Book Review: Prophet of the Dead: Brotherhood of the Griffon, Book V (Dungeons & Dragons)

Prophet of the Dead: Brotherhood of the Griffon, Book V (Dungeons & Dragons)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Page Count: 352
Cost: $7.99 ($6.15 for Kindle Version)
Release Date: 02/05/2013
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Prophet of the Dead is the fifth in the Brotherhood of the Griffon series by Richard Lee Byers, although technically it’s the eight book to feature the sellsword crew led by Aoth Fezim. The third book in the series, The Spectral Blaze won our award for “Best Tabletop Related Fiction” when we did our 2011 Tabletop Gaming Awards. The fourth book, The Masked Witches was my least favorite book by Byers so far, but it was still a decent read. It just wasn’t up to the level of his previous three trilogies that I had read (The Brotherhood of the Griffon, The Haunted Lands, and The Year of Rogue Dragons) . I am happy to say though, that Prophet of the Dead was a huge improvement and I found it a very hard book to put down. Note that there are a couple of spoilers throughout, but I do try to keep them vague and nebulous for those of you who haven’t read the book yet.

Prophet of the Dead starts exactly where The Masked Witches leaves off. The Brotherhood’s main characters are scattered into several different places. One is in Thay where he is public enemy #1. Two are in a strange demiplane of Death (No, not Ravenloft) called the Deathways and the others are licking their wounds after a betrayal by an allied mercenary group looking to claim all the spoils from the previous book for themselves. Much of the book then becomes the Brotherhood overcoming various obstacles and reforming before the “climax” of a large scale battle by both sides. I say climax because the battle is pretty one-sided in favor of the Brotherhood. I don’t think Byers meant to write it where the Brotherhood was so insanely dominant in the combat this time (compared to the previous book) especially since the big bad behind the newest Undead threat to Toril reveals itself here, but it definitely reads like this is a minor skirmish for Aoth Fezim and his band of warriors. Of course, considering the last six books featured the most powerful undead on the planet and/or ancient dragons, it’s hard to few a bunch of ghouls, vampires and a polymorphed bone naga in the same light, and that’s coming from someone who loves bone nagas!

First the positives. I’ll admit that Byers continually threw me for a loop in this book. In The Masked Witches, it really felt like he was telegraphing the death of a member of the Brotherhood to be replaced by a new younger, more inherently powerful member of the same species. Indeed, for much of The Prophet of the Dead it felt that way too. Then, Byers gives you a pretty big swerve in that this character not only survives, but gets a bit of an upgrade and actually takes out the character you thought would be replacing him! I didn’t see that coming and was quite happy to this character live as he is my second favorite after Aoth, although it did remind me that good(ish) aligned characters rarely seem to die or even have anything really bad happen to them in Byers’ D&D novels. The last time I can think of a major good guy dying was Baeris and/or Mirror back in the culmination of The Haunted Lands and they were undead to begin with. This might stretch the suspension of disbelief that the heroes come away with nary a scratch, but this is pretty par for D&D novels that don’t take place in Ravenloft.

Byers keeps you guessing throughout the book. Just when it looks like a good aligned character is going to die – they don’t. Just when you think he might be teasing the first Lathander Morninglord (Don’t call him Amaunator!) aligned vampire since Jander Sunstar, he doesn’t pull the trigger. Just when you roll your eyes at the idea of Jhesrhi Coldcreek managed to out manipulate someone far smarter and more powerful than her YET AGAIN, she falls flat on her face here, which she really need to have happen lest she fall irrevocably into the Mary Sue category. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, that this was only a two book story. Generally D&D story arcs are written in trilogies and certainly the three series by Byers commissioned by Wizards of the Coast have been. So it knocked me for a loop when everything wrapped up in this novel. Sure there were a few plot threads left dangling for the next book such as what is going to happen to a certain elementalist, but everything wrapped up neatly and exceptionally quickly. Speaking of the speed of the book, I know in my review of The Masked Witches I stated that the book dragged exceptionally slowly and that the pace seemed off to me. Well the exact opposite was true here. Prophet of the Dead seemed to go by a mile a minute and felt like it was all rise. It was a huge change from The Masked Witches and honestly, I great preferred it.

Another positive is that aside from Jhesrhi, the core protagonists of the novel really get fleshed out. Aoth and Cera’s relationship really blossoms. For much of the first three books it felt more like they were friends with benefits, but here you can really see that they love each other. Speaking of love, Aoth admits that he loves Jet (his griffon) as well, a comment that I never thought either one would state as they certainly don’t have the type of relationship that say, my wife has with her cat, cooing pet names and all. Vandar actually developed into something for than a two dimensional angry young man. Even Jet gets a huge dose of personality development as he comes back from major adversity and injury. Only Jhesrhi kind of stagnates, but that’s because so much of the first three books in this series were about her that it was time to let the other characters take center stage. Really, she’s just here for her magical powers and a bit more of losing herself to them, but it really was important for the series that she finally play a more secondary role. Besides, she’ll be the focus of Book VI it appears so fans of M. Coldcreek can sate themselves with that factoid.

The final positive I want to highlight is the addition of a new character to the ranks of the Brotherhood. Ogruth the orc will no doubt quickly garner a legion of fans the same way Aoth did when he first appeared. I generally don’t like orcs, but that’s because they tend to be written in the “HULK SMASH” or “ME GRIMLOCK KING” vein. Ogruth is articulate, intelligent and sarcastic. He defies nearly all of the orc stereotypes that tend to appear in D&D fiction and at times he feels like the everyman character for the book, saying what the reader is thinking.

Of course, Prophet of the Dead isn’t perfect and there are a few nitpicks I had, one of which is the same major one I had with that last book – that being that the antagonists here just didn’t seem all that powerful. In The Haunted Lands, Aoth Fezim and pals defeated the most powerful Necromancer and his entire army bent on a literal global destruction. In the first three Brotherhood of the Griffon novels, they defeated multiple dragons (including a Dracolich or three) AND took down a vast global conspiracy put into place by none other than Tiamat herself. I mean, compared to both of those, an allegiance of undead from across the ocean just wasn’t as impressive or forboding. You just never feel like there’s any real challenge here and the book even reads that way with all the major enemies being dispatched quickly and without the Brotherhood using either their full army OR their full power. Because of that, the battles throughout the book feel anti-climatic and unimpressive. Things go the way of the Brotherhood too easily and far too smoothly for the action segments to feel truly satisfactorily. Perhaps if the bad guys were fleshed out more, one could have appreciated them more, but there really just isn’t much substance to any of them. The big bad is introduced a third through the book for the first time, but you get very little of his personality or motives and so when he dies conclusively, you don’t get much of a rise. Same with the bad guy’s arch enemy who is also undead. He’s introduced, you get a tiny bit of background and then he dies a few pages later leaving you to wonder why he was even introduced assign to pad a few pages and give the Big Bad something to kill in an attempt to build him up. Not all of the antagonists in the book have this problem. A certain vampire and what seems to be a flesh golem (it’s never actually defined) are given emotions, motivations and substance, but even then it’s a fraction of what we saw in previous Byers’ stories. In all, as much as I liked the book I was thoroughly unsatisfied with the treatment and development of the antagonists here and felt they could have used a lot more build up or characterization.

My only other real complaint is that, why do things like send Aoth Fezim to Thay at the end of the last book without actually having a cameo (or even a full-fledged appearance) from Szass Tam? It really felt Byers was setting this up only to not use the Arch Lich at all in this book, but have him do battle with the bone naga supreme. I was kind of hoping this would have been a trilogy with the foreign undead getting a major win in this book and then the third book being a smackdown between Thayans and this new undead threat with the Brotherhood trying to decide what would be the lesser of the two evils, but instead the end came far quicker and definitely than I would have expected. As much as I enjoyed the faster paced read of the book, it did feel like that the story could have had a lot more potential, with perhaps even another novel, but instead things just abruptly ended with a decisive and dominant battle to close this out at a two book story. I won’t say I’m disappointed, but I will say I was kind of expecting more than just a squash match where the good guys trounced their enemies like an old Goldberg match from the late 1990s in WCW. I’m guess I’m left wondering if this was the original plan or if things got curtailed/waylayed due to 5th Edition being on the horizon or something else behinds the scenes.

Overall, Prophet of the Dead was a fun read and it was a great improvement over The Masked Witches, but it wasn’t as deep or engrossing as the first six books (or The Year of the Rogue Dragons trilogy) that starred Aoth Fezim and friends. Prophet of the Dead mostly felt like well written filler to ensure fans of the Brotherhood got their yearly fix of the characters in the same way writers of Cozy Mysteries put out a book every year. You get a well written book with characters you love, but at the end of the day, no matter how much the book might tease it, nothing is going to upset the status quo and things will end almost as they started, That’s pretty much true of The Prophet of the Dead. The only thing that really changed between the end of Book III and the end of Book V is that the protagonists gained some XP, a new supporting character and some extra griffons. You don’t have to go in knowing that to enjoy Prophet of the Dead as it’s a great read, but if you read either The Haunted Lands or the original three Brotherhood of the Griffon trilogy, you could feasibly skip these last two books and when VI comes out, the only change you’ll actually notice to Aoth’s sellsword band is that they picked up an orc somewhere.



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