Book Review: The Reaver: The Sundering Book IV (Dungeons & Dragons)

The Reaver: The Sundering Book IV (Dungeons & Dragons)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cost: $27.95 (Physical)/$15.37 (Digital)
Page Count:
Release Date: 2/4/2014 (Physical)/2/11/2014 (Digital)
Get it Here: Amazon.com

The Reaver is the fourth book in The Sundering, a Dungeons & Dragons set of novels which showcases the changes between Fourth Edition and the upcoming D&D Next, AKA Fifth Edition. The previous novels in the series have been The Companions by R.A. Salvatore, The Godborn by Paul Kemp and The Adversary by Erin Evans. Now it’s Richard Lee Byers’ turn to take a look at the events unfolding on Toril.

Unlike the previous three Sundering novels, which were actually continuations of other novels series and thus bogged down by varying levels of continuity that made them inaccessible to new readers who just wanted the Sundering aspect, Richard Lee Byers has given us the first tale featuring all new characters that are not connected to his previous Forgotten Realms novels. This means you don’t have to be familiar with The Year of the Rogue Dragons series, the Brotherhood of the Griffon or anything else Byers has written. There are references to some long time Forgotten Realms characters like Szazz Tam, the ruler of the nation of Thay, but The Reaver is pretty much the only book in The Sundering so far that a brand new reader can pick up and actually understand the bulk of what is going on in the tale. Truthfully, this should have been how the entire Sundering was handled, but only Byers and Troy Denning, with his upcoming entry, The Sentinel have gone that route. So while long time fans of Byers characters may be fretting about the fate of Aoth Fezim now that the spellplague is receding, questions about Byers’ more famous characters will have to wait.

So far, The Sundering has told the tale of The Chosen, mortals who are given extraordinary blessings by the gods of Toril to carry out specific, but cryptic, duties. The previous three books have all focused on a Chosen and have been long established characters in D&D. The Reaver takes a slightly different route by having multiple Chosen appear in the book in supporting roles, but the main character is a regular joe (or Fighter/Rogue dual class I guess if you want D&D mechanics going on). You’ll see the Chosen of Silvanus and Lathander Morninglord square off against the Chosen of Umberlee, which essentially pits the sun and the earth against the water. It’s a pretty intense conflict as you can imagine.

Wait, did I just say Lathander Morninglord – NOT Amaunator? That’s correct. Wizards of the Coast has corrected one of the most derided mistakes of Fourth Edition Forgotten Realms by replacing the Lawful Good deity Amaunator with the Neutral Good one it replaced in 4e. For those not in the know, Lathander was far and away the most popular good aligned god in the Forgotten Realms, being the only one showcased outside that particular branding. Amaunator replacing Lathander went over like a lead balloon with most fans and was routinely bitched about as one (amongst many) complaints about the Fourth Edition version of Forgotten Realms. Well, it’s all fixed now, but as you’ll see in the book, Amaunator’s clerics are far from the Lawful Good alignment they are supposed to be, and somehow their God allows them to attack Lathander’s Chosen… even if they are supposed to be different facets of the same god. Methinks a holy civil war may occur where we learn Amaunator and Lathander aren’t the same god after all, if only because of odd events within this book.

The main protagonist of The Reaver is Anton Marivaldi, and he’s not your usual protagonist for a Dungeons & Dragons book. After all, he’s a bit of a scoundrel, killing innocent people without a second though and having no regard for his crew or allies. On the D&D axis scale, he is clearly Neutral Evil. As I said, Anton is not the type of character you usually see in the leading man role for a D&D book outside of Ravenloft. Still, in spite of how truly despicable the man is, Anton is well written, charismatic and you grow to like him as the novel progresses, even if you start off a bit aghast at how clearly evil and self centered he is.

Well, Anton begins a radical alignment shift as the novel progresses due to his part in murdering some Harpers, razing an entire town and kidnapping a small child for the church of Umberlee so they can sacrifice him. Again, not characteristics that generally endear a character to a reader. However, this young boy is Stedd, the Chosen of Lathander Morninglord. Through the trials and tribulations of catching, losing and trying to reclaim Stedd, something about the young boy’s faith and innate goodness triggers something in Anton and slowly lets him become the man he wants to be rather than the man he feels he has to be. It’s a gradual and subtle character development, and by the end of the novel, you see a man who was willing to kill an entire village for little more than the heck of it, willing to sacrifice himself for an entire town. It’s really nice to see a character do a complete 180, where every aspect of the Face Turn is done in a believable slow burn rather than through an out of nowhere, and thus out of character, swerve. Anton really is the glue that makes the novel come to life, and by the end of things he seems to come out as Chaotic Good. That’s a HUGE alignment shift for those of you who try to translate these novels into mechanics. I myself usually don’t, but the sheer growth in the character means I either talk “NE to CG” or give spoilers that showcase the personality shift. Anyway, I really enjoyed Anton Marivaldi, I hope this isn’t a one shot for Marivaldi, and I hope we see some more adventures for the character down the road… although I do still prefer Aoth Fezim and would like to see what happens to his nigh-immortality and vision now that the Spellplague is going away.

The secondary main character is a Thayan Wizard named Umara. Being from Thay, this means she hails from a pretty evil country, and as a Red Wizard, her magic tends to channel the draconic, the demonic and the necromantic. Umara is extremely loyal to Thay, even though she has a strong aversion to the undead. Like Anton, she is definitely leaning towards the evil side of the spectrum, although more Lawful Evil. Also like Anton, she is on a quest to capture Stedd. However, her goal is not to give the boy up to sacrifice to Umberlee, but her lord Szazz Tam, the lich-lord of Thay (who I’m actually surprised is not a chosen of Bane). Her time with Stedd and Anton causes a bit of an alignment shift as well. By the end of the novel she is clearly Lawful Neutral – still completely loyal to her homeland and unwilling to betray it, but now willing to disobey her undead superiors for a goal she feels will better suit her country in the long term. After all, by the end of the novel, Lathander owes the Thayan Red Wizard a lot. If I was Szazz Tam, I’d rather have the god of the sun be in the debt to one of my loyal underlings than to wage war with him by sacrificing his Chosen. After all, sunlight is always going to take down a good portion of the undead (and thus a decent sized portion of Thay’s population), while having Lathander in his debt offers a lot more opportunity and potential power.

So, a Chosen of Lathander, a Red Wizard and a somewhat sociopathic pirate. That makes for some strange bedfellows, doesn’t it? Well, these characters and their story fits with a lot of the themes Byers likes to use regularly. You have the reluctant hero growing to enjoy his role. A Thayan Wizard taking on a more protagonist role than an antagonist one. You have the church of a sun god taking a supporting role. So on and so forth. Now, that’s not to say that any part of The Reaver is a rehash of his previous books or the reskinning of characters into ones with new names and faces. These familiar choices are fleshed out quite differently. Stedd is not Cera, Umara is not Aoth Fezim and Anton is not Erik Nygaard. Although some ideas and themes are similar at the core, everything is given a new twist or done completely differently. The end result is that The Reaver will feel like a book Byers’ fans have read and enjoyed before, while simultaneously also feeling new and unique. I’m not sure if this was an intentional parallel to some of his previous works, but we’ll say that it was, as it makes for a better (or perhaps more hoity-toity) piece of literary criticism.

There are only three negative things I can say about The Reaver, and all are quite small in the scheme of things. The first is that Byers never fully executes the romantic tension between Anton and Umara. If this does end up being a one-shot for the characters, it will be a shame for them and their fans to never see this realized. In terms of romantic entanglements, I think this was Byers’ best job and most believable pairing yet, so hopefully we’ll get a chance to see these two hook up properly. The second problem is the book ends on a quasi-cliffhanger. The core story is wrapped up, along with most of the plot threads… but then there’s that very last paragraph of the book. Oh my god, was that annoying. Considering neither Denning nor Greenwood may follow up on it, makes me wonder why that last paragraph wasn’t just excised, as the book would have ended so much cleaner and thus, for me, better. The third and final problem is not something that can be leveled at Byers’ writing but Wizards of the Coasts increasingly weird decisions. In this case, it’s the cost of the e-copy of The Reaver. Now the hard copy has a MSRP of $27.95, but you can find it as low as $17.68 on Amazon. Meanwhile, the digital copy is a whopping $15.37, which is ludicrous for a Kindle book. Now the publisher, not Amazon sets, the price tag, so I’m not sure what Wizards was thinking here. After all, most D&D novels have a price tag between five and ten dollars for the digital version. Even the other Sundering novels don’t have a price tag this inflated. The Adversary? $10.38. The Herald? $7.49. The Companions? $4.59! Why these price tags are all over the price is both nonsensical and a little insane. Why Byers (and Kemp) have such a markup compared to the other Sundering novels just makes absolutely no sense, and it’s a detriment to both their readers and D&D novel fans in general that Wizards couldn’t do a more uniform pricing. My suggestion, even though I generally always push for a more environmentally friendly digital version of a book, is to get a physical copy of The Reaver, as it is nearly the same price and it sends a message to Wizardsw of the Coast that they need to be both more uniform and more reasonable with the price tags on their e-books.

So, that little rant aside, The Reaver is easily the best book in The Sundering series so far. It’s not only the best written and the most entertaining, but it’s also the only one that is actually inviting to new readers. You don’t need to know a thing about D&D or The Forgotten Realms to enjoy this novel. You can just dive right in. Of course, now fans of Byers’ D&D novels will be torn – do they hope for another Brotherhood of the Griffon tale or the continuing adventures of Anton and Umara?

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