Book Review: The Herald: The Sundering, Book VI

The Herald: The Sundering, Book VI
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Page Count: 336 Pages
Cost: $7.99 (Kindle)/$27.95 (MSRP for Hardcover)/$17.68 (Amazon Hardcover Price)
Release Date: 06/03/2014
Get it Here: Amazon.com

Well here we are. After six books and four adventures, The Sundering is completed as The Forgotten Realms have officially moved from Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition into D&D Next. Of course, there entire Sundering event was a bit nebulous with no real piece of the puzzle fully fleshing out the why and how this was happening. The closest it came was “Ao did it” in the novels and “Because some many people flipped their gourds over 4e, we’re going back to an amalgamation of 1e, 2e and 3e in hopes to save the branding.” Of all the books, The Herald comes the closest to explaining the event, but even then it only touches on some key points such as Gods infusing certain mortals with bits of their power, Shar trying all sorts of wacky schemes and separation of all the things that made 4e what it was, like the Shadowfell, Spellplague and very different system of spells, combat and so on. In fact, the book is more about the return of Mystra (Cyric won’t be pleased) and the complete annihilation of the Shadovar than it is on the actual separation of Aberil and Toril. This is not a bad thing by any means, but for those of you looking for some hardcore aspects of the event to be pinned on in detail so you know what exactly happened – well, you’re not going to get that from this final chapter of The Sundering or any of the earlier bits, so just try to piece together what was left unsaid as best you can.

Like so many books in The Sundering series, The Herald is extremely unfriendly to newcomers. It is written in such a way that the author assumes you have been reading all of his previous books and are already intimately acquainted with every character you encounter within this tale. There is no attempt to explain anything or anyone and so people who picked this up just to read the final piece of The Sundering will be left confused and even possibly angry by the author’s ill regard for potential new fans. This was a problem with The Companions and The Godborn as well, along with to a lesser extent, The Adversary. The only two books in the series that have been newcomer friendly were The Reaver and The Sentinel, and that’s only because they contained mostly new characters and entirely new scenarios. As such, those are the only two I can recommend to new readers. It helped that they are also the best in the sextant as well. The other four books are best left in the hands of long time fans of their respective authors. Of course, Ed Greenwood, the author of The Herald and his creation Elminster have more fans than most fantasy writers, so the good news is those that do regularly pick up his works won’t miss the lack of introduction or explanations the book truly needed for a larger audience, in the slightest.

The Herald starts off with Elminster, Storm Silverhand and Amarune (Elminster’s great great great great…okay, his long distance descendent. He is like 1,200 years old after all.) trying to repair the Weave when they are attacked by some shade based assailants. The Weave is the source and fabric of magic on Toril. It was badly damaged during the Spellplague and in repairing it, the threesome may be able to restore it to its former glory and prevent some evil being (like Shar, the god of suffering) from taking control. After this assault, the team realizes they need to split up to truly fix things. Elminster goes to a place of learning and knowledge known as Candlekeep while Storm, Rune and her lover Arclath trying to defend Myth Drannor, an ancient Elven city (The song from the SSI video game Ruins of Myth Drannor is now stuck in my head…) from a massive onslaught by the Shadovar and their mercenary allies.

From this point on the book spends more than half of its pages telling three major stories and one minor one, whose threads diverge and occasional meet up until we hit the climatic ending. You have Elminster dealing with the massive subterfuge at Castlekeep where very few people are who they actual appear and there are at least four sides after the same thing (but with very different goals indeed) with the whole thing breaking down into a battle royal. You’ll see strange alliances made and Elminster doing battle against two longtime friends in this part. The second part takes you to the floating city of Thultanathar where you see the intrigue and insanity that allows the Shadowvar to finally meet their end. This is perhaps the most interesting as you get to see a level of nuance and depth rarely afforded to rank and file D&D villains. The third section is the battle of Myth Drannor, which was my least favorite part of the book. It was constant repetitive fighting which might as can be summed up in a single sentence: “Storm Silverhand is more powerful than an entire army so she kills hundreds, if not thousands of people by herself.” Everything else is just padding and kind of dull, boring padding at that. The final section is the comic relief of the books which involves conversations between Mirt and the vampiric (Possible clone? We’ll never know!) Manshoon. These were fun if you know the characters at all, but these are also the absolute least newcomer friendly sections of the book. Even someone that has been reading these characters since 2e AD&D, I was lost at times because what the author was more writing to and for himself here than an actual audience, which was really disappointing.

In the end, The Herald is an okay read. I’ve read far better Elminster novels by Ed Greenwood, but also far worse. The entire story is a pretty paint by numbers piece that is full of clichés and transparent telegraphed events. The book is more really three hundred pages of Marty Stu/Mary Sue “Look how over the top powerful these characters are” and at no point do you ever think a protagonist is going to die. Then every time the book has a chance to break the cookie cutter mold it clings to ardently, it backtracks violently. One supporting character gets a sword shoved all the way through their neck…but they get to live. That’s the closest the book comes to putting any of these character in danger. They aren’t even resurrected. They just get the usual MacGuffin of the Silver Fire and bam, totally fine and then they go right back to killing and adventuring without the slightest bit of mental anguish or realization that they were basically dead.

The Herald is full of problems like this. Major and supporting antagonists are regularly built up as important threats only to be killed in a quick aside or off-page completely with their death alluded to later on in the book. That is so unsatisfying I can’t believe an editor didn’t say something! You have the most powerful spellcaster in all the Realms show up, best Elminster and even an entire city of the most powerful mages in the Realms with BUT A THOUGHT and the near end of the book is Elminster dispatching him as if he were a Kobold. There was no built up or any actual fight. Sure a third of the book is spent talking about the different ways Storm kills people with her sword and or hair, but is there any sort of conflict at the climax? Nope. Just the description of the more powerful character screaming as a far less powerful character sacrifices her undead existence to do…something. It’s never quite explained what or how. This honestly might be the worst climax/ending of an Elminster book ever and I can’t tell you how terrible it was for the Sundering to just end on such a flat uninspired note like this. Also of course, the antagonist dies, but Elminster who is far less powerful not only survives the same event but becomes MORE POWERFUL BECAUSE OF IT? At this point you might as well make Elminster the anti-Vecna and give him godhood because it’s not even funny.

Now, the book isn’t all bad. Yes it’s the worst entry out of anything Sundering related so far. Before now the worst I could say about an entry was, “It’s not for everyone” or “could be more newcomer friendly.” The Herald however was a sup-par read in most respects but it had its good points. The dialogue between characters, be they old friends or arch enemies was a lot of fun and it actually sounded like real people with all their flaws and foibles talking. It was great to see a lot of old characters show up, even if it was for a cameo. The Candlekeep section of the book was also as good as the Myth Drannor parts were dull and repetitive. So the book is not an entire loss or hardship you won’t be able to get through by any means. It’s more than the book is, as I have said a paint by numbers piece where you can tell Greenwood’s heart really isn’t in it. Maybe a lot of it was editorial mandated and so he had to make it work the best he could. Maybe he just sleepwalked through the book for a payday. Who knows? I’m not going to guess or make excuses. All I can say is that while I enjoyed parts of the book, most of The Herald was a boring predictable letdown where the most interesting characters had the least amount of “screen time” and ended up just being there to showcase how powerful the main characters are. Is it Greenwood’s worst? As I’ve said, no it is not. Is it the worst Sundering entry? Oh my god, yes. I was so disappointed with this thing on so many levels. It’s funny because my favorite entry out of all Sundering items so far (Murder in Baldur’s Gate was written by the same man who wrote my now least favorite – Ed Greenwood. So it’s definitely not a dislike for the author or the characters in this book (Elminster at the Magefair is one of my favorite 2e short stories, and I loved seeing it remade in comic book form recently.). It’s just this book was pretty much what I DIDN’T want. I remember how the Time of Troubles Trilogy had you constantly guessing as to who would die and who would become a god whereas The Herald is something you can accurately guess the results of without even reading the book, and that to me, is the sign of a mediocre novel. Again, it’s not a BAD book, just a mediocre or sub-par one, especially compared to what Greenwood usually writes and/or the other entries in the Sundering event.

There are just so many bits of the book that seem nonsensical to me. Why devote so many pages to the description of the slaughter of rank and file villains, but very little to the death of the mid-boss style bad guys or even the big bads of the tale? Why give such a generic story to the biggest event to hit the Forgotten Realms since AD&D 1e bled into 2e? How can you identify or care about characters that are so over the top powerful compared to their enemies that at no point do you begin to doubt their chances of making it through unscathed. As I keep saying, there is nothing like a good Elminster novel but unfortunately, this is nothing like a good Elminster novel. There are so many things I would have preferred to see done differently. Of course, I’m only one person and if you liked the book, more power to you. Unfortunately, I’m the one that has to write this review and I feel almost dirty in saying it, but The Herald is the low point of The Sundering and between it and Dead in Thay, the end of the entire event has been as lackluster as the beginning was incredible. I’ve gone from extremely high hopes that D&D Next is going to be something special to worried that it is going to be incredibly insular and only trying to appeal to the oldest and most zealous of fans instead of bringing in new blood. Alas. Nope, I can’t recommend this book at all unless you absolutely need to finish the Sundering event and I especially can’t recommend it to people who will be exposed to Ed’s writing for the first time through this.

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