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Elaine Cunningham
TSR Books, 375 pages

Art: Brom
Elaine Cunningham
Elaine Cunningham's other novels include Daughter of the Drow (1995) and Tangled Webs (1996) along with her Harpers novels: Silver Shadows, Elfsong, and -- way back -- Elfshadow, the second book in the Harpers series.

Elaine Cunningham Website
ISFDB Bibliography

A review by Don Bassingthwaite

The Harpers, TSR's long-running, open-ended series set in the Forgotten Realms, finally draws to a conclusion with Thornhold. Each book in the series so far has been a stand-alone story -- Thornhold is number 16. Despite being made up of stand-alones, there has been an internal consistency to the series as well as reflections of the big events that have occurred in the fiction line and the game materials over the years. Characters and situations carry over from novel to novel. Fans of her 3 other books in The Harpers won't be disappointed. Danilo Thann, Harper bard and reluctant mage (or is it mage and would-be bard? The distinction seems to blur at times), is back as a supporting character, as are other familiar Harper characters.

For those not in the know, the common thread that ties all of the novels together is the involvement of the Harpers. To quote the blurb TSR has inserted at the front of each of the books, the Harpers are "a semi-secret organization for Good, [fighting] for freedom and justice in a world populated by tyrants, evil mages, and dread concerns beyond imagination." In essence, the spies and secret agents of the Forgotten Realms. As the name of the organization implies, Harpers are generally bards, thieves, less than above-the-board wizards, and similar roguish characters -- lots of fun and one of the angles that Cunningham has chosen to work into the story of Thornhold.

The main character of Thornhold is Bronwyn, a young treasure hunter, adventurer, merchant, and, not surprisingly, Harper. The novel opens with a very nicely scripted action sequence as Bronwyn escapes from a deal gone sour, only to discover that the deal itself was an elaborate set-up. Malchior, a priest of the evil god Cyric, has been tracking Bronwyn in an effort to confirm her identity. Sold as a child-slave when her village was raided, Bronwyn has no knowledge of her family. Malchior does -- she is the descendant of a great paladin, Samular, through a long line of holy warriors. As a rogue, Bronwyn is hardly the model of her ancestors. She's better than her brother, though. Dag Zoreth, formerly Brandon, was the only other survivor of the raid on Bronwyn's village. Now he's a priest of Cyric, just like his mentor Malchior. He's searching for his heritage as well. Unlike Bronwyn, however, Dag is well aware of his ancestry. What he searches for are sacred magical rings of tremendous power that can only be worn by the heirs of Samular. He has one of the rings and has plans to get another, but as an evil priest he can't use them. Fortunately, he has a daughter raised in innocence of both her paladin ancestry and her father's evil. She will wield the rings on his behalf. Then Malchior tells Dag that Bronwyn is still alive, Bronwyn learns of her ancestry, and the plot really picks up.

Confused? There is a wonderful almost soap opera-like complexity to Thornhold. Not only is there the plot concerning the bloodlines of Samular to follow, but also the story lines that tie Bronwyn to the Harpers, follow the consequences of Dag's ambitions, and trace the growing conflict between the paladins of the Realms and the rogue Harpers over Bronwyn and those magical rings. The story lines link over the Thornhold of the title, a mighty fortress long held by the paladins of the Order of the Knights of Samular and originally conquered with the aid of the power in the rings. Throw in a clan of dwarves and you have a good, solid novel. The characters are lively and well-written, with some really good interpersonal tension going on. In fact, it is that tension that drives a large part of the plot forward: it is Bronwyn's discovery that the head of the Harpers, Khelben Arunsun, has known about her heritage for years but withheld it from her that prompts her to rebel against his authority, dragging other Harpers into the fray and bringing the whole secretive organization into conflict with the more visible forces of law.

There are three criticisms I'd make of the novel. First, there are some combat sequences that seem largely unnecessary. They're well written (Cunningham has a knack for writing action) but don't appear to fill a role in the story. This may be a personal bias on my part -- I like characters rather than combat to drive stories. Second, the question of what those magical rings do is apparently inconsistent. The allusion to their power in the prologue suggests one thing, while their demonstration in the novel's climax presents something entirely different. I can see one possible way to reconcile the two effects, but I would have liked to see the rings more fully explained by the author.

The third criticism is simple -- this book should have been longer!! Just like a soap opera, it left me wanting to know more about the characters and longing to have some of the teasing details filled in. What about those rings? What happened to Malchior? When will Cara's mother come looking for her? How will Danilo wriggle back into Khelben's good graces? What happens next? There are a multitude of bit characters that call out to have their stories written, and the conflict between the paladins and the Harpers looks like fertile ground desperate to be planted. Thornhold hardly feels like a conclusion. In fact, it feels more like a new beginning!

In a way, I think this takes us back to the original concepts of the Harpers as an open-ended series. How do you conclude an open-ended series? If TSR's intention was to create a situation that wrapped up the Harpers but left the way open for closed trilogy sequels, then they have definitely succeeded.

Copyright © 1998 by Don Bassingthwaite

Don Bassingthwaite is the author of Such Pain (HarperPrism), Breathe Deeply (White Wolf), and Pomegranates Full and Fine (White Wolf), tie-in novels to White Wolf's World of Darkness role-playing games. He can't remember when he started reading science fiction, but has been gaming since high school (and, boy, is his dice arm tired!).

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