Book Review: The Adversary: The Sundering Book III (Dungeons & Dragons)

The Adversary: The Sundering Book III (Dungeons & Dragons)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Page Count: 432
Cost: $27.95 (Physical)/15.37 (Kindle)/$14.99 (Audio)
Release Date: 12/2/2013 (Hardcover/Kindle)/5/6/2014 (Paperback)
Get it Here:

The Adversary is the third in the six book series known as The Sundering, which phases Dungeons & Dragons from the “love it or loathe it” Fourth Edition into D&D Next, aka Fifth Edition. Using a series of novels to pave the way for a new edition is not unusual for D&D. The Time of Troubles was the precursor to AD&D Second Edition (and arguably the golden age of D&D literature), and the Spellplague was used to advance from 3e to 4e. The Sundering is more akin to the latter, in that each of the books in this series is stand-alone from each other. This means you can pick up the book written by Troy Denning (the fifth in the series) or R.A. Salvatore (the first Sundering novel) and not have to worry about what goes on in the other five books. HOWEVER, to get a full idea of what is going on with the specifics of this event, you will need to read all the books, as each only gives a piece of the puzzle. As well, the first three books in The Sundering are actually continuations of the authors previous books. None of the first three books, The Adversary included, makes the slightest attempt to be welcoming to new readers, assuming that those that pick these books up are devout fans of the characters and previous novels they were in, thus making the entire event the most unfriendly introduction to a new edition that Dungeons & Dragons has ever put out. That doesn’t mean the books are poorly written; far from it. It just means that, in regards to bringing in new fans to D&D, the first three Sundering novels fail miserably, as they don’t even attempt to be welcoming to newcomers. For those who are new to D&D, or at least the various novel series out there, the fourth and fifth book in the series (by Richard Lee Byers and Troy Denning respectively) ARE going to be newcomer friendly, if only because both introduce completely new protagonists, and the authors behind those books are well known for writing for readers who are new to the Forgotten Realms.

The good news is that, out of the first three novels, The Adversary is easily the best of the three books. As this is only the third in the “Brimstone Angels” line of D&D novels, there is far less baggage and back story you need to know in order to appreciate the characters and the events they are swept up in. The Companions, for example, is the twenty-fourth Drizzt Do’urden novel, and The Godborn is the seventh Everis Cale novel. As a sometimes reader of both, I was able to enjoy the books for what they were. Salvatore’s book told you nothing of the Companions’ previous lives, but as they were all reincarnated into new characters, there was at least a common starting point for fans of all authors. Kemp’s novel was perhaps the most unfriendly novel to newcomers that I’ve read in some time – if not ever. Thankfully, the man is such a good writer that the quality of the story offset my constant annoyance of having to use a search engine while reading, since the book went out of its way to avoid even the slightest back story explanation. Meanwhile, I read Brimstone Angels (the first book in author Erin Evans’ current Forgotten Realms series) and skipped out on Lesser Evils due to a lack of time. It was fellow Diehard GameFAN staffer Michael O’Reilly’s first ever D&D novel, who was kind enough to cover the review for me last December. He’s never even played the game, in either electronic or tabletop form, and he really liked it! That’s a testament to Mrs. Evans (She’s married fellas – sorry!) writing quality. Now, even though I skipped out on Lesser Evils, I didn’t feel like I had actually missed an entire novel. I knew who most of the characters were, and although the book assumes you have read both “Brimstone Angels” novels already, it was far easier to fill in the blanks of what happened in Lesser Angels than it was with the previous Sundering Novels. I didn’t have to look anything up either, which was nice. Of course, I don’t know whether that means there was little to no character/plot progression in Lesser Evils or that the first book was that good at defining the characters that you could skip the second book and not feel as if you were in the dark. Let’s weigh in on the side of optimism though!

More good news is that this is the first book in The Sundering to actually get into the meat of what The Sundering is. In The Companions, you merely had vague references to magic returning to the way it worked before the Spellplague and some hints that Drizzt and his wife were Chosen by their respective gods (or in Drizzt’s case, two gods, including his arch-enemy Lolth of all things!). In The Godborn, you just see a resolution to the previous Cale novels and the terrible “Shar is now Galactus” storyline that was picked apart by any longtime Forgotten Realms fan as nonsensical. The only Sundering bits that came up were some more vague references to the Netherese (a nation of Shar-worshiping bad people that just kind of showed up for 4e) having an interest in the Chosen. In The Adversary, we actually discover what the Chosen are, how they work and why they exist. It’s sad it took THREE NOVELS to actually start to define The Sundering, but Evans does a better job than Kemp and Salvatore combined, which is shocking, as this is her fourth novel I believe, and her predecessors on this event have dozens each.

So what is The Sundering? Well, Ao, the god of the gods (at least for this crystal sphere) is getting ready to do something akin to “The Time of Troubles.” The gods have learned from the last time, when Ao stripped them of their powers and forced them to walk as mortals. Some died after all (Poor Baahl – still trying to come back to life three editions later), and some mortals even became gods. So the Gods are hedging their bets and putting pieces of themselves, divine sparks if you will, into mortals across Toril (and perhaps beyond. There are Spelljammers still out there after all. Now that would make a good novel – one of the Chosen escaping the Crystal Sphere and seeing what happens to the spark). These mortals are given special abilities to varying degrees. Why characters are chosen by certain Gods is still left unsaid, but at least we have the clearest picture so far. As well, we also learn that the lord of Thay, Szass Tam, is trying to capture a divine spark big enough to propel him into godhood, similar to what Asmodeus did with the demi/lesser god Azuth and a bunch of people did with Mask. This is just barely touched upon in the novel, but personally I hope Szass Tam succeeds. If we can’t have Vecna, we might as well see the Forgotten Realms equivalent get his due. Besides, shoehorning and retconning the Hells from their awesome Planescape version into the terrible post-Spellplague we have today hasn’t worked out for Wizards of the Coast except for this particular novel series, so maybe we’re seeing a setup for the fall of Asmodeus and the rise of Szass Tam. There’s still a fourth “Brimstone Angels” novel to come though… so maybe not.

So let’s talk the bad of The Adversary now before we come back around to the good stuff again. Make a review sandwich if you will. First up – this is the third book in a row (out of three mind you) where time travel comes into play in order to make the novel work at all. Now, I’m generally not a fan of time travel as a plot conveyance, as it feels lazy and sloppy to me, though it can work sometimes. Weis and Hickman made it work (ONCE) with one of their Dragonlance novels, and of course there is H.G. Wells, but generally time travel is a mark of desperation by either bad writers or bad editorial direction. Since three authors under one banner have used it in three very different ways, I’m going to assume this was a decision foisted on the authors by the directors of this event. In The Companions it was more a delayed reincarnation thing. In The Godborn it was a straightforward run of the mill time travel event (otherwise the book simply couldn’t have happened). In The Adversary it’s suspended animation, except the two characters that traveled still aged, which means it wasn’t REALLY suspended animation and more an infernally induced coma. This was a bit cheesy/silly to me, as there are other ways to move characters onto the same timeline as everyone else in the event series. Of course, this is the easiest/simplest/laziest way to do so without actually having to worry about character development or plot progression. So even though this novel takes place roughly eight years after the second book, it’s basically the next day for the main character and her two closest allies. Of course, it’s not the next day for other characters in the book, but you wouldn’t know that because, aside from a beard on a certain love interest, no one has grown or even really changed from the FIRST BOOK. That’s not a good sign.

Another bad thing about The Adversary is something you probably guessed from the previous paragraph, and that is that there is no real character development at all. All the characters are still basically where they were in the first book. Farideh is still a wishy washy idiot who loves and hates the cambion she made an infernal pact with. She hates the pact, but she can’t bear to get rid of it. She’s knows Lorcan is evil, but she loves him. There is no change in her thought patterns at all. Same with her sister Havilar. She’s still stuck in a horrible relationship with the human noble Brin and has to deal with her various anger issues. She’s still a very two-dimensional character and is definied only by her relationships with other people. Brin is still a spineless loser without any real redeeming qualities. His two ways of dealing with things are lying or running away. He’s extremely unlikeable and a complete and total ass towards Havilar in every way except being physically abusive – but only because he’s too much of a pussy for that (and because Havilar would break him in two – if she wasn’t too busy crying when she wasn’t killing). Yet somehow they are still doing they “will they ever have a happy ending” plot thread three books in, even though this is exactly the type of destructive relationship that any friend of Havilar should be saying “Hey, this is bad for you. Get out now.” Mehen is still extremely angst-ridden, grumpy and overprotective. Sairche is still a generic bad denizen of the Nine Hells. So on and so forth. The closest to any character development in the novel is that Mehen gets two new reasons to be angsty (one due to the time travel aspect of the book and the other due to a revelation about his sexuality). Oh, and Brin finds a new way to treat Havilar horribly that he couldn’t before the time travel/suspended animation bit. Other than that, not a single character has come remotely close to evolving or growing. They’re all emotionally stunted and with shockingly low self esteems for people who have save large chunks of Toril multiple times now, and I don’t really see that changing anytime soon. Evans is a great writer, and I love her narrative style along with how fleshed out her characters are – she just has problems actually resolving any plot threads, save for the core one, in her novels. After three books, someone should have some personality growth or changes from the experiences they have endured, and so far, it’s been minor to none across the board.

Finally, your enjoyment of The Adversary may be limited in regards to whether you can enjoy Farideh as a main character or not. Honestly, I think she is the stupidest protagonist in D&D history. Now, I don’t mean stupid as in lame or a terrible character. I like the character. She’s very charismatic. I mean stupid in that she is incredibly thick. Not smart. Kind of dim. A bad decision maker, if you will. In D&D terms, there is no way she would have an Intelligence or Wisdom rating higher than 8 if she was statted out, based on Evan’s writing of her. In fact, I would place both stats at 6. In a horror movie she would be the character someone would be yelling, “Don’t go in there. The killer’s in there. Why are you so stupid, girl?” to. In all of the “Brimstone Angels” novels, Farideh’s extreme stupidity causes the characters emotional and physical harm (and some to die horribly). At the same time, Farideh’s extreme lack of intelligence, common sense and forethought also gets them wrapped up in some far ranging conspiracy that she and her friends manage to stop, partially through skill, partially through blind luck and partially through blundering. Honestly, the core plot skeleton for Brimstone Angels is the same as it was for The Adversary. Don’t get me wrong – the meat of the book is extremely different, but it would be nice if we could get one of these books where the events wasn’t, “Farideh did something extremely dumb. Time to clean up her mess.” Hell, even better would be seeing one of the other characters in the book take center stage. Havilar could use some time as the core protagonist. It would allow her personality to be fleshed out more. A book about Mehen would also be a great option. He’s a fascinating character and I’d like to see him do more than stab things or whine about his two daughters getting into trouble. Dahl would be an awesome character to see as a protagonist instead of a secondary character. After three books (and a guaranteed fourth) it would be nice to see one of these where the story hook doesn’t revolve around Farideh constantly making the stupidest decision she can and the other characters having to save the day because of it.

Whew. That’s a lot of negativity, but this is a review, and part of being a critic is dishing out constructive criticism. God knows there’s a lot about The Adversary to be critical about. At the same time, I hope I’ve made it abundantly clear that there is a lot that’s good about the book as well. Since I prefer to not end these things on a sour note, I’ve saved some more positive commentary about the book to close the review out with.

First off, I love Evans’ writing style. She has a wonderful narrative and is exceptionally good at describing situations, locations and background information. She also has a way of making characters interesting even when they’re two dimensional, and charismatic enough that you want to read about them even when similarly unlikeable characters written by a different author makes you want to put a book down. I’ll admit I HATE Brin and I think Havilar has only two or three facets of her personality: “Oh no, Brin might not love me”, “Oh no, Farideh is in trouble”, and, “Oh man, I like cutting things with my glaive,” but I still wanted to read (or at least hope for) a resolution to their relationship. I find myself invested in the main characters even if I don’t LIKE them. I also feel Evans is great at writing secondary characters. The Nameless One, Tharra, Rhand, Dahl, and others are very deep for bit characters, and although I’m not sure why she can’t write the main characters as deeply, I am always impressed by how much detail she puts into characters who have such little “screen time” so to speak. A really great example of this is with her short story, “The Resurrection Agent.” I think Tam gets more character development in that The Haunted Lands contribution than in this entire novel. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, Evans creations in Farideh and Havilar are arguably the best female protagonists Dungeons & Dragons has had in a very long time. There aren’t a lot floating around, to be honest. There are some supporting characters, like Salvatore’s Catti-Brie (Who seems to be very hated for her Mary Sue status) but it’s hard to think of any real main character females for the series. The fact that Evans has given us two, albeit very insecure ones, is nothing to sneeze at. You’ll have to go back to Alias to find a female character that has gotten this much time at center stage as the core hero of a novel or set of novels for the D&D franchise. So kudos to Evans for giving D&D fans some much needed female heroes rather than sidekicks or foils. I’d definitely say Evans is the best female D&D writer since Christie Golden and P.N. Elrod, and that’s some impressive company to be in. Of course that’s also two, nearly three, editions of D&D ago.

So overall, I would have to say The Adversary is the best book in The Sundering series so far. It’s the first book to actually give fleshed out details about what is going on. It’s the most newcomer friendly (although you still need to have at least read the first Brimstone Angels book to really get anything out of this one), and it’s a fun read even if there are some shortcomings, character development and plot progression wise. There’s one big change as a character becomes the Chosen of one of the two worst possible gods to fall under (and they square off against the Chosen of the other). It is a bit disappointing that, after three books and eight years of time elapsed for some characters, most of the principal players are exactly where they were in the first book with no real progression or development occurring, but the narrative style and the core events of the book help to hide this shortcoming. As a D&D novel, The Adversary is also my favorite of the three Sundering novels so far, although I can’t deny the event has been a bit disappointing in terms of revelations and quality. Here’s hoping Byers, Denning and Greenwood can make the second half of The Sundering more exciting as well as inviting to newcomers for whom 5e will be their first real taste of Dungeons & Dragons. I can’t say I’d recommend picking up The Adversary for the incredibly inflated price of thirty dollars (for the hardcover), and even the $15.37 price tag for the Kindle version (Whatever happened to 9.99?) is pretty pricey for what you get, ESPECIALLY if you are new to the two tiefling sisters and their madcap adventures. Diehard fans of Farideh and Havilar will probably have no problem paying cover price for The Adversary, but even then I’d still suggest waiting for the MUCH cheaper paperback option when it becomes available in 2014. Right now the book is a fun read and the best in The Sundering so far, but like all the entries, it’s just too expensive for what you get.



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One response to “Book Review: The Adversary: The Sundering Book III (Dungeons & Dragons)”

  1. […] done a bunch of interviews with wonderful folks and had still more wonderful folks review it. (Barnes & Noble even put it on their list of the season’s best Fantasy and Science […]

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