by Tanya Huff, fantasy (2007, 1995 reissue)
Wizards Of The Coast, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-7869-4700-3
Scholar Of Decay was the twelfth novel commissioned by TSR for its Ravenloft line and was initially published in 1995. The novel line for that setting boasted a surprisingly large number of noteworthy authors from Laurell K Hamilton to PN Elrod. Even Tanya Huff went out to play once upon a time and this book is her contribution to Ravenloft lore.
Unlike many other authors, Ms Huff surprisingly enough manages to keep her story as close to the official game canon as possible, heh, and unlike some other books in this line, you don't have to know anything about Ravenloft beforehand to enjoy this book. You also have to appreciate characters who are frankly so stupid that it's amazing how they get out of bed without encountering a fatal accident. That aside, this is a well-paced (if slow) but unexpectedly gripping horror fantasy story.
We start out in Borca, where Aurek Nuiken's recent experimentation with magic caused his wife to be imprisoned inside a statue. Now a man obsessed with finding a way to free his wife (he now carries the statue with him and he even talks to it when he needs someone to talk to), he discovers that there may be a relic found in the many abandoned houses and sewers in neighboring Richumelot that can help him free his wife. The only problem is that Richumelot is a place ruled by wererats led by the seductive but treacherous Jacqueline Reiner. The humans in Richumelot have no idea that they are ruled - and preyed on - by wererats, but Aurek, being a wizard of considerable power, is no mere human. This makes him a pawn in the games of the Reiner clan who are always trying to find ways to usurp Jacqueline as the boss of everyone. Louise, Jacqueline's twin sister, would love to use Aurek in this manner.
A perfect pawn comes in the form of Aurek's dull-witted brother Dmitri. Dmitri is very good-looking and has attracted the attentions of the co-ruler of Borca, Ivana Boritsi whose very touch is poison, and Aurek's family decide that a quick trip with big brother to neighboring Richumelot is the only thing that will save Dmitri from Ivana's lethal brand of loving. Dmitri, unlike Aurek, is so stupid that he can't see the obvious when it's right in front of him. That makes him a perfect pawn to manipulate Aurek into playing the games Louise and the rest of the Renier clan want him to play.
This is a Ravenloft novel, which means there is no happy ending and the bad guys are inevitably much more interesting than the good guys. The most interesting character is easily the albino wererat hoping to manipulate Dmitri and elevating her own position in the Reiner pack hierarchy, but Louise and Jacqueline are compelling villains too, especially with Ms Huff giving Jacqueline a human aspect to her darklord personality without compromising Jacqueline's character too much. It is worth noting that Aurek is more of a villain than a hero in this story too. He is unlikable if you are looking for standard heroism in him. He treats Dmitri very badly when he's not ignoring the brother he could barely conceal his disgust for. He is singularly obsessed with freeing his wife that he will not let anything - even morality - stand in his way.
All in all, this could have been an excellent tale of antiheroes clawing at each other's eyes out - make no mistake, Aurek can really hold his own here among the naughty wererats in this story - were not for Ms Huff relying way too much on Dmitri's infuriating stupidity to move the plot. That character is so, so dumb that I can't help thinking that death will only be a merciful fate for this wretch because nobody, I swear, deserves to be this stupid and live. Therefore, I feel really annoyed that poor Aurek is bogged down by his poor village idiot brother from being as mean and bad as I know Aurek is capable of being.
A smaller problem is the lack of information on Aurek's background. How powerful is Aurek? What is he really capable of? These questions are not answered in this story. Aurek and Dmitri are pretty much characters with no background, which means they aren't as fleshed out as they should have been. But this is a minor issue, really, compared to the presence of that ridiculously stupid Dmitri who causes poor Aurek to experience all kinds of unnecessary grief. I think Dmitri's middle name is "If You Love Me, You Would Have Covered My Face With A Pillow And Let Me Die When I Was An Infant".
Gripping bad and mean characters, a slowly paced story that nonetheless manages to be intriguing and creepy at all the right moments, and a build-up of momentum that is fantastic all make Scholar Of Decay a pretty good read. Unfortunately, there is also Dmitri and that creep just won't go away. Let's just say that the wrong person died in this story and I am not happy as a result.
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