Friday, March 15, 2013

The Legacy of Dhakaan

Last night, whilst en route to the mall so my teenaged son could spend his birthday money on new shoes and clothes at a variety of stores that were literally painful after a time for me to be standing around in (Abercrombie & Fitch in particular makes me feel more stupid and shallow just for walking in) I finished the last book of Don Bassingthwaite’s Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy, a trilogy of relatively slim (about 300 or so pages each) novels set in Darguun, a country in the Eberron campaign setting. (And because I finished it before we even got to the mall, I had nothing to do for the better part of three or four hours except stand around listening to really crappy music, smelling lots of excessive cologne, and trying to keep my younger boys, who were just as bored as I was but who handled it less gracefully, from running all over the place making a nuisance of themselves. I haven’t yet decided if that was a welcome respite from boredom or a frustrating thing in its own right.)

Er… anyway. Don Bassingthwaite’s a pretty good writer. He’s much better than most who write “game fiction” and the equal to most who write any normal genre fiction in the fantasy mold, at least. I was initially drawn to The Legacy of Dhakaan because it 1) featured a shifter protagonist (although it turned out that it’s really an ensemble cast of protagonists with a rotating point of view from section to section), 2) was written by Don Bassingthwaite, and not one of the other authors who dabbles in Eberron fiction, and 3) most especially, it focuses on the goblinoid (mostly hobgoblin) nation of Darguun and treated them in a way that was more than simply a lowish level humanoid antagonist from the Monster Manual. In fact, in general, I’d say that one of the strongest aspects of the series was the exploration—done in passing rather than as info dumps that intrude on the narrative—of goblinoid culture in Eberron. See, ever since I saw Claudio Pozas’ old “Pax Hobgoblinica” image on the old ENWorld image galleries, I’ve been drawn to the notion that as a lawful and militaristic race, the hobgoblins should honestly have empires and kingdoms to equal that of any of the other races, with high cultural levels of achievement and whatnot. The fact that they didn’t was clearly a failure of “Gygaxian naturalism”—the notion that the mechanics of the game should inform the setting (rather than the other way around), or at least that the mechanics and the setting should “match” and be in harmony. When Eberron first came out, I was intrigued by the notion of Darguun, the goblinoid nation, which seemed at first glance to match my own delving into the concept. I later became a bit disillusioned with Darguun, thinking that it failed to really rise above the notion the hobgoblins were crude and savage humanoids after all.

I later became more enamored of the Skorne Empire from Iron Kingdoms. While Skorne are not exactly hobgoblins per se, they really aren’t any different conceptually (or visually, for that matter) and to me, it was a great example of what Darguun should have been. Later, I spent some time on my original conception of my modular campaign setting working up my own hobgoblin-led empire, Kurushat, that incorporated a few of the better ideas from the Skorne, some stuff from the history of the rise of the Roman Empire, the way succession worked in later Mongol or Turkic khaganates, and some Gygaxian naturalism of my own, with my attempt to find an appropriate role for various goblinoid related things from the D&D source material, etc. Later, my concept changed a bit; my modules became tightly integrated into just being another campaign setting after all, and I decided that goblinoids didn’t have a place in my setting—I still used everything about Kurushat but made them just an ethnicity of humans. But, my fascination with the concept of a goblinoid empire, ruled by militaristic hobgoblins, first inspired by Claudio’s picture, remained. And to date, the only work I know that caters to this particular fascination is the Legacy of Dhakaan series. So, when it came out, I hurriedly picked it up. I did not, however, hurriedly read it—it took me quite a while to get through a heavy backlog of books and distractions to finally focus on it. I believe the last book in the series was released in 2010.

One thing that fantasy writers often struggle with is making an exotic culture that doesn’t feel like a familiar Earth culture warmed over, or devolve into over-the-top stereotypes and caricatures of “national character and personality.” The first “problem” isn’t necessarily one; I’ve long been an on the record fan of the so-called Hyborian Model of making your fantasy cultures transparent analogs of real Earth cultures as a shorthand that allows you to focus quickly on other elements instead, like plot or character. But Bassingthwaite’s Darguun is much more than that; it truly presents an exotic culture that feels “realistic” and robust, rather than flimsy and lazy. I found that quite interesting, and in fact one of the series’ strongest qualities.  It also greatly expanded on culture and traditions of the goblinoids beyond what any sourcebook to the game ever did, and I suspect that that is all Bassingthwaite's own invention.

I also like the plot. This is a classic intrigue and power grab story, with murder, spies, and political machination and maneuvering. There’s a bit of a somewhat unfortunate tendency to “send everyone looking for the MacGuffin”—first the Rod of Kings, and then the next MacGuffin that will counter the Rod of Kings. Here it moves quickly, but always with interest, some nice twists and turns (although not too many; it’s mostly straightforward). There’s even a mystery from the end of the first book that takes us on numerous red herrings before finally resolving itself late in the second book.

However, I didn’t really fall in love with the characters. They weren’t bad or unlikeable—they just didn’t ever become really likeable either. I also think they suffered from another problem; we were expected to already be familiar with them, due to the fact that most of them starred in another earlier appearing trilogy which—needless to say—I haven’t read. There are three main point of view characters (as well as several other main characters who we rarely or never see from point of view) Ekhaas, the hobgoblin duur’kala (a bard), Ashi, the fighter and scion of House Deneith, and Geth the shifter (of vague D&D class—although it seems mostly fighter too; maybe a level or two of rogue or ranger rounds him out. Maybe. I actually think it’s to the novel’s credit that the Gygaxian naturalism isn’t so strong that it’s easy to pinpoint everyone’s character class and game stats.) All three of them have a bit too much of the same vibe; they’re all reluctant heroes thrust into a role that they’re fighting against the entire time. Despite this reluctance about their obvious role, there’s not really enough interpersonal conflict either, which reduces the level of interest somewhat.

That minor complaint is what makes this series one that I’m happy to have read and recommend, but one that I’m unlikely to keep on my shelf and re-read again sometime, though. My expectation is that I’ll give these to the Friends of the Public Library bookstore as a donation, so someone else can enjoy them.

Now that I’m done, I just started another tie-in novel, Lies of Solace, which is in the Arkham Horror line. It could also be Call of Cthulhu fiction, of course, since both Call of Cthulhu and Arkham Horror draw on the exact same corpus of public domain stories by Lovecraft and Co. And, no sooner did I start that, then an ILL request for Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough came in. I’ll have to read them both quickly, but they’re both short. Assuming that they’re light and easy to read, that shouldn’t be a problem.

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