Dungeons & Dragons & Novels: Revisiting Darkwalker on Moonshae

Original cover art by Keith Parkinson.
Original cover art by Keith Parkinson.
Image: Wizards of the Coast

This first book in the Moonshae trilogy holds the great distinction of being the very first Dungeons & Dragons novel ever set in the Forgotten Realms. It also holds the distinction of having the series’ raddest, most evocative title. Unfortunately, the story itself doesn’t evoke much of anything—which, given that it’s about a supernatural beast trying to murder an entire archipelago full of people and its god, is almost kind of impressive.

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I must have read Darkwalker on Moonshae—by Douglas Niles—when I was a kid. I must have found the book’s title as incredibly badass then as I do now. Plus, as the earliest Forgotten Realms novel, it would have been available after I was voraciously devouring them but before so many Realms books flooded the market that my weekly allowance could no longer keep up. But I remembered nothing about Darkwalker, so I was excitedly to reread it.

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It turns out there’s a reason I don’t remember the book, beyond the 30-plus year interval between my two reads (and my terrible memory). In fact, I finished Darkwalker on Moonshae a few days before writing this, and I’m already hard-pressed to remember some of the details. It’s odd because in some ways it’s better written than either The Crystal Shard or Azure Bonds—but it’s better written in a technical sense only, not in a storytelling sense. The plot is generic fantasy, which doesn’t bug me at all; it’s an early Forgotten Realms novel, after all. The biggest problems are the characters, who range somewhere between two-dimensional and one-dimensional.

A map of the Moonshae Isles. Caer Corwell is in Gwynneth, directly above the “G.”
A map of the Moonshae Isles. Caer Corwell is in Gwynneth, directly above the “G.”
Image: Wizards of the Coast

The hero of the story is Tristan, prince of Caer Corwell. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: He’s supposed to be a real medieval bro, all about laziness, hedonism, and ignoring his duties a prince. However, the story begins during a festival when everyone is supposed to be partying, and he shows no signs of this laziness later. In fact, no one ever seems to tell him what his royal duties are, so there’s no context for his purported personality. It’s all telling and no showing and his transformation from a supposedly shitty prince into a non-shitty prince isn’t actually established. Amusingly, the most unique thing about Tristan is that his father, King Byron, seems to truly hate his son for the vast majority of the story—even as the king is injured, forcing Tristan to lead Corwell’s forces, protect its civilians, and save the day.

The only other thing Tristan has going on is how he falls in love with his adoptive sister Robyn over the course of the book. By that I mean about a third of the way in Tristan starts looking longingly at her instead of mildly leeringly, and then after another third, Robyn says she’s love with Tristan, too. It is very technically the relationship developing over time, but again, it’s telling, not showing—there’s no evidence in the text that explains why their romance is suddenly blooming. It just is.

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Part of the problem is that Robyn doesn’t have a personality, she’s a trope. Like oh so many female fantasy characters, Robyn starts as a nag, ceaselessly berating Tristan for his immature ways that we never get to see, but that ebbs away pretty quickly once their adventure starts in earnest. Then Robyn’s character exists for two purposes alone: 1) as a recipient of Tristan’s male gaze and 2) an occasional deus ex machina, as it turns out she’s the daughter of a very powerful druid who was given to the king of Corwell as a baby. Naturally, King Byron has refused to tell Robyn about her legacy—for “protection,” apparently, although until the titular Darkwalker showed up there’s no clue who or what Robyn needed to be protected from—until the plot deems it most dramatic. Still, this means Robyn has a few scenes in which she has different emotions, which makes her far more fleshed out than the rest of the book’s adventuring party.

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There’s Pawldo the halfling, who mostly complains and doesn’t want to fight but occasionally really wants to fight and complains if you thought he didn’t. Keren the bard seems to have some depth to him in the way he inspires Tristan’s various soldiers with music during the battle and wants to write an epic ballad about the war, but then you remember that’s what all bards do and it says nothing about Keren himself. But both Palwdo and Keren look fascinating compared to Daryth, a thief who is introduced picking Tristan’s pocket, gets caught, is somehow immediately made Corwell’s chief dog trainer, then virtually disappears from the book. Oh, he’s technically in there—he’s fighting alongside Tristan and the others the entire time—but he never says or does anything memorable. I could not give you a single adjective to describe his personality.

The rest of the cast—which is surprisingly large—are about on par. I could complain about this one at a time, but it would be as boring for you to read as it was for me. Instead, let’s get into the plot: The titular Darkwalker (who is never referred to as the Darkwalker in the book) Kazgoroth, a.k.a. the Beast, rises from the Darkwell, a corrupted version of the Moonwells that sustain the Moonshae Isles’ local nature deity, the Earthmother. We spend a lot of time following the Beast’s rise to power, which is initially based on his ability to change shape.

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He transforms into a sexy lady so he can bite a random Corwell guard and turn him into a werewolf (this doesn’t matter). He turns into a sexy dryad lady to corrupt one of the Isles’ many druids (which matters only in that he sets up the sequels). He also briefly turns into a cow (don’t worry about it). But the Beast’s plan really kicks off when he kills and impersonates the leader of the Isles’ Northmen, King Thelgaar, and convinces them to forgo their normal raids and instead conquer all of the Isles and massacre all the Ffolk living there—and no, Ffolk is not a typo, this is exactly how the people of the Moonshae Isles are referred to, and it never gets less distracting to see the unnecessary double-F show up on the page.

Reprint cover by J.P. Targate.
Reprint cover by J.P. Targate.
Image: Wizards of the Coast
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As the book progresses, we continually check in to see what he and his armies are up to, which gets to be a little rote since the answers are always “evil” or “preparing to do evil,” but does it does help build up anticipation for the final battle. But Darkwalker on Moonshae also spends an inordinate amount of time following other characters who just don’t matter. The most egregious example is Grennach the Red. He’s one of the smaller Northern lords who gets increasingly disconcerted by his liege’s larger-than-normal bloodlust, the extreme difficulty of waging a massive war instead of simple raids, and the fact that Thelgaar seems to have turned Grennach’s elite cavalry into blood-drinking skeleton monsters. But Grennach does nothing about any of this. We just get to read about him getting weirded out and feeling shitty, over and over again, and when the final battle ends he takes his troubles and leaves, having affected the plot in no way whatsoever. And there’s so much of this.

The same is true for the Earthmother, the Moonshaes’ local nature deity that the Beast is trying to destroy (by murdering all the Ffolk). We get a lot of scenes with her in some ethereal location, getting increasingly worried about the Beast’s plan. To be fair, she does admittedly summon her “children”—Leviathan, the Pack, and Kamerynn the unicorn— in hopes of stopping the attack, and this sounds cool, but it still takes up a lot of space that ends up meaning very little.

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Leviathan sinks a thousand of the Beast’s ships, but the Beast has like 10,000 ships, so it’s essentially meaningless to the story and Leviathan dies having accomplished nothing. The Pack, which is a big-ass crowd of wolves, is even less effective given that the werewolf the Beast made eventually defeats the alpha of these supernatural, divine wolves and takes control of them. But before the werewolf-controlled Pack accomplishes anything, Canthus, a big cool moor hound Tristan gets at the beginning of the novel, kills the werewolf, takes control of the Pack, and achieves something by killing a million of the Beast’s minions and saving the day. If I were a nature goddess, I’d try to make sure my children had the wherewithal to not serve my greatest enemy, regardless of wolf fight club protocol.

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I don’t want to sound completely down on Darkwalker on Moonshae. Again, as the first Forgotten Realms novel, it deserves some slack. I know a lot of people loved it back in the day, including myself, probably. Niles describes settings and action very well, which is no small feat. The novel’s second act, where Tristan and his crew try to rescue Keren the bard from a Firbolg stronghold, is pure actual-D&D-session-turned-into-prose, complete with a treasure room (which just so happens to contain the sword needed to defeat the main antagonist, a la The Crystal Shard), and it’s decent fun, even if the characters aren’t exciting. If nothing else, Darkwalker on Moonshae is still a fantastic name for a D&D book or a nerdcore band (or at least a Ffffolk-rock band). All that said, reading this book was a slog, especially when I had to stop and try to remember who was who, which was a lot. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have bothered because I don’t think it particularly mattered.

Hopefully they’ll be more memorable things in the sequels because the only thing I will remember about Moonshae three weeks from now is the introduction (from the novel’s reprint) by Dungeons & Dragons novel superstar R.A. Salvatore. In it, he says as an aspiring novelist, he was told he could submit a novel set in TSR’s new Forgotten Realms setting and was given a galley of Darkwalker on Moonshae to see what it was all about. This preview copy of the book was the only source of info on the Forgotten Realms at the time, since the game set hadn’t even come out yet. Salvatore jumped to the conclusion—not unreasonably, I think—that the Moonshae Isles made up the entirety of the Forgotten Realms, and he’d need to include some of Darkwalker’s characters to set up his own story.

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His editor quickly apprised him otherwise, and his book was moved to the Realms’ far north in Icewind Dale, and Salvatore replaced Tristan and his animal companion Canthus with new, original characters who became Drizzt Do’Urden and his magic panther Guenhwyvar. That’s a great story; unfortunately, it’s the most interesting story in Darkwalker on Moonshae by far. And that’s all, Ffffffffffffffffffffffolks!

Here’s future king Tristan and future queen Robyn from Clyde Caldwell’s cover of The Coral Kingdom, part of Niles’ Druidhome trilogy.
Here’s future king Tristan and future queen Robyn from Clyde Caldwell’s cover of The Coral Kingdom, part of Niles’ Druidhome trilogy.
Image: Wizards of the Coast
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Assorted Musings:

  • There are a lot of tiny, almost entirely inconsequential characters in this story I didn’t mention and will continue not to mention. The idea of describing them here made me so sad and tired and I couldn’t put myself through that. I hope you understand.
  • Okay, I will mention one: Flit the faerie dragon, who serves as the Orko/ultra-annoying “comic relief” character. He’s not great.
  • A white horse bursts out of nowhere, and Tristan essentially says cool, free horse, and gets on. Five minutes later a group of elven knights show up out of nowhere, saying they’re sworn to obey any person of royal blood who rides the stallion.
  • Tristan at the festival that opens the book: “He would have been willing to watch more of the exotic dance, but he found himself annoyed that Robyn so boldly joined the men in watching the suggestive moments.” Cool. Cool cool cool. 
  • If you noticed the mention of Firbolgs, it’s probably because you’re a listener of the McElroy brothers’ very good RPG podcast The Adventure Zone. In the podcast’s current story, titled “Graduation,” Justin McElroy plays a Firbolg, who’s presented as a good-natured, nature-loving giant and not the evil, ugly, troll-like monsters they are in the novel. Even the D&D second edition Monster Manual confirms Firbolgs are neutral good, so it’s Darkwalker on Moonshae that got ‘em wrong.
  • Next time: Courtesy of my pal Temporal Sword, the original Spellfire by Ed Greenwood!
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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 was more of a Dragonlance kid, even though FR seems like it was the more popular series. I just happened to start with DL and didn’t want to juggle two very similar yet entirely separate fantasy worlds.