With a prequel to a game that had minimal back story, anything goes. Though I poked fun a bit at Ellen Miles, author of Before Shadowgate, I gotta admit, this book isn’t bad as a whole. But does it “feel” like Shadowgate? Well, unfortunately no, as there are really no puzzles to solve and few items are collected that come into play later on. Neither the music nor ambiance of the game are there when reading (obviously) so you could slap this plot in front of, oh say, Crystalis or work it as a set up for Rygar and no one would be the wiser – that, plus there are none of those over-the-top morbid death narrations that made Shadowgate so interesting. That being said, let’s see where this goes… (spoilers, naturally)
We start off with a boy Jairen being called “Traal-face” by a bunch of bullies. Turns out Jairen is an orphan with a birthmark on his cheek that resembles one of the moons of the planet Tyragon known as Traal (ten bucks says we’re borrowing from Dave Eddings or Lloyd Alexander here and Jairen’s some sorta chosen one). Jairen’s caretaker and mentor/blacksmith/father-figure is the kindly Thurl. One day, when Thurl is out, a visit from a strange old man causes Jairen to have a vision that gives him the burning desire to go to Gatekeeper Mountain to see a statue of a king that has no face. Jairen immediately heads out and his first encounter on the trip is basically Lucky from the Lucky Charms commercials – Fezlyn Quickfoot, the fenling – a sorta halfling that’ll act as your basic quipping comic relief sidekick.
There’s a lot of talk of tikka trees and dindin fruits, though no Cat in the Hat is present. Fez enjoys antagonizing everyone and mouthing off in a playful way (aside from Lucky the leprechaun, I picture Questor from Guantlet if he were drunk and kind of a jerk). Lakmir the sorcerer – who was the old man from the beginning of the story – keeps pulling the Deus Ex Machina shift and appearing when our two goofball leads get in over their heads.
After Jairen and Fez spend some time with a group of questing dwarves that offer lunch and a whole lot of exposition, we learn that The Warlock Lord (formerly known as Talimar or Tykl Droelyn) has been imprisoned in Castle Shadowgate atop Gatekeeper Mountain, exactly were Jairen is trying to get to. “Tykl-me-Droelyn” isn’t able to escape so he just takes over the place as you know from the game’s plot. This was not a terribly brilliant plan on behalf of Lakmir and is akin to locking Kim Jong Un in a nuclear power plant to ensure you’d know where he is at all times.
All The Warlock Lord needed was a rock hammer and a poster of Raquel Welch
Jairen and Fez run into a battle with some orcs, get rescued by a briefly-appearing Lakmir again and then find themselves amidst a group of trolls around a campfire at night looking for something more to roast on their spits. Things turn nasty and the trolls are ready to roast Jairen and Fez for dinner only to be rescued – again at the last second – by Hawk, a human ranger in league with Lakmir … who often goes by various names and spends large quantities of time with ..the elves and…
…this is just The Hobbit meshed with Lord of the Rings, isn’t it?….
Aragorn Hawk is fairly stoic and keeps to himself. He warns of the evil Ring Wrai – ‘scuse me – “Death Wraiths” that are hunting poor Jairen, led by the greatest of their ranks The Witch King Lord of Death Wraiths who serve Saruman The Warlock Lord/Talimar/Tykl Droelyn. If this Death Wraith Lord chump is anything like the wraiths in the game, a light brush with a torch can kill him pretty quickly. Hawk also gives Jairen the best damn swordplay lesson anyone has ever had as the latter is now a pro – inexperienced, yes – but wait and see..
Our trio run into some Tyons – honorable Lionmen and Hawk wants to hang out with them for a while (probably to decompress from Fez’s presence). Jairen and Fez go off on their own, fight a gang of professional assassin changelings and win, brave a shallow river, and actually kill a friggin’ dragon the size of a Chevy Suburban! Forget The Karate Kid‘s Mr.Miyagi’s teaching skills, Hawk’s training can take what requires years to master and boils it down in less than a week! Lakmir gives him the elf-made enchanted sword
Narsil K’lynn T’ar. Jairen and Fez catch up with Hawk and the Tyons, they fight some generic mythological critters – Fez dies (crowd cheers), and they eventually reach Gatekeeper Mountain and the big final battle with swarms of evil creatures to fight. Just when all seems hopeless, Gandalf Lakmir rides in at the last minute with the Rohirrim a group of other good guy soldiers, including a very alive Fez (damn!). The Lord of the Death Wraiths, ancient and with his centuries of war experience, knowledge of dark magics, and evil sword Soul Slayer are nothing compared to our fourteen year old hero with his new sword, week of shoddy battle experience, and single combat lesson. Jairen saves the day, and the obvious is stated – he’s the faceless king from his vision and everyone is happy and healthy.
Sadly, Fez lives.
Oh wait, there was a king already… awkward..
So that’s where we’re left off at, the newly crowned king gets to go solo into Castle Shadowgate where he’ll die about as many times as the characters in Sean Bean’s filmography.
The book has no entering of the castle, no puzzles and traps, and no Drooly McGhie here
All of these Worlds of Power books have hints to the games they novelize at the end of every few chapters. Usually, it’s something ridiculously obvious like “Try to avoid the fireballs of the mini-boss.” or “Make sure you get full health before the next battle,” etc. With Shadowgate, as it’s a point-and-click puzzle game, the hints are practical, make sense, and are thus, not condescending, but they really can give you a reminder that the game they refer to is a stark contrast to the book you’re reading. Yes, it’s a “tweens” category type of book, but a little edge wouldn’t hurt. Look at how kickass Batman: The Animated Series was/is, a bit dark and gritty, but it added so much more substance than cheesing it up would’ve done. Speaking of dark and edgy, check out the Shadowgate remake done by Zojoi, LLC with collaboration with Dave Marsh and Karl Roelofs.
The lack of the “ol NES charm” is an acceptable loss with this update and you’ll love the modern twists and additions that breathe new life into an old classic!
Final thought: The book is okay if you want a bit of camp that fills in some stuff and expands a bit on the game. Although Before Shadowgate would have made a perfect choose-your-own-adventure book, it seems to wrap up all lose ends…well, most of them….
Michael A. Jones firstname.lastname@example.org www.nerdsintheburbs.com
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