The Masked Witches: Brotherhood of the Griffon, Book IV
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cost: $7.99 ($6.39 for Kindle Version)
Release Date: 02/07/2012
Get it Here: Amazon.com
The Masked Witches is the seventh book featuring the warmage Aoth Fezim since 2007. At this rate, Richard Lee Byers is going to have him in as many books as Drizzt Do’Urden or Elminster. I’m glad of that, because Aoth has easily become my second favorite Dungeons & DragonsRavenloft era, I really hadn’t found any worth keeping or even re-reading. That all changed in mid-2007 when I picked up Unclean at Dreamhaven in Minneapolis and found myself hooked. Since then, I’ve preordered every D&D book Richard Lee Byers has written. I even went back and picked up The Year of Rogue Dragons trilogy from Paperbackswap.com after finishing The Brotherhood of the Griffon trilogy. Of course, with the release of The Masked Witches, the trilogy becomes a hexology (Is that even a word?) as we kick off another set of three books pitting Aoth and his friends against another new menace.
I was a little wary going into this book as Aoth had just been the main character in two trilogies and I was afraid he and the rest of the Brotherhood might get stale. We all saw how Weis and Hickman went back to the well once too often and did more harm than good to Dragonlance towards the end. Still my worries were unfounded as The Masked Witches was an excellent read- although not as good as the previous six books.
The basically plot hook of the story is that Aoth and the Brotherhood of the Griffon…need more griffons. After a century long war against Szass Tam AND foiling a massive worldwide game by dragons that used humanoids as pawns, Aoth has plenty of recruits to join his band of mercenaries but not enough griffons. They’re a rare species and it’s not like they just wander around in a pride of dozens after all. Well actually, in the nation of Rashemen just such a herd has been found and they are willing to sell the griffons to those that deserve them. So Aoth takes his girlfriend, Cera (A cleric of Amaunator) and Jhesrhi Coldcreek (an Elementalist that fits the newly released Heroes of the Elemental Chaos book I’ll be reviewing tomorrow perfectly…) up to Rashemen to purchase the griffons. Of course, it’s not that straightforward as there are other factions who want the griffons as well. Of course, if that isn’t enough intrigue for you, an alliance of ancient undead from “somewhere far off” (it hasn’t been revealed exactly where yet…) want to conquer Rashemen for themselves. These undead aren’t allied with Szass Tam’s necrotic nation of Thay. The masked witches of Rashemen (it’s basically a magical matriarchy) decide that the Griffons shall be given to those that aid them in their war against these new undead…and survive.
A lot of new characters are introduced here. On the “good” side, you have people like the Stag King (a mighty fae), Vandar (a berserker Rashimen who leads the Griffon Lodge), Dai Shan (a possible Kara-Tur Shadowdancer slash merchant) and Mario Bez (a dastardly sky pirate). For the bad guys, you have Falconer the skull lord (my personal favorite new character), Uramar (Who seems like a flesh golem, but is definitely undead instead of a construct), Nyevarra (a vampire witch) and Pevkalondra (A ghoul…lord? Haven’t seen one of those since Ravenloft). All of the new characters are pretty interesting but not all of them make it out of the first book, so don’t get too attached.
So what did I like? As usual I love Byers’ ability to really give his character personalities that are both strong and multi-layered. All characters, even minor ones, are really fleshed out and you have a good idea of how they think. I also love that unlike most D&D novels, Byers gives you a heavy dose of political intrigue along with scenes of violent combat. The politics aren’t as intense as in his previous books, but it’s nice to see how each side has their own factions with internal conflict alone with the “good Vs evil” motif that is going on. Political intrigue is something Byers does better than anyone else writing licensed RPG fiction and I can’t see anyone coming close to him in this department anytime soon.
I also loved, if that is the right word for it, that there was a lot of death in this book. Generally Byers introduces a lot of characters but usually doesn’t kill any named characters off in the first book, then one of two midlevel characters in the second book and finally the third book in a trilogy is a bloodbath. Not so with The Masked Witches as major characters on both sides are gruesomely hacked to bits by the end of the book. A major ally of Rashemen and of the Undead army are killed and I honestly thought both would survive until the next book. That’s a great change of pace. As well, in the previous set of three books, not a single protagonist died, be it major or minor. Only evil characters died. Here as I’ve said, a major character died and it’s heavily implied that another new major ally dies at the end along with a character from the Brotherhood. I have a feeling these latter two potential deaths will turn out to be swerves in the second book. I hope that’s true as one has a lot and story to be told while the other has been my second favorite character in the series. Although it really feels like Byers is hitting you over the head that “THIS CHARACTER IS GOING TO DIE AND BE REPLACED WITH THIS OTHER CHARACTER,” I hope that’s not the case as it’s a little too apparent and cliché. Still, only time will tell. Most of all, I love Aoth. He’s a link back to 3rd Edition D&D (one of the few remaining) and Byers’ novels are definitely the highlight of the “4th Edition Era” for me. He’s a great character and one of the few recurring non-good protagonists (I’m like 99% sure he’s Lawful Neutral) in Dungeons & Dragons, which is wonderful to see.
So what didn’t I like? Well, there are three things, all of which are minor. The first is that the book moves at a much slower pace that the previous six Aoth Fezim related books. I wasn’t ready for that. Even though those early books had a lot of talking and politicking, they actually moved faster than this. I liked the book, but I can’t deny that for the first time, I was thinking, “Get on with it” to the characters. The second is that I would have liked to have encountered Gaedynn and Khouryn as I really liked those characters. Alas, they don’t appear anywhere in this new book. Of course, from how the book ends , it looks like we’ll be seeing them (and other Brotherhood members) in books eight and nine. Finally, I was kind of disappointed we have another trilogy of fighting undead and demons. All of those creatures were encountered and then some in the Undead trilogy and so it’s a bit weird to be coming back to them, especially as Aoth handled all of those creatures so easily a century ago. It’s hard to actually think of any of these things as a challenge for him, much less when he’s flanked with other high level characters. Going back to creatures he faces a century ago (when he was in 3.5 land), just doesn’t do it for me. Of course all this seems to be setting up an alliance with Thay so we have old undead nation Vs new undead nation (especially with how The Masked Witches ends). As much as I’m looking forward to seeing Szass Tam again (My favorite Realms character before Aoth was introduced), again I hope this isn’t the route this trilogy goes as it seems a little too apparent and cliché for me. Of course as I said at the start of this paragraph, these are minor issues and the book as a whole is a very good one I can heartily recommend to people that have read the previous Aoth Fezim related titles, but it is definitely the weakest of the seven Aoth books Richard Lee Byers has written so far. Of course that’s like saying silver isn’t worth as much as gold, but I’d still take a pound of each! Much the same, I’d rather read The Masked Witches over most of the other fantasy fiction I’ve read in the last few months.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Masked Witches and I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the Undead trilogy or the first three Brotherhood of the Griffon novels. I can’t really recommend it to a person who is new to Aoth Fezim and friends however, as the book really does rely on the reader having knowledge of at least the first three BotG books and it appears book V is going to need you to be familiar with the Undead trilogy as well. The Masked Witches is definitely written in such a way that you NEED to read the earlier books to fully understand what is happening. Still, that doesn’t mean newcomers to Byers’ D&D titles shouldn’t get this. It simply means they need to start at the beginning. Again, I can count the number of non-Aoth Fezim related RPG fiction books that I would recommend on my fingers. Meanwhile Byers is now seven for seven in terms of amazing quality. Seriously, if you enjoy fantasy novels at all, D&D related or not, you need to go find Unclean and work your way forward from there. You won’t regret it for a second.
Tags: Dungeons & Dragons