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Book Review: Realms of the Dead edited by Susan J. Morris

Genre: Shared World, Sword and Sorcery
Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publication Date: January 5, 2010
ISBN-10: 0786953632
ISBN-13: 978-0786953639

The undead are strangely, eerily fascinating. Their variety, incomprehensible nature, and admixture of the real and unreal make these seemingly simple creatures into the most compelling of characters, even when they lack personality of their own. And nowhere is there more variety of undead than in the Forgotten Realms. So it was with pleasure that I found Realms of the Dead edited by Susan J. Morris, which collects stories of Faerun’s undead by up-and-comers and household names in this shared world.

The anthology opens with a story by Richard Lee Byers, whose Haunted Lands trilogy is the progenitor of this companion anthology. In Byers story “Pieces”, tells the eventful story of Bareris and his companion Mirror, two undead individuals who find themselves at odds with Szass Tam, the undead ruler of Thay. Byer’s story is fine, but requires some knowledge of his Haunted Lands trilogy, and though not lacking in swordplay, is a tad simplistic in plotting. Byers is the logical author to open for this anthology, but his story was not the best tale with which to open.

Lisa Smedman’s story “Soul Steel” has a surprise ending I did not see coming. On the surface, the story seems to have only a tangential relationship to the undead, being more about elves and dwarves, but if the reader is patient, all becomes clear in the end. This is an enjoyable revenge tail with a quirky ending that delights.

New Forgotten Realms author Erin M. Evans writes a long story of revenge in “The Resurrection Agent”. Her concept of an individual who sets up villains to be prosecuted for crimes by dying and being resurrected is clever and interesting. However, Evans has some growing to do as a writer. A philosophical debate while in pursuit of a lost item is out of place, and the story is overlong for what is basically another revenge story, this one with a sad ending.

“Wandering Stones” by Bruce Cordell really builds on Forgotten Realms lore. Using his trademark method of writing about a previously unexplored (in novel form) area of Faerun, he tells the story of a land ruled by Dragons, and the long though died out Dragonheirs who can control them. Seem like there are no undead in this story? Well, the plot pivots on an encounter with an undead, and while I felt that the story wrapped up poorly by hinting at future stories in this vein, the ride was good overall.

Jaleigh Johnson gives us a hero cleric of the order of Chauntea in “The Bone Bird”. In this story of past mistakes by one individual coming back to haunt an entire village, we find echoes of Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. The story is short, concise, and bloody, and the unknown nature of the aggressor gives this story a really “haunted” feel.

“Feast of the Moon” by Christopher Rowe is a captured moment in time, in which a shapeshifter finds himself pitted against a seemingly unstoppable flying undead. The interactions of the primary and secondary characters are unusual, and Rowe’s use of a cleric normally associated with an “evil” god as hero makes this story rather unique.

Philip Athans authors what has to be the spookiest story of the entire anthology in “A Prayer for Brother Robert”. In this haunted house tale, Brother Robert is commissioned by a hysterical local woman to look into the strange event that happened to her daughter in the house they recently began to live in. But the house has a history, known to Brother Robert which may very well be the death of both he and the concerned mother. Great storytelling, well-paced and horrifically gruesome, it would make an excellent horror movie.

“The King in Copper” is a dungeon diving story by Richard Baker. This story is about useless people getting their comeuppance when they try to force the poor local lordling to cater to their whims. The area in which these louts reside has a history, and in their foolhardiness, they trifle with things they cannot overcome. Baker’s adventures story is a nice offset to Athan’s more horrifying tale, and has a happy sort of ending that is quite satisfactory.

“Dusty Bones” by Rosemary Jones returns to some of her characters from City of the Dead, her most recent Forgotten Realms novel. Leaplow Carver has a little adventure of his own when a long-lost relative uses his connections to the family to try and turn grave robber. The Carver’s have protected Waterdeep’s graves for so long, Leaplow cannot help but try to stop the Medusa-like undead that is loosed. Jones narrative is great entertainment, and Leaplow stands out in this anthology as the most surprising hero.

Forgotten Realms creator Ed Greenwood returns to one of his many characters in “The Many Murders of Manshoon”. Using his trademark style of “Wherefores” and odd grammatical construction, Greenwood spins a tale of one of the many clone Manshoons, Elminster, and his daughter Talatha. This tale requires a great deal of background knowledge about the Forgotten Realms, and while it was good to see Elminster in post-Spellplague Faerun, this story lacked cohesion and was here more to use the Greenwood name than because it was a good story.

Erik Scott de Bie’s “A Body in a Bag” is the best story of the anthology. Compelling characters, an unrequited love, and deft use of humor make this take on the undead runs the gamut of emotions. There is nothing flat about this story of a tiefling who loves an eladrin with a penchant for necromancy and poor magical execution.

R. A. Salvatore closes the anthology with “Iruladoon”, a simple story of a haunted wood, located in Icewind Dale, which scares off a group of adventurers (in Odyssian style) who are forced onto its lakeshore. The ending of this story is trite, and again seems to be included more for name value than for great storytelling.

Overall Realms of the Dead has a majority of good stories. Though most are not very horrific or spooky, they are good adventure tales of sword and sorcery, and editor Morris did a fair job of collecting them. I recommend this anthology to fans of both the Forgotten Realms, and those looking for undead characters outside of the standard trifecta of zombies, vampires, and ghosts.