Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sandstorm by Christopher Rowe

Rowe is a Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Award finalist who has written several fantastic short stories of speculative fiction. He’s also a good friend, so when he told me his first novel was going to be a Dungeons & Dragons book, I thought, “huh. Well, at least he’s got a book coming out.”

I haven’t read a D&D novel since before the original Dragonlance books. I’ve always heard good things about those in particular, but my experience with stories based on role-playing, or even based on other kinds of properties (the Star Wars movies, or the Legend of the Five Rings CCG, or even comic books), has been rocky to say the least. It seemed that the very way in which RPGs free your imagination to create any kind of story you might want to tell somehow constrained fiction, limited it and made it feel flat and small.

Questions like this occupied my mind as I picked up Sandstorm, Christopher’s book. In the initial pages, I found myself asking whether or not characters or actions worked “in-game” or not. What might be a character’s stats? How might a fight work in terms of attack dice and hit points and initiative?

Without realizing, though, those kinds of questions and thoughts quickly faded. Instead, I asked questions like, “what’s going to happen next?” and, “how will the hero, Cephas, get out of this situation?” and, “what does the mysterious Corvus Nightfeather, a crow-headed assassin, want with Cephas?” In short, all the things you ask about a compelling, character-driven fantasy adventure.

Here’s the thing: I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Rowe is known for really immersive, character-driven storytelling. What seemed like a strange fit, though, was the fact that he writes stories with intense, even intricate world-building. Stories like “The Voluntary State,” and “Another Word for Map is Faith” make you unravel their worlds like puzzles, all the while making you care deeply about the characters and their struggles. But he seizes on the entire spectrum that D&D has to offer—30 years of Forgotten Realms writing, game resources, and gaming articles—and bends them to his own needs, all the while staying true to the real joy of Dungeons and Dragons, the granddaddy of all RPGs.

Rowe crams Sandstorm full of corrupt liberated slaves, nurturing orc gladiators, rock giant clowns, snobbish genies, grim Halfling acrobats, a retired ranger and his pet wyvern circus act—and all that’s just in the first 100 pages or so!

At it’s heart, though, is Cephas, a former gladiator slave who is searching for a place to belong, and who thinks he’s found it in his rescuers—the travelling circus of Corvus Nightfeather. But Nightfeather has his own agenda, and even though Cephas is a hardened warrior, he’s innocent and vulnerable when it comes to friendship, the one thing he’s never had before in his life.

If you’ve read and enjoyed any speculative fiction, then you probably come across Rowe’s great short stories, and you will not be disappointed by his novel. If you haven’t, then be assured that this is probably not the book you would think of just hearing the phrase “A Forgotten Realms novel.” And, if you have read Forgotten Realms novels, then you probably know what I’m just cluing into: that shared world novels, books based on your favorite RPGs and the like, can be just as exciting, rich, and filled with great storytelling as any other.

Christopher Rowe is currently at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, but as soon as he returns, I will post our interview, where, in addition to telling about writing Sandstorm, he will discuss his use of an electric typewriter as part of his writing process!

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