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Book Review: Sandstorm by Christopher Rowe

Genre: Forgotten Realms, Heroic Fantasy, Shared World
Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publication Date: March 1, 2011
ISBN-10: 0786957425
ISBN-13: 978-0786957422
Author Website: Christopher Rowe

Circuses, elementals, spies, djinn, and slave trading are just a few of the elements found in Hugo, Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon award finalist Christopher Rowe’s debut novel. Set in the vast landscape of the Forgotten Realms, Sandstorm is an excellent heroic fantasy.

The part of Faerun known as Calimshan, first made famous by R. A. Salvatore in his Drizzt series, is vastly changed. Humanity now controls only one small city, and Calimport, where Drizzt and Artemis Entreri traded many blows, is now a heaping ruin presided over by windsouled genasi in floating mansions. The greatest of these masters of the power of wind has lost his son.

Meanwhile, Corvus Nightfeather – bird-headed man, magician, and circusmaster – discovers an earthsouled genasi enslaved to the gladiatorial arena. Realizing what he has found, Corvus and his band of strongmen, aerialists, clowns and a ranger/wyvern historical act set Cephas (for that is the earthsouled’s name) free. Cephas is then quickly caught up in machinations between three rival powers, that of the humans in the south, the djinn/windsouled genasi and the efreet/firesouled genasi that control the sands of Calimshan.

Rowe’s first novel is a fine read. While credit for the creation of the world in which the story is set must go to Ed Greenwood and Steven Schend, it is Rowe who brings the new Calimshan to life. Even readers unfamiliar with anything in the Forgotten Realms will find it easy to read Sandstorm. While connected to novels that have gone before by small details, it is set far forward in time from other novels in this part of Faerun, and the world is so vastly different from any encounter a reader will have had before that even longtime Forgotten Realms readers will feel that this is a fresh and new world Rowe has described.

New readers can read this novel completely separate from any other Forgotten Realms novel, because though it is set on Faerun, Rowe describes the various aspects of the world (without infodumping) so vividly that a comfortable familiarity is easy to gain. The reader feels themselves a part of the world, knowledgeable both in its history through subtle hints in the narrative and a part of its present reality through the protagonist’s progression from secret-holders to world-changers.

Though full of a panoply of characters, Rowe makes it easy to juggle them. The story is told through a third-person omniscient perspective, but God’s eye mostly follows Cephas as he goes from gladiator to pawn in the great game to the knight who will topple a king. As Cephas makes his first friends, falls in love, and realizes his birthright, the reader is treated to an action-adventure of breakneck pacing where encounters with Minotaurs are the least of Cephas’ problems. Even though the plotline is traditional in form (young man finds his true destiny, falls in love, etc.), the unusual background and strange cast of characters give it new life.

Corvus Nightfeather is a particularly interesting character; full of character development surprises that will make you flip between wondering if he is a hero or villain in this narrative. Other ancillary characters, such as the twin halfling aerialist fighters, the goliath strongman clown, and the ancient ranger and his wyvern friend provide unique color to the vast array of wondrous encounters.

Intrigues interweave complexly in this story. Even as Rowe describes detailed and exciting battle sequences, he intertwines subtle details of later significance. The moral gray of the story (except in the case of Cephas) fulfills publisher Wizards of the Coast’s goal of avoiding strict good/evil dichotomy in the post-Spellplague Faerun admirably. Rowe comments on the practice of slavery (and its ancillary, racial prejudice) over the course of the novel, but this makes sense given Cephas’ personal history and the slave-based economy of Calimshan. In doing so, Rowe highlights societal evil while writing characters with moral ambiguity. I expect that if Rowe is given opportunity to write another Forgotten Realms tale (and he should!) we will encounter more on this theme.

Sandstorm is a really great heroic fantasy. It is unpretentious yet vast, deeply personal yet world-shaking, peopled with unusual and interesting characters, and full of the sword and sorcery action that make Forgotten Realms novels so entertaining. Rowe opens up a whole new direction for Faerun, allows for easy entry into the world for new readers, and is darn entertaining. Recommended.