Artifact of Evil by Gary Gygax

Rating 6.0/10
A champion trip through the brain of its sadly departed Godfather.

It’s always a risky venture re-reading books that you enjoyed in the past, especially ones you read as a teen-geek. Even throughout the space of a year our tastes and preferences fluctuate with our moods and our need to move from, say, the pure escapism of Brandon Sanderson to the gritty realism of George ‘whose next for the chopping block’ Martin. So the chasm between my distant teen years and my current impending middle-age could signal a massive shift in taste.

I found Gary Gygax’s second Greyhawk book tucked away in a box in the garage. I’d recently re-read the Dragonlance Chronicles and thoroughly enjoyed the fantasy-lite RPG-influenced yarn, and its distinct likeable characters. With my kids taking an interest in RPGs, I thought I’d dive back into the history of the game with this book.

Gygax was an iconic character in my childhood. The original DnD game fuelled my love of fantasy literature, pushing me towards Leiber, Moorcock, Tolkien, Howard and so on. The creativity and fun of the game inspired my writing, and led me to many other similar games in the Eighties, before computers dominated the world. Gygax wrote the second Greyhawk book as a taster for the campaign world he had devised over the prior decade, inspired by the success of Hickman and Weis and their Dragonlance series. It differs from the latter in its total lack of pretence to be anything other than a book about a DnD adventure. And I found that honesty refreshing, if somewhat restrictive, as I read the book.

The main character is a thief called Gord, whose background is elaborated upon in book one. Gord is a solid fantasy hero - at times stroppy and cocky, but mainly hard as nails with an impressive skill in combat, thievery and mayhem. He is accompanied by characters evidently derived from Gygax’s campaign - a barbarian, Chert; a druid, Curly; a bard, Gellor. And they use spells, magic items, and abilities lifted verbatim from the dusty pages of first edition DnD. Gord becomes embroiled in a quest to reclaim a key to an ancient artefact which could alter the balance of power in the world of Oerth. Essentially this involves a chase across the Flaeness, the core area of the Greyhawk campaign, providing an insight into the politics and personas on the way.

Now there’s nothing wrong with this style of story-telling - indeed, Eddings Belgeriad is like a Thomas Cook tour through his world following a wide arc covering every land on the map! But what it can create is an issue with pacing and plot. This is compounded by the sense Gygax is telling you what happened during a year’s worth of weekly DnD sessions in his basement. There is no real sense of structure, of tension, of development. The characters make a physical journey, but no real emotional journey. There is a reliance on magic and magical items to pull them out of scrapes, which feels rather deus ex machina. Now, this may have been because he planned a third book, which was never written as he split away from TSR not long after the book was released (presumably distracted by the awful DnD cartoon that tormented my adolescence). But books shouldn’t really rely on sequels to make sense, and that aspect of Artefact of Evil disappointed me.

On the positive side, the fight sequences are great, the monsters are fabulous, and the bad guys wonderfully dramatic. The magic is used in a casual, throw-away yet intelligent manner and really livens the book up. Most of all, it’s fun. It doesn’t aspire to be anything other than superficial easy going heroic fantasy, and Gygax has all the right influences to know how to deliver that. So, if you have a nostalgic connection to the world of role playing games - and indeed multiple modern authors such as Saladin Ahmed, Peter V. Brett, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch and Brent Weeks have - then this’d be a champion trip through the brain of its sadly departed Godfather.

I’d give it 6/10.

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