01/03/2012. Contributed by Neale Monks
pub: Dungeons & Dragons. 372 page paperback. Price: $ 7.99 (US), $ 8.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7869- 5749-1).
check out websites: www.Dungeons&Dragons.com and www.wizards.com
For me, Dungeons & Dragons books are a bit of a guilty pleasure. Yes, they lack the depth of the best fantasy literature and yes, they do seem to be cranked out faster than cars at a Ford factory. But all the same, most of them are entertaining enough reads and the best are very much better than that. They're something very engaging about reading about characters in a place - the Dungeons & Dragons universe - that the reader will have experienced through role-playing games or video games. It's good fun to read about characters casting spells you've used yourself or fighting monsters that you've fought, too.
Still, a fantasy novel needs to be more than a prose version of a role-playing game. It needs a good strong plot, lively characters, a slew of surprises and plenty of action. Don Bassingthwaite manages all of this and though this reviewer does have one or two niggles about the way the story is told, the overall book holds the reader's attention very well from start to finish.
What really makes the book work is the selection of characters. To be honest, Dungeons & Dragons books often work well in this context because they're based on teams that by definition need to include characters with different strengths and motives. So in 'The Temple Of Yellow Skulls' we have an elf wizard, a human fighter and a halfling thief. Even though these characters were introduced in a previous novel, 'The Mark Of Nerath' by Bill Slavicsek, they're briskly defined and developed early on in the book and work perfectly well even if you haven't read that earlier book. Though they pretty much live up to their types in terms of motives and personality, they're still good fun. What's not to like about a irresponsible, vengeful halfling thief!
Another fine aspect of the book is the way the antagonist characters are drawn and used. Rather than a simple bad guy trying to take over the world sort of thing, there's a very alien force for evil that's acting through several sometimes different characters. This evil, the Voidharrow, manifests itself as a dominating personality. Low level characters are used and disposed of quickly and it's hard not to feel somewhat sympathetic for them. Other characters find themselves cajoled by the Voidharrow, knowingly or otherwise, into furthering its aims and watching these otherwise peripheral characters react to the situation adds considerable depth to the story. In Dungeons & Dragons terms, it's rare for such 'non-player characters' to be so important to the narrative; usually they're there either as sources of information or else as little more than cannon fodder. My only disappointment here concerns the two hired henchmen that travel with Hakken Raid to the Temple of Yellow Skulls. One's a human, the other a half-orc and it's the half-orc who's the sorcerer. Within the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, half-orcs don't make good sorcerers and, at the very least, there would have been plenty of scope for some explanation of how these two characters got together and how this half-orc became so skilled at magic.
In any event, two characters used by the Voidharrow develop into dangerous, powerful entities, all set to be worthy opponents for the lead characters. By way of balance, the three main protagonists are joined by an old cleric who knows about the Voidharrow and has his own scores to settle. For about the first half of the book, the heroes are playing catch-up and Bassingthwaite does a nifty job of writing what are essentially three, even four different narratives, at a time, each of them well-paced and eventful. Eventually, the narrative threads come together and the heroes get to see the big picture, making things even more intense. But if there is a flaw to this book, this is where it happens. Of the two main enemies, one of them departs the field of play well before the book is done, presumably returning in the next book in the series. The remaining enemy is certainly daunting, but his ending is somewhat surprising and perhaps even anti-climactic. That said, the last pages do reveal what may be a key twist to the plot, so perhaps things aren't quite what they seem…
All in all, 'The Temple Of Yellow Skulls' is a good book and a fine opening to this 'Abyssal Plague' trilogy. It works well as a standalone book, but will doubtless be even more satisfying when read as part of the series.
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