Thursday, October 20, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Spelljammer Reviews

Back in August, when I posted my recap of this year's Gen Con, I mentioned that I'm working on a series of space fantasy adventures—actually, an adventure path. I don't know if I've mentioned before that I like to coordinate my reading with my writing. Looking for space fantasy novels to go with this project is what brought me to The Daedalus Incident, The Enceladus Crisis and The Venusian Gambit, books that I reviewed back in July. I've also tracked down a printed copy of The Sail Weaver by Muffy Morrigan. To fill in the gaps, however, I've also been rereading some of my old Spelljammer books, and I figured I'd share some of my thoughts. Please note that I'm reviewing the first novel here, and I'll add to this post as I finish the other ones. 

Beyond the Moons by David “Zeb” Cook
This is an unusual series because it has six novels by five different authors. The first book, then, needs to launch the whole thing, and does a good job of it. Detailed below are what I see as the pros and cons of the novel.

  • I like the main character, Teldin Moore. He's a pretty average guy, a farmer from Krynn, who's put into an unusual situation after a Spelljammer vessel crashes on his land.
  • I really like Gomja, the Giff warrior who survives the crash. He is easily my favorite character in the whole book.
  • The action moves at a good pace, with a good balance between combat and plot development.
  • David “Zeb” Cook does a good job of making the evil neogi seem really different from other characters and monsters.

  • I don't love the main character. Sometimes it seems that Teldin is not as important as the cloak that he wears, which may have been the author's intention. Even so, I like Gomja more than Teldin.
  • This is really a Dragonlance novel, since the whole thing is an extended chase scene across large parts of that setting and only reaches Wildspace at the very end. (Again, however, I understand why the novel is written that way.)
Additional Notes
  • I find it interesting to note that this series of six novels matches the number of modules typically found in a Pathfinder Adventure Path. It has me wondering what level Teldin is during each book. (I assume that, since he's a veteran from the War of the Lance, he has gained some XP before the start of this book.)
  • It's always interesting to see how much fiction based on AD&D campaign settings reflects the rules of the game. The spells depicted in this book seem quite similar, but combat in a story never quite feels like how it works in the game.

Into the Void by Nigel Findley
In this second novel of the series, much of the action takes place in Wildspace, although it concludes in and above the Forgotten Realms. Once again, here are some highs, lows and other notes.

  • I like that this novel presents more of life on a spelljamming vessel, something that wasn't present in the previous book.
  • While the creation of suspicion seems a little heavy-handed at times, it still works; the betrayal at the end still makes for intriguing drama.
  • Once again, there's a good mix of action sequences and scenes that develop the overall story of the series.

  • There's a feeling in this novel that the author was only allowed to do so much; it seems like there were prescribed start- and endpoints for novels in this series, and authors were forced to work inside them. Because of that, it feels a little less than epic in scope and scale.
  • Description in this novel seems overly inclined to use hyperbole, with many situations being really painful, frightening, etc.

Additional Notes
  • I know that romance adds interest to novels, but it seems to happen really easily for Teldin Moore. In this novel he develops it first with a gnome (?!) and then a human, which seems like a lot since he already experienced that with an elf in the preceding book.

The Maelstrom's Eye by Roger E. Moore
This third entry from the series leads from the Rock of Bral to a gnomish outpost called Ironpiece, and thence to what might be the most unusual sphere in the whole Spelljammer cosmology. It adds the orcish fleet to mix, too, along with a mysterious villain who looks like a lich.

  • Seeing the Rock of Bral was a fun touch, given that it was the base of operations for my adventuring party back in junior high and high school.
  • This novel also sees a favorite character's return.
  • There's some good, solid ship-to-ship combat in here, too.

  • In this novel Teldin is often angry. After seeing his personality through the two previous books, this seemed uncharacteristically harsh from him.
  • There's a heavy dose of weirdness and silliness in the book, too, given its focus on gnomes and the bizarre Herdsapce.
  • The addition of the orcish fleet means that a decent amount of it focuses on building up those characters, which at first distracts from Teldin's own story.

Additional Notes
  • Once again there's potential romance for Teldin, this time in the form of a kender. I won't spoil how it develops, but it's becoming hard to take any love interest for him all that seriously.

The Radiant Dragon by Elaine Cunningham
The fourth novel in the Cloakmaster Cycle—and the second one not set on a major campaign world—takes Teldin Moore right into the middle of the Unhuman Wars, the growing conflict between the goblinoids and the rest of the Known Spheres. Both sides seek to gain control of the mighty Spelljammer vessel, either by recruiting Teldin or by killing him and taking his cloak.

  • The titular character, a radiant dragon named Celestial Nightpearl, is an interesting addition to the series.
  • We see some familiar faces again, such as Estriss the mind flayer and Vallus Leafbower the elf.
  • Two young dracons, Trivit and Chirp, are fun characters that provide an engaging contrast to Teldin Moore.
  • There's effective drama involving Teldin's decision about whether or not to help the elves by bringing the legendary ship to their side in the Unhuman Wars.

  • Once again, it's too hard to become invested in characters who aren't Teldin Moore, since many of them are only around for one novel.
  • The plot element of having someone in Teldin's crew supplying information to those who seek the cloak is starting to feel overused.

Additional Notes
  • Cunningham also does a good job of working in numerous monsters from the Spelljammer canon, including the witchlight marauder. Since my brother was the DM for our Spelljammer campaign, and thus I didn't have much opportunity to look through the Monstrous Compendium appendices for the setting, I'm wondering just how tough those beasts are in terms of game mechanics. 
  • At the end of this book there's a list with the remaining titles in the series. Next up is The Broken Sphere, written by Nigel Findley; after that comes The Ultimate Helm by Roger E. Moore. These two authors will have a chance to revisit the series, although I know that it's not entirely going to work out that way.   

The Broken Sphere by Nigel Findley
This, the fifth novel in the series, sets the reader up for the big finale. Detailed below are some thoughts about it.

  • Nigel Findley does a good job of developing steps in Teldin Moore's search for the Spelljammer; our protagonist visits some interesting locations, meets unusual characters and learns a curiously different means by which to seek the vessel's place of origin.
  • The novel finishes on a suitably dramatic cliffhanger, thereby setting up the series finale in Book 6.

  • I've grown tired of having enemy agents aboard Teldin's vessel, along with their intrigues, as a plot element.
  • Once again, we see how messed up is Teldin's love life. This, too, has grown tiresome.
  • It still feels that the items Teldin carries are the source of his abilities, as opposed to him relying on his own innate qualities.

Additional Notes
  • This, then, sets us up for the big finale—but one that I already know won't live up to expectations. Even so, we sail onward.

The Ultimate Helm by Russ T. Howard
The first time I read this book, I was disappointed. It felt much different in tone from the other five in the series. That, combined with the fact that I knew some change of author had occurred, led me to be dismissive of it.
I'm glad that I've read it a second time.
This time around, while I still think that it has a different tone from the other novels in the series, I also see how it develops a theme that provides a sense of closure for the series, and how some of its idiosyncratic qualities help to develop that theme. What is more, I think I see how it does a good job of taking material from the Spelljammer RPG line—most notably, the Legend of Spelljammer boxed set and the adventure modules Goblin's Return and Heart of the Enemy—and works them into a cohesive narrative.

  • Howard does a good job of keeping the action moving with numerous short chapters and shifts between different characters.
  • The introduction to each chapter provides a snippet of background information from the history of the Spelljammer, which helps to make it a richer setting.
  • We see the return of several familiar faces, and they are brought back into the story in sensible and meaningful ways.
  • There are a lot of vividly described battle scenes.
  • As mentioned previously, although the plot and theme feel distinctly different from the rest of the series, they do combine to create a meaningful conclusion for the series.

  • I don't like the depiction of Teldin on the front cover, since it departs so notably from how he's depicted on the other covers.
  • Once again, the novel introduces a bunch of characters who aren't going to be around very long.
  • Because the battle scenes act as the backdrop to the character-centered action, I sometimes felt distracted in reading them.
  • Some grammar and punctuation errors in the novel make me wonder how thorough the editing process for it was.

Additional Notes
  • I need to read some of my old Spelljammer RPG material to see just how this borrows from that existing canon, and thus to give some perspective on what I think must have been the author's process.
  • There's a special “thank you” for Roger E. Moore on the inside title page, “for his contributions to this work,” that makes me wonder just what events transpired in the development of this novel.


  1. I always thought Salvatore's older stuff reflected AD&D combat better than it did anything in real life, which actually made it kind of appealing to me.
    If I remember right, the Spelljammer novels were pretty good until the last one in the series, which was terrible, but tying everything together had to be the hardest part.

  2. I think there was a mix-up with the author, too. The ads in some of the earlier novels list Nigel Findley as the author for the finale, but then it ended up being written by Russ T. Howard.

  3. Findley died young and unexpectedly, might have been an unfinished project of his. Too bad, he was a good writer. Did a lot of great early Dungeon adventures beside his short career as a novelist.