Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: The Tomb of Horrors

Caution: Spoilers (both of the novel and the module on which it is based)

Today we come to the last of the "Greyhawk Classics" novels, Keith Francis Strohm's The Tomb of Horrors, published in 2002. This is Mr. Strohm's first entry to the Greyhawk novel series, but it seems pretty obvious he's no newcomer to the setting itself.

The novel follows one Kaerion, a former paladin of Heironeous who fell from grace a decade ago when he was captured by the forces of Iuz in Dorakaa. Since then he hasn't been able to shed his holy sword, Galadorn, and has sunk into drink and despair at his shame. Gerwyth is his erstwhile elven companion.

The novel also follows one Durgoth, a priest of Tharizdun who has allied himself with the Scarlet Brotherhood in order to secure the release of his imprisoned deity. We get to see a lot of the bad guys on their own in this novel, which is something I always like, but not enough that every twist and turn of their scheme is revealed to the reader. The villains were very well handled, and I like the rivalries, jealousies, and different agendas of some of the characters.

Kaerion and Gerwyth are enlisted as guides by a group of Nyrondese nobles seeking to pillage the tomb of the long-dead wizard Acererak in order to use the loot to help bolster Nyrond's rebuilding after the recent wars (the novel is undated, but seems to take place in or around CY 591). Durgoth, on the other hand, has discovered, through some pretty vile but fascinating means, that a key to releasing Tharizdun can be found within the tomb. So Durgoth and his followers (agents from the Scarlet Brotherhood, the thieve's guild of Rel Mord, and a flesh golem) trail the Nyrondese party through the Rieuwood and the Vast Swamp, waiting until the good guys wear themselves out defeating all the tomb's traps and guardians before coming in to finish them off.

During the journey, Kaerion falls in love with one of the Nyrondese nobles, a half-elven bard named Majandra, and that's a relationship that is handled quite skillfully. Needless to say, the plan doesn't quite go as expected for Durgoth and company, and Kaerion regains his paladinhood just in time to bring the evil cleric low, defeat the demi-lich, and save (most) of his companions. The defeat of Acererak himself is almost perfunctory, but I didn't find it at all bothersome, as it was obvious that it was Durgoth, rather than the demi-lich, who was the real protagonist of the novel.

I found the writing and characterization of this novel to be very well-done, and the pacing was excellent. This is another fine example of using a location-based adventure for purposes that go far beyond the original module; in this case, setting up the cross-purposes of the cleric of Tharizdun with the more mundane loot-the-tomb mission of the Nyrondese. There is some good detail about Rel Mord, the Rieuwood, and the Great Swamp that can be used in an RPG game, and even some new geographical details added in the map in the front. All in all, I enjoyed this novel tremendously, and only wish that Mr. Strohm had been tasked with bringing some of the other classic Greyhawk modules to life.

I rate it five wizards out of five.


amp108 said...

Hey Joe,

How much of the novel takes place in the Tomb itself? And how many of the classic features like the Devil Face or the Bleeding Doorways make an appearance?

I ask because *if* the novel's a good read, and *if* a lot of it takes place in the Tomb, that would put another nail in the coffin of "I-prefer-story-games-to-dungeon-crawls." (Of course, it will just rise again like Sir Christopher Lee in a '60s Hammer film. Faulty arguments always do.)

Joseph Bloch said...

Slightly more than the last third of the novel takes place in the Tomb itself, and it seemed like there was just enough space in the novel to do it justice (too much more might have felt forced). There are indeed the devil faces, the bleeding door, and the other familiar sights.

Tim Shorts said...

Wow 5 out of 5. I'm gonna have to go check this out then. Been a while, I think Gord was still wet behind the ears when I last read a Greyhawk novel.

Rich said...

This one was definitely my favorite - I've read it more than once. Great review, I agree with almost everything!

Glad said...

Out of all of the Greyhawk novels, this was my third favorite only after Paul Kidd's White Plume Mountain and Descent Into The Depths Of The Eart. I did like it more than Paul's final GH entry, Queen Of The Demonweb Pits though. A really fun book based on a classic D&D module.

JB said...

I'd like to see a Tomb of Horrors novel where Acerak IS the protagonist.
: )

alzrius said...

I agree that the characterization was well-done, but it irked me just how little of this book actually dealt with the Tomb itself.

That sounds hypocritical on the heels of my saying how much I didn't mind that Paul Kidd did the same thing, but although I can't specify what, there was something different in Kidd's characters that really made them seem larger-than-life, but in a "Saturday-morning cartoon" kind of joyride way; they were just good fun, whatever the circumstances.

In this book, by contrast, the characters drew me more into the story, but they seemed to eclipse it rather than accentuate it. The fact that so little of the book actually dealt with the Tomb itself irked me more than a little.

This was made worse by just how many villainous forces were there - the Scarlet Brotherhood, a cleric of Tharizdun, flashbacks to the followers of Iuz...maybe I was spoiled by the Return to the Tomb of Horrors boxed set, but to me Acererak should have been front and center as the antagonist.

Had it been my call, I'd have started this novel on the outskirts of the Tomb proper (just like in the original module) and had the characters' exposition come in response to the traps and threats they faced inside, rather than on a never-ending journey just to get there.

Oh well, different strokes and all.