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Book Review: Sword of the Gods by Bruce Cordell

Genre: Heroic Fantasy, Shared World
Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publication Date: April 5, 2011
ISBN-10: 0786957395
ISBN-13: 978-0786957392
Author Website: Bruce Cordell

Would you want to wake up on a strange altar in the middle of nowhere, not knowing who you were or why a minor demon is gnawing on you? I certainly wouldn’t, but unfortunately for our hero Demascus, this is just how his story begins in Sword of the Gods.

The tale is part of the Abyssal Plague series, which spans all of Wizards of the Coast’s novel properties. The series focuses on demons from a dead universe that invade the various universes of Dungeons and Dragons (Dark Sun, Eberron, D&D, Forgotten Realms). Each is written as a stand-alone novel but are linked by the demonic nature of the foe each hero faces.

Set in the Forgotten Realms, this novel by award winning game designer Bruce Cordell glistens with action adventure. Taking place in The Year of the Ageless One (1479 DR) the tale follows pale-skinned Demascus as he encounters and befriends a pawnshop owner named Chant and gains the assistance of a superb thief named Riltana. Chant and Demascus bond early when Demascus arrives at Chant’s shop by coincidence – only to find that the self he has lost placed a magic scarf into Chant’s safekeeping. Riltana, on the other hand, is initially in opposition to Demascus when she steals that very scarf until a near-death encounter changes her mind about which side she is on.

Wanting to discover his true identity, Demascus first takes a commission to broach a mad wizard’s tower for the genasi (half-human, half elemental force) led Firestorm Cabal – only to find that the answers he seeks are hidden within the Cabal itself and the demon who stalks its halls in genasi guise.

Over the course of the novel, Demascus slowly begins to realize his true nature and his role to play on Faerun. This is both the novel’s strength and its detriment. By having Demascus be without memory, Cordell is able to explore the Realms a little, and also introduce concepts to readers unfamiliar with its design. On the other hand, it also makes Demascus lack motivation, makes the reader wonder what the point of all Demascus and Chant’s running around is for.

And what is up with the pawnshop owner (who is under threat of blackmail) running around with a brain-addled scarf-wielding white guy? For a person running a business in debt he takes an awful chance on Demascus by closing his shop and having adventures, a characterization I found hard to believe.
Yet, this is minor oddity of character is alleviated by the fun fight scenes. Cordell is a student of the martial arts and it shows. He is able to describe Demascus overpowering a villain vividly and with accuracy that makes it believable and awesome. I mean, killing a guy with a scarf? Who would have thought that could be as fun to read as the hacking of the sword? Not to diminish Demascus’ prowess with the sword, which he also uses on occasion.

Cordell does bother me as a reader with his word choice. He will sometimes use modern idioms or terminology in the dialogue of this sword and sorcery, and it would take me out of the tone and setting. The world is a fantasy one, littered with the impossible. The highest tech is usually the point of a sword, and most things we would do by technology are completed by magic. When a character makes a statement or uses a word that does not fit my notion of heroic fantasy, I was thrust from the narrative and had to carefully regain its thread.

However, Cordell writes a pretty good fake-out into the story. To tell you what it is would ruin the effect, but suffice it to say that the plot seems to be going one direction, in typical and tropish fashion, then jukes left at the last minute to turn the story into something more than a standard dungeon crawl. There is a great thesis/antithesis, yin/yang theme running throughout, which is not obvious until quite late in the novel, even though Cordell gives us enough hints that I should have figured it out. Me, I was fooled by the “who am I?” motivation of Demascus and his hacking and slashing his way to answers through the Firestorm Cabal.

All in all, it’s a pretty good heroic fantasy. I’ve read better, but I still enjoyed reading it. Those new to the Forgotten Realms may like it. Cordell occasionally goes into game designer mode to explain some aspect of the Realms I hadn’t understood before. In this way, Sword of the Gods uses some of the lesser beings and races and explains their fit into the warp and weft of the world. I learned more about the city of Airspur and the nature of devas from this work than any post-Spellplague novel yet.

Cordell does it all while telling a legend that hits all the high notes of heroic fantasy. Strange, enigmatic hero? Check. Noble companions by his side? Check. A diabolical villain from the nether reaches of another universe? Check. Lots of action? Check. Surprises to be discovered? Check. Worth reading? Definitely.