Weeding Womb

Death of a Darklord

Death of a Darklord by Laurell K. Hamilton. When it comes to Ravenloft fiction, there's right ways and wrong ways to write it. This is one of the wrong ways. It does Gothic Horror by building up a large cast of characters over the first 200 pages, then butchering them all in the last 50. It's more like a dull slasher flick with more agonizing about the dead.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. While I read this book in two halves (the two times I was stuck without another book), I think I remember most of the plot. It starts with Harkon Lukas, darklord of Kartakass and wolfwere. (Opposite of a werewolf - he's a wolf who turns into a man, not vice versa.) He convinces a dying member of a do-gooder-type guild to help him with something, in exchange for an amulet that will allow the dying man to steal the body of a young man. Lukas wants a certain guild cell, headed by one Jonathan Ambrose, to help clear out a town where a plague is making the dead rise as zombies. He intends to steal the body of one of the members of this cell, and with it travel outside of his land. (See my review of King of the Dead for an explanation of the whole darklord thing.)

Ambrose is what's called a mage-finder. It's a person (and one of the best original ideas of the novel) who believes that magic is fundamentally corrupt and hunts down the various practioners of magic. Amongst the members of his guild cell are:

Tereza, his wife.
Elaine and Blaine Cairn, their adopted children. Both are now young adults. Blaine's a member of the guild.
Konrad, a warrior who lost his wife and never really recovered.
Thordin, more muscle from a far off land. (Outside the Demiplane of Dread/The Dread Realms/Ravenloft. Like many others, he wandered into a bank of mist and, when it lifted, found himself in another world.)

In their travels, they pick up a few more recent captures by the Mists:

Silvanus, an elven cleric. (A healer.)
Averil, Silvanus' daughter.
Fredric, a paladin. (A noble knight.)
Randwulf, a rakish warrior.

They also have with them Gersalius, a wizard hired to help with Elaine when she shows not only a natural talent for magic, but also that it's killing her. (The wizard helps her learn to control her magic. It's a situation that Jonathan isn't happy with, torn between his love for Elaine and his hatred of wizards. A wizard killed his parents.)

They spend the better part of the story setting up the plot and getting to town (200 pages). Harkon (in wolf form) attacks them and tries to get Konrad alone, but fails. There's also hints that Elaine and Konrad would make a good couple, and Elaine has a crush on the indifferent Konrad.

A brief break for some continuity comments. While I normally can forgive minor breaks in continuity, and even some larger ones if the book is otherwise good, I can't overlook this. Elaine shows, in violation of both Ravenloft lore and pretty much every D&D rule out there, the ability to perform healing magic in addition to standard magic.

I could go deeper into the nuts and bolts, but suffice to say that the book gets the rules of magic in the world incredibly wrong: Normally, only clerics and paladins (who have vowed to serve a particular god) can heal. Psionicists and wizards can sometimes use their skills to regenerate their own bodies or transfer injury from one person to another, but they can't outright fix a random person. It's a tradeoff of the D&D world - mages have the heavy offensive magics, clerics have the heavy healing magics.

The book goes on to state that the land (as in, the entirety of the Demiplane) seethes at the healing power of the cleric Silvanus, which is patently false: In Ravenloft, there are no gods. (Well, the gods have turned their back on this corner of the universe.) Clerics get their normally god-granted healing power from the land itself. It wouldn't seethe at all - it would support him as readily as it would support an evil cleric using his formerly god-granted powers to kill.

It also generally messes up the division between psionics and magic. Magic comes from without - it is the manipulation of an external force (for wizards) or an extension of a god's will (for clerics). Psionics (like mind reading and telekinesis - which don't show up in the book at all) come from within. The book can't understand it.

Overall, it looks like the author just didn't read up on the setting beyond the most basic description. While that hurts the story, I reiterate that I'd be willing to overlook it if it were a good story.

But that doesn't happen. To continue the plot, when they reach town, they enter it at night (bad move) and are ambushed by a zombie horde. Harkon (in human form) winds up having to save them when the townsfolk are too panicked to.

In the end, Elaine and Blaine wind up trapped outside. Blaine saves his sister from a powerful zombie but dies in the process.

Meanwhile, the others have injuries (Averil's almost dead and Tereza's not doing well either; the others are mostly okay).

As the sun rises and the dead run away for the day, Harkon Lukas acts evil for a bit; Jonathan realizes that the doctor who tries to help Averil (and later declares her dead) might be in on this whole plague thing; Gersalius - with Elaine's help, once she gets to the inn alive - finds the source of the spell that's got the dead rising; Fredric acts completely out of character for a paladin - he's willing to butcher the town sheriff, something flowers of chivalry don't do unless they have good reason, and he doesn't.

As Jonathan and the others head for the source of the magic, they find the grave it's focused on belongs to the wife of the undertaker (who's named Ashe). Now the plot, having found a better* person to suspect, forgets about the entire 'Is the doctor in on it?' intrigue. What, two of them can't be in cahoots?

(* Though I fail to understand why he's better, since there's no explanation of why this grave must be associated to the person who cast the spell rather than randomly-chosen. If Ashe were a likely suspect, I could see this confirming it. But no one gave him a second's thought before. Now, he's suddenly guilty and convicted on theory.)

Elaine heals the body of the recently-dead Averil and tries to resurrect her. Instead, she externalizes all her pain about losing her brother and puts it into Averil, turning her into a torment-wracked semi-living creature who is hastily killed. There's no precedent for any of this in D&D lore, and there's no explanation of how or why this works. See a trend?

The others who she's healed check their injuries. Silvanus, who lost an arm but was growing it back is now growing a tentacle. Fredric's flesh wounds are growing scales. And Randwulf's healed spine has a growth that's turning into a doll-sized human. After much pointless gore to get rid of the mutations, all three are left badly mutilated and the story hastily abandons them as if they never existed. (See another trend?)

Elaine panics and runs, questioning if the magic really is corrupt and if she's becoming evil.

Jonathan et. al head for the undertaker's house.

Tereza, fever broken and now nice and cool, heads out to find her husband.

The undertaker finds Elaine, says he found her brother's body, and leads her to his house.

Harkon explains for the audience that he showed Ashe how to make zombies (despite having no skill at it himself according to Ravenloft lore). Ashe could revive his dead wife once he became 'good enough' at bringing back the dead, and Harkon got the disaster he needed to get the mage-finder and his pals out of their safe fortress-like homes. Harkon also realizes that the others are onto Ashe and heads to his house.

Time for the big finale.

Long story short.... Ashe traps Elaine with her brother's corpse (which won't rise as an undead unless the undertaker does various magical things) in the hopes that she'll perfect her technique on her brother and then help him revive his wife. (What's with all these people becoming magic experts in days or weeks?)

Now everything comes to a head. Jonathan and his pals attack Ashe, who sics some zombies on them and escapes. Only Konrad follows. Tereza shows up, but it turns out her fever didn't break - she died and is now a zombie. The others kill her.

Harkon backstabs his ally Ashe (literally) when the chips are down and Ashe is confronted by Konrad. In doing this he gains Konrad's trust - why I don't know, because by all appearances Harkon's rotten to the core and was at least temporarily allied with Ashe. Harkon uses Konrad's moments of trust to stab Konrad in the chest and then use the amulet to complete the body transfer.

There's some cheap writing to make it seem like that isn't so, that Konrad stabs Harkon, but it's obvious that Harkon only feels the pain in his chest after the body transfer - as in, when he feels the pain of the knife he planted in Konrad.

Oh, and allow me a moment to react to Harkon stabbing Konrad. Remember, he spent the entire story getting Konrad to this point, saving his life a few times, so he could take over the guy's healthy body. I will now react.


Thank you.

It also doesn't explain how Harkon, supposedly collapsed on the floor and bleeding through a chest wound, survives the fire that the zombie carnage has set off in the undertaker's house. By all reports, the house is reduced to ash.

In the very next scene, Elaine is saved by 'Konrad' - apparently healthy and whole again, as she makes no mention of his injury - and thinks that Konrad is finally returning her feelings for him. (Of course, it's really Harkon - but how did he know that she liked him and that everyone secretly thought the two would make a good couple? Harkon spent all of about 15 minutes around them and he knows their innermost secrets? More cheap writing to make it look like it isn't Harkon.)

A final chapter shows what happens: Harkon-as-Konrad finds the old-guy-as-a-young-guy from the start of the book. He tells him that A) He's definitely Harkon. B) He can't get out of Kartakass, which every Ravenloft fan knew would be the result from the start of the book. C) That he can shapeshift back to Harkon-normal whenever he wants, so the status quo is maintained. D) That he's 'growing distant' from Elaine (now his fiancee) so he can gracefully dump her and leave for home. Then, since he can't have what he wants, he makes sure this guy doesn't have what he wants either and kills him. The end.

So, at the end of the book, here's our tally of the main characters:

Jonathan: Convinced that magic is still evil. Inconsolable about having to 'kill' his zombie wife.
Tereza: Zombified and dead.
Blaine Cairn: Dead.
Elaine Cairn: Engaged to someone who she loves, who is about to dump her. More below.
Konrad: Dead in Harkon's old body.
Thordin: About the same as the start.
Silvanus: Arm/tentacle cut off and stump burned. Inconsolable over loss of his daughter, her revival as a tormented horror, and having to kill this new creature himself.
Averil: Dead, revived as something not human, dead again.
Fredric: Stripped his arms almost to the bone himself to get rid of magic scales growing there.
Randwulf: Badly damaged spine trying to kill little man growing there.
Gersalius: Almost the same as before.
Harkon: His stolen body has changed back to his old one, except he can shapeshift into Konrad when he wants to.
That other guy: Guilty about stealing someone else's body, now dead in a gutter.

More on Elaine. She was almost catatonic because she felt herself giving into the Dark Side of the Force magic, but then the whole finale happened and now she's engaged to someone she thinks is Konrad and is presumably happy about it. She was frightened about how she wanted to keep the little man growing out of Randwulf's back as a pet, and not fifteen minutes later she's kissing Konrad/Harkon and her worries about magic - which has been the driving plot for much of the book - have gone the way of her brother's corpse - up in flames.

Here's our tally of the main plots, from most-pages-covering-it to least-pages-covering-it:

Elaine's out-of-control magic skills: Unresolved. See above.
Jonathan's agonizing over Elaine's magic skills: Unresolved.
Town's zombie plague: Resolved. Cured. Main perpetrator killed. Mastermind (Harkon) goes free.
Harkon's body switching, for which the plague was a diversion: Resolved. Nothing different.
The paladin, cleric, cleric's daughter, and other warrior who are all dead or hideously deformed because of Elaine: Unresolved. They're just abandoned as soon as the finale kicks in. It's a disgusting way to treat a character.

All in all, a story that breaks all the rules in order to turn out a mediocre angsty hack-and-slash that's basically 'Conan II: Conan goes Goth'. The complete lack of resolution for anything but the minor plots is a severe problem, and one that helps put the final nail into the coffin. Let's hope this corpse doesn't rise again.

The Archon

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