Spellstorm is an interesting melange of genres. On the one hand, it has all the standard fantasy tropes one might expect from the Forgotten Realms series; there’s wrathful wizards. High magic. Goddesses. A smattering of wry humour. Weird and largely morally unambiguous antagonist. On the other hand, it’s picked up and run with all the stylings of a locked room mystery. Red herrings. Sealed doors. Extremely awkward formal dinners. Murders every fifteen minutes. All it was lacking was a detective figure to stand up at the end and explain to the cast how all the murders were done in excruciating detail. That said, Elminster, the closest to a protagonist available in this ensemble piece, does make a valiant attempt to do so at one stage.
So, it’s a mash up of the Forgotten Realms universe and a mystery novel – but is it any good/ The answer, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, is yes.
From a setting point of view, there’s initially not much in the way of surprises. The narrative is set within the ancient and decrepit mansion of Oldspires, which is surrounded every so often by a ‘Spellstorm’, a tornado of cataclysmic magic which seals everything magical inside the mansion. Given that the largest part of the narrative takes place inside the mansion, it needs to be drawn well, and Ed Greenwood puts some serious effort into this. Each creaking stairway, each darkened corner is lovingly crafted, with the slightest sense of eerie menace, mixed in with a feeling of a slow, sad, but inevitable decline. It’s an aesthetic that’s drawn carefully from the Edwardian mansions of Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, and it serves the same purpose here. The house, if not actually alive, certainly feels that way; a nest of passageways, kitchens with doors that bar on the inside, and a top floor in a state of advanced disintegration all serve to generate a feeling of unease and claustrophobia.
This isn’t helped by the characters. Some, if not all, of these will be familiar to readers of the Forgotten Realms oeuvre. Sealed in the mansion and unable to work magic due to the titular Spellstorm are a selection of the most powerful wizards in the word of Faerun. Unsurprisingly, they appear unable to stand the sight of each other, as well. There’s a couple of out-and-out villains, a few slightly less awful than the rest, and Elminster, the semi-protagonist, who attempts to use the impromptu conclave to force everyone to just get along, and stop trying to murder each other and everyone else. The unpleasant mages are shown competently enough – unfortunately, we don’t see enough of a lot of them to make them worth investing in. The bodycount rises rather rapidly, and whilst there’s a lot of focus on the investigations and the doings in, there’s less on the characters. Possibly they all had quirks revealed in other books, but as a stand-alone, the majority of the mages are ciphers, there to add to the roll of the dead, but not given room to breathe.
There are some exceptions of course. Manshoon, one of the mages, is wry, dry, and impressively unpleasant. He also appears to have a remarkable level of competence and surviviability. Another mage, a survivor of gross torture and imprisonment, shows off her pain and focus throughout the text, never understated, but never playing to grotesquery. It seems the author can give a good character piece when he has the chance, but most of the characters never really get a feeling of depth. The other for whom this isn’t the cases is, of course, Elminster – the heroic wizard-sage featured across a great many Forgotten Realms novels, in various stages of grand hyperbole. Here, without magic, he’s rather more prone to grumbling and deduction. He’s also given enough space in the text to talk about his motivations, what he’s doing at the conclave, what his end goal is, and how he’s feeling about the whole thing – and it’s a pleasure to read. He’s attended by a small cast of supporting characters, to fetch, carry, make sarcastic remarks, and point each other in the direction of the plot. Again, they don’t get enough room to themselves, and there’s obviously a history shared across other novels that the uninitiated reader is going to miss out on – but it’s serviceable enough; the characters are fleshed out sufficiently to make us care about them, certainly more than the antagonists, and given enough quirks of personality to both make them unique and make the reader chuckle at their banter.
From a plot point of view, the whole thing trots along quite nicely. It’s got a fairly solid opening, filled with explosive demolitions, before turning to the main mystery theme. The mystery of the wizard murders is interesting enough, though the reader isn’t given a lot of time to think about it – each time you think there’s time to take a breath and think it through, another character drops dead, and there’s another fast-paced set of running around and investigation. The narrative actually wraps around this quite skilfully – the question of how all the murders are being committed, and why, remains solvable but opaque until the last few pages. I’m not convinced that the denouement was entirely worth the journey to get there, but the journey itself was a lot of fun.
Overall then, a decent page turner, in an underused sub-genre; there’s very few good fantasy mysteries, and this one, if not great, certainly has excellent aspirations. If you’re a Forgotten Realms fan, it’s certainly worth reading – and if you’re looking to dip your toe in the water, it’s a pretty good introduction to the world as well.