SCHOLASTIC REISSUES: SCHEDULE 3
Reviewed by Mark Lain
After two tranches of Scholastic editions, each containing six books, the third batch slashed their output in half and offered a rather stingier three titles. However, there was no wastage in this smaller batch, which gave us a third brand new title (#15 Assassins Of Allansia) and two more key reprints in #13 Caverns Of the Snow Witch and #14 Khare: Cityport Of Traps. Khare is a necessary release given that its predecessor appeared in the previous Scholastic batch, and CotSW is the only non-sci-fi Jackson/Livingstone book from Puffin’s first ten FFs that had not been reissued by Scholastic thus far, so these are natural choices. As with my discussions of Schedules 1 and 2, I will only be covering the reissued titles in this post, the new book will be reviewed in its own right.
Caverns Of The Snow Witch is not a book that I particularly like. It is massively unfair with its umpteen fights with over-powered opponents, very limited opportunities to restore Stamina, far too many Luck tests, and a pointless post-Snow Witch kill coda that just seems to ramble on forever. OK, I realise that this started out life as a 200-section Warlock magazine effort, but in doubling its length, Livingstone simply padded it out endlessly after the Warlock version’s conclusion rather than adding any interesting additional material earlier in the book. Indeed, up to the point where the Warlock version ends, the two are completely identical – it is only beyond this point that the additional 200 sections-worth of material kicks in, which does make it all feel a bit forced. However, what the Puffin/Wizard version has that works massively in its favour is the unique woodcut-style internal art by Gary Ward and Edward Crosby. This was their only work for FF and it stands out with a visual style entirely of its own and I am a big fan of this book’s illustrations. Naturally, this made me a little cautious when approaching the Scholastic edition as the book, in play terms, is pretty awful, and, without the Ward-Crosby art, would have little to offer me anymore.
So it is then that I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the internal art for the first time. Firstly and foremostly, Scholastic has finally parted company with the awe-inspiringly talentless Vlado Krizan, meaning cover artist Robert Ball is now also on internal art duties in his place. Well done Scholastic, perhaps fan response has finally been acknowledged. All we had seen up until now though of Ball’s work was the rather cartoonish cover illustrations of Batch 1 and the more effective and unsettling, but microcosmic “porthole” imagery of Batch 2. Batch 3 sticks with the porthole layout and with the more frightening imagery which is especially apparent with CotSW as the blue-hued yeti bursting through the porthole is really very effective. I also like the claw scratches that cut through Livingstone’s name which adds an element of animation to the piece. The internals are the aspect that really interests me with this book though and we get Ball’s interpretations of these section’s images:
26 dark elf with bow, 37 night stalker, 59 crystal warrior, 83 zombie, 96 dead dwarf, 106 neanderthal and gnome, 125 prism man, 154 banshee, 180 centaurs, 190 yeti, 212 snow wolves, 223 white dragon, 235 sentinel, 288 frost giant, 297 Shareela, 328 pegasus, 348 birdmen, 365 brain slayer, 398 man-orc
Which leaves these images now missing that were illustrated in the original versions:
Background Big Jim, 13 hill trolls, 50 wild hill men, 75 healer, 88 frozen orc, 115 elf, 168 man in hut, 198 idol worship, 254 goblins, 262 zombified elf and dwarf, 278 old man, 319 birdhead rock, 374 barbarian
The decision to excise images for two key plot points (background and 262) seems illogical and I am sure other images that have survived could have been left out to make space for these two (106 or 398, for example). Obviously, many of the images that remain are those that emphasise the snow theme and a lot that is now missing are from the snooze-fest coda but this also makes it feel unbalanced now in terms of what areas of the book are illustrated. Overall, this leaves me a bit unsatisfied.
But, of what we do still have, a lot can be said and, as I rate the Ward-Crosby takes so highly, I am going to talk briefly about every image and compare them: the first Ball internal that we see (if we go through the pages in linear order) is section 26 and this version has a really nice composition which is a very promising portent of what Ball’s versions of this book’s art might offer; 37 is no longer in extreme close-up and is now very frightening; 59 is now far too busy and the original version was too iconic for Ball to realistically be able to compete with; 83 is now much more realistic and has far more horror in it as a result; 96 just isn’t my idea of how a dwarf should look and is more akin to a Pictish warrior or such-like; 106 is now less in your face but manages to have more threat for this; I do not like 125 now – it seems to be an over-busy mess whereas Ward’s version had more control; 154 is vastly inferior and has lost all the visceral hideousness of the original; 180 is a really interesting take and gives the centaurs an almost American Indian appearance; 190 is one of the best of the Ball versions – the yeti is now huge and dominates the frame resulting in an image with far more threat; ditto, 212 also now contains more threat and the savage nature of the wild dogs is very evident; 223 goes for a more regal approach whereas Ward’s version was about the imposing and threatening nature of the dragon – both are interesting takes and are equally effective in their own ways; 235 is another Ball image that is now just too busy, whereas the original was a masterpiece that probably could not be bettered; 288 looks more like an ogre now than a giant and has lost the intensity of the original; 297 is too dark: Ward’s Shareela was brilliant for its mixture of allure, sexiness, and sheer terror – Ball’s is just a bit boring; the Pegasus in 328 though is truly beautiful in Ball’s version; 348 is another interesting alternate interpretation in the same way as the dragon – both versions have their plus points and neither is better than the other; the brain slayer in 365 was another truly iconic Ward image and Ball botches his very inferior version by just not having enough focus on the brain slayer itself now; the original version of 398 was one of the few misfires in my opinion and was cluttered and confusing whereas Ball’s take is more obvious and clear even though it is ultimately nothing special really.
Clearly then, Robert Ball’s interior art is far superior to Vlado Krizan’s and at times compares very favourably to Ward and Crosby’s masterful originals in this book. Finally, we are seeing images in Scholastic editions that have detail and there is even enough of it now to warrant close study of the images. A huge leap forward is that the greyscaling that made VK’s art so utterly uninteresting is gone and Ball’s versions are (appropriately) very bright and favour the white end of the light and dark spectrum. Ball produces some very interesting and worthwhile versions of these familiar illustrations and I would be interested to know if he had actually seen the originals as these are definitely not Krizan-style tracings. Instead they are alternate visions which hold up well in their own right. This is a great thing to see and shows that there is hope now rather than the grim spectre of more awful Krizan art that totally destroyed the purpose of art in FF books.
A worthwhile point to note here is that, with the Ball versions, there are now three completely different versions of the internal art for CotSW: the original Ward-Crosby woodcut style of the Puffin/Wizard editions, the full colour more fantastical/fairytale illustrations in the Tin Man Games app version, and now the Robert Ball interpretations. I still favour the Ward-Crosby versions overall, but Ball has produced some very worthwhile images in his versions and these make the Scholastic edition of what I personally consider to be a sub-par book play-wise into a very worthwhile investment and my fears are allayed. That said, I can only imagine how I would have reacted to the Scholastic version had Krizan still been in the equation!
I am conflicted over the decision to change the internal artist for Khare. Part of the flow and coherence of the original editions of the Sorcery! epic is the consistency in using John Blanche to illustrate all four (both for the covers and the internals). The first problem this throws up is that I prefer Blanche’s work in The Shamutanti Hills to that in Khare as I find his art in the second book often quite hideous or simply incomplete as there are some images which are mostly just a blank page with a hand or whatever in the middle, which seems a bit of a waste to me. Also, I am overall not a fan of Blanche’s manic often scruffy style, even though I realise that I am in a minority with this. The second problem is an enormous one as maintaining visual consistency from Book 1 to Book 2 would involve having to impose more of Vlado Krizan’s terrible internal art on us all. Overall, I would rather suffer a change in visuals than more of Krizan’s anti-art so I am just going to have to accept this as a necessary move in terms of improving the overall look and reputation of the Scholastic editions.
Khare is a very very difficult book to complete as Jackson employs his unravelling a puzzle approach rather than the more conventional linear true path of a Livingstone book. For all that it is very hard though it is also very brilliant and compels the player to keep revisiting and trying to solve it. After the relatively straightforward approach SJ employed with the first Sorcery! book, Khare can come as a bit of a shock, but it is a brilliant book however you look at it. Khare as a location is lethal but utterly weird which does mean that Blanche’s original internal art, for all that I do not really like it, suits the truly bizarre nature of its setting. Ball’s art in CotSW was essentially fairly traditional fantasy art in style and is certainly not in any way outré like Blanche’s. With this is mind, how then does Ball’s attempt at portraying the sheer weirdness of the city of Khare fair?
For the record, the following sections have art in both the original and Scholastic editions:
11 living corpse, 33 wrestling, 77 slime eater, 98 pixie-sprite fight, 122 Idol of Courga, 143 elvin, 153 mantis man, 164 crypt, 176 artist’s hut, 198 town square, 213 fish, 240 Cabinet of Fortune, 269 dwarf and bear, 285 harpies, 300 orclings, 324 gnome shop, 336 sage, 365 goblins, 511 city gate
…and we no longer have illustrations for:
Map of Kakhabad, 1 approach to Khare, 23 smoking black elves, 43 flayer, 56 Wheel of Fortune, 66 chainmaker, 89 fork with statue, 110 Watfarer’s Rest, 132 street scene, 187 chapel, 227 guillotine trap, 254 hut interior, 311 ship interior, 411 giant, 464 zap spell, 504 pebbles
Very excitingly, Scholastic is once again doing its only occasional thing of giving us a newly-illustrated section and in this case it is a real winner in the form of the highly unusual sulphur ghost in section 412. Given Blanche’s style, this would actually have made an ideal unusual subject for him to illustrate and I would have liked to be able to make a comparison but, as it stands, Ball’s is the only barometer we have for a sulphur ghost and it is a very interesting and horror-filled take on a very rare creature. In other words, for the first time, Scholastic has added a new image that does actually genuinely ADD something to the overall set of images within a book. So that’s another good sign with Batch 3.
As I said before when discussing The Shamutanti Hills, the removal of the map of Kakhabad is a stupid decision as we need the global context of this quest to help get deep into the settings. I also do not understand why section 1’s approach to Khare image was excised when it literally gives us a lead in to the piece. I am very pleased at the removal of the two spell effect images though (464 and 504) as these were just white voids with a tiny central image and were frankly a waste of space and seemed lazy to me. I find it incomprehensible that the guillotine trap image is now gone (227) as I always use the picture to negotiate this stage and the loss of 110’s illustration is a shame too as I like FF tavern vistas and feel they are a cornerstone of what urban set FF is all about. It seems that as the series progresses the choice of internals to remove is making less sense, initially it was largely incidentals that were gone, but it is getting a bit less focussed and logical now.
As regards what we have new interpretations of, for the opposite reason to my wanting to do this for CotSW, I am again going to cover every image present but this time because I disliked Blanche’s on the whole so much that I am hoping the Ball versions will be an improvement: 11 had more context in terms of background in the Blanche version but it is more unsettlingly human-like in the Ball – neither is great but they both do the job; there is more animation to Ball’s version of 33, but the Blanche version has the classic look of his work when he gets it right and successfully mixes the weird with a compelling image; 77’s slime eater is now less cluttered and I prefer it as do I prefer Ball’s cover to Blanche’s as JB’s just seems to be a technicolour nightmare; 98 is now more intricate and detailed where Blanche’s looked incomplete with too much white void; both versions of 122 are equally good and both are very effective; Ball’s elvin in 143 looks more devious and it is nice to see Scholastic illustrating these Sorcery! stalwarts as, for some reason, none got drawn in the first book; 153 actually is now recognisable as mantis-like whereas the original looked like it had been burned; there is now more horror in 164 but I do still like Blanche’s whispy emerging spirit in the original; I do not understand how 176 made the cut and neither image inspires me at all; 198 is now way too dark and the original was far better and more absorbing in terms of making you feel like you are there; both versions of 213 are basically the same; 240 is an interesting one with two equally valid interpretations: Blanche’s goes for weirdness, Ball’s highlights the sinister; Blanche’s version of 269 is typical cluttered Blanche mayhem that confuses the eye so I do prefer the more controlled new version; the original harpy image in 285 was truly macabre and it has the edge over the very eye-centric new version; both versions of the orclings in 300 work equally well and both are fun images; Ball’s gnome in 324 seems far too old but his version also has more atmosphere than the original; similarly, Ball’s ogre in 336 seems more atmospheric; there was pretty much nothing to the original version of 365 (just a white space) so the Ball can only be an improvement, which it is by virtue of there actually being an image of any consequence there; the city gate in 511 works well from both perspectives and is essential to round the book off properly (if only section 1’s image had not been removed as these two illustrations literally bookend the piece).
I really do like what Ball has done with this book, especially as I was never happy with the Blanche effort. The Scholastic trademark geyscaling is creeping back in Khare but it is not detrimental and is not causing any loss of detail or interest. Plus, its absence from CotSW suited that book’s subject matter whereas it is less vital to use a lot of whites in Khare, plus it is night time at points in the latter book. Something good and very encouraging is happening with Scholastic’s internal art finally as the Khare images in particular stand up very well and fare often even better than the sometimes empty or scruffy Blanche versions. And we finally have a worthwhile additional image that really adds something.
Ball’s work in both of these books is well worth taking the time to study and compare to the originals as his takes are very worthwhile and he is doing something really interesting by rethinking the images instead of just copying them badly. Vlado Krizan’s internal art hardly warranted looking at at all, but the Ball material is actually really good and we are seeing signs of a return to the less childish style of the original books rather than VK’s disastrous work in the first twelve Scholastic offerings. It is a shame that Scholastic only stretched Batch 3 to three titles and this seems a bit half-assed but, as Robert Ball produced the covers and the internals for all three this time, perhaps the amount of pressure on one single artist was a factor this time around. I can hope that another reason was a quality consideration rather than rushing the art out, but who knows. There are still several medieval Livingstone titles for Scholastic to put out and I would be curious to see new internal art for Freeway Fighter and Starship Traveller as the originals for both of these were very unsatisfying, although the sci-fi books were never as popular so perhaps Scholastic does not want to take this risk. But we can only guess at what Batch 4 will bring…