Shadowdale was first published in 1989 as the leading novel in The Avatar Trilogy, arguably one of the most significant series of Realms novels in terms of their effect on the setting. It was written under the pseudonym Richard Awlinson, which I always believed was to protect the actual authors (Troy Denning and Scott Ciencin) from the ensuing fallout. Shadowdale begins the tale of the fall of the Gods of the Realms. Chaos, destruction, and death abound as the Gods themselves walk the earth in mortal shells.
Even the Gods have Gods
The premise of the story is this: the Gods and Goddesses of the Forgotten Realms themselves answer to an over-being called Ao. Ao summons all of the deities into his presence and informs them that the Tablets of Fate (which define and describe the individual duties of each deity) have been stolen, and their juvenile jockeying for power, instead of managing the world as they should have, has disappointed their master. As punishment, Ao forces them all into human bodies and casts them down to the Realms to, I guess, learn humility or something.
Naturally, they just continue their juvenile scheming and jockeying for power. This leads to a number of, frankly, ridiculous changes to the existing structure of Forgotten Realms geography, religion, magic, you name it. We’re talking dead Gods, mortals elevated to Godhood, the introduction of “dead” and “wild” magic zones in the world, earthquakes, floods, and all the good bible stuff. It’s such a fundamental change to so many things, done so early in the life of the setting that it makes one wonder just what TSR was thinking.
Some compelling characters
Major plot element aside, here’s the actual meat of this story: the adventures of a very typical D&D party (composed of a fighter, cleric, mage, and thief, exactly how D&D was designed) are actually quite good. As much as I may disagree in isolation about the changes that were made to the Realms in this book, watching these characters deal with something as significant as Gods walking the earth was very engaging. They all have their own problems going on, were thrust together more by circumstance than choice, and experience plenty of conflicts among themselves; all this combined made for some really great storytelling.
One of the two most interesting characters is the party fighter, Kelemvor Lyonsbane, who suffers from one of the most original curses I’ve seen in a long time. Some early ancestor of his was a greedy jerk who fell afoul of some gypsies (as you do) who cursed him (as they do) such that he could only ever engage in selfless acts without any desire for compensation or reward. If he ever did something for his own profit, he would transform into a werebeast and kill people. However, somewhere down the line, the terms of the curse flipped around. Kelemvor can ONLY do things for his own personal selfish benefit. He needs to put a price on everything, and do nothing for the sake of the act. It makes for some really amazing scenes when the group is basically trying to save the world, and he’s trying to negotiate a price for it.
The other great character is the party thief Cyric. He’s the best kind of burgeoning villain. Pragmatic rather than malevolent, he believes what he sees and not much else. He’s cynical, suspicious, and rational. One of the early introductory bits of history about Cyric involves him directly facing the Goddess Tymora, to whom he did not tithe a proper amount of gold. When asked whether or not he believes in her, and whether that is why he would not sacrifice to her, the response is basically, “If you’re not a goddess, you don’t deserve my gold; if you are a goddess you have no need for it, so why bother?” In a world like the Realms where the supernatural is so commonplace, the logic and rationality is actually quite refreshing. Cyric becomes a much larger fixture in the history of the Realms as a result of actions that occur during this trilogy, and giving him such a relateable grounding helps establish him later in the series.
Some strong opinions
The Avatar Trilogy turned out to be something of a polarizer for fans of the Forgotten Realms. It was once suggested to me by a source who will remain nameless that many of the changes these books made to the setting were done without much consulting with the other authors; a few works in progress had to be changed if not all but scrapped to account for the new state of things. This is where my almost certainly false idea about why the book was published under a pseudonym originates. It was also the catalyst for plenty of questions for various authors and other TSR staff at conventions for a few years following the publication of the series.
As a lifelong reader of the Forgotten Realms, I don’t like a lot of what happened in this book and this trilogy. It just pushed so much existing lore out the window and replaced it for evidently no necessary reason. This is a lot like retconning a series to make a future mistake into truth. Instead they seem to be suggesting that they’d screwed up somewhere in earlier works and wanted to reset the world more to their liking, but the changes they went with remain very strange to me.
Why should you read this book?
If you enjoy epic fantasy without necessarily having to slog through 10+ books and thousands of pages, this is a great book for you. The whole trilogy is only about 1000 pages end to end and all done in the classic action-oriented realms style that made it so popular. Not to mention, you have Gods battling over cities, magic going awry throughout the world, and an intrepid band of heroes facing impossible odds to try and save the world from utter destruction.
It also serves as one of the more integral “realms history” books in the catalogue. So much changes with how the Realms function as a result of this series that in order to really understand a lot of events of later works, you need to understand what happened during this time. Many elements are referenced only obliquely from here on out, and if you don’t read it here, you might find certain things confusing or hard to follow down the road.
Whether you like, dislike or don’t care about the changes these books made to the setting, they are inarguably among the most important and impacting entries in the Forgotten Realms bibliography.