A woman wakes up in a strange bed. She has no idea how she got there. She has no recollection of the past few days or even the past few months. The only clues to her mysterious origin are five tattoos on her arm she also has no memory of receiving, and… uh… a suspiciously friendly lizardman who can’t speak Common. To discover her past, she’ll need to deal with an annoyed red dragon, escape the clutches of a mad god, and talk to a couple of assholes, in that order.
Thus is the plot of Azure Bonds, the second book in io9’s look back at the classic Dungeons & Dragons novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Co-created by fantasy writer Kate Novak and her husband, game designer Jeff Grubbs, the novel kicked off yet another Forgotten Realms trilogy in October of 1988. I have a vague recollection of not being particularly enthused by Azure Bonds when I read it back in middle school; older me, on the other hand, found half of the book to be a perfectly fun, compelling fantasy adventure. It’s the other half that’s the problem.
The tattooed amnesiac is Alias, which is admittedly an eye-roll of a character name. The tattoos—a flaming dagger, three intertwined circles, a squiggle and dot, a hand with a fanged mouth in it, and three concentric circles—are deep blue and go down her arm. (The book also notes that at the bottom of the five tattoos is a “blank space” for a sixth tattoo, but since every untattooed part of anyone’s body is technically a blank space for a tattoo, this is very silly.) As she’s woken in an inn, Alias assumes she’s just been sleeping off a massive bender and that someone gave her the tattoos as a very thorough prank.
When Alias tries to find out from an innkeeper how she got there and got the tattoos, a Termish merchant/mage (from the southern deserts of the Forgotten Realms, but a nearly 1:1 analog for the Middle East) named Akabar Bel Akash offers to cast detect magic on the tattoos, which causes them to light up like fireworks. When Alias runs to a nearby cleric to have him cast remove curse, the tattoos take over and she tries to kill him (she would have succeeded if the cleric hadn’t been a worshipper of Waukeen, the goddess of luck). That night, mysterious assassins try to capture her, but a strange lizardman appears and helps kill them, proving so friendly and servile to her she names him Dragonbait and lets him hang around.
Alias’ next move is to ask the sage Dimswart if he knows anything about the symbols. Since he needs time to do research, he asks Alias if she wouldn’t mind rescuing the bard meant to play at his daughter’s wedding the next day, whose caravan was mostly captured by a red dragon. Dimswart has one of the caravan’s escapees lead her to the dragon’s cave, who just happens to be Akabar. And once Alias frees the halfling and self-proclaimed bard Olive Ruskette from the dragon’s clutches, the party is complete.
The first act of Azure Bonds is surprisingly strong. Alias’ adventuring party is a wonderful mix of ham-handed and graceful characters, and the novel keeps throwing mysterious events at the reader to keep Alias’ unknown origin compelling, such as the aforementioned assassin attack. That also includes her tattoos which cause her to attempt to kill a man doing an impression of King Azoun IV of Cormyr during Dimswart’s daughter’s wedding party. When Alias does learn about her tattoo’s meanings, turns out they’re the mark of an evil wizard named Cassana (the dot and squiggle), her undead lich lover (the three rings), the aforementioned band of assassins (the flaming dagger), an ancient Lovecraftian god of rot and corruption (the hand with the mouth in it), and then someone or something completely unknown (the concentric circles). We then find out Dragonbait is marked with the same symbols on his chest.
That’s a hell of a lot of mystery, but somehow it never feels too overwhelming. I think that’s because despite everything going on, Azure Bonds feels like a reasonably down-to-earth fantasy novel, at least at first. Alias is a proficient fighter, but she can’t fend off several trained assassins without some lizard-y help. She also doesn’t slay the red dragon holding Olive. Instead, they trick it by playing on its draconic code of honor, and once Olive has been freed they run like hell. The only reason they aren’t killed is because Akabar casts wall of stone over the mouth of the dragon’s cave, trapping it (for a while). For the first half of the book, the party’s adventures consist mostly of traveling from place to place, hoping to get some answers while fighting the occasional goon or monster.
It’s the second half of the book where things start to fall apart. For some reason, in the war-torn town of Yulash, Dragonbait sneaks off to attack a magic wall at the bottom of a pit. Alias follows the lizardman and inadvertently gets knocked into the wall, which frees the physical manifestation of the god Moander. It’s revealed that Alias isn’t a person but a creation, which Moander helped make as he could only be freed by someone “unborn;” Alias was supposed to be compelled by Moander’s magical programming to release him, but it truly seems like if Dragonbait hadn’t gone down there, Alias wouldn’t have either.
Instead, we’re treated to many, many chapters of Moander’s giant abomination heading across the country with Alias trapped inside, unable to do anything, which isn’t any fun. The red dragon suddenly reappears to get some vengeance, but Olive, with help from Dragonbait, plays on her draconic code of honor again and manages to enlist her help to fight Moander. This fight also takes forever, until Moander absorbs a bunch of highly flammable trees and the dragon uses her fire breath and blows them both up. It all feels artificial compared to the first half of the book, as does everyone’s equally sudden capture by Cassana, the lich, a pile of unnamed and unspeaking assassins, and Phalse, who appears to be a halfling but, as his name implies with the force of an exploding red dragon, is not.
Once the bad guys start spilling secrets, Alias’ origin goes from mysterious to wildly convoluted. First, the reasons these evil knuckleknobs created her is, to use the medical term, whack-a-doodle. Moander’s need to create a clone is key to unlocking his magical prison tracks. As for the lich’s motivation—since Cassana used her own form to create Alias, she’s effectively a younger, hotter, less powerful and murderous version of the woman he hate-loves. But the assassins want her to assassinate the King of Cormyr, which sounds like a great plan for anyone who isn’t, you know, a group of professional assassins who are ostensibly already pretty good at assassinating people. Phalse, who in reality is a beholder-esque demon, wanted her to travel to the Abyss, a.k.a. D&D Hell, to murder his former partner Moander… whose physical form was just murdered and who had been safely trapped beforehand? Finally, Cassana wanted to make a clone slave of herself for, uh… kicks, I guess?
But the sixth creator, the “blank space” on Alias’ tattoos, is the Nameless Bard, and he’s just a mess of a character. He used to be part of the Harpers, a secret society of do-gooders—a powerful bard who got very, very upset when he realized people probably weren’t singing the songs he’d composed in exactly the way he’d intended. So he essentially tried to make a magical iPod that would preserve his work in perpetuity, only to discover that somehow, his only option was to create a “human shell,” jam all his songs in her brain, and compel her to never stray from the source material. He tried to make this shell multiple times, and many people died in his attempts. This is all hella evil, especially for a member of the Forgotten Realms’ secret Justice League, who were so upset with what the bard had done they not only imprisoned him in another plane of existence, they erased his name and all his songs from existence.
When he’s eventually freed by Cassana and her associates, he willingly teams with the four very obvious bad guys all in hopes of making that iPod. And yet Azure Bonds tries to present the Nameless Bard as some kind of tragic figure, who only realized he might have done something wrong when he saw the newly born Alias taking care of the injured Dragonbait, realized that perhaps it would be wrong to let this being become enslaved by monsters, and helped her and the lizardman escape. Oh, also: Somehow Alias’ creation required half of Dragonbait’s soul, which is why the two both have the tattoos and are bonded together, but for some reason, Dragonbait still needs to be ritually sacrificed to complete the process and turn Alias into the slave she was intended to be. I won’t spoil the other surprises of the ending, but I will say the book has a traditional happy D&D ending, which is to say all the bad guys get murdered.
The book is a mixed bag (of holding), but it absolutely has its charms. Alias is a strong female character in the traditional ‘80s fantasy vein, but one who only wears skimpy, cleavage-baring armor (as seen on the book’s cover, of course) when Cassandra forcibly dresses her for the final sacrifice. She has absolutely no romantic thoughts about any character in the book, so she’s never weak-kneed around pretty boys or secretly wants to be a housewife instead of a sellsword, a far-too-common flaw for female characters in ‘80s fantasy. The book’s most interesting conflict is within Alias, as she struggles with the forces controlling her, whether she’s putting her friends in danger, and her identity once she realizes she was literally born last month.
Azure Bonds also charmed me by being a D&D adventure to its core. People don’t use their arcane sense to see if something has magical properties, they specifically cast the first level spell detect magic. The adventuring party is directly referred to as “the party” both by the characters and the third-person narrator. The Nameless Bard gets super-annoyed with Olive, who claims she’s a bard because the Nameless one has read the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Guide and knows only humans and half-elves are permitted to play as bards. The book’s honesty and authenticity to its source material is a lot of fun.
As a result, Azure Bonds rolls an 8 on its 1d20, making it more than twice as good as The Crystal Shard, but still with a lot of room for improvement which I’m hoping I’ll discover as I move into the later books after these authors have more experience and skill under their belt. I’m particularly curious about Azure Bonds’ two sequels, give that they’re named The Finder’s Stone Trilogy, the Finder’s Stone being an item that was unceremoniously given to Alias, utterly forgotten about, and then lost having served absolutely no purpose in the story. Presumably, it has a larger role in the following two books, but who knows? It is my solemn oath to find out…. eventually.
- Some of you might remember Curse of the Azure Bonds, a PC game that serves as a semi-remake of the book. The player’s party of adventurers wake up in an inn with a bunch of blue tattoos and no memory of how they got there. The titular bonds are mostly held by different bad guys, but you can meet Alias and Dragonbait and have them join your party, although I have no idea if they show up with their blue tattoo days behind them.
- Dragonbait turns out to be a saurial, a race of lizardmen who come from another planet entirely. He also turns out to be a Paladin, with all the class’ powers including divine healing. This is a pretty surprising reveal, overall, although he starts healing dozens of characters for the rest of the book, which lowers the stakes of the final battles a bit.
- I didn’t mention Olive the non-bard, because Olive pretty well sucks. She steals from her own party constantly for no apparent gain. In the middle of the book, Phalse secretly comes to her and offers her a pile of platinum coins to wear a ring of location so that Phalse and his cohorts can keep track of their price. Olive barely hesitates, rationalizing Phalse would probably figure out some other way to do it, so she might as well get paid. When Alias and her crew get captured by Cassana, Olive switches over to their side in an instant, not out of evil, just to save her own skin. She tells herself she joined to form some sort of half-baked plan of freeing her friends by working from the inside but tries to escape and abandon them the first chance she gets. You’d think that Olive’s conscience would pull her back in traditional reluctant hero fashion, but instead, she makes what is essentially an unsettlingly clinical pro-con list of whether to save them. Maybe she gets better later.
- But maybe not, because I think Azure Bonds is straight-up Halfling racist? At every possible point, someone talks shit about halflings, how their inveterate thieves, how it’s better to have no companion instead of a halfling companion, that halflings would sell their own mothers for the right price. This prejudice is applied to all halflings in the world, and the worst part is that Olive lives up to pretty much every stereotype.
- Alias does get a chance encounter with Elminister, the most powerful, important, and smartest wizard in the Forgotten Realms, and one of the setting’s most important characters. He even ends up getting a few trilogies where he’s the star (including, and I kid you not, Elminster in Hell). He’s more Merlin than Gandalf, which makes him less enigmatic and prone to tomfoolery than other major fantasy wizards, which I count as a good thing.
- If you happen to have a copy of Spellfire—before it got revised and expanded—I’d love to borrow it, since the original doesn’t seem to be available as an eBook.
- Next up: Darkwalker on Moonshae!
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