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Book Review: Unclean by Richard Lee Byers

Genre: Shared World, Forgotten Realms, Dungeons and Dragons
Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publication Date: April 10, 2007
ISBN-10: 0786942584
ISBN-13: 978-0786942589
Author’s Website: Richard Lee Byers

What happens when a young bard returns home to find the lover he left gone? What would you do if you saw your entire regiment slaughtered by the undead? If an undead lich made a grab for control of your country, even if that country is the notoriously self-serving Thay?

It is these questions that Richard Lee Byers’ new Forgotten Realms book, Unclean: The Haunted Lands Book 1, attempts to answer. Byers continues to show his writing prowess in the shared world arena, by tackling a difficult topic in the Forgotten Realms world, the undead. Traditionally seen as evil through and through, represented usually as vampires or zombies, skeletons, ghosts and ghouls, Byers has developed the character of these, added to their ranks new creatures and moved beyond the hack/slash utility of the traditional monsters.

The story follows two characters. Braeris is a bard of Thay, just returned from making his fortune, only to find his true love has sold herself as a slave to pay her father’s debts. Aoth is a griffon rider with magical ability serving in the army of one of the tharchions of Thay. He is the sole survivor of the first attack of the army of undead that appears out of the Sunrise Mountains. The story moves between these two characters as they pursue separate quests that will eventually lead them to each other. Braeris seeks his lost love, whose haunting words can be found on the blurb on the back cover, and Aoth seeks to serve his tharchion (a selfish and stupid person) while also attempting to destroy the army of undead. Meanwhile, Szass Tam, lich and zulkir of Thay, seeks to use the events to his own advantage.

The story is an excellent sword and sorcery romp. Byers is one of the better authors in the Forgotten Realms and his experience in writing horror fiction for other publishers serves him well here. Who better to delve into the intricacies of the minds of the undead than a horror writer? The plot is fast-paced and rarely sits still. There is an excellent build-up of events that lead to a climax that, while expected, doesn’t fail to excite. This is the first book in a trilogy so the ending, while good, doesn’t complete the story, and the reader will anticipate the future books eagerly.

Byers does have one major flaw in his writing. He lacks the ability to make the love story subplots truly empathetic. What I mean is the love plots in the book that concern both Braeris and Aoth seem tacked on. Although the love interests do play important roles in the story, especially for Braeris, the reader will find himself unable to truly feel that the character finds it important. While it might move the plot along for a time, the love stories simply lack any real emotion, and at least one of the characters about face in emotion seems a little unreal, although perhaps explicable in context (which I won’t give here for fear of ruining the plot.)

Ultimately, if you are a Forgotten Realms fan, you will enjoy this book. If you are a fan of the recent trend in vampire and undead novels in the fantasy mainstream, you will enjoy the book. If you are looking for a quick sword and sorcery romp for a little escapism, this would be a good book for you. If you are looking for any depth, shy away from this one. But hey, who doesn’t need a good sword and sorcery romp now and again? I know I do, and this is a good place for it.

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