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Dungeon & Dragons & Novels: Revisiting Spellfire

The original cover of Spellfire by Clyde Caldwell
The original cover of Spellfire by Clyde Caldwell
Image: Wizards of the Coast

In 1987, Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, released his first novel in the giant, fantastical world he’d wrought (and his first published fiction, period). It’s hard to say what was more enticing to me back then: the amazing Clyde Caldwell cover art of a furious dracolich on the cover or its mysterious, evocative title. Because it certainly couldn’t have been anything inside the book itself.

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As I’ve mentioned every single time in D&D&N—and probably will continue to do—I didn’t remember what happened in Spellfire before rereading it, but this time it was clearly for the best because this book is half fever-dream and half nothing. I can sum up its 382 pages in 14 words: A girl named Shandril gets the power of spellfire, destroys some stuff, the end. The details are incomprehensible, meaningless, or sometimes both.

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Shandril is a 16-year-old scullery maid who is hated and molested by the chef, Korvan. They work at the Rising Moon Inn, owned by the kindly Gorstag, who we’re told cares deeply for Shandril but never does anything to stop Korvan or improve her situation. In fact, Shandril has never even left the inn before. She’s never gone outside. It’s a bananas detail that serves no purpose other than to hint at the nonsense to come.

When a company of adventurers called the Company of the Bright Spear comes to the inn and their thief is killed in a brawl—a murder absolutely no one has any emotional investment in—Shandril decides to see the world. She steals some of the Company’s gear and waits outside town for them to apply for the vacant position. Although Shandril has no fighting skills and her thieving experience amounts to 12 hours, the Company takes her on. It’s a bit nonsensical, but that’s hardly the gravest crime a D&D novel has committed. It’s the speed at which this all happens that makes it feel extra-preposterous.

The cover of the 2005 reprint, with art by Jon Sullivan.
The cover of the 2005 reprint, with art by Jon Sullivan.
Image: Wizards of the Coast

This is where Greenwood hits fast-forward. The Company almost immediately runs into 10 members of the Cult of Dragon and, after a short fight, they then run into 20 Dragon Cultists who nearly overwhelm them. Luckily, Elminster, the Forgotten Realms’ most powerful wizard and Gandalf analog, shows up out of nowhere and makes these Cultists run away and leaves, all within the span of two pages. Despite being significantly outnumbered, the Company decides to chase these Cultists to grab their treasure. It turns out there are over 50 Cultists total and the adventurers get their asses kicked (and murdered) by a single Dragon Cult wizard and his green dragon. Shandril, on the other hand, is captured and wakes up in some kind of crypt. We are on page 53.

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Now, I mention the page number because I need you to fully comprehend the magnitude of the following nonsense. Here’s what happens next:

  • In desperation, Shandril opens one of the crypts and finds a random bone with a mysterious word on it
  • She says the word, is randomly teleported somewhere and is immediately attacked by a gargoyle
  • She falls through an entirely separate, random portal into the ruins of a castle and is immediately attacked by devils
  • The devils are attacked by a giant tentacle monster
  • The floor gives way and Shandril is dropped into another part of the castle
  • Shandril is attacked by unknown assailants who are electrocuted by an unknown source
  • After trying to find her way out of the ruins for a little bit she is captured by an evil sorceress named Symgharyl Maruel…
  • …who drags her in front of a dracolich

This all happens between pages 53 and 87, and I need you to know some of these pages are devoted to another character entirely. It reads less like a book and more like some cruel Dungeon Master is maniacally rolling on D&D’s “Random Monster Encounter” table. A dracolich showing up should be a powerful moment; as per the cover, they’re undead dragons whose bones are held together by nothing but magic and hate. They’re some of the most powerful, terrifying creatures in the role-playing game, but for Spellfire it’s just the next item in Shandril’s Series of Unfortunate Events.

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This is not the only indignity the book is going to heap on dracoliches, but first, it’s time to introduce you to Narm, a low-level mage who sees his not-particularly-bright master get torn apart by devils when they venture too close to the abandoned, cursed Kingdom of Myth Drannor. Some of the heroic Knights of Myth Drannor—a group who loiter nearby and try to prevent numbskulls from venturing too close to the ruins and becoming devils’ food cake—agree to help Narm when he spies the sorceress dragging Shandril away for her nefarious purposes. The Knights find them and battle the mage and the monster while Narm scrambles to help the girl. Shandril, who’s had a really shitty day already, quite reasonably decides to run away from yet another stranger chasing her, but then the two get trapped in a cave-in caused by the battle.

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Now I have to get back to the page numbers. Shandril meets Narm for the first time (p95). They have their first conversation, which lasts about 10-15 minutes in book time, then they have passionate sex (p100). If you think they’re moving a bit fast given that Shandril was on the brink of death less than 30 minutes prior, please don’t worry. Narm post-coitally declares his total love for her (still p100) and asks her to marry him less than 24 hours later (p155, almost immediately after the group finally escapes the cavern). Now, this is some pretty wack pacing, but what brings it all into perspective is that Shandril doesn’t get around to asking Tarm what his last name is until page 194—at that point, weeks later in book time.

I hope you haven’t forgotten about the titular spellfire, which is built up in the story with just as much care and precision. Back at the cave-in, Shandril and Narm discover a mysterious glowing sphere and when Symgharyl discovers them in their cubby, Shandril smashes it over the sorceress’s head, which releases a balhiir, an entity which absorbs magic energy. After the two are rescued, Elminster returns and has a calm conversation with the Knights of Myth Drannor about how the only way to stop a balhiir is for the one who released to absorb it, then blast the energy out Dragonball Z-style. This works out well, given that they’re now all surrounded by the dracolich, Symgharyl, and 70-plus Dragon Cultists, who just keep stopping by.

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If you though Shandril’s spellfire would help even the odds, it doesn’t. It crushes the odds… in Shandril’s favor. She starts blasting and annihilates the cultists, the dracolich, the entire mountain they’d been standing in, and the ruins on top, using far, far more spellfire than just absorbing the balhiir could account for.

The full cover of the 1988 original, where Elminster looks like he’s about to soil his britches.
The full cover of the 1988 original, where Elminster looks like he’s about to soil his britches.
Image: Wizards of the Coast
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Now, a young girl discovering she has a power so great that she can take out one of the mightiest, most evil creatures (half-)alive could be an incredible scene. It would be quite compelling to read about Shandril exulting in her ability yet simultaneously being afraid of it, while her compatriots marvel that she singlehandedly defeated an ancient monster who’s slain thousands. Instead, Shandril slays the dracolich almost off-handedly (p119), and its lack of significance is underscored when Symgharyl brings another dragolich to the fight, only for Elminster to kill them both in a single paragraph (p137). Then, unbelievably, the mighty Lord Manshoon, ruler of the unequivocally evil people of Zhentil Keep, gets a magic alert that his paramour Symgharyl is dead, grabs his black dragon, and flies over to get vengeance—only for Shandril to use spellfire once more to fully kick both their asses without breaking a sweat (p154). The black dragon flies away but dies of its wounds shortly thereafter.

For those playing at home, this means our heroes—really, just two of our heroes—defeated three dragons in 35 pages. That’s unfathomable. It’s unconscionable. It also happens to ensure there is no excitement throughout the rest of the book because no matter whatever happens Shandril is never going to be in any kind of danger again.

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After this nonsense, Spellfire finally settles down to tell one simple, comprehensible story, where the good guys take Shandril to Shadowdale (home to the Knights of Myth Drannor) to protect her while the bad guys—of which there are two main groups, the Dragon Cultists and the remaining leaders of Zhentail Keep—attempt to kidnap her for her power or kill her. The remainder of the book is filled with these attempts, all of which are easily thwarted, usually in just a couple of pages.

There’s some other stuff about Elminster testing Shandril to see how much magic energy she can absorb and spellfire she can unleash (the answer: more than enough), while Narm does a bit of magic training in order to help protect his bride. Eventually, Shandril reveals she’s pregnant and the two get married and decide to leave Shadowdale and see the world since they’re constantly going to be attacked no matter what they do or where they go. But even after they set out, a few of the Knights follow them purposefully or secretly, insuring the continued attacks are quelled without anyone getting close to a dangerous or interesting situation. This is really all you need to know about Spellfire, but I can’t help but giving you one final example of what a debacle this book is because it makes me so damn mad.

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Before Shan and Narm leave Shadowdale, they discover Korvan the asshole cook is a member of the Dragon Cult. It doesn’t make any sense and is only foreshadowed in the sense that Korvan is a terrible, shitty person. Once they’re on their own, the pair decide to go visit Gorstag, where they have a happy reunion, but when Shandril reveals that his cook of 15-or-so years is an evil Dragon Cultist—a group currently determined to find and/or murder her—no one does anything about him. 

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Here’s how they deal with this known enemy: 1) they don’t wake him up and 2) they don’t eat his food. Shandril and Narm still spend the night at the inn and, in a twist no one could possibly have seen coming, the Dragon Cult attacks. Korvan specifically attacks Gorstag, who makes it clear he absolutely knew Korvan was harassing and assaulting Shandril for her entire life because he tells the chef “This has been coming for a long time.” And yet the book presents Gorstag as Shandril’s beloved father figure instead of the enabling asshole he actually is. Of course, she and Narm escape, at which point one of the major Dragon Cultists attacks them on yet another dracolich. Shandril blasts it out of the sky like the others. The end.

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This book is terrible. It’s the sort of top-to-bottom awfulness I expected to encounter when I started looking back at these D&D novels but then forgot about after I was lulled into a false sense of security by nominal competency of the first few books. I will say that the second half of the book is better than the first; the Knights of Myth Drannor aren’t particularly original—in fact, they’re hard to tell apart sometimes—but they have some personality and are fun to hang with. Elminster, created by Greenwood himself, is the book’s most solid character and definitely more interesting than in his appearance in Azure Bonds. He’s mildly to severely irritated with everyone and everything all the time, but Greenwood somehow keeps him from being irritating himself.

I’d tell you not to read this book, except it’s pretty difficult to manage. I had to get an assist from my buddy and io9 reader TemporalSword to get a copy of the original novel. Amazon sells an “updated” ebook of Spellfire; I’m curious what’s been changed and how much it’s potentially improved, but not so curious that I would ever, ever read the novel again. Maybe Shandril kills a few more dracoliches?

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Elminster, as seen on Matt Stawicki’s cover of Ed Greenwood’s Elminster in Hell. Seriously.
Elminster, as seen on Matt Stawicki’s cover of Ed Greenwood’s Elminster in Hell. Seriously.
Image: Wizards of the Coast

Assorted Musings:

  • There’s a powerful, enigmatic mage called the Simbul who keeps popping up out of nowhere to keep an eye on Shandril. At one point it’s revealed she was hanging out disguised as a bottle on a table. This cracks me up.
  • We check in with the dudes of Zhentil Keep and the Dragon Cult several times after the dragon massacre and each time they get less intimidating. They’re all ruled by a variety of bad guys who can’t decide what to do about Shandril and are more interested in inter-office politics anyway, so when a minion does get sent out to take on Shandril it feels like a clerical error of some kind.
  • A sample line of dialogue from Narm, clearly trying to say “Works for me”: “No words against that from this mouth.”
  • Elminster lives with a guy named Lhaeo who is cool and smart and wise but in public acts like “a lisping man-lover” as a disguise. So that’s cool.
  • Shandril can shoot spellfire from her hands, her eyes, her mouth, her entire body, and… well, I’ll let the book explain: “Her blazing finger found the throat of her tunic and ripped it open. From her bared breast poured out spellfire as she backed down the tunnel.” Cool cool cool.
  • At some point a kid gets a cat named Snuggleguts and as god is my witness I have no idea what it has to do with anything.
  • Next time: Drizzt returns in the Icewind Dale trilogy, volume 2: Streams of Silver!
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Correction: An earlier version of this post had the wrong publication year for Spellfire. io9 regrets the error.

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Rob Bricken was the Editor of io9 from 2016-18, the creator of the poorly named but fan-favorite news site Topless Robot, and now writes nerd stuff for many places, because it's all he's good at.

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DISCUSSION

I am about 50% convinced that you made up that whole book while drunk/stoned just so you could write this review.