I was really lucky, in a way, to have forgotten my license on a tequila run because of the bookstore right next to the ABC. As a karmic request to the universe for my lack of dinner margaritas I asked that if it could provide an early stocking of the first Guild Wars novel, Ghosts of Ascalon (for official release July 27). My hopes sank when I did not find it in the new sci-fi/fantasy section. I decided on my way out of the bookstore to pass all the Star Wars, Magic the Gathering, and Dungeons and Dragons novels. The amazing cover art of this book jumped right out at me on the top shelf of that section. With Ghosts of Ascalon in hand, the need for a watermelon margarita evaporated (I found out later the book did not have the same effect on my wife); I had a book to consume!
Ghosts of Ascalon is the first of three planned novels for the Guild Wars universe. The novels are meant to help tie the events between Guild Wars 1 and Guild Wars 2. Ghosts of Ascalon takes place approximately a year before Guild Wars 2. It follows the story of unlikely hero, Dougal Keane, a human with ties to the major human cities and the fallen, ghost-ridden Ascalon City, who leads a racially diverse group of adventurers to Ascalon City to retrieve a powerful artifact, the Claw of the Khan-Ur. The retrieval will ultimately set the tentative peace between the bitter enemies, the humans and charr, we will see in Guild Wars 2.
The first thing I always notice in pulp fantasy fiction created for big IPs, like Star Wars or Magic the Gathering, is the quality of writing compared to fantasy novels written by, say, David Eddings or George R. R. Martin. It seems that the writers and editors seem to ride on the IP to cover up any poor quality writing. For example, I received a firsthand review of Zendikar: In the Teeth of Akoum, a Magic the Gathering novel, where the characters were flat and forgettable, the translation of game mechanics to story effects was poor, and ultimately a deus ex type wrapup was required to complete the story. It feels that sometimes these fantasy IP novels are created as a product more than a story. This was the extreme prejudice I brought when reading the Ghosts of Ascalon.
For this book, it completely shattered my pessimistic outlook. The writing quality was absolutely top notch. The dialogue was interesting. The flow of events was kept at a steady, exciting pace, but not to the degree where the reader gets tired. The characters had depth and growth. But, what really stood out in my mind as expertise by the authors, Matt Forbeck and Jeff Grubb, in the use of foreshadowing. It was used all over the place, but I did not completely see it until it was too late. Then, I had my “ah”-moment remembering when, you know, the authors did kind of set up this thing a few chapters ago. My one caveat is that as a Guild Wars lore freak, I cannot be a fair judge on the proper nouns description. It is one big pitfall of writing under an IP because the reader may not be an expert in lore, and the writer will have to take time to describe some of the Things with Capital Letters to the less knowledgeable reader. The authors are sometimes forced to tell, instead of show, to try and get the reader up to speed on the lore. Here’s an example from Ghosts of Ascalon:
“The Dragonbrand.” Dougal breathed the word with horrified respect.
Soulkeeper nodded. “The curse the dragon laid upon the land stretched for untold miles in the direction of flight, coming from the north and reaching for the south. Everything in its path had turned to crystal: the trees, the animals, even the land itself nearby.
“The worst part of it all is that the dragon didn’t care about the destruction it caused. It was going elsewhere, on a mission known only to itself. To it, the Dragonbrand, was worth nothing more than your boot prints are to you. We might as well have been ants. Everything I lost that day mattered to it not one bit.”
I tried my best to keep an impartial view on the descriptions, but I was pretty pleased and rarely bored with them even with my lore knowledge. Each description of Something Important was smudged with a little personal view by the character speaking. It was little things like this that made Ghosts of Ascalon soar above so many other fantasy IP novels I had read. The authors really proved that this was a work of love and not just some product to be sold under the Guild Wars name.
The story itself is a well-timed string of events and waylays, but the authors were very careful to put some downtime in between the excitement. In my mind, this just further showed Forbeck and Grubb’s expertise as writers because they took care not to tire the reader with too much conflict, action, or other Michael Bay awesomeness. They kept the downtime interesting by adding a lot of character perspective that may have been lacking in a fight scene. The book is a whirlwind tour that largely focuses on the human areas of Guild Wars 2 with a splash of charr. The human cities Divinity’s Reach (the human’s Rome), Lion’s Arch (a racially integrated Tortuga), and Ebonhawke (last bastion of human presence in the charr-controlled Ascalon) are each visited, and the book ends in ghost-plagued Ascalon City. I found myself envisioning from the descriptions what it would be like to, myself, visit those cities in Guild Wars 2. This, as a quick aside, is a problem because for those anticipating Guild Wars 2 this book can raise the anticipation for the game to 11.
The characters are fairly distributed between the various playable races of Guild Wars 2. The two humans and the charr take center stage, but the norn, sylvari, and asura are each given their stage time. The first, and only time, I questioned whether the authors had gone from quality to pulp was when the norn, Gullik Oddsson, seemed to magically appear. It felt for a moment like he was wedged in to the book to push the story (and racial equality) forward. Not only was this explained in the next chapter, but this brash hero’s hero became one of my favorite characters in the book. In an interview, Grubb said that they wrote each character so people looking forward to Guild Wars 2 would have a hard time definitively choosing a race because each one was so well-defined. Each race is well presented, and on the forums I am noticing a lot of people taken to the sylvari character, Killeen.
Finally, the lore – the reason so many Guild Wars fans will buy Ghosts of Ascalon. It does not really expand the lore so much as refine it. It gives perspective on racial views, past events, and the current conflicts. For example, the main character Dougal continues to note that he lives in “dragon-haunted” times. It’s the emphasis on “haunted” that really shows that, to some, the dragons are not the immediate danger. Kryta, the human nation, is noted throughout to have most of its problems coming from centaurs and bandits instead of an Elder Dragon. Dougal also recounts the charr invasions of the three human nations (Ascalon, Orr, and Kryta), and he leaves out any mention that the charr also invaded Kryta. Another example is that the charr view the human’s temporary, centuries old occupation of any part of Ascalon as an Insurrection, instead of a colonization. The Ascalonian humans, 0f course, view it as their home.
I highly recommend Ghosts of Ascalon. It was a great, fun read, and I am really excited with the two more novels coming to the Guild Wars world. The next, Edge of Destiny, is rumored to be released this December. The book stands leagues above many other fantasy IP novels that surround it both in quality and style. For people interested in Guild Wars lore or Guild Wars 2, I’d say this book is a must have. I can only hope that when Guild Wars 2 finally comes, the world and lore will be all the richer because of Ghosts of Ascalon.