Caution: Spoilers (both of the novel and the modules it’s based on).
Although this novel is based on the original module of the same name, it doesn’t make the mistake of simply being a recounting of the plot thereof. Indeed, it even references the events of the module as having taken place in past history (this novel takes place in CY 588) and shifts the action to the County of Urnst, which is teeming with Tenha refugees after Iuz destroyed the Duchy in the recent wars. We see the enchanted weapons Wave, Whelm, and Blackrazor, but they are now found in Trigol, and two of them are given some more interesting backstories than merely “powerful magic weapons in someone’s collection.” Wave, we find out, is sacred to Geshtai, goddess of rivers, and Whelm is sacred to Bleredd, god of metal, mining, and smiths.
Although the plot of the novel eventually takes the characters to the famed mountain, what I like about it is that they spend as much time along the borders of Urnst, or in the city of Trigol, as they do inside the mountain itself. That gives a lot of opportunity not only to explore the characters and build up their relationships, but also to define some of the setting itself, especially in places that haven’t gotten a lot of attention, such as Trigol. There’s also some interesting background on the political situation with the refugees in Urnst and the temple rivalries they’ve brought with them.
Even once we do get into the mountain itself, it’s not a straight retread of either White Plume Mountain or Return to White Plume Mountain. There are certainly similarities, but things are subtly different to account for the intervening years, and the real villain’s plot is subtly different from those in the adventure modules. I liked that; if one was using this as source material, there are some neat ideas and alternatives to be had.
What I really like about this book, though, are the characters. The novel’s main character, a ranger called The Justicar, is certainly memorable, and would make a great NPC for a game. The same goes for his companions Cinder (a sentient hell hound pelt), Escalla (a perky and quirky faerie/pixie sorceress), and Polk, a kindly but annoying old wagon drover who is bound and determined to teach The Justicar what “real” adventurers are like.
There’s no small amount of humor to be found, but the novel as a whole is serious. With some very memorable characters and nice background that fleshes out aspects of the Flanaess that we’ve never seen before, I am very pleased indeed with this entry into the Greyhawk novel arena.
I give it four wizards out of five.