This is a man with mighty gaming credentials, but I believe this is his debut novel.
It's also the only branded Dungeons & Dragons novel I've ever read - barring Quag Keep (which I thought was great when I was teenager and not so much when I read it again last year). I've never even read a single Dragonlance book.
And I have to wonder if Slavicsek's strength is also his weakness.
Sometimes his descriptions can be rather more prosaic than poetic, smacking of game mechanics:
"The necrotic energy, clearly some soul-draining attack..." (pg. 191)or
"Amazing things, sunrods, he thought... a minor magic item, available in any well-stocked general store." (pg. 121)Making magic items so freely available demystifies them and reduces them to the level of the mundane in my mind.
But I guess that's a trait of this modern Dungeons & Dragons world that my old school sensibilities are never going to grok. For instance the seeming abundance of "teleportation circles" in ancient ruins just made me think of Star Trek!
The Mark Of Nerath involves the discovery by neophyte village priest Falon of Nenlast that he is heir to the lost empire of Nerath, while simultaneously the undead former emperor-tyrant of said empire, Magroth, has struck a deal with the demon Orcus to restore his empire.
Taking breathless pacing to almost comedic levels, the book's multiple core characters don't seem to be able to go five paces without running into their next combat encounter.
Combine this with the apparent closeness of all the adventure hot spots on the book's map (it covers an area not much bigger than 100 miles by 150 miles, sprinkled with multiple named locations including dungeons of various sizes, a necropolis, ruined manors etc) and you get the impression that The Nentir Vale is a very dangerous and violent place to live.
The story is woven from multiple plot threads that gradually intertwine as various quests begin to overlap.
- a dragon and his kobold minions;
- a lich and his death-knight sidekick;
- a mysterious demon; and
- the disparate members of the central party, who all start off in smaller groupings and only really come together well-over half way through the novel.
The core adventurers are a very egalitarian bunch, pretty much covering the main archetypes (and stereotypes) of 4th Edition - a dragaonborn paladin, an eladrin wizard, a tiefling warlock, a human cleric, and a halfling rogue as well as dwarf, human and revenant fighters to bulk out their numbers.
Sadly, Falon, our titual hero (who bears 'The Mark Of Nerath') is a bit of a bland, wet-blanket.
Whiny, naive, reluctant hero from a small, isolated community, who inherits a magic sword to help him fulfill his empire-related destiny; remind you of anyone? Luke Skywalker, perhaps?
However - as is often the case - the most interesting and rounded characters are those on the side of evil, particularly Kalaban The Death-Knight, the lich Magroth The Mad and the Nu Alin the demon.
A surfeit of characters also means there's the possibly of forgetting exactly who's who, but while I don't know what JRR Tolkien would make of the adrenaline-junkie halfling Uldane, that's a character that comes into its own towards the book's final act, when he gets a chance to show off his roguish prowess.
Uldane is also responsible for one of the funniest moments in the book - when he thinks a spinning blade trap would slice through him like a hot knife through butter... and it just makes him feel hungry. I had a Homer Simpson flash when I reached that moment: mmmmmmm, butter!
The sundry storylines eventually come together under Thunderspire Mountain (or module H2 as it is better known) and the book is peppered with colourful nuggets of lore about the Nentir Vale, its places and history that are fascinating in their own right but no doubt are more meaningful to hardcore 4e roleplayers using the system's primary high fantasy setting.
The Mark Of Nerath is an enjoyable romp through the Nentir Vale, despite occasionally reading like a well-written 'actual play report' from a dream D&D game, but is largely preaching to the choir.
I can't see anyone reading this who hasn't already drank the Kool-Aid. It certainly isn't going to hook any casual fantasy novel-reading types into playing the world's most popular role-playing game unless they were already aware of it.
That said, I'm looking forward to Alex Irvine's The Seal Of Karga Kul (due out in early December) which I'm presuming is possibly a sequel of some kind, even though it appears to feature a new cast of characters.