I don't like fantasy. My first run-ins with it were all of the ilk 'In the Tenth Year of the Halitosis-Laden Dragon, the evil archwizard Foo from the land of Bar killed Good King Generic and began a dark rule. This is the story of the intrepid adventurers who sought to end the wizard's evil reign.' That, and Anne McCaffrey (which was the nail in the coffin.... yiicch).
So, I began a lifelong dislike of fantasy fiction. Which only broke when I got into reading the Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks, don't ask me how. That kindled a small interest which quickly developed into a rather rabid one. I still avoided the novels, though.
Until now. Of all the various D&D subdivisions, my interest went quickly from fantasy standards like the Forgotten Realms and the World of Greyhawk to the more complex settings...
...a bit of the space-faring ships of Spelljammer...
...a quick sprint across the deserts of Athas (Dark Sun - I'm still a psionics fan)...
...a wonderful journey through Planescape, the lands were belief is true power, the gods take a more active hand in things, and at the center of it all is the impossible city known as Sigil, floating on top of an infinite spire and ruled by the enigmatic Lady of Pain...
...an avoidance of the magic heavy world of Mystara, the wheeling-dealing political arena of Birthright, the excessive dragons of Council of Wyrms and the not-too-amazing Dragonlance...
...and now a settling into something a bit different. Entrapment in the fabled Demiplane of Dread, where the dead walk again and the lands are ruled by ever-tormented darklords - the world of Ravenloft.
Ravenloft is a wonderful setting that captivated me. It's magic low (which is nice - magic is all well and good but it gets on my nerves when it's used to change the rules mid-game like in the forgettable fantasy novels I've seen), and there's all of one dragon (thank you!). The land is divided in domains, and each domain is ruled by a lord. The lords are beings of vast power and pure evil who are part of their domain, and can never leave it. They have all they'd ever desire - except that which they desire the most. And it drives them mad. Almost every one of them is a well fleshed-out character who oozes personality and tragedy.
It's also a wonderful setting because it draws on classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, and all the other gothic horror of the past, but with just a hint of fantasy. Alongside the Dracula-esque vampire lord Strahd von Zarovich and the mad doctor Victor Mordenheim are fantasy standards like the death knight Lord Soth, the elven banshee Tristessa and the lich Azalin.
Azalin.... The undead spellcaster is my favorite of the darklords. I don't know why, possibly because the immortality undeath has granted him is something every human hopes for at some level.
But enough ranting. King of the Dead is about Azalin and all he did to become evil and earn the role as lord of the domain called Darkon. It's a wonderful story that takes the ageless and tortured wizard and makes him utterly human, if still evil.
The story covers his life, in the form of flashbacks to the various turning points in his life that led to his ultimate fate. From his teenage years (when he was known as Firan Zal'honan) of covertly practicing magic, to his ascendance to the position of Azal'Lan (wizard-king), to his attainment of undeath and lichdom, to his downfall and entrapment by the dark powers of Ravenloft, to his final torment as lord of Darkon and his taking of new name. (Azalin, a corruption of his old title.)
It's a simply wonderful tale. Unlike some characters (see the review above), Azalin is completely evil but he's not hateable. He's not exactly loveable after the assorted murders and 'accidental' deaths he causes, and the torment he puts others through, but you can't help but feel a bit sorry for him. He's evil, but not in a cocky sort of way - his dark acts are just seen as means to an end. It doesn't matter if he ruins a few lives along the way, since they're never his own. At least, not at first.
And the magic is kept to a minimum. To be sure, Azalin uses it a lot, but it's never sprung on you as a grand changing of the rules. Most of his magic is used as a simple tool, and each new skill is a logical extension of a previously introduced one. And there's no dragons! Even Azalin's own steed, the shadow dragon Ebb (as mentioned in other Ravenloft products) isn't mentioned here because there's no point - this is a story about a man's fall from grace, not about bigger and badder nasties. Even though he ends up as a magically-spawned nightmare, he's still close enough to human to identify with.
Of course, Azalin's not the only character. Along the long road of sorrow Azalin walked are his younger brother Irik, who perished in one of young Firan/Azalin's attempts at magic; Azalin's unwilling wife; Azalin's son (also named Irik) who's as kind and loving as his father is evil and violent; Strahd von Zarovich, darklord of Barovia and Azalin's hated enemy; Oldar, a young man with the misfortune of acting and looking a lot like Azalin's long-dead son; and the Dark Powers, his jailers in the demiplane who torment and tempt him throughout the later portion of the book. It's a simply wonderful cast of characters, but they pale next to Azalin himself. Maybe I'm just saying that because I find that many of his crimes are acts I might commit in a moment of weakness. I can't stress how much this book succeeds at making him human.
And of course, there's horror. When Azalin kills one of his blood relatives (I won't say which) at the executioner's block, it's horrific and bloody. But it's not buckets of blood like a two-bit slasher flick - it's proper horror, saved to punctuate the major moments.
A great book. And if you want another opinion, head on over to The Review Page for King of the Dead at Kargatane.com. Be warned, many of them are Azalin fans and all of them are Ravenloft fans.
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