The fifth release in the Forgotten Realms line of novels, Azure Bonds, is the first book in the line that I consider an unqualified success and, indeed, one of the best fantasy novels that’s been written. It had been about 25 years since I last read it, and in that time I forgot how good it was. Rereading the book was an absolute pleasure. This is a book that manages to combine a compelling plot with memorable and engaging characters, while not skimping on the world-building.
Originally released in October 1988, the book was written by the husband-and-wife team of Jeff Grubb and Kate Novak. Jeff Grubb was the man-in-charge at TSR of the Forgotten Realms line, and had collaborated with Ed Greenwood in preparing the campaign setting for publication. In Azure Bonds, he and his wife showed how well they could craft stories in the setting.
Where Spellfire had introduced us to Shadowdale, Azure Bonds introduces us to Cormyr, the only kingdom of any significance in the heartland of the Realms. The tale is about a warrior-woman, Alias, who wakes one day to find herself possessed of a magical tattoo that binds her to five mysterious controllers – and with no memory of how she got the tattoo! She’s joined in the quest by a group of colourful and flawed adventurers. Olive Ruskettle, a halfling rogue who passes herself off as a bard, is the most memorable of those companions, but each is excellently realised.
The plot rattles along at a rapid pace, but it always finds ways of developing the characters. Akabar bel Akash, a merchant-mage, scornfully referred to as a “greengrocer” by Alias as he doesn’t have adventuring experience, has to confront the truth of her accusation and show that he can be brave and effective in the world of adventurers. Olive has to rise above her larcenous ways. Alias has to accept that her position in the world isn’t what she remembers. It’s compelling writing, and you feel that the characters do learn things as the story progresses.
The villains are likewise compelling – at least, when they need to be. The poor Fire Knives, expelled from Cormyr by King Azoun, are mocked by everyone else in the story and make a poor showing, but that’s basically their lot. The greater villains – especially a dangerous halfling named Phalse – are chilling.
I’ve only touched on some of the things that make this novel great. Dragonbait. Mist. Elminster. You get a different view of Elminster than in Spellfire. Strangely enough, it might be a lot closer to how Ed Greenwood actually used him in his games: tremendously frustrating to the main characters.
If you want to see how to write good D&D fiction, go no further than Azure Bonds. It’s more than good gaming fiction – it’s damn good storytelling, full stop. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour and find a copy. It’s well worth it!