Thursday, January 14, 2010

Knaves by Need

Once more to the well... a different well this time, though.  My youngest brother Andrew brought a book called "Villains by Necessity" to my attention when he included it in a Christmas wish list.  He had read and enjoyed it years before but hadn't been able to find a copy recently.  I looked around, and wasn't able to locate anything suitable for gifting, but did find a library copy from Berkeley Public Library.  Thanks to our awesome inter-library loan system, I got hooked up with it and was quickly entranced.

VBN is an utterly traditional fantasy story, but perfectly reversed.  The broad outlines match every stereotype there is.  You have six companions, representing different races and professions.  They go on a quest.  This quest requires them to acquire six magical artifacts, called Segment Keys.  Each stage of the quest takes them to another land with its own customs.  Their path is guided by a riddling prophecy, which they must decipher in order to find what they seek.  Along the way they fight battles, hide from powerful opponents who chase them, and get to know one another.


The wrinkle?  These are the bad guys.  The party includes an assassin, a thief, a dark sorceress who eats human flesh, and a black knight.  Their opponents represent the forces of light and goodness.  Their quest is to open the DarkPortal, a gateway to the realms of darkness, so they can unleash evil upon the world.

Cool stuff, huh?  It nicely subverts a lot of the most familiar fantasy elements, and manages to be quite thought-provoking as well.

The story essentially takes place a hundred years after the end of any other fantasy series.  The Dark Lord has been defeated, the forces of Good have overcome overwhelming odds to defeat the forces of Evil. They have been so successful that they have driven the dark Gods from the world, sealing them away so they cannot influence the course of humanity.  As a result, Light can rule unopposed.

And so it does.  First they hunt down and kill all the remaining monsters.  Then they focus on their own society.  People are reformed.  Greed drops away.  Lords no longer seek power from one another.  Everything is cheerful and happy and getting more so all the time.

Of course, this has a negative impact on certain professions.  The book opens with two guild leaders, Sam and Arcie, bemoaning the fact that their guilds have been deserted.  Nobody needs to hire an assassin any more, and thieves have given up on stealing.  Soon, even these two are threatened with extinction.  A pleasant extinction - the Wizard Mizamir, one of the Heros who defeated the darkness, has started using his magic to reprogram the minds of "bad" people, gradually turning the realm into a good society one miscreant at a time.

They escape and eventually run across a Druid, Kaylana, who tells them that the Balance has been wrecked.  A True Neutral to the core, she recognizes that the increase in Good will lead to a kind of stasis.  The world requires conflict to keep going; if Light continues unabated, then all motion will cease, all thought stop, and everything will be frozen forever in a pure white light.  Therefore, she has determined to undo the work of the Heros and re-open the DarkPortal.

This starts them on their quest.  I have to say, the whole book is extremely indebted to D&D, particularly the class and alignment structure.  I'd probably break it down like this:
Sam: Neutral Evil Rogue (Assassin)
Arcie: Chaotic Evil Thief
Kaylana: True Neutral Druid
Valerie: Neutral Evil Mage (I'd say "Sorceress," but one of the later battles makes it clear that she is limited to the spells she has prepared for the day.)
Blackmail: Lawful Neutral Fighter
Robin: Lawful Neutral Bard

On the other side:
Mizamir: Lawful Good Mage
Fenwick: Neutral Good Fighter

Oh, and there's a really funny scene where they meet an opposing party in the mines of Pat-Atuk (sp), where each villain meets their good counterpart.  Again, it's a great twist on the old tradition of the evil doppelganger.

The book isn't just entertaining, it's also well-written.  I say that despite some pretty egregious typos... Sam is "Same" in a couple of places, and there are some other mistakes as well.  In a way, though, those just make me even more impressed.  It feels like the book didn't even go through a copy editor, so it's cool that it's as tight as it is.


There are two secret twists in the book, both of which are pretty strongly telegraphed.  I'm often a sucker for twists and don't always pick up on them.  Here, I was actually a little disappointed... it seemed almost too easy.  Then, for a long time, they didn't do anything with them.  For a while I thought that the author would never explicitly reveal these secrets; that would've been REALLY cool.  She finally unleashes the twists in the final pages, within a couple paragraphs of one another, and I ended up being pretty happy with how they're handled.

The first: Sam, who has a contract to kill Mizamir, is his son.  Several times characters comment on how Mizamir looks somehow familiar, and later on Valerie mentions that Sam must have some kind of inborn magical talent.  What I didn't expect, though, was how they were related: it turns out that Mizamir had scrambled Sam's mom's mind, which is why she never was able to take care of herself or of Sam.  Of course, this isn't a Good thing to do. 

The other mystery is the identity of Blackmail.  He never speaks, his motives are unclear, and his identity is a mystery.  At least to the people in the book.  Once I heard about the Paladin Prye (sp) who went on a final quest, disappeared, and never returned, I figured out who he was.  He was a companion of Mizamir in their initial quest, but after the Victory Mizamir turned his brother into a horse to punish his evilness.  Blackmail is fully honorable and follows the Code, but he recognizes that Good must always be a choice, not something forced on you from without, and so he has taken the quest to reverse his earlier actions.  The cool surprise here: learning the identity of his horse.

I wondered a lot about Blackmail during the book.  At first, I had thought that maybe the horse was the intelligent person, and the knight the silent beast; perhaps some sort of soul-translplanting spell had reversed the two.  After the horse dies and the knight carries on, I eventually figured out the Paladin connection.  For a while I thought that he had been transformed into a demon knight of some sort.  One thing that didn't satisfy me in the final revelation was an explanation of why he never slept.  I was convinced that he was somehow an undead or vampire or something.  I dunno.  Do paladins not need to sleep in D&D rules?


The book is a lark, and a really fun one, worth the effort to track it down.  It'll make you wonder why there aren't more books like it out there.

It's surprisingly poignant, too.  There's a great section around the 2/3 mark where the villains reveal to Robin what their motivations are.  On the one hand, it just lays out the typical D&D definition of "evil" as "doing things for selfish motives" (e.g., in Baldur's Gate, an evil character can take all the same quests as a good character, you just need to say "I'm doing it for the money.").  It gets pretty eloquent, though.

"There's more to people than some definded label," said Arcie.  "There are more than straight good and evil, aye, even more than law or disorders or fence-sittin'.  There's prejudice, whimsey, affection, superstition, habits, upbringing, alliance, pride, society, morals, animosity, preference, values, religion, circumstance, humor, perversity, honor, vengeance, jealousy, frustration... hundreds o' factors, from the past and in every present moment, as decides what some one person'll do in an individious situation."

[Apologies for the dialect - that's just the way Arcie talks.]

Good times... for a nice twist on traditional fantasy, check this out.

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