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Book Review: Key of Stars by Bruce Cordell

Genre: Shared World, Sword and Sorcery, Heroic Fantasy
Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publication Date: September 7, 2010
ISBN-10: 0786956283
ISBN-13: 978-0786956289
Author Website: Bruce R. Cordell

Key of Stars is the concluding volume in Bruce R. Cordell’s Abolethic Sovereignty trilogy, set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting of Dungeons and Dragons. In this tale, Cordell completes the story begun in Plague of Spells, and even brings in key elements from the stand-alone novel Stardeep.

Raidon Kane and companions have survived the rise of the Eldest and the Abolethic city called Xxiphu. But the heroes, except for former Dreamheart captive Anusha, have no interest in doing anything about the aboleth’s presence in Faerun. But when the Lord of Bats, Japheth’s nemesis, turns Anusha’s merchant family home into a battleground, everyone realizes that they must do something to stop the eladrin Malyanna and her servitors, including the Lord of Bats, before she can find the Key of Stars and release the primeval, malevolent aboleths upon Faerie and all Toril.

Sound complicated? You don’t know the half of it. Cordell has a very large cast of characters, multiple special weapons (Dreamheart, the sword Angul, the Cerulean Sign, the Key of Stars, Japheth’s cloak) and so many disparate plotlines that at times it can be difficult to follow. This necessitates having read the first three books, and reading the prequel, Stardeep, while not necessary, will help in understanding the story a lot. The meta-narrative is easy enough to understand. A party of characters must stop an ancient evil, older even than the gods, from conquering the world. But there are many sideplots and character narratives to weave in as well. There is Japheth and Anusha’s love story, Captain Thoster’s discovery of his fishy heritage, Raidon Kane’s attempt to be at peace with himself and the loss of his adopted daughter as well as finding his own long-lost mother, Malyanna’s servant Taal – a monk like Raidon – who is at two minds about his service, and the Lord of Bats vendetta against Japheth, to name a few. It is overwhelming, and I think that is the one significant drawback to this novel. Though a Dramatis Personae at the end of the book helps a little, ultimately there are so many different motivations and plotlines crammed into 337 pages, that the reader is easily lost, and it forces Cordell to only skim the surface of the characters in terms of development. It is Cordell’s first trilogy, and so I think he made the mistake of leaving too much open-ended in the first two books, so was forced to finish them all in the third book, making it feel crammed.

That being said, Cordell does other things very well. For one, this is the only series so far that has feet on both sides of timeline of the Spell Plague, and it is representative of the significant changes this event had on the stories of the Forgotten Realms. Cordell is showcasing the move from a more classical, Western medieval style of talespinning where religion, magic, etc. holds sway to the newer presentation, which is darker, lacks much of a religious component, and has a greater focus on human endeavor through effort rather than magical helps. Like much of current fantasy, the Realms is moving away from Tolkien replicants to darker narratives that are reminiscent of Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, or James Enge. Cordell is bridging that gap nicely with this series, as we see the death of gods and magic’s influence in Toril, and a move toward human initiative and ingenuity. So thematically, Key of Stars and its prequels represents the dramatic shift fictionally that took place in the 4th edition rulebooks for Dungeons and Dragons.

Stylistically, Cordell has improved, though I found myself disliking his use of repetition when switching character perspectives. He will switch perspectives from one character to the next, and by way of lead-in relate the events that just happened through the eyes of the new character perspective. As a reader, I found it unhelpful. I did wonder how Cordell was going to bring together all the disparate and far-flung elements of his first two novels for a conclusion, but I think he did that very well in the only logical conclusion and exciting conclusion that would satisfy all the buildup.

However, Cordell’s fight and battle scenes, which were always pretty good, have improved even more. They are eventful, well-described, and entertaining. Although such thorough description of the fights does leave the setting description sometimes lacking, it is a fair trade for the most part. Readers are still given quite enough information to imagine the setting, and I wouldn’t trade some of these hand to hand combat scenes for the drier setting details.

All in all, I found that Key of Stars was thematically interesting, a bit overloaded with disparate plotlines, but that it is eventful enough and entertaining enough that its flaws are easily overlooked. The readers it is best suited for are readers who have been long-time fans of the Realms or Cordell in particular, and who have read the first two novels in the trilogy, possibly also Stardeep. I don’t find that unless you are either a player in the Forgotten Realms setting or a long-time reader that this is a good entrance point to the Realms, though if you want to see the direction the 4th edition is heading, this is an excellent story to highlight it. Ultimately, though I have some quibbles with the book, Key of Stars was still highly engaging, thoroughly entertaining, and so Realms changing that to miss out on it is to miss out on the extraordinary birth of a new era in the Forgotten Realms.