Reviewed by Mark Lain
The second FF novel (and the second in the Chadda Darkmane cycle) starts immediately after the end of its predecessor, The Trolltooth Wars, but is a very different style of novel. It would have been simple to attempt to create a Trolltooth Wars II, but it is good to see that the FF novels series is showing variety in its second outing.
Marc Gascoigne’s writing style is noticeably darker than Steve Jackson’s and the approach is different from the outset. Gone is the FF-xploitation of the first novel, which relied in some part on name-dropping of various key NPCs and locations to draw the reader into accepting a non-gamebook FF entry. As Chadda Darkmane is by now established as a new NPC, there is far less need for over-extemporisation and contextualising to keep things feeling familiar to the reader. Only Yaztromo is carried-over from the first novel and the remaining protagonists are totally new FF characters in the form of a new sidekick for Darkmane, a new baddie’s acolyte, and a new main baddie himself. Gascoigne is in some ways taking a risk by not using a “known” gamebook enemy, but the change is welcome and there is a mystique to this book’s villains that would be missing if familiar (and probably dead in a continuity-bending way for those who have completed the relevant book) gamebook baddies were used instead. The Trolltooth Wars needed familiar (and, preferably, high-profile) enemies to help the reader to relate to the book. Demonstealer has the advantage of coming second and being far free-er to develop Darkmane as a character and make him the central figure going forward. It is odd to note that the concept of Amanour (which was very important to understanding Darkmane’s motive) plays an almost non-existent role in this book, but it did make him seem like a bit of an ego-maniac and its absence has little impact. The Cherva (or, rather, A Cherva) sort of returns during a visit to the Cherva’s home-town but, thankfully, this is only a brief cameo and Gascoigne is wise not to bring back the Jar-Jar Binks of the piece. Knockabout humour worked well in The Trolltooth Wars and suits Jackson’s writing style, but would not sit right with either Gascoigne’s darker tone or the generally darker themes of this second book.
The plot centres around the theft by a sort of evil monk-sorceror person, from Yaztromo’s tower, of a scroll which is needed to free an uber-demon from the rock that it’s imprisoned in. Having stolen said scroll, the miscreant acolyte frees the uber-baddie’s four secondary demons (also imprisoned in a sort of Stonehenge thing) en route to releasing the main demon himself from a mountain. All pretty simple plot-wise, with none of the elaborate war/dimension-jumping/inter-wizard antagonism of The Trolltooth Wars. Indeed, the plot progresses at a more leisurely (but still urgent-feeling) pace and is basically a pursuit of the sorceror/four released demons in a bid to reach the prison-rock of the main demon without a) too many innocent bystanders getting their souls stolen by the demons, and b) the main demon getting released before Darkmane arrives to prevent it (and the inevitable destruction of the world.) So, the plot of Demonstealer is far more akin to a standard FF gamebook plot and this gives it a more claustrophobic and “adventure-like” feel to it, which does work in the sense that these novels are intended to be taken in the FF context. Along the way there are several fairly gruesome killings of various people whilst the four demons hunt for fresh bodies to move around in (one ends up drawing the short straw and having to be a cart-horse at one point, which is a nice touch of dark humour) and Darkmane acquires his sidekick as a direct result of the sidekick wanting revenge on his friend’s having been killed for a shell to house a demon, so there’s some good plot coherence and understandable motives for the reader to sympathise with. In The Trolltooth Wars it was sometimes hard to work out if you were meant to root for Balthus Dire or Zharradan Marr or the fairly obnoxious Darkmane at times, but there is no blurring of the roles in Demonstealer – you are clearly backing the goodies in this book. Plus, Darkmane seems less arrogant (due to the playing-down of Amanour) and therefore is easier to will on to defeat the demons. An interesting point is that far more is made of Darkmane’s dislike of sorcery and there is a pivotal moment where he has to swallow his pride and read the incantation from the all-important scroll, otherwise the main demon will be freed - this is a neat bit of character-development, not dissimilar to the way Luke Skywalker is rather impetuous and naive in Star Wars, but then matures as he becomes more self-aware in The Empire Strikes Back. I like this as it helps the reader/viewer warm to initially slightly annoying characters as they become more experienced adventurers.
So the plot here is far less ambitious than the first novel, but in some ways works better as it feels far more like a FF gamebook would. Plus, Demonstealer has the benefit of being Part 2 of the series so has less to prove to a sceptical audience who expect FF to be a game, not a suspicious-looking attempt at expanding a franchise. There are still various obstacles for Darkmane to negotiate along the way, but the focus here on the end-goal is always very clear. There are no big set-pieces other than the climax, which makes the climax feel far more, erm, climactic than Trolltooth’s catalogue of big events/site-seeing trip around Allansia approach. The final scene of the book where Darkmane is faced with the demon on the mountain is actually quite disturbing (as are the body-snatching attacks along the way) and you do get the feeling that the mission is doomed to fail as the demons are always one step ahead of Darkmane. This adds to the darker tone, but also adds to the impact on the reader, so it works well. There is also continuity from the first novel due to Demonstealer beginning with Darkmane in R&R at Yaztromo’s tower, recovering from the wounds he incurred in his “all-or-nothing” suicidal jump from the Galleykeep at the end of the first novel. Coherence and series-linking is always nice to see in the FF “cycle” as a whole and, as the series was developing into a huge-scale body of work with a by-now fully-established Tokien-esque back-story (in Gascoigne’s Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World), it would have made little sense for this book not to continue in the same vein. It even adds another element of back-story when we discover something about Yaztromo’s past in the context of his having imprisoned the demons in the first place – so he was a proper wizard after all, rather than a doddery old fool who sells you useless “magical” junk in The Forest Of Doom and teaches you far from essential spells in Temple Of Terror.
Art-wise, this book has one of my all-time favourite FF covers and it really sets the tone of the novel with its blacks and reds. Thankfully, Gascoigne’s writing matches the cover perfectly and the tone is consistent and well-suited to the plot throughout the book. A really nice moment comes when we are treated to a performance of a popular Allansian ballad - this really adds to the medieval atmosphere of FF and is yet another layer to the FF folklore that Gascoigne is key in documenting. Sadly, although I’m a fan of Russ Nicholson’s art, the internal incidental art lends very little to this book and the tone would probably have been better-suited to having no internal art at all – but that would hardly fit in with the identity of FF and how FF books “work”, and it doesn’t detract any from the immersion into this novel. It must be said, though, that this novel is written in a more adult manner so internal art is not necessary in this sense.
As this book moves at a less frenetic pace than The Trolltooth Wars and is linear rather than flitting from location to location and scene to scene, it is far easier to pick up and put down and be read in a more casual manner as it is very easy to keep up with Demonstealer’s plot flow. That’s not to say that it doesn’t make for a satisfying cover-to-cover read in one sitting, because it does and is very easy to read, but it is definitely easier to break away from the action and return for another sitting without losing the feel of the novel.
In summary, this is another really good FF novel and is so different from the first that it encourages you to finish it and move onto the third FF novel to see what variety and/or surprises that can offer...