In May 1987, the first novel set in the new Forgotten Realms world was published. Darkwalker on Moonshae by Douglas Niles was a tremendous book – at least, that’s what I thought when I read it – several times – as a teenager. Today, I finished reading it again for the first time in decades.
The book does not start well, with a fair bit of clumsy writing and very clunky dialogue. However, as I progressed through the book, the writing got better, and the story began to engage me. By the end, I remembered why I enjoyed it so much: because, at its heart, it tells a really good story.
In fact, the most impressive thing about the book is the sheer imagination displayed throughout it. Niles wasn’t content to have just a few interesting things in the book; it’s jam-packed with them. Some of them draw from the existing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules – the druids, magic, and a few monsters – but others were created especially for this book. In particular, I enjoyed reading about the three servants of the Earthmother: the Leviathan, the Unicorn, and the Pack, which are very important to the story.
The book tells the tale of Tristan, the prince of a small kingdom on the Moonshae Isles, and his friends as they deal with the rise of a monstrous beast, Kazgaroth, that intends to destroy the land and the Earthmother, the goddess of their people. Tristan doesn’t get along with his father, who sees him as not taking his duties seriously, and part of the tale is his coming of age.
The characterisation in Darkwalker is fairly shallow, but effective enough for the tale it’s telling. The book moves between relating the adventures of Tristan and the actions of the Darkwalker and his minions. Looking back on it, I’m very impressed it doesn’t actually use a plot of “You must find this object to defeat the monster”. Yes, there are powerful artefacts to be found, but they’re found accidentally or willed to the characters instead of being the reward for a quest. The working of the plot is far more subtle than you might initially expect.
Kazgaroth is a fantastic threat, not least because it is able to corrupt many people and animals – including the Pack – to its service. Niles is particularly good at writing the battle scenes, which helps make the climax of the book particularly memorable.
Treated as an introduction to the Forgotten Realms, this is a particularly odd book, because the setting is so unlike the core of the Forgotten Realms. The setting was originally created by Ed Greenwood as a place to write short fiction in, and became the setting he set his campaign of the new Dungeons & Dragons game. Greenwood’s main Realms campaigns centred about Waterdeep, the Dalelands and Cormyr. A set of isles inspired by Celtic mythology? That wasn’t part of the world! In fact Niles had originally written the novel for a completely different setting from TSR UK, but it was retrofitted for the Realms when the original setting product fell through. The actual Forgotten Realms Campaign Set wouldn’t come out until August 1987.
(There’s one element of the book that feels particularly Greyhawk-like to me, and that’s the tension between the druidic faith and the new clerical faiths, as exhibited in The Village of Hommlet. It doesn’t really appear anywhere else in the Realms, as far as I’m aware.)
Ultimately, despite its flaws, Darkwalker on Moonshae is an entertaining tale, and one I enjoyed rereading.
This year I hope to revisit a lot of the old Forgotten Realms books, including some I’ve never read before. Of course, I’ll be trying to read them in publication order, which means the next book on the list is the one that sent the popularity of the Realms skyrocketing: The Crystal Shard.