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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

“The Annotated Elminster Collector's Edition” by Ed Greenwood (Reviewed by David Craddock)

Ed Greenwood @ WIkipedia
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Perhaps the greatest boon of the DVD medium is the inclusion of lengthy documentaries and interviews with a film's cast and crew. Movie buffs can take in the behind-the-scenes features to learn how the director went about designing shots, how an actor prepared to deliver compelling dialogue, and what tricks of the trade were implemented by the crew to achieve dazzling special effects.

Another feature found on many DVDs is cast and crew commentary, an audio track that points out factoids while the film plays in the background. Commentary tracks are the equivalent of annotations found in many popular books. Typically, notes about characters and plot elements are jotted in margins next to their respective passages so that the reader can gain insight regarding the passage before or after reading it.

Ed Greenwood, creator of the
Forgotten Realms Dungeons & Dragons settings, has employed the behind-the-scenes-feature strategy to great effect in “The Annotated Elminster Collector's Edition”, an omnibus that collects the first three adventures of Greenwood's hawk-nosed adventurer, Elminster.

Even if you are able to recite “The Making of a Mage”, “Elminster in Myth Drannor”, and “The Temptation of Elminster” by heart, Greenwood's lengthy notes, which comprise almost 50 pages of the 880 contained in the tome, are worth this hardcover's price of admission. The notes for each book are divided into two sections, annotations and Realmslore, which follow their respective books. Such a format allows readers to enjoy each novel without interruption. Then, should readers desire, they can either delve into the author notes or jump to the next book.

The annotations section details the process of writing each book, and the Realmslore walks readers almost point by point through explanations of certain characters, locations, and myths that make up the sprawling Realms. While not required to understand any of the novels, each section reads as if one is sitting across from Greenwood in a tavern listening to him recount the trials, tribulations and victories of his time crafting the stories. Whether you're a casual reader or a
Forgotten Realms addict, Greenwood's comments are well worth reading.

Though the first of the three books contained in “The Annotated Elminster” is thirteen years old, each narrative is as fresh and captivating as it was at the time of its first publication. “The Making of a Mage” introduces us to Elminster, a hawk-nosed youth whose quiet life is shattered when a magelord burns his village to the ground, slaughtering his family and friends. Shortly after, El encounters a knight who informs him that he is the last prince of the realm of Athalantar. Incensed at what the magelords have done to his people, “El” embarks on a quest to destroy each and every magelord inhabiting the world of Faerun and retake the throne of Athalantar.

El's noble quest sees him travel the world and become a brigand and a thief, learning the ways of the streets in order to hone his survival instinct, before encountering the goddess Mystra while attempting to desecrate one of her temples. The sight and words of the beautiful goddess cause El to pause and consider the role of magic. Could it be, he wonders, that magic itself is not good nor evil, but dependent upon those able to wield it? El settles into his role as priest, slowly building his knowledge of magic, until becoming a mage and finally returning home to battle for his throne.

A nonstop adventure story filled with life lessons, “The Making of a Mage” is arguably “The Annotated Elminster's” best entry. As the story unfolds, Elminster is placed in danger several times, which Greenwood insists is vital to showing that Elminster, despite his growing magical prowess, is never a Superman character. His faults do indeed make him more relatable to readers, who will come to sympathize with El's highs and lows.

The second book, “Elminster in Myth Drannor”, continues El's journey of growth. Charged by his goddess to seek out the fabled elven city of Cormanthor and convince its ruler to lift the mythal, a barrier that hides Cormanthor from view, in the hopes of perpetuating racial acceptance and trade.

While “Elminster in Myth Drannor” is often as engaging as “The Making of a Mage” and does deliver on its primary theme of acceptance, Greenwood tends to put Elminster in and out of danger a bit too often. Showing the character's mortality is all well and good, but Elminster recovered from the brink of death so frequently that I found myself no longer concerned for his well-being, but aggravated that something of more consequence did not befall the character.

And of course, something of greater magnitude does eventually occur. At one point, El discovers a spell of such power that he goes on a furious rampage, slaughtering enemies and ravaging buildings with nary a thought to consequences. Having El fall prey to the temptation of power is a much more effective way to demonstrate his humanness than constantly being bludgeoned and battered—yet always saved by an overprotective goddess.

The theme of corruption takes center stage in “The Temptation of Elminster”. Having grown even more powerful, Elminster's trial entails rare contact by his goddess. His goal now is to forego magic, to re-learn how ordinary mortals live their everyday lives. This journey is a fascinating one, as El does use smatterings of magic, yet has to avoid being overcome with it as he was during “Elminster in Myth Drannor”. Greenwood also reigns in his sadistic treatment of Elminster, advocating mental growth and restraint instead of almost killing his protagonist ad nauseam.

Whether as an introduction to the
Forgotten Realms or for those who consider themselves more knowledgeable about them than Ed Greenwood, “The Annotated Elminster Collector's Edition” is a must-read. Elminster's first three adventures have aged gracefully, and Greenwood's thoughts on their creation, as well as that of the Realms themselves, should prove interesting for burgeoning writers, curious Realms fans, and those simply looking for several hours' worth of adventure.


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