Red Fox, £4.99, ISBN 0-09-942490-8
Shadow on the Sand isn’t just the fifth gamebook in the Lone Wolf series, it is the final leg of the first phase of this epic zero-to-hero campaign. By the end of this particular leg of the campaign, you will have found the long-lost Book of the Magnakai, a fabled book containing the long-lost secrets of the Kai Order that will turn you into a brand new and improved warrior of the Magnakai. Yes, you won’t be a mere Kai Warrior anymore after this. You get to be a Magnakai hero, ooh.
But first, you have to finish this leg of the campaign successful with your life intact before you can start showing off your new elite skills. As Lone Wolf, you have not only repelled the Darkland forces that invaded your homeland of Sommerlund and killed the rest of the Kai Order, you have also in the previous gamebook (The Chasm Of Doom) foiled the plans of a Vassagonian warlord, Barraka, to resurrect Darklord Vashna in the Maakengorge.
To make amends for Barraka’s misdeed, the Zakhan of Vassagonia, the neighboring desert kingdom that borders Sommerlund, offers an olive branch to your King. You are selected to lead a diplomatic mission to Barrakeesh, the capital city of Vassagonia, where you will sign a peace treaty on behalf of your country. However, when you arrive, you learn that the Zakhan had died, and worse, his successor, Zakhan Kimah, is not your ally. In fact, he is in cahoots with the current leader of the Darklands, Darklord Haakon, and he wants to present your head to the evil fiend. You have headed right into the lion’s lair, so it’s time to show the Zakhan who the boss is.
This gamebook claims to be two epic adventures in one, but it’s just a marketing gimmick. There are an additional 50 entries to this gamebook, compared to the usual 350, and each “epic adventure” is divided into 200 entries. There is really no reason for the division, as both “epic adventures” are continuous. In the first act, you have to flee the Zakhan’s men, which means navigating the harbors and streets of Barrakeesh (not all locals are fans of the new Zakhan, so you may find some unexpected aid from some quarters) and eventually into the labyrinthine sewers called the Baga-darooz. What do you know, the Baga-darooz leads you conveniently right into the Zakhan’s palace, where you just happen to overhear the man’s plotting with Haakon and realize the existence of the Book of the Magnakai somewhere out there in the sand dunes.
The first act is a straightforward dungeon crawl for the most part, but that doesn’t mean this act is boring. Mr Dever is a consummate storyteller in that he doesn’t care about getting you to bang your head against the wall trying to find the one true way out of the Baga-darooz. Instead, he concentrates on setting up the chase and the sense of claustrophobia as you rush through the dark and dank sewer tunnels, trying to avoid the men on your tail. It is easy to get very caught up in the thrill and the rush, overlooking the often absurd coincidences in the story line of this act until much later.
The second act elevates this gamebook from being merely very good to classic keeper material. The whole act kicks off with a breathtaking aerial – yes, aerial – chase. You can die thanks to an unlucky pick of number, but since you are airborne, fighting off enemies from hundreds of feet in the air, that is to be expected. An ally – a familiar face if you have met him in Flight from the Dark – will show up in a most dramatic manner to rescue you, but even then, his appearance doesn’t seem like a deus ex machina device as much as a welcome sight for sore eyes. That is the beauty of this gamebook – Mr Dever’s prose isn’t the most sophisticated, but he knows how to set up a scene and draw you into it so much that being Lone Wolf doesn’t seem like playing a role as much as, for a while, being transported into this amazing world of magic and fantasy.
The difficulty level is pretty tough but not unfair. Considering that you should have nine out of ten Kai skills by now if you have played all gamebooks since the first one, this one however shouldn’t be that tough. But most importantly, Shadow on the Sand is really fun to play, not just once but several times over. Even if you are a casual fan of this gamebook series, you should not miss this one.