The Godborn, The Sundering Book II
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cost: $15.37 (Kindle)/$27.95 (Hardcover)
Page Count: 336
Release Date: 10/01/2013
Get it Here: Amazon.com
Although The Godborn is listed as the second book in The Sundering series, I should point out that all six Sundering novels are only vaguely connected, in that these books showcase the transition from Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons to D&D Next, aka 5th Edition. As such, you don’t need to read all of the books, or in any particular order, to understand the stories in each, as they are self contained. At the same time, The Sundering branding actually does these books a disservice, as each Sundering novel is, in fact, a continuation of a previous series, complete with its own heavy backstory. We saw this with the first book in the series, The Companions, where it was actually the twenty-fourth Drizzt novel by R.A. Salvatore rather than the first of a whole new series. The Godborn is similar, in that it is the seventh Everis Cale Novel. Both The Companions and The Godborn are written in such a manner that you have to have read some, if not ALL, of the previous books in the series, or you will be lost for much of the book. Neither attempts to explain the back story of any of the characters, while alluding to events from previous novels without the slightest bit of handholding for newcomers. As such, readers who walk into The Sundering thinking these novels will be as newcomer friendly as the adventures with The Sundering brand, like Murder in Baldur’s Gate, will be frustrated, confused and ultimately dissatisfied with the book they have picked up. The Godborn is even more anti-newcomer than The Companions, though, and it took me two to three times longer than it normally does to read a novel of this length simply because I had to constantly look up characters, locations and events mentioned in the book. It’s that unwelcoming unless you have read through Kemp’s previous two Cale based trilogies. This is not the fault of the author though. This is WotC’s fault for the way they have branded The Sundering novels, and it’s going to hurt the “event” as a whole. What they really could have used was a cast of characters cheat sheet, like Richard Lee Byers did for The Haunted Lands trilogy.
So, annoying disclaimer about the marketing hatchet job these books have received done and over with, let’s actually talk about The Godborn. Throughout the reading I was torn. On one hand, I absolutely loved Paul Kemp’s writing style. He has a great narrative voice, organizes the flow of events between multiple characters well, ties all the different stories together into one flowing event seamlessly, and the entire time I read The Godborn I found myself wishing Wizards still released Ravenloft and/or Planescape novels, because Kemp’s ideas and writing style are absolutely perfect for those settings. At the same time, the novel was riddled with all the nonsensical and sometimes downright stupid things that were changed in the Forgotten Realms setting over the last few years. The retconning of Shar into this all power uber world consuming Galactus like deity who had destroyed countless worlds and planes across the multiverse for example. This made no sense to long time D&D players (myself included) because it was established back in first and second edition that the gods were more or less consigned to their own world (otherwise you’d have Takhisis showing up on Oerth and Vecna being all, “Hey Forgotten Realms, what’s up?”). Shar and her sister Selune were specifically trapped in the Realmspace and made OUT OF IT, so the retcon of Shar into what she became as of late has always smacked me as extremely sloppy or just odd. Not to mention the core concept of this specific novel, The Godborn, hinges on Shar being about to destroy existence. It just simply isn’t believable at all when Lord Ao, Shar’s creator and extreme superior in every way, could have just winked her out of existence or stripped her of her powers and turned her mortal. He’s done it before. Remember The Time of Troubles? No long time Forgotten Realms fan could take the concept of what Shar has been doing in the Everis Cale novels seriously because, hey, there’s no chance Ao would let Shar succeed. This would be one of those rare situations where he’d actually step in, so all suspension of disbelief that Shar would be even slightly successful in her endeavor is lost.
The novel is filled with other retcons I never really enjoyed about the modern Forgotten Realms. The retcon of Mask into a shrewd planner and long term thinker rather than the almost comic relief or fallible loser he always was before, as Mask was taken down by Cyric after all. The Shadovar. The retcon of Aberil-Toril into two sometimes separate worlds. Lathander becoming Amaunator. The extremely odd changes to devils and demons. The entire novel was riddled with all the changes I’ve found distasteful about the modern Forgotten Realms, but this isn’t the author’s fault, as it’s all editorial mandates any D&D writer has to work with.
Now I bring up all these nitpicky dislikes I have about the modern Realms and how they are in The Godborn, not to complain, but in fact, to PRAISE. You see, despite all these personal turn offs, continuity errors caused by Fourth Edition and the like showing up repeatedly through The Godborn, Paul Kemp makes them work and, more importantly, made me put aside my disdain (albeit temporally) for these things because the novel is entertaining and well written. This kind of proves the idea that a good writer can salvage even the most terrible idea (or editorial mandate). Although I knew, both as a critic and fan of D&D, that there was no way Shar would succeed in her nihilistic genocide, I wanted to see how she would fail. I wanted to see how the heroes would succeed. I wanted to see how the evil characters would get their comeuppance. It was that well written. As I’ve said, I enjoy Kemp’s writing style. I own Kemp’s Egil and Nix novels and I really like those, so at the end of the day, the style, narrative and quality of Kemp’s writing beat out my personal dislikes of what Wizards has done to the Realms. I still think The Godborn is NOT a novel for newcomers, and I’m sure I’d appreciate the characters and story being told on a far deeper level had I read the previous six books featuring some of these characters, but if you do pick it up just to read all of The Sundering, you’ll at least be entertained by the writer, if not the content.
There’s more to the plot of The Godborn than, “a bunch of heroes save the world.” The book is a direct continuation of plot threads from Kemp’s previous Forgotten Realms novels. In the case of the Godborn, the focus is on the son of Everis Cale, Vasen. Vasen’s birth is a complicated one, involving time travel, the interference of a demigod (although they use Godling in the novel), and the loss of both parents before he draws his first breath. Vasen is a very interesting character, not just because he is a half shade/half man, but because in addition to his powers that come from being a creature of Shadow, he is also a Paladin of Amaunator, the god of light. So you have this juxtaposition of light and shadow, and the grounds for internal conflict and angst. Thankfully, Vasen doesn’t spend much of the book in an, “Oh woe is me, I’m different,” state. He reflects upon it on occasion and feels sad when someone is scared or mocks his dual lineage, but it was refreshing to see a potentially morose character actually comfortable with himself and confident in who he is. You don’t see anything of Vasen growing up, just his birth, then the next thing you know he is thirty. It would have been nice to have scenes with Vasen growing up, exploring his dual heritage, as the character is quite interesting. Perhaps we’ll get a short story set in his youth down the road.
The crux of the plot revolves around an attempt to reunite the essence of the dead god Mask, now distilled into three characters: Rivalen, the Nightseer of Shar, Asmodeus, a Devil, and Riven, a longtime compatriot of Everis Cale. Both Riven and Rivalen (Names are too similar for my liking and it may confuse newcomers at first) have their own overarching plots on how to do this, but both require Vasen as the lynchpin of their plot. If Rivalen succeeds, the essence of Mask will be fed to Shar, allowing her to complete the Cycle of Night and devour the world. If Riven succeeds, someone (hopefully on their side) will become the new God of Shadows, similar to how Midnight became Mystra during the Time of Troubles. The book is mostly padded with filler as you get to the climax. Most of the time you don’t notice it, but other times you will feel entire sections are just there to up the page count. It’s an odd juxtaposition of really wanting to see what is going to happen next, then being hit with with a piece where you just want to say, “Get on with it!” The book really could have been streamlined, but at least the padding is more entertaining than stock footage in a Roger Corman film.
There are two things I really liked. The first was the friendship between Vasen and Orsin (the last priest of Mask). It was the best part of the book, with snappy dialogue, and you could really see the two grow together. At times it was like the D&D equivalent of Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, but without the bwah-ha-ha’ing, and it’s great to see an actual friendship in a D&D novel that feels real and organic rather than unexplored. They really are the highlight of the book, which is great, as the focus isn’t on the old established characters but new heroes for a new age. This is the smart move as Riven, Cale, et al have had their time in the sun. By having them as supporting characters, Kemp gets to throw a bone to longtime fans while also creating new characters he has yet to truly explore. The other thing I enjoyed was the ending. For the entire book it really felt that one of two characters was going to get to be the new Mask – either Cale or Vasen. I was really hoping we weren’t going to see Cale show up in the last ten percent of the book and Marty Stu his way through the antagonists, saving the day and thus rendering the rest of the novel moot. Thankfully that never occurred. I also wasn’t expecting the new Mask (if he uses that name; after all Cyric didn’t call himself Baal) to be the character it was, but it was the perfect choice in hindsight. I really like how Kemp wrapped up the novel, and although I’m not sure if I’ll go back and read the six books that came before this, I’m sure I’d read a series about Orsin and Vasen.
Now for the one big thing I didn’t like about the novel (besides the Fourth Edition metaplot stuff that doesn’t appeal to me as a D&D fan). Have you ever heard the term, “Women in Refrigerators?” It’s generally a reference to a female that exists simply to die horribly in order to give a male character motivation and/or pathos. Well, unfortunately there are THREE occurrences of this in The Godborn. All three female characters in the book (there are only four, the three mentioned above and a mother who has little development other than “Save my boy Vasen!” and “Sorry I was slightly racist to you before you saved my boy Vasen.”) exist solely to die horribly and give two different characters tragedy in their lives, as well as motivation to fight. None of the female characters in the novel are particularly developed or fleshed out, and they are basically just meat to be slaughtered. Two of the women (one a young girl) are very horribly raped. Not sexually, but mentally, physically and spiritually… which is far worse due to what happens to them during and after the event. I was really disappointed to see Kemp’s treatment of women in this novel, both in terms of their eventual fate and how badly they were written compared to the male characters. Now, I haven’t read Kemp’s other D&D novels, so I can’t say if this is a one-off or a regular occurrence for him IN THIS SETTING. It certainly isn’t the case with his Egil and Nix novels, and Kemp has a wife and two daughters I believe, so I strongly believe this just happens to be one of those unfortunate times where the body count is all female rather than intentional or unconscious misogyny. However, some people who pick this book up are definitely going to accuse Kemp of said misogyny – especially if it is their first time reading a book by him. The one two punch of badly written female characters and their horrible demise is going to set off some reactionary alarms. I’ll admit, I’m disappointed with Kemp in this area, but again, since the other books by Kemp that I have read don’t feature women who show up for a few pages and then their insides are on their outside, I’m not going to point the finger of accusation at him. Instead I’m going to simply say that there are parts of this book that are going to be triggers for more reactionary readers.
All in all, The Godborn is fun but flawed. It’s far less newcomer friendly than The Companions was, and so, unless you are a big Kemp or Everis Cale fan, I can’t recommend it as a starting point, nor is it an especially good follow up to The Companions simply because The Sundering novels are only slightly connected. The writing in the novel, save for the treatment of female characters, is exceptional, and as I have said throughout this review, Kemp was able to make me put aside my personal dislike to some 4E Forgotten Realms changes and enjoy the novel in spite of, and sometimes BECAUSE of, those very things I don’t care for. That’s the mark of an exceptional writer. Sure the pacing is a bit off at times, and the book feels like it has some filler, but the basic plot is excellent and the relationships between the many male characters in the book are well done. In the end, The Godborn made me feel like I would spend money on a new Vasen/Orsin buddy novel, and in that respect the novel has done its job. Opinions on the quality of the novel will vary, as longtime Cale fans will no doubt love it in spite of its flaws, and people looking for any reason to cry “anti-woman writer alert!” will no doubt hate this book because of the fates that befall three of the four female characters in the novel and overlook the quality of the writing. Basically let’s give The Godborn a thumbs in the middle. The price for the Kindle and Hardcover version of the book are far too inflated for me to recommend it The Godborn based on the hit or miss aspects of the novel and the fact you need to have read a half dozen other books to really get the maximum effect of the tale. I’d suggest waiting until the paperback version comes out unless you really can’t wait to read the next Cale novel.