The Rogue Scholar’s Review of Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn by Philip Athans
Rating: 2/5 Stars
Greetings brave adventurers and welcome to my humble lair. Take a seat by the fireplace and enjoy a nice beverage while I relate to you a tale of magic and adventure. This week, the Rogue Scholar reviews Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn by Philip Athans. I have already read and reviewed the first book in this series, Baldur’s Gate, also authored by Philip Athans. You can read that review in the archives. These novels are based upon the computer roleplaying games created by Bioware in the late 90s and early 2000s. The games and novels take place within the Forgotten Realms, a fantasy setting for Dungeons and Dragons. If you have never had the pleasure of playing these games, then I highly recommend them to you. But my tale is not about the games today, no my tale is about something far worse. Normally a novelization of a movie or a video/computer game is not going to be good, unless the author is really familiar with the original work of course. And unfortunately with this novel the author does not seem to have either played the game or read the in-game dialogue. This novel is like someone commissioned an artist to paint a copy of the Mona Lisa based on a picture of it, but the artist instead took a blank canvas, pulled down his pants, and took a dump on the canvas. He then smeared the fecal matter all over the canvas with his bare hands and then declared the painting finished. You can already tell how much I enjoyed this, can you not? So let me begin by talking about the book by breaking it down into several categories. I will first discuss the main cast of characters, trying my best not to spoil too much in the process. I will also try to contrast them a little bit with their gaming counterparts (which are usually superior). I will then touch on the story and plot of the novel and how it differs from that of the game.
Abdel Adrian: The main protagonist is a guy named Abdel Adrian, a seven-foot tall mercenary who is one of the mortal children of Bhaal, the now deceased God of Murder. The protagonist of the game series was whoever you wanted it to be, male or female, whatever race you chose. Obviously, for the novels Athans had to create an original character, though the protagonist is still one of the Bhaalspawn. Like in the first novel, Abdel is sort of dumb as a rock, violent, selfish, and weak-willed. He is apparently trying to tone down the violent aspect of his nature thanks to the influence of the half-elven druid, Jaheira, who is now his girlfriend. Apparently the first novel served as a growth story where Abdel became a “better person” and it shows in that he now occasionally decides not to kill someone after all, or pauses to think some hypocritical thoughts on killing people. There was really a lot of wasted potential with this character. Athans, had he been a semi-competent author, could have spent time developing Abdel by delving into the aspect of what it truly means to be the son of a deceased god, especially a dark and violent deity like Bhaal. There could have been a philosophical question of whether or not Abdel (and by extension the rest of the Bhaalspawn) were all destined to become evil or whether or not they had a true chance to resist their father’s dark legacy. Athans does touch a little bit on this perhaps, but it is only at the end of the novel and does not amount to much really. Abdel’s love for Jaheira is poorly written, and I could not help but snicker during some of their dialogue in the first novel, which is thankfully toned down in this second outing. When Jaheira is kidnapped at the beginning of the novel (totally did not happen in the game…) what does our brave hero do? Goes to save her? No, that’s the second thing he does. The first thing he does is betray her with another woman, though to his credit she did turn out to be a vampire who mesmerized him. I’ve got to give the son of Bhaal credit that he managed to resist Bodhi’s charms for a whole two seconds before rolling around on the floor of the basement with her. This actually becomes a reoccurring theme between him and Jaheira, because he feels guilty and she reassures him that it wasn’t his fault because he was hypnotized by the vampire. Abdel also has to be dragged along the plot forcefully (especially by Jaheira), because his attitude is basically “Why would I want to save the world and myself? I just want to go home now.” I wanted to like Abdel in this novel, I really did, but I just could not get into the guy. I realized this about half way through the book when I said to myself “Leslie, you don’t care what happens to this guy, do you?” Like I said earlier, he was such a wasted opportunity. Shame on you Philip Athans, shame on you!
Jaheira: Jaheira is another character from the previous novel. She is a member of the Harpers, a good aligned organization dedicated to combating the forces of evil across the continent of Faerun. She is a half-elven druid whose husband, Khalid, was killed in the previous novel (he is found dead in the beginning of the second game, however). Jaheira is the lover of Abdel, and instead of being the tough, determined warrior druid from the game series, she is a stereotypical damsel in distress whose main purpose in the novel is to comfort Abdel and get kidnapped. She is actually a bit more useful in this novel than she was in the first, as she actually performs some healing spells for the other protagonists, always calling upon her goddess, Mielikki. Athans felt compelled to repeat that she worships Mielikki, as well as remind us that she is a BEAUTIFUL half-elf. Still, Jaheira is still more intelligent than Abdel is and serves as the brains of the team. That in of itself is sad. I did find it interesting, however, that this druid of Mielikki is in love with and aids a child of Bhaal, a deity that would have been in conflict with her own goddess (who is the goddess of the forests and woodland creatures etc.). I guess that is worth something.
Imoen: Imoen, where to begin? Imoen was completely cut from the first novel, which was stupid because she was one of the first companions you could get in the first game. Imoen is the childhood friend of the protagonist, Abdel Adrian. In Shadows of Amn, it is revealed that she too is one of the Bhaalspawn, though she never had the opportunity to develop her violent nature (being adopted by the Innkeeper Winthrop and training as a thief instead of being a veteran mercenary like Abdel was). In the game, Imoen had also developed some skill as a mage, though this is never mentioned in the novel. Her nature as one of the Bhaalspawn is brought out through the experimentations that Irenicus inflicted upon her prior to the beginning of the story. She was another disappointment for me, because her character just comes across as bland. She’s a little sarcastic like in the game, but she’s really there to serve the plot (heck, she’s more like a plot point herself rather than a real character). I suppose that Philip Athans could sense that she was boring me to death, so out of nowhere he tosses in this lesbian subplot (not that I’m against having that in a novel, but it really came out of left field) involving her and Phaere, one of the minor villains in the story. She sleeps with her one time and suddenly she’s in love? Give me a freaking break, Athans. The Imoen of the game series was this sweet, almost innocent eternal child, though she did become a little darker after Irenicus experimented on her in order to bring out her Bhaalspawn nature. The Imoen of the novel is just so boring and useless that I’m convinced she was only included to be a plot point.
Jon Irenicus: Joneleth Irenicus is the main antagonist of both the game and novel versions of Shadows of Amn. Sadly, the novel version is but a pale shadow of the magnificent and complex character of the game. In the game, Irenicus is a powerful mage on par with the likes of Eliminster and Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunson (two of the Chosen of Mystra, goddess of Magic). He was an elf before being stripped of his elven spirit and cursed into human form via the use of elven High Magic for serious crimes against the elven people of Suldanessellar. Irenicus was once the consort and lover of the elven queen, Ellesime. His overly possessive nature proved too much for Ellesime to bear, ending their relationship. Unable to let go, Joneleth turned to seeking power and knowledge, eventually attempting to perform a ritual with his sister, Bodhi, which would have made the two of them immortal at the expense of the Tree of Life (a powerful source of life energy connected to the elven god, Rillifane Rallathil). The elves stopped the two, stripped them of their elven spirits, and exiled them to live their short lives in the knowledge that they had failed. Irenicus then spent years researching ways of attaining immortality and power, which eventually led him to the discovery of the Bhaalspawn, the children of the dead god Bhaal. He captured Abdel and Imoen and was intent on draining their divine souls to restore his and Bodhi’s power back to the way it was before, which he eventually does. I should also note that his voice actor for the game was David Warner, who you might remember for voicing such iconic villains such as Ra’s al Ghul (from Batman the Animated Series) and the Archmage (from Gargoyles). Some of this backstory plays out in the novel as well, but Irenicus is horridly underused and completely mishandled by Athans. Irenicus is supposed to have been almost totally dispassionate, intent upon revenge for the betrayal that he experienced from his homeland and former lover. We do not see any of the inner thoughts of the villain, which was a terrible waste. Athans had a gold mine here and totally wasted it. The few moments that Irenicus is even in the novel he comes across as this bland, stereotypical bad wizard guy who seems a little incompetent at times, and has none of the biting snarkiness of the game version. The game version of Irenicus knew that he could destroy you with a flick of his wrist, and had no problems telling you this.
Bodhi: Bodhi is the “sister” of Jon Irenicus, though it is never truly made clear in either the game or the novel if the two are related by blood or if they just closely identify with each other. Like Irenicus, Bodhi was formerly elven before being stripped of her elven spirit and transformed into a human. Unlike her brother, however, Bodhi did not have the patience to wait for him to discover a way for them to regain their former longevity and so chose to become a vampire as a way of prolonging her life. By the time the story begins, Bodhi had set up a thieves’ guild in the city of Athkatla, which is located within the country of Amn. Her guild was set up to act like a rival guild to the Shadow Thieves, which is a powerful and influential guild within Amn. Bodhi would lure some of the best agents away from the Shadows Thieves, bending their wills to her service, and transforming some of the best into lesser vampires. In the novel, Bodhi kidnaps Jaheira and Imoen under the orders of Irenicus from the underground complex that is being attacked by the Shadow Thieves. It is here that she develops an interest in Abdel after seeing him fight the Shadow Thieves naked (you read that right). She later offers Abdel her services to help him find Imoen and Jaheira (the poor fool not knowing that she was a vampire). After he completes her task (assassinating one of the Shadow Thieves’ leaders) she seduces him and has dirty sex on the basement floor of the tavern, bites him in the neck and orgasms off his divine blood. She helps Irenicus in his schemes, with the goal of attaining true immortality. The idea that she falls in love with Abdel in the novel is just silly given how the two of them just have sex one time and she gets a high off drinking his blood. There is the idea that Bodhi helped to contribute to the mad idea of Irenicus from the beginning, that she drove him towards the dark side. This may be so, but the Bodhi of the novel does not impress me much.
The Minor Characters
Minsc: Minsc was another supporting character who first made his appearance in the first Baldur’s Gate game (though he is totally absent from the novel). Minsc is a kind-hearted but rather crazy warrior-ranger who has a habit of talking to his hamster, Boo (Minsc claims that Boo can talk to him and is really a miniature giant space hamster). Minsc is from the country of Rashemen, and served as the body guard of the spellcaster Dynaheir, one of the Witches of Rashemen. Both Minsc and Dynaheir were characters that you could recruit in the first game and it is canonical that they were in the hero’s party at the beginning of Baldur’s Gate II. In the game, Dynaheir is killed in Irenicus’ dungeon which causes Minsc to continue following the protagonist to avenge his fallen comrade. Minsc was somewhat comical in the games, but he had a good heart and was a good warrior that aiding the hero on his quest. Philip Athans totally screwed this character over, however. For starters, Minsc is described NOTHING like his likeness in the games. In the games, Minsc is bald and has a tribal tattoo on his head. In the novel, Minsc is described as having a beard and red hair (which Athans felt like he just had to repeat over and over again).None of his backstory is even mentioned. He still talks to Boo, but it’s done to the point of parody in that he cannot do anything without asking Boo first. Also, when Abdel, Minsc, and Yoshimo escape the dungeon and come into town, Minsc simply becomes a waiter at the Copper Coronet and drops out of the story almost entirely. He literally like has a couple of lines later in the book when Abdel comes back to the inn to kill Bodhi. I wanted to throw the book at the wall at this point. For the love of God, Athans, why did you do this?
Yoshimo: Yoshimo was another character that you could recruit in the game. He is an assassin and bounty hunter from the island nation of Kozakura (the Realms’ version of Feudal Japan). In the game, you encounter Yoshimo in Irenicus’ dungeon at the beginning of the game and you’re given the option of having him join your party to escape the area. You find out later that Yoshimo was working for Irenicus the whole time. Yoshimo may befriend the party, however, but he will later betray the party at Spellhold but he will tell you that he must do so because of a geas placed upon him by Irenicus. The party then fights him and he dies. The Yoshimo of the novel is similar, but his fate is different. He is imprisoned with Minsc and Abdel in Irenicus’ lair, and he escapes with them in the confusion that occurs due to the attack by the Shadow Thieves. He then departs Abdel and Minsc upon reaching the Copper Coronet in Athkatla. He’s generally good natured and has a roguish charm to him. He later reappears over halfway into the novel, on the side of Bodhi and Irenicus. He tries to deceive Abdel, Jaheira, and Imoen into falling into Bodhi’s trap in the Underdark, but Imoen convinces them not to listen to him and the trap fails. They force Yoshimo to help them on their mission in order to redeem himself, and he, being the opportunist, agrees to do so. He later dies in Suldanessellar, fighting Imoen who has been transformed into one of Bhaal’s avatars, the Ravager.
Now let me talk about the story and plot of the novel. Let me begin by saying that if you are a fan of the game you will probably hate this novel with a vengeance. If you have not played the game before, it is really an uninspiring, flawed sword-and-sorcery novel that’s about as rewarding as watching a low-budget, uninspiring, flawed sword-and-sorcery movie on the Syfy channel. It will help pass the time, but that’s about it. The book almost reads like a parody of the game, which really makes me wonder if Athans was taking this seriously or if he was just concerned with the sound of the money going into his bank account. It was like Athans had been given a list of all the important moments in the game, describing each in one short sentence, and then he interpreted them as badly as possible. I am going to try to not spoil the plot too much, just in case you are a masochist like me and desire to read the novel for yourself, but I will mention a few important details.
As stated previously, the author covers several of the major events of the game, while either changing how they unfold or getting them horribly wrong. The protagonists (Abdel, Jaheira, Imoen) as well as Minsc and Yoshimo, are all in Irenicus’ lair in the beginning. The Shadow Thieves still attack, and Irenicus still kills scores of them. The protagonists escape during the confusion, but Bodhi kidnaps both Jaheira and Imoen during the confusion (which did not happen during the game). Irenicus and Imoen still go to Spellhold afterwards, but so does Jaheira which did not happen in the game. Abdel, Minsc, and Yoshimo walk around Athkatla until they come to the Copper Coronet, where Yoshimo leaves the party and Minsc becomes a waiter.
Abdel is freaking out because Jaheira is gone, and he is dealing with having seen Imoen again as well. Abdel needs information about where to find them, and Gaelan Bayle (an information broker at the inn) offers them information for thirty thousand gold coins. Naturally they cannot afford, but in comes this beautiful woman named Bodhi (who is really a vampire) who offers to help Abdel obtain the money needed provided he kills a famous assassin named Aran Linvail. Abdel has moral objections to this at first, because he’s trying to change his violent nature for Jaheira. Bodhi quickly convinces him that the assassination is just because Linvail has killed so many people. Abdel goes to Linvail’s place, they have an awkward fight in the guy’s house (including a scene where Linvail chops off one of Abdel’s fingers, which he places back onto the stump and watches in amazement as it regenerates back together ala Wolverine). He then brings the decapitated head of the assassin to Bodhi. Bodhi then uses her vampiric powers to seduce Abdel, which he resists for two seconds, and tastes his blood during the act. Abdel then heads off to Spellhold to rescue his true love.
Abdel hires Captain Havarion to take him to the island where the asylum of Spellhold is. Abdel sneaks inside and confronts the “coordinator,” who turns out to be Irenicus (like in the game). Abdel tries to fight him, but Irenicus easily overpowers him with his magical skills (temporarily separating him from his body). While he is asleep, Irenicus uses his magic to remove the divine souls of Imoen and Abdel and place them within himself and Bodhi in order to sustain them. After this happens, Abdel and Imoen transform into avatars of Bhaal, known as The Ravager, which are bestial, demon-like creatures of pure destruction. Irenicus and Bodhi escape and leave the protagonists at Spellhold.
Our heroes follow Bodhi into the Underdark (the subterranean world under the earth). We learn that Bodhi is making a pact with some drow (dark elves) led by Phaere, the daughter of the Matron Mother of the city of Ust Natha. Bodhi’s plan is to have the drow attack the elven city of Suldanessellar while Irenicus and Bodhi go after the Tree of Life in their attempt to gain immortality. Meanwhile, our heroes run into a silver dragon named Adalon, who promises to aid them on their quest provided they retrieve her stolen eggs from the drow in Ust Natha. She transforms them into drow via a spell and they infiltrate the city along with a drow war party.
Our heroes infiltrate the city, and Imoen poses as their leader. Imoen is really obnoxious here and does not resemble her character from the game, which was sarcastic but really youthful and playful as well. Imoen seems to be enjoying playing the part of a drow a little too much here. She catches the eyes of Phaere, who makes her second in command. Phaere takes Imoen off to be with her while Jaheira, Abdel, and Phaere’s former second in command, Solausein, chill at a drow tavern. This is when Athans makes a very serious mistake about the drow. Abdel notes with some disgust that live spiders are one of the items on the menu. Drow would never, NEVER eat live spiders. The drow worship a goddess named Lolth the Spider Queen (who is a fallen elven deity who became a demon), and as such spiders are sacred animals to them. It is a crime to kill a spider, the punishment for which is torture and death. So yeah, that’s a big mistake for Athans to have made.
Phaere and Imoen then have their little lesbian tryst, which is just so random as to be absurd. I just want to say that I’m not homophobic and that lesbianism in drow society does make sense given how the females view the males as being inferior and good for nothing except servants and breeding tools, but this was just stupid. This was like Athans knew that the reader was getting bored by this point and so he threw in lesbianism in order to spice things up a bit. Imoen wakes up after the two bathe together, and she steals Phaere’s lightening rod after learning of her and Bodhi’s plans. I also need to mention that Yoshimo comes back into the plot just prior to this, as Bodhi brings him to Ust Natha to betray the protagonists when they arrive. Yoshimo hooks up with Abdel and Jaheira when the two of them are trying to retrieve the dragon eggs, but their disguise wears off and they are compromised. Yoshimo tags along with the two of them as they try to make their escape through a magical portal that Phaere has rigged to take care of them, but Imoen shows up at the last moment, exposes Yoshimo, and zaps the portal with the lightening rod. Phaere could have killed Imoen with a crossbow but finds that she cannot because she has fallen in love with her (what the heck?). The portal blows up and the protagonists are teleported back to the dragon’s lair with her eggs. The protagonists force Yoshimo to help them on their journey to Suldanessellar in order to “redeem” himself. He reluctantly agrees.
The heroes meet up with the elves from Suldanessellar, who then give some background exposition on Irenicus and Bodhi and why they are doing what they are doing. The elves explain that Irenicus has walled off the area with his magic, and that Abdel needs to find Bodhi to obtain an artifact called the Rhynn Lanthorn in order to put his and Imoen’s souls back in order and allow them to control Bhaal’s avatar within them. Abdel agrees to this and the elves teleport him back to Athkatla in Amn to find Bodhi. He finds her in the Copper Coronet Inn (but not before meeting Minsc and telling him to go take a walk). Abdel fights her but is quickly overcome by her superior strength until he transforms into the Ravager. Once he does this, he quickly overpowers the vampire and literally rips her to pieces one limb at a time. She’s a vampire, however, and so even though she’s missing her arms and legs and he’s eaten some of her chest, she’s still ‘alive’. She’s in a lot of pain, but she’s still alive. Abdel becomes human again and is saddened by what he has done to her, and she tells him where the artifact is before he mercifully finishes her off by a stake to her heart.
Before Abdel returns, Irenicus appears to Imoen and kidnaps her from Jaheira and Yoshimo. He is going to use his magic to bring out the power of the Ravager within her, and use her as a weapon to destroy the elves of Suldanessellar. Abdel receives the Rhynn Lanthorn and is teleported back to the elves. Irenicus enacts a ritual in which he brings out the dark nature of Imoen, transforming her into the Ravager, a large, four-armed demon that he quickly sends into Suldanessellar to destroy the elves. The elves open the barrier and Abdel goes into the city to confront Irenicus. They have a little scuffle, but Irenicus quickly grows bored with Abdel and teleports away, but not before shouting that he will an elf again, and he will take Abdel’s soul to unite it with the Tree of Life’s magic in order to become a god.
Meanwhile, Imoen as the Ravager is just destroying anything in her path, people dying left and right. She is eating them, decapitating them, spearing them on her horns and claws, etc. Abdel knows that they must stop Imoen, but he cannot bear the thought of killing his childhood friend (and half-sister). Abdel, Jaheira, and even Yoshimo all attempt to stop the Ravager. The only one who manages to hurt the Ravager is Yoshimo, because he wields an enchanted katana. Yoshimo is killed when he is impaled upon one of the Ravager’s horns, and Abdel takes his sword to combat the beast. Finally, Abdel manages to defeat the hellspawned creature thanks to his divine heritage. The Ravager’s chest opens up, however, to reveal a smaller insectoid creature the size of a man. This is another of Bhaal’s avatars, the Slayer. The Slayer flies away from the scene in order to go kill the elven queen.
Irenicus begins to attempt to absorb the energies of the Tree of Life while Abdel is protecting the queen from the Slayer. Jaheira attempts to stop him, but he effortlessly stops her and immobilizes her in a magical web. Abdel combats the Slayer, and after a grueling battle manages to rip open the creature to reveal Imoen inside of it. Abdel then disappears and is transported into hell (somehow?). Meanwhile, Irenicus has absorbed the energies of the Tree of Life and now possesses god-like powers. He sneers at Jaheira and sinks into the ground, crossing over dimensions into hell to join Abdel. I just want to say that this is totally different from what happens in the game. In the game the heroes fight Irenicus at the tree and defeat him, but before he dies he uses his magic to suck the party into hell with him. The heroes then have to defeat Irenicus in hell before they can escape. In the novel, Abdel and Irenicus fight in hell, with neither one gaining the upper hand. Jaheira digs into the ground where Irenicus sank, crying out Abdel’s name. Abdel finally defeats Irenicus by choosing not to fight him, and he hears the cries of Jaheira and all of his friends back in Suldanessellar. He then starts rising up towards the voices as Irenicus keeps calling for him to fight him, begging him even. Abdel then escapes hell while Irenicus is dragged down further into it. Abdel then wakes up in the arms of Jaheira, the city is saved, and he looks up at them and says “I want to go home. To Candlekeep.” And that is how the novel ends.
This novel was very depressing. It is BGII in name only. There are familiar names of people and places, but it truly feels as if Philip Athans did not play the game or read the in game dialogue. The characters are hollow reflections of their namesakes, and the ending is just stupid. My advice is to skip the novels by Athans and play the games instead. The games have great characters and a good storyline to them. This review went on longer than I planned, and I might have rambled a little bit. Nevertheless, I hope that you enjoyed it. Join me next time when I review the last book in the trilogy: The Throne of Bhaal by Drew Karpyshn.