THE TROLLTOOTH WARS
Reviewed by Mark Lain
I have to admit that when this first came out I approached the concept of a “Fighting Fantasy Novel” with some scepticism. The whole idea of a FF book is that it’s “Part-Novel, Part-Game in which YOU are the hero”. This offering is 100% novel, no part game, and someone else is the hero. So in that sense it kind of defeats the object of it’s being FF really. However, if you can get your head around the idea that this is a concerted effort to expand on the FF folklore that was assembled in Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World, and not a shameless cash-in for Puffin at the height of FF’s success, then there is definitely some value in the creation of a FF Novel series. Steve Jackson was always trying to expand the boundaries of FF as a franchise so he was the most likely person to pen the first FF novel of which there were, eventually, only seven – three featuring Chadda Darkmane and four about Zagor. In keeping with the FF gamebooks, SJ wrote the first, then SJ and IL executive produced the rest that were written by various other interested parties.
As this is a Jackson effort, the key NPCs are Jackson creations, Balthus Dire (from The Citadel Of Chaos) and Zharradan Marr (from Creature Of Havoc), with supporting roles for Jackson/Livingstone’s Zagor (from The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain) and Livingstone’s cartoonish Yaztromo (who we first met in The Forest Of Doom and who then turned-up ad nauseum in various other FFs.) Many of the creatures lean towards the more outlandish and original Jackson types (rhino-men, ganjees, calacorms, soulless ones, etc) with the usual inclusion of some fantasy standards (goblins, orcs, etc) which makes this feel like a very Jackson-esque effort. SJ’s prose was always well written in his FFs and that is the case here too and his tendency to include some dark humour also shows through (Ian Livingstone’s FF writing always felt more serious in tone) which is welcome and keeps it interesting for the reader.
Much has been said in reviews about the inconsistency or sheer ludicrousness of FF plots. The fact that traditional FF is a game makes this less annoying, but this would never work in a story book. Thankfully, SJ manages to create a logical and well fleshed-out storyline that flows nicely and makes perfect sense. The added bonus of this being a story book means that it is possible to develop the urgency of the plot by having multiple threads running simultaneously to eventually meet together further into the story (eg: the story often switches between Dire’s, Marr’s, and Darkmane’s activities) – this would be impossible in a FF gamebook because, by definition, YOU can only know what has happened and/or is happening to YOU (unless you’re psychic or something.) The plot revolves around possession of a herb called cunnelwort that allows you to go on little forays into the spiritworld (LSD then basically?) Whoever has this power can become the most powerful sorcerer on Titan so Marr and Dire both want it. Marr has already got it (but can’t really use it properly otherwise he would already be Sorceror #1 presumably), so Dire’s minions attack a caravan transporting some and steal it. This upsets Marr and very soon a war breaks out between their two forces. Dire uses the usual collection of bizarre vivisects that anyone who has played The Citadel Of Chaos will be familiar with, whilst Marr’s army consists largely of his unholy experiments with gormless zombie-type things. The main protagonist enters the fray in the form of Chadda Darkmane (the YOU of the piece, in fact), an adventurer from Salamonis who is keen to increase his Amanour (which is best described as a kind of publically-acknowledged kudos or the adventurer’s equivalent of well-publicised sexual virility) so he gets hired by the King of Salamonis to meddle in the war and make sure Salamonis does not get invaded. It soon becomes apparent to Chadda that he can make his task easier by visiting the third of Allansia’s evil sorcerers (Zagor) and asking him for help. So, long story short, Dire and Marr are at war, whilst Chadda visits a few towns and then plays The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain but with the aim of making friends with Zagor rather than nicking his treasure. Needless to say, Chadda acquires a couple of hangers-on along the way, both of whom in traditional FF companion style eventually end up dead, so no surprises there. It is worth noting as well that once again Jackson cannot resist referencing Greek mythology when it turns out that the entire story is just the Gods playing a game to relieve their boredom and personally I really liked this very unexpected ending.
Much of the enjoyment of this book comes from its exposition of the FF world. There is a really nice background to the Dire family early on in the book, the role played by the ganjees makes sense of how they came to be living with Balthus Dire in The Citadel Of Chaos, Zharradan Marr is revealed as even more despotic than he appears in Creature Of Havoc, and Zagor is actually quite sympathetic by comparison and we can see why he buried himself so deep inside Firetop Mountain to get a bit of peace within the microcosm of his own impenetrable domain. A few areas of illogicality in FF gamebooks are explained along the way (eg: why the keys to Zagor’s treasure chest are scattered around Firetop Mountain’s dungeon) and we get to visit one of the bizarre novelty towns in Allansia (Shazaar) which gives SJ a chance to be playful as he often is in his FF books. There is a very interesting section where we are introduced to the ganjees’ mortal enemies (the sorq), so they’re not totally indestructible after all or, at the very least, they do appear to have a nemesis. There are a few small downsides to the FFxploitation in this book, but they are mostly harmless – the similes in particular are often laboured and seem a little smug (smelling like a skunkbear, etc etc) and Darkmane’s annoying Chervah sidekick is a sort of hyper-superstitious version of the equally-irritating Gronk in 2000AD’s Strontium Dog stories.
If there is one area of confusion it would be where this story is supposed to fit into the FF story arc. The gamebooks do tend to have a coherent flow with sequels and prequels along the way etc. Given that Balthus Dire is still alive, this book must come before FF #2 The Citadel Of Chaos. The presence of Marr is more confusing as he gets trapped in his own dimension in FF #24 Creature Of Havoc and gets trapped again in The Trolltooth Wars when Darkmane smashes the mirror he likes to hide in – unless he has a lot of mirrors with pan-dimensional properties, this is fairly hard to explain. Zagor still being alive is less problematic as he keeps reincarnating anyway (albeit in a kind of Frankenstein’s monster way) so the jury is out in that sense, but he does still have his treasure so, logically, this would also sit before FF #1 The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain. Other aspects of Firetop Mountain suggest this as well – the iron cyclops still has its jewelled eye, the minotaur in the Maze of Zagor is still alive, the keys to Zagor’s treasure chest are still where you find them in WOFM, etc.
There is a certain assumption, in the way this book is written, that the reader is familiar with Titan and the FF world, but I can accept this as it is fairly unlikely that anyone would read this book without having a prior knowledge of FF. The attraction of a FF novel would stem from liking the gamebooks, so this does make sense. There is also an assumption that the reader has completed The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain as Darkmane’s trawl through Firetop Mountain is full of spoilers that will tell you how to find the true path (in terms of items, at least) through Firetop Mountain. In particular, where to find Zagor’s keys and what his two weaknesses are (the eye of the Cyclops and his deck of cards) are given away here.
In a clever bid to make this 100% novel FF book more acceptable to FF fans, key moments are punctuated with internal art by Russ Nicholson. This is especially astute as Nicholson’s images of Zagor and Balthus Dire are used several times which adds coherence with the gamebooks. As ever, Nicholson’s art is really good throughout and his particularly beady-eyed and ugly goblin/orc art is as good here as it is in any other FF he has drawn. Again, this adds a nice linking feature to the gamebooks.
There is one aspect of this book that rarely appears in FF gamebooks. The gamebooks rarely show much empathy plot-wise as any “human” element is supposed to come from YOU, the player. As the immersive-ness of the adventure being “yours” is not present when Darkmane is experiencing what there is to be experienced, the reader's sympathies are gained in other ways here and SJ handles this very well in his writing. Of particular note are Balthus Dire’s initial cunnelwort trip which is a bit overwhelming even for a sorcerer of his experience/evil-ness (you really get a sense of how the spiritworld really ought to be left alone by mortals) and the real highlight of Jackson’s writing comes in the attack on the village of Covan (again, from Creature Of Havoc and presumably fully re-populated by the time FF # 24 enters the story arc) which is genuinely harrowing in the way it is written from the perspective of one family.
All things considered, there are hardly any negative points to this book. The fact that it manages to act as a compliment to the gamebooks (assuming you can figure out where it sits in the “history” of Titan) is a credit to how well it is written and there is definitely some fun to be had in the diversion of watching someone else having to go through what YOU would normally be up against in a standard FF gamebook. There are no dull points, there are many exciting and/or disturbing points and the book bounces along very well. It’s very easy to read 100 pages of it in one short sitting without even realising how much of it you’ve just read - surely that has to be the sign of an enjoyable novel... The FF novels have never been re-issued and definitely deserve another chance assuming they can still find an audience.