause of peace, Tamaros has been blessed by the gods with the ability to make men and women who prove worthy into paladins Dominion Lords, blessed defenders of peace gifted with blessed weapons, magic armour, and special abilities and titles fitting their unique personalities. Devoted as he is to winning a lasting peace between humans, elves, dwarves and orks, Tamaros prays to the gods for some means to unite their four cultures, and in response they bestow upon him the Sovereign Stone, a big pyramid-shaped diamond which Tamaros duly slices into quarters and distributes amongst the races, the idea being that each race would use its portion of the Sovereign Stone to produce Dominion Lords, who could work together to keep everything happy and peaceful.

At around the same time this is happening, a young boy named Gareth comes to live in the royal palace, recruited to be the whipping boy for Dagnarus, Tamaros’s younger son – someone to be Dagnarus’s playmate and companion, and to take punishment beatings on behalf of Dagnarus whenever Dagnarus is bad. (The various palace functionaries can’t strike Dagnarus himself – after all, he’s a prince!) Dagnarus is utterly consumed with jealousy for Prince Helmos, his elder brother and Tamaros’s son by his first wife; Gareth, whilst awed by Helmos, also finds himself becoming fiercely loyal to Dagnarus, the emotionally manipulative and charismatic centre of his world. Both of them are drawn into the worship of the Void, the shunned force of death and annihilation – so when, a decade after the Sovereign Stone is gifted to the world by the gods, Dagnarus decides to attempt to become a Dominion Lord himself, the consequences are predictably dire.

It’s the relationship between Gareth and Dagnarus which provides the emotional core of the novel. We’re introduced to them when they’re nine, and Weis and Hickman do an excellent job of making them speak and behave and think like nine year olds. Gareth is the shy boy, sheltered a little too much by his parents due to his unfortunate facial birthmark, always feeling as though he just can’t get anything right. Dagnarus is a scowling explosion of confidence, spoiled, indulged in his worse habits, and jealous of Helmos’s place in his father’s affections (and the succession to the throne) in a believably nine year old way, and adept at getting people on his side. His kindness to Gareth, his most redeeming feature, is shot through with the sort of thoughtlessness that nine year olds do best – he accepts Gareth as a playmate but calls him “Patch” on account of the birthmark, he shares all of his toys with Gareth but flatly states that Gareth is going to get spanked a lot because he doesn’t actually intend to behave nicely.

And ultimately, he’s not being nice because he instinctively wants to be nice, he’s being nice because he wants to have a little ally to do his bidding. This becomes obvious after the decade or so of time the narrative skips to allow Dagnarus to go off and do soldiering and Gareth to go to the wizard seminary to learn nice magic by day and naughty magic by night – by this point, Dagnarus has basically completely broken Gareth, getting him to scamper around after all sorts of dark knowledge and hideous powers for the sake of Operation: Make Dagnarus Look Awesome. It’s nice to see that Weis and Hickman haven’t lost their knack for the occasional slab of really heavy-handed imagery to drive a point across, like the bit where Gareth showing Dagnarus a sinister artefact of the Void as they stand in their dusty, abandoned childhood playroom (their situations as adults are natural consequences of their formative childhood experiences, geddit?), but they do at least do their home work and support these statements through characterisation as well – adult Dagnarus and Gareth are clearly both adults, but at the same time you can see how the kids turned into the men.

The various secondary viewpoint characters are also pretty fun. Silwyth, the elven spy who becomes Dagnarus’s chancellor, is awesome as a sort of sinister ninja butler. More interesting are Tamaros and Helmos, because you can see how both men are genuinely good people who want to do right by their people and by the world, but at the same time are simply too close to the situation with Dagnarus to really know what to do with him. My favourite secondary viewpoint character, though, is the ork’s Captain of Captains; Weis and Hickman in fact portray the ceremony in which the Sovereign Stone is distributed unto the races through the eyes of the Captain, who like all his sea-faring kind is extremely superstitious and takes much guidance from omens. Not only do the cultural misunderstandings between the boisterous orks and the straitlaced humans provide much in the way of comedy, but it’s also nice the way the Captain and his shaman are the only two people present at the ceremony who realise (thanks to the omens that only they are looking for) that Dagnarus is going to be a serious fucking problem when he grows up.

On that note, let me rave a bit about the way Weis and Hickman handle the differing cultures. There are, in fact, a range of differing human cultures in Loerem, and whilst Tamaros is in theory their High King it’s obvious that outside of Vinnengael he’s more of a figurehead than an absolute authority, and the local kings are constantly causing them trouble. (At least one, Dagnarus’s grandfather, is openly plotting against Tamaros). At the same time, the humans are a bit more cohesive than they might have been thanks to their competition with the elves, dwarves, and orks, whose cultures are radically different – at least partially for metaphysical reasons, since each race is spiritually bound to one of the four classical elements. What’s nice is the way that every culture is just as valid as every other culture: King Tamaros and other human supplicants in their temples really are guided by their gods, the omens the orks heed do seem to be more or less accurate, and the elves’ Honoured Ancestors really do manifest in their household shrines to provide guidance and advice for their descendants. We don’t see any confirmation of whether the dwarves are reincarnated as wolves after they die, but given that the cultural beliefs of the other races are shown to be more or less correct there’s no reason to imagine they don’t.

Where it gets really interesting is in the interactions between the cultures. The humans, who are riding high at this point in history, are guided by the noblest of ambitions and really do want what’s best for everyone, but they’ve decided what’s best more or less in isolation and then just impose the Sovereign Stone on the other races, who aren’t entirely sure what to make of it. The elves use it as a playing piece in their own internal conflicts, the dwarves more or less ignore it aside from a few outcasts and orphans, and the orks aren’t sure whether or not it’s a good thing and seriously consider tossing their piece in a volcano. What’s impressive is the fact that none of these reactions seem stupid or unreasonable from the point of view of the cultures concerned; equally, the cultural differences arise out of genuine misunderstandings, as opposed to people being just a bit stupid.

I suspect, in fact, that this might be due to the books having been written, in part, to support and promote the roleplaying game; whilst it’s easy enough in a traditional novel to have the hero’s kingdom be clearly right and everyone else be clearly wrong (as Ray Feist had a tendency to early on in his career), when you’re designing an RPG setting you want to give the players a choice of equally valid backgrounds for their character.

And of course, the protagonists of Well of Darkness aren’t heroes – quite the opposite in fact. Even though the book is meant to be a big plug for the setting, the story and character of Dagnarus and Gareth actually overshadows the worldbuilding. In later books, of course, Dagnarus ends up being the classic high fantasy Dark Lord, but because we’ve come to understand him so very well over the course of this volume we understand that – because he is such an egotistical, self-centred, jealous little shit we can see where his megalomania comes from, and because he is actually a kind of unimaginative and wilfully ignorant man it’s believable for him to make basic Evil Overlord errors.

The next book picks up the action a full two centuries after Dagnarus’s fall from grace and brings in an entirely new set of protagonists, relegating Dagnarus to making the odd supervillain speech – and consequently, Well of Darkness is sort of the Silmarillion of the series after all, telling a backstory separated by a big chunk of time from the main tale, but it’s a Silmarillion that’s actually more interesting and original than the main story itself. Too many fantasy series include epic backstories that the author is clearly more interested in than the actual story at hand, to the point where you wish they’d just written about that instead – Sovereign Stone can be proud to say it isn’t one of them, because Weis and Hickman actually bothered to narrate the backstory to set everything up.

Guardians of the Lost

Yeah. So about that main story. It’s told within this volume and Journey Into the Void, which I didn’t bother to read because this one managed to lose me within the first 300 pages. That does mean I read less than half of it, but it was more than enough to get the measure of the thing.

Guardians of the Lost doesn’t begin completely horribly. Early on it has us following Gustav, one of the last human Dominion Lords, as he reaches the climax of his life’s work – a quest to recover humanity’s quarter of the Sovereign Stone, lost for two hundred years since the cataclysmic events of Well of Darkness. (Apparently, there’s enough residual magic in the box the Stone was kept in that they’ve been able to make do with that, although it’s running out. Because nothing is more fantastical than magic that works like radiation.) Obviously, he finds it, and equally obviously as soon as he does find it he’s jumped by a Nazgul Vrykyl, one of Dagnarus’s Void-spawned antipaladins counterparts to the Dominion Lords and mortally wounded in the consequent battle. Luckily, he’s able to pass the shard (disguised by magic) to Bashae and Jessan, who are – you guessed it! – two young men at the just the right age to have an epic coming-of-age quest in the company of a variety of quirky and interesting companions, with the Nazgul Vrykyl hunting them all the way!

So, yes, cliche litters the landscape. The lads chosen for the epic quest are Bashae and Jessan. Bashae is a pecwae, the pecwae essentially being irritatingly whimsical hobbits with a tribal Noble Savage lifestyle – think the Smurfs if they were dwarf-sized rather than three crab-apples high. He is infuriatingly plucky. Jessan is a member of a Trevenici – the Trevenici being a Noble Savage flavoured warrior people with a tribal structure, who provide protection for the pecwae in return for the pecwae’s healing and magical talents. Jessan is infuriatingly pouty and brattish in the sort of way only teenage boys can be pouty and brattish, and is also blatantly succumbing to the corruption of the Vrykyl soul-drinking bone dagger he stole from Gustav’s kill.

You have probably noticed the high fantasy cliches littering the above concept; it’s the sort of thing we’re used to from early Terry Brooks or Ray Feist. You’ve probably also noticed the Noble Savage thing. To be fair to Weis and Hickman, this doesn’t quite stoop to the level of the blonde haired blue eyed Native Americans ripped screaming from no-longer-canonical Mormon racial myths that made an appearance in Dragonlance, but it’s pretty galling nonetheless. I couldn’t quite work out whether they were meant to be Native Americans (as implied by names like “Raven”) or Germanic tribes (as implied by the pseudo-Latin name and their habit of doing mercenary work for the local city-dwellers), but the Robert E. Howard “tribal good strong men, city folk corrupt and effeminate” idea is in full effect here.

But that’s not all when it comes to fantasy tropes we’ve seen far too much of! Do you want spies who talk to themselves whilst following someone? There’s one here! Do you want a supervillain who pops up to give incredibly long and tedious speeches stuffed with exposition? Dagnarus has got your back. Do you want an entire culture that’s basically set up as the people it’s alright for the good guys to kill? Oh, it’s here.

Actually, let me address that for a moment. One of the nice things about the orks in the first book was that they were not the hissingly evil barbarians at the gates you usually get in sub-Tolkien drivel, but were an interesting and distinctive culture in their own right, and though they did behave in a boisterously and amusingly orky sort of way they were never portrayed in an undignified or unsympathetic manner. This, of course, means that they are completely unsuitable when you want vast, uncounted hordes for the Dark Lord to pull out of his arse and threaten the civilised world with.

That’s where the taan come in. Apparently they’re aliens from another world. They are bestial and scary and burn cities to the ground, but that’s not all. You see, apparently they are unable to speak any of the languages of Loerem on a physiological level – their mouths are the wrong shape – and likewise no peoples of Loerem are capable of speaking their language. But you know who are able to speak taan and Everyone Elseish? Half-taan! Human-taan hybrids that the taan keep as slaves! So, at Dagnarus’s encouragement, the taan have a deliberate policy of taking as many human women prisoner as possible and raping them as frequently as possible in order to maximise the number of half-taan slaves they have!

This is precisely as offensive as it sounds.

As well as making the Fantasy Rape Watch alarms go haywire, this more or less pisses away one of the nicest aspects of Well of Darkness: the way that Dagnarus’s followers weren’t demonised. From Gareth to Dagnarus’s elven lover to Silwyth to the various other people Dagnarus draws to him, all of them are depicted as having entirely legitimate and valid reasons for being drawn to someone as charismatic as Dagnarus, and they aren’t condemned for being drawn to him. The great blame lies with him, for being utterly unworthy of the loyalty they have given him. Now, however, just as Dagnarus has become a cartoon villain, his troops have become cartoon goons, the Rape Orks of billions of lesser fantasy novels.

To add insult to injury, the writing team of Weis and Hickman don’t seem to be reading each other’s notes any more – there are blatant plot holes that any competent editor would have picked on had they bothered to actually read the book. The most egregious one I noticed was a bit where one of the Vrykyl realises that Jessan is using the Vrykyl bone knife to hunt rabbits – the Vrykyl all feel it when someone uses one of their bone knives to kill, and they can use it to track the wielders of the knives. The first time the bone knife is used, it takes the Vrykyl in question by surprise. A while later, it’s used for a second time and the Vrykyl is able to invade Jessan’s dreams. It is absolutely and unambiguously clear that it’s the same dagger both times.

A little while later we have the same events narrated from Jessan’s point of view – he is depicted killing a rabbit, allowing the Vrykyl to find him and invade his dreams, and it is explicitly stated that it’s the first time he used the dagger. I admit that it is possible that someone stole the knife from Jessan, used it, and returned it to him without him noticing, but there’s absolutely nothing in the text to suggest that this would even be slightly feasible – Jessan goes out of his way to hide the knife because he doesn’t want anyone else to know he has it, and none of the people travelling with him are inclined to rifle through his stuff, kill something with it, and then give it back to him, because he’s travelling with Bashae and Bashae’s Grandmother and they’re too hippie to kill. No, it’s clearly a contradiction, and one I am inclined to believe is just a goof – and even if it isn’t, this book is just too offensive, badly written, and cliched for me to want to find out.

To be fair to Weis and Hickman, they had set themselves a kind of difficult task – with Dagnarus becoming the Dark Lord at the end of the first novel and two hundred years of downtime passing they had to come up with a completely new set of protagonists to introduce and endear to the reader, but the extent to which they utterly failed to do this is damning. Part of this is because they just used far too many viewpoint characters, part of this is because most of the ones they do use are irritating. The only one I really enjoyed to nearly the same extent as I enjoyed Well of Darkness is Gustav, who dies very early on – which is a shame, because I would have been perfectly happy to read an entire novel about the chap. As it is, I got to enjoy his company for less than a hundred pages, all told, and for a good many of them he was sick.

I cannot even remember the last time the second book in a trilogy I read was this much worse than the first.

The Bottom Line

I want to know what Larry Elmore did to get Weis and Hickman to pretty much give up on the project between books one and two. Did he scratch the paintwork on Weis’s car? Kick Hickman’s cat? Set fire to Dragonlance Headquarters? I ask because to go from such a thoughtful and emotionally mature novel such as Well of Darkness to the sort of wretched, phoned-in crap that is Guardians of the Lost is an incredibly rapid decline, and I’m at a complete loss as to how the writers capable of producing the first could have churned out the second unless they simply stopped making any effort after the first book.

By all means, read Well of Darkness. The ending doesn’t offer massive amounts of closure, but if you see it as the story of the coming of the Dark Lord and aren’t bothered with the fine details of his defeat it’s acceptable enough. But don’t bother with the rest of the trilogy. Personally, I am sorely tempted to just dig out the 2nd edition AD&D rules and run a campaign where I come up with my own conclusion to the story. The fact that the first book makes me want to do this is testament both to the quality of the story and the quality of the worldbuilding in it. The fact that the second book makes me want to do this is testament to how absolutely miserably bad it is.

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