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Book Review: The Fanged Crown by Jenna Helland (Forgotten Realms)

* Author: Jenna Helland
* Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages
* Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
* Publication Date: January 6, 2009
* ISBN-10: 0786950935
* ISBN-13: 978-0786950935
* Read a Sample Chapter

In strict adventure fantasy style, Jenna Helland’s debut novel, Thee Fanged Crown the first novel in the Forgotten Realms The Wilds series, opens with a piece of non-stop action (a ship-to-ship fight) and never stops. With echoes of the grandmaster of adventure fantasy, Robert E. Howard, Helland prefers to entertain with activity and death-defying fight scenes rather than dive too deeply into characters.

The story, which takes place in two timelines, is about Captain Harp and the crew of the Crane. Hired to go to Chult to find a lost colony, Harp and his crew find much more than they bargained for. As we read on, Harp’s (through whose perspective the majority of the story is told) character is developed, and we learn that he has a much more personal stake in the finding of this lost colony than might first appear. The woman he loves is part of that colony, she and her husband.

The second timeline involves events back in Tethyr, before Harp and his crew arrive in Chult. This back story informs a lot on the character and motivations of Harp in particular, and some of his crew as well.

While this story is enjoyable as adventure fantasy, Helland’s new writer credentials are plainly evident. Several characters (part of Harp’s crew) are introduced at the beginning of the story, but are never heard from again after a few chapters. Another character, Kitto, seems to belie the characterization that was first presented, that he is the silent and taciturn type. As the story progresses, he becomes increasingly vocal, and it is hard for the reader to meld the description of his character and the actuality of it.

These are minor things. There was also some difficulty with the stories structure. Initially, the two timelines are kept separate. They are ten years apart, and so Helland had been having each timeline take place in a different chapter, each labeled with its own year. But as the story progressed, the earlier timeline began to be melded into the later one through the memories of the characters. It would have been better had Helland either done that from the beginning, or continued in the same fashion of switching chapters when timelines were switched, though the former would have been my choice.

Finally, the book is badly in need of a copyeditor. There were many places where articles were dropped, misspellings appeared in the text, or sentences seemed to skip, as if Helland had changed her mind about what to say, but the wrong words were deleted. Even worse, in the Chapter Nine heading, the date is wrong, being of the latter timeline, rather than the former. It is almost as if the publisher published the wrong version of the text, using the unedited ARC, rather than the polished version.

So, enough with the problems of the story. On to why I thoroughly enjoyed this tale and you will too. Though some authors of the Forgotten Realms have made their novels more comparable to works of fiction by NYT Bestsellers, even, like Salvatore, being a trendsetter, the majority of the works in the Forgotten Realms are simply enjoyable adventure fantasy. That is not to say I don’t have high expectations of these novels, just that my expectations are different. A Forgotten Realms novel should be, first and foremost, about characters crawling through dungeons, facing off against monsters, and finding powerful treasure.

And that is exactly what The Fanged Crown is. Harp and his crew are on a madcap rescue mission that quickly turns into a search for an artifact that must be used or at least found to stop an evil sorcerer from gaining too much power. The sorcerer’s identity is part of the mystery and adventure of the story. Like the old school adventure tales of the pulps, The Fanged Crown places the reader in a wildly alien world, with characters whose success we invest in, even if we don’t find their character to be much more the simplest of motivations and emotions. (Conan is certainly quite basic).

Jenna Helland’s met all my expectations of an adventure novel. The Fanged Crown was a guilty pleasure to read on the snowy, blustery day I held it in my hands. It reads like a D&D game. Harp and his crew had hilarious, snappy dialogue, sort of like the dialogue found at my kitchen table growing up. Their headlong dash into danger was fun, especially when Harp’s brash actions led them into even greater trouble. (And subsequent mockery by the dwarf Boult.)

The characters often did things that were surprising, but still within the character as presented. The back story was believable even though choppily integrated into the latter timeline. Except for the fact that this novel is Forgotten Realms (and current), it could just as easily have been serialized in Astounding Tales back in the heyday of adventure fiction.

The Fanged Crown is potentially a good entry point to the Forgotten Realms, so long as readers place the right expectations on it. If you are looking for characterization, this story is not for you, but if swashbuckling style swordplay, strange creatures, and dungeon crawling are plot elements you enjoy reading, than this is a worthwhile book. Recommended.

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