by Andre Norton
Andre Norton is one of the Grand Dames of speculative fiction. Ironically, she achieved that level by dropping an “a” from her name to increase her marketability, because “only boys” bought science fiction. She wrote for over seventy years, producing around 300 novels, and influenced generations of readers and writers. Probably best known for her Witch World novels, she also wrote a lot of young adult fiction, and participated in anthologies like Thieves’ World, where I first encountered her.
Sometime around 1977, the story goes, Norton sat in on a game of Dungeons & Dragons run by Gary Gygax. I think she was just there as an observer, not a player, but the end result of that encounter was her 1978 novel Quag Keep, the first D&D novel ever published. In the 1980s, the makers of the game would create a publishing empire around D&D novels (beginning with Gygax’s own Saga of Old City), but until then, gaming enthusiasts had to satisfy their hunger from game-based fiction with Norton’s offering.
Quag Keep is decidedly tepid stuff, however. The book has none of the propulsive action, shocking reversals of fortune, or careful dungeon-delving that characterized the early game. Classic D&D has been described as “fantasy fucking Vietnam” with its focus on traps, character death, and the unpredictability of random dice rolls. To be fair, there’s almost none of that stuff in the official D&D novels, either, but by the time they were published, D&D had evolved somewhat and become more forgiving at the table.
Norton chose to use the gaming table as a sort of framing device. The novel begins as a game of D&D begins, about to be played by a group of presumably college aged folks, although only one player and the gamemaster are mentioned by name. The action quickly transitions into the game world, where the players have apparently been transported, although that is not altogether certain, as the characters remember none of their real world lives and act solely as inhabitants of the game world. Norton creates her own character classes and cultures, populating the party with one elf and one lizard man, the rest are humans. They refer to themselves by their class level titles (everyone is about third level, it appears) rather than as “a fighting-man” or “magic-user,” which makes sense but still feels a little stilted. All of the characters have bracelets adorned with dice, which can affect the outcome of any particular challenge if they concentrate hard enough upon them. How or why this works is never really explained.
The biggest surprise for me was that the adventure begins in the city of Greyhawk, firmly placing the novel within the geography of Gary Gygax’s own invented setting. Very soon I realized that Norton had just borrowed the name, as the rest of the world did not match anything I recognized. Which might have been the theme of the novel: raising my hopes, then quickly dashing them. There are bursts of action and long passages of travel, but nothing really gets the blood pumping. The viewpoint character is the only one to receive any amount of characterization (played by or inhabited by that one real world person we met at the beginning), there’s fantasy racism (ooh those dirty lizard folk), and there’s a trip through the mountains where the cold-blooded lizard man is kept warm with blankets (which is not how ectotherms work).
There’s just enough gonzo material to keep one reading, however. The monsters are not straight out of the Monster Manual, which is a good thing, and the bad guys certainly dress like an Erol Otus illustration. There’s one guy who wears black leather, including a big collar so high it frames his face, as well as a plushy fur orange vest and skull cap. The book is about 3/5ths of the way to being perfectly evocative of the D&D experience and it’s frustrating that, though the potential is there, that potential is never fully realized. I can’t even imagine what a non-gamer would get out of it. There’s so much left out of the book (for example, the dice) that my enjoyment of it was focused on how much of the game I recognized within the pages. As a straight-up novel, however, I think it’s just not strong enough to justify its existence.
One of my favorite past times is haunting used bookstores, looking for out-of-print and forgotten classics. My taste in literature tends to run toward fantasy, science-fiction, and horror, and I find modern novels too often weighed down by bloat and too much world-building. As a consequence, I tend to seek out older books that tend to focus more on ideas and action and move along more quickly. I always liked the “Box of Paperbacks” series at the A.V.Club, so I thought I’d take a stab at something in the same vein.