Friday, 3 January 2014

#34: Stealer Of Souls


Keith Martin

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Keith Martin’s later efforts would be amongst some of the better and more imaginative FF books in the latter part of the series (#38 Vault Of The Vampire, #46 Tower Of Destruction and #52 Night Dragon in particular), but his debut effort is on a far less ambitious scale. Stealer Of Souls is, for the most part, a fairly conventional back-to-basics adventure scenario that brings to mind #7 Island Of The Lizard King in its initial structure (boat trip to luridly-named island, followed by trek through primitive environment, then a dungeon trawl) and then any of a number of entries in the 30s part of the series as you pass into another “dimension” of some kind (in this case, the Empire Of Illusions) to face off with this particular book’s baddie of the week, this time an arch-mage who is stealing souls as part of his world-destroying evil plot (ho hum, were we not getting a little bit fed up with world-ending lunatics by this stage in the series?)

The combination of grass-roots plotting combined with “seen-it-a-hundred-times-before” structure makes this book something of a forgotten series entry and it rarely gets much attention in the context of the FF cannon, but I find it hard not to like it, if only for its sheer straightforward-ness. The actual nature of your mission is probably one of the least inspiring of the whole series – you are engaged by the wizard Vanestin to go to the fun-sounding (and otherwise unexplored in the series) Isles Of Despair and rescue another wizard (Alsander) who has been kidnapped by the titular Stealer Of Souls (aka Mordraneth) and is imprisoned in the Iron Chasms on the island. Needless to say, once you find him, he convinces you that you need to track down Mordraneth and despatch him before things get out of control at which point you switch from playing the liberator to becoming an assassin and immediately feel that your goal is now going to be rather more satisfying.

As with many of the books in the 30s section of the series, there are three distinct stages to negotiate here: a boat ride and item-riddled island trudge, followed by the dungeon that is the Iron Chasms, and finally the trippy Empire Of Illusions itself. It is possible to get into three combats in the first handful of paragraphs if you are trigger-happy, but these can be avoided and most of the initial encounters can be friendly and helpful if you don’t try to kill them. The Iron Chasms take up a large proportion of the book and can take ages to get through, plus there is more than one “correct” route, so you do get a feeling that these are as massive and labyrinthine as they are made out to be which is a bonus especially as so many FF environments that should be huge are sold short and don’t take too long to get through. The inhabitants of the Chasms are much less varied and colourful than those in the first section (limited mainly to Orcs acting as guards), but this seems sensible as the Chasms are essentially the barrier to stop people getting at Mordraneth’s evil realm so chances are there wouldn’t be much there other than guards and prisoners (ie fresh souls to steal.) The Empire Of Illusions is the best part by far and is, literally, colourful as each corridor has its own distinct hue to it. An added peril exists in this part as you need to use your judgement to decide if what you are faced with is real or just an illusion and it can be quite tricky to make the right choice. Having already saved Alsander, you are now armed with a small number of spells to help you defend yourself against the illusions in the Empire, but it is equally easy to make the wrong choice and waste a valuable spell as it is to get it right, so there is a lot to think about here, which is in stark contrast to the very basic “adventurer wandering around” of the first two sections of the book and makes for quite an unexpected final part. Once you locate Mordraneth you have to survive an initial spell-exchange (so you need to actually still have some spells with you, meaning you need to have been very sparing with their use thus far), followed by a final straightforward combat to complete the book. The sheer imagination that has gone into the illusory section is a sign of what would come in Martin’s later books and is the part that really makes this book worth playing. Yes, the Iron Chasms go on forever, but there is a logical point to that and your reward is making it to the Empire Of Illusions and experiencing a brief but still really interesting gamebook coda.
As the Chasms are such a huge part of this book and as they are filled with generally pretty run-of-the-mill creature encounters you could be mistakenly made to think that this book has the dullest encounters of any FF ever, but there are nonetheless one or two sparingly-used and very unusual creatures to meet. The second encounter in the book is with a rarely-seen Sea Giant (they get a write-up in Out Of The Pit, but you scarcely ever actually see them in FF books) and the penultimate creature you can come up against (if you take a certain turning) is an equally rarely-seen Blue Dragon that breathes lightning rather than fire (although it is played-down considerably when it turns out to be an illusion), plus one of the bizarrest FF creatures I’ve ever seen appears in the form of a Diadrone (even if the illustration looks like an evil balloon with overly-thin legs), so there is definitely pleasingly subtle use of “specials” in evidence here. Only the strongest encounters are particularly tough to beat, so, again, the real killers are few-and-far-between, which makes this book (unusually) not weighted against you and it is one of the rare books that actually holds up to the claim that you can complete a FF book even with rock-bottom starting stats, although decent Skill and Luck will definitely make the job a lot easier. Of less advantage would be a high Stamina score (as most combats are pretty easy), but this is one of those FF books that regularly penalises you for not eating (or at least it does in the first section where you seem to be eating constantly) so you could find yourself very weak by the time you reach the Iron Chasms, although it then comes as something of a relief when the book completely forgets about the eating need from there on in, and focuses instead on being an adventure rather than a multi-course meal.
Considering how generally conventional this book is, the challenge level is anything but the normal FF fare and this book is unusually easy, especially if you pass an early Skill test to get a weapon that pretty much guarantees you will win unless you are terminally useless at adventures! A really remarkable feature is that there only seem to be eight instant failure paragraphs, which has to be an all-time low, and the majority of them are reserved for the final section (and, again, this makes sense.) Equally unusual is the sheer number of paragraphs that you need to turn to to complete the book (you can go almost everywhere just in one playthrough), but this is handled well here as it is not that noticeable thanks to the logical construction of the three parts of the story, unlike KM’s later FF #51 Island Of The Undead where you are genuinely exhausted after ploughing through about 250 arduous sections to get to the end.
In retrospect, a FF written by Keith Martin and with illustrations by Russ Nicholson is a mouth-watering prospect, but this is not typical Martin fare and Nicholson’s art, whilst always very good, also seems a little lacking in this book. The usual comic book fantasy look of RN’s work is played-down here and many of the images look a bit half-arsed and either rushed or incomplete. Admittedly, the art is still far better than some other FF artists’ efforts, but, in the context of Nicholson’s FF-defining images in books such as #1 The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain or #2 The Citadel Of Chaos, Stealer Of Souls’ art just doesn’t quite have enough impact for my liking. David Gallagher’s cover, on the other hand, is stunning. It is very economical rather than unnecessarily busy like some FF covers and the blue-white colours work very well with the central image of Mordraneth. In many ways, this cover reminds me of my favourite Iron Maiden LP cover image, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, and it is easily one of my favourite FF covers.
All things considered, this is far from essential, but it does have a real charm to it and is a genuinely likeable book that is nice to play as a respite from the more elaborate FFs. The final section is the book’s real saving grace, but this one does not deserve to be as over-looked as it seems to be. OK, it’s very easy and it’s pretty long in places, but it is certainly worth giving a chance. The Curate’s Egg of the series without a doubt, but there are far worse FFs than this, especially in the 30s part of the series.