In the streets of Waterdeep, conspiracies run like water through the gutters, bubbling beneath the seeming calm of the city’s life. As a band of young, foppish lords discovers there is a dark side to the city they all love, a sinister mage and his son seek to create perverted creatures to further their twisted ends.
And across it all sprawls the great city itself: brawling, drinking, laughing, living life to the fullest.
Even in the face of death.
Many writers you read as a teen you liked, and then when you rediscover them years after a dreadful certainty dawns: this is shit. The Suck Fairy hasn’t come around for a visit, it was always there and you were just too ignorant to realize. The difference is that with Ed Greenwood you recognize the inherent shittiness even when you’re a teen. I think pretty much the only way to read anything he’s touched and think it’s awesome is if you have no capability to recognize good writing or if you are his close friends in which case it’s impolite to outright tell him, “Dude, you can’t fucking write!”
Beyond that, however, this book attempts to touch on class struggle and then promptly discards that idea in favor of upholding the status quo and oppressive oligarchy. It carries out, uncritically, many tropes that makes SFF so regressive, so this won’t be so much a review of this individual book as an overview of certain genre trends, of which this book is extremely illustrative: to wit, certain gendered things and an inability among many fantasy writers to recognize that oppression is an institution, not isolated acts committed by individuals.
This post is likely the most publicity Ed Greenwood’s gotten in twenty years outside his immediate fandom and the seething cesspit of his own licenses. I’m not sure there’s a deeper nadir than this in genre short of being one of those people who self-publish things with terrible covers and worse writing, though even then I’m not sure if your average self-published genre novel contains writing more terrible than Ed Greenwood’s, as that would be a rare feat: Greenwood’s excrement is frequently of the Jim Theis order of magnitude.
Yes, it’s that bad.
So, anyway, the writing is absolutely fucking shit. While Elaine Cunningham is vaguely decent as far as writers of this caliber go, she’s not exactly Helen Oyeyemi let’s just say, and neither her middling prose nor her almost-there female characters are quite enough to elevate the book to the coveted height of “not shit.”
The cast consists of a bunch of noblemen who are indistinguishable except by the color of their cloaks, in true Power Rangers style except with less personality. The other half consists of two girls, one the daughter of the well-off merchant Dyre and the other her servant. The authors attempt to explore class struggle, “attempt” being the keyword and “abject failure” being the result. First we have Naoni, who falls in love with a nobleman, and when he presses her for why she hates the aristocracy so much has this to say–
“Once, not so long ago,” Naoni hissed, “there was a young and beautiful lass, a commoner who loved a young noble. Loved and was loved, or so she believed, until the day she knew she was with child, and shared that joy with her lord-and had his gates slammed shut in her face. Her kind and faithful lord promptly took a wife of as high station as his own.”
“When she was large with child, he sent masked men to snatch her away to a country estate. The ride was hard, and her time came early. Lying there broken on a fine bed in a strange house, she was told her babe had died. Then she was bundled back into her clothes, still dusty from the ride that had brought her, taken back to the street she’d been seized from-and tossed to the cobbles.”
“I believe it. I believe it all,” Korvaun told her. “Many take anything they can grasp, caring nothing for others, yet not all nobles are like that, I am not like that.”
The puzzling part is that it isn’t as though Naoni needs a specific reason to trust men (since she lives in a patriarchal, deeply sexist culture) or rich people (since she lives in a society with super-rich aristocrats who abuse their wealth and power). In fact, this bit of plot reads like a romance trope, with all the problems that connotes, and the easy fix that entails. She doesn’t trust noblemen because one ruined her mother? Why, all she needs is the right nobleman who will be nice to her rather than a jerk like that one so she can learn “not all nobles are like that, I am not like that.” Which is a refrain for him throughout, a refrain of many people of majority, and which misses the point by something like “several galaxies.”
“I’d never considered before that the commoners might get angry at, well, the way of things.” Mirt’s gaze turned mocking, and Korvaun found himself burning with embarrassment. “I mean, at what we young nobles have always done—pranks and swordplay and jollity. The common folk always just seemed to—”
“Get out of the way as best they could, an’ otherwise just stand and take it?”
“An uprising would be terrible. It must be forestalled, and you… are of common birth, wise to the streets, and yet are… well, widely rumored to be—” Mirt’s eyes were bright and steady, offering no aid at all, and Korvaun wallowed in blushing embarrassment for a breath or two ere he managed to blurt: “—a Lord of Waterdeep!”
Mirt allegedly represents the “commoner,” clearly identifying with them when he tells the nobleman, “Ye should be grateful he managed to speak so bluntly, instead of trailing off into cursing the way most of us coarse lowborn do.” The trouble with this is that it doesn’t work, because Mirt doesn’t represent fuck-all except himself. He is a Lord of Waterdeep, with all the privilege and power that suggests. This is like a white boy pretending he can speak for black people because some of his best friends are black. This, again, is a common thing in fantasy; we have princes running around agitating for better treatment of their commoner friends in the interest of equality and justice–but mind you, it’s only those individual peasants they care for. Their friends or people who took them in or whatever.
This is also how City of Splendors ends: the Dyre girls (dire girls, lol) are uplifted, along with their servant Lark, but the status quo remains much the same. Even Lark, the working-class girl, doesn’t want any “New Day” (a proposal to upset the existing system):
“I’m happy for Lord Thongolir,” Lark said briskly. “When next you see him, tell him I’ll need four hundred. Nigh every tutor in the city has been in here asking for it. A ‘cautionary tale,’ they’re calling it. ‘Tis high time people paid attention to stories of their past. Mayhap they’ll be slower to start New Days if they know how the old ones ended!”
–instead she wants things to stay just as they are, because as she often insists, she “knows her place and [wants] no other.” Naoni marries one of the noblemen, she and her sister Faendra start their own businesses, and Lark gets into the publishing industry by printing the works of yet another nobleman. The goal isn’t so much to make things better in general for people who aren’t the richest and most powerful; the goal is to make sure these individual characters, who happen to be among the not-so-powerful, wind up comfortable and happy. None of them cares about anyone else sharing their class or oppression. The thing to do, instead, is to only interact with aristocrats who are “nice.”
In fact, this is Ed Greenwood’s solution for everything: one of the cities in Forgotten Realms is some sort of utopian city-state ruled by Alustriel, one of the Chosen of Mystra. Shadowdale is overseen by Elminster, another Chosen. Waterdeep is taken care of by Khelben and Laeral, both Chosen of Mystra. Cormyr is ruled by a dynasty that’s been approved by a number of “good” wizards. You can see where this is going.
The trouble with writers like Greenwood is that they think like children. For example, even if you were to remove Obama tomorrow the US would still send out drones to kill brown-skinned teenage civilians–and possibly babies–on account of their brownness. Greenwood and other such overgrown children believe the thing to do would be to elect someone else if they even believe anything ought to be done, without regard for the fact that all US presidential candidates are interested in robbing other countries. This is the approach NK Jemisin takes with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Kingdom of Incest Gods, more or less, and despite my low opinion of that entire trilogy it is the right approach. Not the incest, obviously, but the dismantling of power structures: at the end of it the all-powerful ruling dynasty, the Arameri, surrenders its supremacy.
Most fantasy authors do not understand this. Despite their professed disdain for monarchy (as these tend to be fauxgressive “liberals”) their main fixation is with the search for the good ruler, not in smashing oppressive institutions. Partly this springs from the fact that they’ve never experienced oppression, straight white men comprising the majority of them, and so they don’t quite understand for example that sexism and racism are institutions rather than acts of prejudice committed by individuals: this is why they will cry “racism!” when someone calls them a honky. Instead they cling to this notion that if everyone was nice everything would be nice, or more particularly the notion that if everyone was nice to them everything would be nice. The other factor is that they are not very intelligent people; they’ve bought into the propaganda-narrative of good versus evil, the righteous ruler versus the despotic usurper. They believe in this deeply despite bleating that they love democracy, which is why Obama getting elected was a Big Deal (“the good ruler”) when the rest of the world–though not the people who handed him a Nobel Peace Prize–knew perfectly well nothing would change when it comes to US foreign policies. There’s a ridiculous amount of importance placed on the individual, on the personality (much more so than actual deeds or accountability), that it erases all awareness of the greater structure.
There is, then, a belief in being “one of the good ones.” A man who claims to be feminist says he’s a good guy, not like those other guys which ignores that as a man he participates in and benefits from misogyny just like “the other ones.” By shifting the blame he not incidentally makes himself out to be innocent, in much the same way as whites who say “but I never owned slaves! I don’t see race! I treat everyone just the same regardless of the color of their skin!” This all culminates sooner or later in “Why should I be blamed for what other people of my ethnicity/gender do? It’s them! Not me!” because nobody likes to be held responsible and everyone thinks big problems are the result of a few evil people at the top being evil–because they are evil, Sauron/Voldemort-style–rather than widespread issues that have been ingrained and normalized. This is not unique to a few writers; SFF is obsessed with the righteous monarch or messiah in all its forms (yes, including “democratically elected” leaders).
Oddly, though I wouldn’t call him enlightened (and if anything he was racist, and had giant fucking issues with women), Frank Herbert recognized this at some level: that removing the “bad” emperor doesn’t remove all problems–Paul Atreides becomes the next force for oppression, bringing about a regime as dictatorial and warmongering as that of the emperor he dethroned. In contrast, George Lucas and JK Rowling offers fare much more palatable: remove Palpatine or Voldemort and you will be fine. This ignores the fact that the Jedi Order and the wizarding world are both fucked up and are part of–if not the–problem. Both stories fixate on removing the figurehead. The wizarding world is still backward and primitive. Hogwarts still exists as an institution of division and moral absolutism; muggles continue to be treated as subhuman. The solution is not to kill Palpatine or Voldemort; it is to nuke the Jedi Order and the wizarding world, Hogwarts and all, from orbit and carpet-bomb what’s left so nothing can grow there ever again. Oppressive institutions should be smashed, because as long as they exist they’ll be perpetuated even in the absence of an almighty dark lord.
Beyond the problems outlined above, City of Splendors does a number of other crappy things worth mentioning.
Her lips found his, and they were warm and sweet and willing.
When at last they broke apart, breathless, Naoni murmured, “Now, that, my lord, is a beginning!”
Korvaun chuckled and stroked her cheek. “Nay, love, let it be an ending—for this night. Let the priests chant their prayers first, so you never have reason to fear dishonor or scandal.”
“Have I reason to fear dishonor or scandal?”
“No. Not while I live.” As this was simple truth, and because she gazed at him with such shining trust, Korvaun took a ring from the smallest finger of his right hand and slid it onto her finger.
“You have my pledge and my heart—and I’ll give you my name as soon as the ceremony can be arranged.”
Naoni’s smile was dazzling. “Give me your love, and I’ll be content.”
Yet when bright morning came, neither lord nor lass doubted that the whispered promises between them would be well kept.
So, this is straight out of a romance novel, probably something like “The Duke Who Won Her” or something equally insipid. Naoni who previously proves to be a sensible, practical young woman discards everything on the strength of a nobleman’s promise, because LURRRRVE. She mistrusted nobles, but because this one particular noble is nice to her she discards all that and leaps at the prospect of LURRRVE: she doesn’t even care that this means she will get absorbed into the aristocracy, the status quo she previously loathed. The language is telling–she continues to call him “my lord,” and the narrative refers to them as “lord and lass” rather than “lad and lass.” The power differential is upheld and emphasized at every turn. You’ll see something like this in many romance novels, so this isn’t confined to just fantasy (and both romance and fantasy are incredibly reactionary shit).
Relief and gratitude shone on Naoni’s face, making her look like a lamp lit from within, and Taeros wondered why he’d ever thought her plain.
This is a man who thinks a woman is beautiful only when she looks relieved, grateful, and in short in his debt/implicitly under his power (in this case, under his friend’s–another nobleman’s–power). The point is driven home repeatedly that Naoni was wrong to hate all nobility; her mother just ran into bad apples. This again is another point of rhetoric favored by those who refuse to take responsibility for participating in and benefiting from privilege: “Not all men are scum, some of us are NICE GUYS.”
a petite lady in dark leathers, whose hair danced behind her like the mane of a proud horse. My, what a beauty! Korvaun watched her in open admiration
Gods, but she was beautiful. Not in the overpainted, gilded, exquisitely coiffed manner of noble matrons, nor yet in the slyly wanton lushness of the best tavern dancers, but… like a graceful wisp of a temple dancer, yet with something of the imp about her, too, in her dark leathers. Asper gave Korvaun a smile that made him blush as she handed him a decanter to match the one she’d given Mirt, stopper and all, and trotted out of the room, unstrapping and unbuckling as she went.
Did Mirt’s lady always wear dark, skintight leathers? Roldo Thongolir was swallowing and staring openly, and Korvaun knew just how his friend felt. Asper drew the eye with every lithe movement, that mare’s-tail of ash-blonde hair dancing behind her, and a slender sword bouncing at her hip. When she was in the room, it was difficult to look elsewhere
This is one of those things that show up a lot when physically capable women show up in fiction: fanservice. She can’t just be physically capable, she has to be sexy and skintight leathers literally. You can almost hear Greenwood fapping in the background.
She suppressed an urge to tug at the low-cut bodice. Faendra’s gown was absent from much of her upperworks and clung to her hips as if it was dripping wet. Lark had never stepped out of doors in such scant garb, nor, for that matter, had her mother. This was a strange city, to be sure, where fine ladies showed the world more flesh than Luskan’s dockside whores! But then, Lark thought cynically, judging by the gems on lavish display around her, these noblewomen got a better price for their… wares.
If they reached out to crush him, as a man swats a stinging fly, what would befall Naoni and Faendra? Who’d stand with them, against… oh, gods. Who but those nobles: Helmfast, Hawkwinter and the rest? Men who wanted but two things from his daughters, their charms and their coins—and would be gone the moment they’d snatched both.
There’s some pretension with regards to some secondary-world fantasy that it is an egalitarian society. Forgotten Realms is one such setting. But very quickly the author shows his true colors, and it is usually a he, and pulls a Jim Butcher. Incidentally, these two paragraphs are from completely different sections and different perspectives: one a servant girl from another culture, one a merchant (male) from Waterdeep. The servant thinks in terms of female bodies as commodities. The merchant thinks his daughters will be helpless because they are girls, and also because their bodies are commodities. Ed Greenwood may oink that his is a gender-equal world, but I think we should endeavor to train him out of telling lies by socking him in the nose every time he does so. Similarly–
“No,” Dyre said heartily, “I don’t want your coins, yet I do want to share some news with you, and the words we may exchange shouldn’t be overheard by anyone. My home comes furnished with not only ‘prentices but daughters and servants, whose hearing, I shouldn’t have to tell any of you, can be far keener than even their tongues.”
Some chuckles arose. Of the five men in the room, only Hasmur Ghaunt was unmarried, and only Dyre had buried a wife. All of them had been blasted, at one time or another, by the dragonlike temper of Goodwife Anleiss Lhamphur.
–is a meeting between merchants. Observe that they are all men, and there’s a lazy cliche that one of them has a henpecking wife. Despite its purported egalitarianism both women of the merchant class and aristocracy are second-class objects. Again, this also happens a lot across a variety of settings. Pretty much all tie-in fiction is like this as it’s burdened by the writer’s sexism.
All I know is that someone in the Westwind can get messages to Texter, or perhaps my notes are carried by magic, untouched by any hands but Texter’s and mine.”
This isn’t offensive, but it’s quite the howler. A man named TEXTER. Whom you get messages to magically. So, yeah. Ed Greenwood!