Thursday, October 30, 2008

47. Quag Keep by Andre Norton

Quag Keep Trade Paperback pictureQuag Keep Pocket Book pictureWhoah! I've got whiplash from slamming the brakes so hard on my book reading! I was whaling away with all the summer travel and being away from the distractions at home (i.e. the internet) but I hit a wall this winter. To be fair with myself, there has been a lot of productivity in other recreational realms (gaming, cooking, building and fixing stuff), but I really should have put away the 50 by now.

Just to give you an example of how poor my concentration is with books these days, I found a really cool pocket paperback version of Quag Keep (on your left) when I was in Winnipeg. I had already bought the trade paperback (on your right) brand new but this one was much cooler looking and only cost $2. I started reading the older version, but the type was so small and the wordcount per page so dense, that I had to switch over to the big margin, fancy-paper trade paperback like a sucker! Man, what's next for me, The Kite Runner!

Quag Keep is considered one of the earliest Dungeons & Dragons novels. It isn't an official D&D novel from one of the popular world settings like Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms, but rather a fantasy novel inspired by D&D. It was written in 1978. I don't know what the connection was, whether it was a marketing arrangement or whether Andre herself actually played D&D. There is a little frontispiece that says "The author wishes to express appreciation for the invaluable aid of E. Gary Gygax of TSR, expert player and creator of the war game, Dungeons and Dragons, on which the background of Quag Keep is based. I also wish to acknowledge the kind assistance of Donald Wollheim, an authority and collector of fantasy miniatures, whose special interest was so valuable for my research."

Quag Keep is about a group of heroes in a fantasy land forced to perform a quest. What separates it from classic fantasy fare is that they all have very vague memories about who they are and how they got there. They know what they can do and have snippets of memory based on their capabilities, but other than that, they don't know why they are doing what they are doing and how they got there. They have a couple of weird moments with a wizard where they start to think they are actually from somewhere else. They also all have a bracelet of dice that they can't remove or turn, but who spin on their own from time to time, usually when they are about to encounter danger. The conceit, I think, is that these heroes are D&D players who have inhabited the bodies of the heroes they are playing.

But it's much vaguer than that and that is what makes the book interesting. As a fantasy novel, it's rather generic. There are some cool battles and scenery and the characters are pretty neat, but there is no real depth beyond them trying to follow this quest. As I read it, I really got the feeling that Andre Norton was fascinated with the idea of characters in a roleplaying game and their limitations relative to their fictional counterpart. And not just any roleplaying game, but a really bad one. This is a serious railroad. The heroes are all geased (forced on a magical quest) for which they have no actual inherent motivation. The characters are basically a collection of powers and skills, with some racial features to make them distinct. I wonder if Norton didn't actually play in a game and was frustrated at all the things the characters couldn't do. Ultimately, Quag Keep seems like a critique of D&D more than anything. Or at least a badly-run D&D game. I mean if you haven't guessed it already, guess where there quest leads them? That's right, The Dungeon Master, who is briefly portrayed as a whiny, manipulative little nerd.

Not the most exciting read in the world, but a fascinating document for gamers today. I'd love to know a little more about what brought this book into being.


Buzby said...

I want to make some interesting comments about your review other than to say that it is fascinating. But nothing is coming to me. I really believe in the positive motivation that comes from comments on each other's blog posts if for no other reason than to show that someone cares. So, Olman, this is to let you know that I care.

OlmanFeelyus said...

I think we should get this comment framed and send it to Lantzvillager so he can hang it above his computer.