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Against the Giants
Ru Emerson
TSR Books, 310 pages

Against the Giants
Ru Emerson
Ru Emerson was born in 1944 in Butte, Montana. She lives in Oregon, with her husband, Doug, and their cats on a small ranch some distance from the rest of the world.

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A review by John O'Neill

Gary Gygax's Giant series, originally published in a series of 3 gaming modules in 1978, were the first official adventures TSR published for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons -- and they were a tremendous hit. Starting with Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and continuing in The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and Hall of the Fire Giant King, they pitted adventurers against an organized force of evil giants controlled by a mysterious mastermind. Among many other innovations, these modules introduced the Drow, the dark elves later made famous in numerous adventures and best-selling novels.

Gary Gygax followed the series with a trilogy of adventures which pursued the Drow into their underground lair, Descent into the Depths, which was equally successful. For the first, time role players had a taste of truly epic fantasy gaming, adventures which had the kind of narrative strength and plot twists encountered only in the best fiction. Gygax effectively established the world of Greyhawk as the first popular fantasy RPG setting. TSR would follow the formula later with a series of such worlds, including Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms.

TSR branched into fiction in the late 80s, starting with the enormously successful Dragonlance series of novels, and Gygax himself wrote nearly a dozen novels set in the world of Greyhawk. But no one revisited the old stomping grounds of the giants, where many an early adventurer had cut their teeth. Now, in honour of D&D's 25th anniversary in 1999, TSR has released an updated version of the original adventure, titled Against the Giants, simultaneously with Ru Emerson's novel of the same name.

There's no denying that for much of its target audience the chief draw of Emerson's novel is nostalgia. The memory of tracking hill giants through the timber maze of the Steading, sneaking across the deadly snow rifts into the Frost Giant rift, or the first encounter with the Drow deep in the Fire Giant's lair, is a powerful inducement to pick up this book. They're all here -- the Frost Giant Jarl, the two-headed ettin guard, the imprisoned Titan giantess who aids the party, even Eclavdra the Drow high priestess, mastermind of the whole plot. Watching a new set of characters tackle the challenges that gave such a thrill 20 years ago is in some ways akin to seeing a favourite novel played out on the silver screen. Only this time, the book didn't come first.

So how does it read as a novel? The story isn't very complex, but it moves like a freight train, beginning with a giant attack on the small village of Upper Haven. Young Lhors, an untrained hunter who watches his father brutally slain in defense of the village, journeys to Cryllor to raise the alarm. There he is recruited by Vlandar, a skilled warrior and Captain, to take part in a foray against the giants. The early sections, in which Vlandar and his companions attempt to raise a band of adventurers for a very dangerous (i.e. nearly suicidal) mission, are probably the best in the book.

The ride's a little more uneven after that. Emerson, author of The Art of the Sword and The Thief of Hermes, is a gifted and prolific writer, but it's more obvious than usual that this book was put together on a tight schedule. The biggest errors are all editing mistakes, as when the adventurers discuss the fact that Hill Giants are nocturnal and then forget about it completely, or make plans around a hidden stairway in the giant enclave that they've never discovered. Equipment appears suddenly, characters change places... much the same thing that happens during a routine D&D session, I suppose, so it can all be forgiven.

As engaging as the book is on several levels, I was a little disappointed to have one theory quickly confirmed: dungeon crawls, no matter how exciting, make a tough transition to prose. Despite my familiarity with all 3 adventures, I got hopelessly lost once the action moved into the corridors of the Steading. It's so confusing in fact, and there's so little effort made to orient the reader during the dizzying flights and melees up and down numerous dark and dangerous corridors, that I can easily believe the book was intended to be published with maps. I ended up pulling out my worn copies of the original adventures and following the adventurers that way.

Unlike the original adventure trilogy, Against the Giants doesn't end on a cliffhanger. The story is very much resolved, even through the threat of the Drow is still in the open. TSR has announced a second volume in the series, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, which will presumably follow the exploits of the characters as they pick up the trail of the dark elves in the next 3 adventures. Look for it in June. I know I will.

Copyright © 2000 by John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the founder of the SF Site.

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