CASKET OF SOULS
Reviewed by Mark Lain
As beautiful as it is baffling, the second FF-related “find the answers by examining the pictures” book was never strictly-speaking released as a Fantasy Questbook, but was originally advertised as part of the series and it quite clearly is, in spite of the paperback edition being published by Penguin instead of Puffin (the hardback was OUP, the same as The Tasks Of Tantalon) and there being no explicit reference anywhere in it to the Fantasy Questbooks series. (Incidentally, for an explanation of the Questbook concept please see my review of The Tasks Of Tantalon.)
Ian Livingstone had a reputation for often taking difficulty in his FFs to the extreme and Casket Of Souls is no different in that respect. Whilst Tantalon was remarkably hard to figure out, this book is practically impossible unless you either find some of the solutions by sheer chance or you think like IL.
The premise here is that you need to find the twelve Royal Magical Treasures of Amarillia – this is the first book to mention the land/world of Amarillia which would later be linked directly to the FF series in #54 Legend Of Zagor and then in the four Zagor Chronicles novels - on which are written the lines to the spell that is needed to lock the Casket Of Souls of the title. The Casket itself is needed to trap a nasty Bone Demon who is out to destroy Amarillia (hardly a surprise!) and who has already bumped-off the last living wizard (Salazar) who created the Casket. Salazar now lives in the spirit world and acts as your guide/narrator through the quest (ie the voice of the book.) This is one of the very rare occasions where a character is addressing you throughout the book, rather than the book being a GM figure, which adds a personal touch of extra involvement that you don’t often see. A lengthy introduction gives all the background of how the Casket and Salazar fit into the history of Amarillia, whilst the ongoing adventure sections lead you through a series of events that are happening in various places as you play. Each page has some lines from the spell, a typically well-written Livingstone-y description of how this part fits into the plot (which flows neatly and makes sense as long as you can keep up with all the jumping from place to place), and a description (and picture) of one of the twelve items that you are looking for. The facing pages then have a picture that has one of the items hidden in it somewhere for you to find. Once you’ve found all the items, the order they appear in is the order that the corresponding spell lines need to go in to successfully lock the Casket, trap the Bone Demon, and save the world.
In some ways, this book is more conventional than Tantalon as there are no mathematical puzzles or game-type puzzles in this second book, nor do you need to use information from other parts of the book (other than the pictures of the items, of course) to unearth the solutions. The trick here is purely to find the object in the picture somewhere, which sounds like should be easier, but it most certainly is not! Some of the objects are directly drawn in the images, but are usually very well hidden (eg: the crystal key is easily mistaken for detail on a gemstone) or are quite subtle until you find them and wonder how you ever missed them (eg: the banner of titans, which is probably the easiest of all twelve to find.) In most cases, you are pretty unlikely to ever crack the puzzles which are so obscure that it’s frankly ridiculous. One item (the golden chalice) is hidden un-noticeably in an upside-down version of a particular picture and is hardly obviously the item itself even when you’ve found it (which is typically unfair Livingstone territory.) The shimmering shield is in two different pictures as far as I can discern, but it is the much more obscure one that you are unlikely to find that turns out to be the correct answer. There are three pictures that require the use of a mirror to locate the objects (in an unusually helpful mood IL actually gives us clues in the spell-lines on those pages, but whether you will realise that is another thing) including one with multiple mirror angles that needs two mirrors. In another case, you need to fold the picture (and, again, IL gives us a clue in the spell words!) A particularly obscure find is the sword of Braxus which is mapped-out as a (very sketchy and unclear) constellation, but probably the most ridiculously difficult of all the puzzles by a long way is the helmet of wisdom, where the picture (very subtly) contains the instructions for making the helmet with origami! Come on, Ian, do you really expect anyone to work that out?? This book makes the very slim chance of completing Ian’s infamous Crypt Of The Sorcerer seem easy as at least in that book there is always a minute possibility that you could be in luck all the way through and find the true path by sheer chance, but I refuse to believe that anyone can beat the majority of the puzzles in Casket Of Souls as they are simply too difficult. In some ways, there is something almost smug about how tough and intangible the solutions here often are and it is highly likely that you will never complete this... and even if you do, you don’t know whether you’re right as you are not told anything at the end – there’s just a picture of the Casket itself on the last page. Interestingly, when this book first came out, it was actually part of a competition that readers could enter to win a one-off gold-plated Casket Of Souls by Citadel Miniatures. Rather than knowing if you had got the spell in the right order, you were asked to write your version of the order of the spell on a postcard and send it in to the competition, so at the time the lack of an “answer” at the end made perfect sense. Sadly, once the competition deadline had passed (which was 14th February 1988) you were left perpetually in the dark about how you had done (although a solution has been posted online here to make everyone’s lives easier in this respect http://arek.bdmonkeys.net/FF/sols/sol69.html)
Admittedly, the approach to the puzzles here is certainly very innovative and the weirder solutions are highly original if considered for what they actually are and the thought that has gone into designing them. Linked into this is the area where this book is a big winner – Iain McCaig’s art. The illustrations here are without a doubt some of the most stunning and intricate fantasy art I have ever seen anywhere. The fact that the puzzle deceits have been woven into these is all the more admirable but, on its simplest level as purely a book of fantasy art (which it will quickly become when you give up trying to “play” it), Casket Of Souls is a stand-out entry in the global FF cannon as a whole. Of particular note is the much-repeated cover and the mirrored wood (which, incidentally has a topless Moon Sister in it), but every picture here is brilliant without exception. There are many pictures that bring to mind McCaig’s work in Deathtrap Dungeon, but there are also a few illustrations that are more “ethereal” and dream-like in their appearance (eg: the mirrored wood, the bottomless pit, and Black Shadow Valley) which shows the sheer range of McCaig’s ability.
Within the folklore of FF, there are some cross-references within the series going on here and I always like to see linkages between FF books as it gives a feeling of a body of work, rather than isolated stories. Naturally, as the series progressed, this became more common, but there are two distinct links with this book (in addition to the Zagor associations mentioned above): in the Inquisitor’s library in Return To Firetop Mountain you can find a copy of Casket Of Souls (and, in fact, the as-yet unreleased Eye Of The Dragon); and, in Temple Of Terror the mural being painted by Murkegg depicts what seems to be the episode from CoS where the dwarf army is being defeated by the Bone Demon’s orc and undead minions.
Casket Of Souls is a superior artistic achievement within the series and, in terms of intricacy of design, the solutions to the puzzles are exceptionally imaginative. In the sense of actual playability and the satisfaction of achieving something, it is unlikely that anyone will attempt to “play” this properly more than a handful of times as it is, by all accounts, not humanly possible to fathom this book out. Even with the solution in front of you, some of the items are far from easy to locate and, if you can’t complete something with the answer in front of you, we can fairly safely say that it cannot be beaten unaided. Incredible to look at, highly original, but basically unplayable.