Thursday, July 19, 2012

Psycho-sexual Ravenloft: Knight of the Black Rose III

Speaking of what a weird-ass pervert Strahd is, it turns out he likes to be the creamy filling in a big necromantic Oreo. You see, Soth has been injured fighting a dragon so Strahd offers to act as a conduit that transfers life force from some mortal mook to the deathknight. And make no mistake, Strahd likes being the monkey in the middle: “The look on Strahd's face told Soth that the vampire enjoyed the workings of this particular spell. Strahd's dark eyes rolled back and fluttered, showing only their whites. His pale cheeks flushed with color; his cruel mouth stretched into a wide smile of pleasure. The vampire's fangs had extended to their full length.” Extended, to their full length, no less.

At this point in the novel it is painfully clear what Lowder's biggest problem is with the narrative: everything that is happening is just him killing time (and page count) on the way to giving Soth his own domain in Ravenloft. Soth and his werebadger (!!!) pal go to Gundarak on a quest to use a supposed portal out of Ravenloft that amounts to nothing; Magda, the only character we can identify with because she's the only one with a reasonable worldview and graspable goals, buggers off in the middle of the night—never to reappear—because Lowder clearly just doesn't have a plot arc in mind for her. All of this is ultimately meaningless and the novel is really just running down the shot clock before it throws Soth into Sithicus.

Somewhat entertainingly, Soth uses a Bigby's Hand spell at the climax. I mean, come on, that joke just makes itself.

Ultimately, Soth's reoccurring problem is that he can see that he's walking into traps, but he's so dumb he blunders in anyway. This happens in Soth's back-story when he knows he's being tricked into leaving his quest to spare Krynn from the Cataclysm, and it happens again at the end of Knight of the Black Rose when Strahd walks Soth into the mists so that a new domain will form around him. The thing is, Strahd doesn't exactly have to get Machiavellian to maneuver Soth out of Barovia. Essentially, Soth says, “You're trying to trick me into entering the mists!” Strahd says, “Yep, I am.” Soth says, “Okay, see you later! Imma go into the mists now.” Soth is so hammer-headed that it is a wonder that Jander doesn't show up to put the moves on him.

I have to give Lowder credit, though, Knight of the Black Rose at least ends on a note that at least recycles some conventions found in Gothic literature. Nedargaard Keep is described as the unheimlich double of Soth's fortress in Krynn; it's almost like he castle he's familiar with, but the details are off just enough to drive him mad. Still, this bit is too little too late. Here's the Cliff Notes for the novel: “Strahd goes to Ravenloft, Strahd continues to perv, Soth gets stuck in Sithicus.” And that's all there is.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Psycho-sexual Ravenloft: Knight of the Black Rose II

Sadly, Lowder has as tin an ear as Golden does when it comes to writing dialog. “You have no idea how angry you've made me,” Soth sulks to Caradoc, his ghostly servant. Actually, Caradoc does have an idea of how angry Soth is, particularly as Soth has just crushed the skull of Caradoc's mortal remains under his boot and is currently throttling Caradoc with a mailed fist. (Yeah, Soth can strangle ghosts; don't think about that for too long.) Oddly, despite watching his child die in a fire, strangling a ghost is what gets Soth sucked into the mists of Ravenloft. Also, this nets us the weirdest description of the mists EVER: “It crept through the gaps in Soth's armor and rubbed against him like a monstrous cat. Tendrils of the milky stuff ventured into his ears and mouth and nose.” Like...a monstrous cat? Milky stuff going into his mouth? FUCKING RAVENLOFT!!!

And yet, it's neither Soth nor Strahd who turn out to be the creepiest character in the novel. Meet Andari, a gypsy youth who discovers his sister about to be raped by a boyar. Boy does that get him angry! Only he isn't angry at the rapist, he is mad that his sister's pleas of “No!” distracted him: “Look what you've done! Your screeching made me drop my violin!” The reason why Andari isn't angry about his sister's sexual assault is that he was the one to pimp her out in the first place; indeed, since his sister is putting up too much of a fight to be violated for money, he offers up some other members of his extended family for sexual defilement: “Or perhaps you would prefer the company of one of my cousins?” Yeah, that's right, gypsy pimps and prostitutes—it's like a Tiger Lillies song gone horribly wrong.

Even though we've just read Soth's back-story in that ridiculous opening prologue, we get it again when he visits the gypsy encampment. Soth doesn't like people looking in on his past (he likes to stay on the down low) so he flips out and burns the fortune teller's wagon down. If you recall how Soth treated his wife and child, this begins to look like a pattern of how Soth treats women: can't live with 'em, can definitely light them on fire. 

So where does Soth's rage toward women come from? Perhaps we can glean something from a description of Strahd reading Soth's mind: “Strahd ventured further, and a wave of seething hatred and impotent lust broke around him.” IMPOTENT LUST. Yeah, that kind of explains it. In fact, it explains why Soth smashes three tables, knocks down a bunch of doors, and squishes a bunch of Strahd's giant spiders—he is envious of anything that is hard. Soth not only needs Zoloft, he needs Viagra.

(Strahd keeps reading Soth's mind, by the way, because it fills him with “the perverse joy of a voyeur.” Fuck, Ravenloft is yucky.)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Psycho-sexual Ravenloft: Knight of the Black Rose I

The Prologue of James Lowder's Knight of the Black Rose is a back-story avalanche. Of course, the novel has to do something to introduce a well-known character like Lord Soth, but the rapid-fire summation of his career is particularly clumsy as a narrative technique. Still, there are some elements worth picking at here. Soth belonged to an order of goody-two-shoes knights and seems like he was the goodiest-of-two-shoes amongst them. He marries a noblewoman, builds a keep, quests around fighting evil, and basically lives a Dudley Do-Right lifestyle. Until he gets it on with an elf maiden he rescues from some ogres: “Soon after, they became secret lovers, though in doing so Soth broke both his sacred marriage vows and the Code of the Knights of Solamnia.” When the fact of Soth's transgression gets out, he's sentenced to death. Yeah, you read that correctly, the punishment for having a side piece in Krynn is death. Infidelity is literally a capital offense. Holy shitballs, the Dragonlance setting really was created by Mormons!

With the aid of some still-loyal knights, Soth escapes prison and heads back to his keep where he attempts to do the right thing. His wife having disappeared, he marries the elf lady, prepares to raise their child, and prays for guidance from the gods of good. Yet, for some unexplained reason, the other elf women that Soth rescued decide to play some mind games on him: “The elven women he had once rescued now poisoned his mind with intimations of his wife's infidelity.” Those bitches hate the playa, not the game. All of this results in Soth letting his wife and child burn in a fire before his very eyes, his elfbabe honey cursing him with her dying breath, and Soth emerging as an undead monster.

Already I've got grave concerns about where this novel is headed. Whereas Vampire of the Mists turned out to be The Confessions of a Justified Rapist, Knight of the Black Rose is starting out as a whole different kind of psycho-sexual Ravenloft. Where Golden's novel casually dropped squicky sexual descriptions in your lap like some unwanted, spittle-sodden dog's chew-toy, Lowder's fictive universe is one in which sexuality is wrong and must be punished. Hopefully this aspect of the novel is confined to this prologue of inherited Dragonlance drivel, but I don't have high hopes for where this book is about to take me.

...or maybe it will continue the trend already initiated by Vampire of the Mists. You see, much like Jander Sunstar, Soth has plans to re-animate Kitiara as his eternal companion that can only be described as “a bit rape-y” and “kind of necrophiliac-y": “After retreiving her corpse and trapping her soul, Soth planned to abandon the fight and return to Dargaard Keep. In the shelter of that hellish place, he could perform a rite that would make the highlord his un-living companion for all eternity.” Soth apparently isn't the only undead monstrosity that likes Kitiara's bodunkadunk; the deathless guardians of the Tower of High Sorcery seem to have groped her and stripped off her clothes as they killed her: “Her night-blue dragonscale armor had been stripped away by the tower's guardians, and her black, tight-fitting doublet was shredded, revealing her tan beneath.” All the dead guys love her; what a lucky gal!

Besides having literally unnatural designs on Kitiara, Soth can't stand thinking about the fact that Tanis has already tapped that ass; “Tanis had been one of Kitiara's many lovers,” he thinks as he attempts to duel Tanis to the death. We also get a view into the nature of Soth's curse, which turns out to be little more than run-of-the-mill depression: “Yet the death knight felt no joy at that realization; like many emotions, joy was denied him by his curse.” Take some Zoloft and get over it, Soth!