King of the Dead
Author: Gene DeWeese
Long after Strahd von Zarovich got his time in the limelight with the excellent "I, Strahd", Darkon's darklord gets the similar treatment by a talented author. Given the in-game rivalry between the two darklords, it seems reasonable to use the one as a reference point for the other. "King of the Dead" is an ambitious blend of characterization, plot, and game mechanics. However, the first thing I should point out is that it is not as tightly written nor as personal as "I, Strahd". DeWeese sticks with the third person viewpoint throughout, and the characterization of Azalin and his colleagues are told from the more traditional externalized narrative, rather than the first-person wry monologue of P. N. Elrod's Strahd. The characterization of Azalin, too, is less vibrant than his nemesis, and DeWeese is given to occasional flourishes that do not ring quite true: Azalin comes across as a little more passionate and hot-headed than the in-game descriptions might suggest. Where Elrod's Strahd speaks in murmurs and insinuations, DeWeese's Azalin seems to communicate either through long-winded exposition or simple insistent shouting.
Despite this, such a characterization is arguably fair, given Strahd's role as a charismatic villain and fallen leader, and Azalin's role as a manipulative autocrat. DeWeese's personification feeds into Elrod's later sequel, where she portrays Azalin as similarly fiery-tempered and arrogant. The greatest strength of DeWeese's novel is its attention to plot detail and continuity. Azalin's history is among the most convoluted of any character in Ravenloft, spanning three different settings (Oerth and Knurl, Barovia, and finally Darkon) and centuries in its existence. DeWeese paints a convincing picture of his life on Oerth and his moral dilemmas concerning his life and his son, and his narrative flows smoothly from one locale to the next. The greatest challenge he overcomes is in deftly handling the issue of Azalin's magical amnesia and Darkon's memory drain. Many DMs I know shy away in fear from these memory-related phenomena in their games, because they're so hard to pull off convincingly.
As with the movies "Pulp Fiction" or "Catch 22", DeWeese staggers the chronological order of his narrative. As the book begins, the reader is thrown immediately into the struggles of Azalin's mortal incarnation as he flounders around Darkon, bereft of his memory. As he regains his memory, and his undead status, DeWeese flashes back to scenes from Oerth and Barovia. The novel ends by bringing the readers back to Darkon as Azalin assumes rulership and comes to terms with his new imprisonment as Darkon's darklord. The book examines Azalin's life back on Oerth in great detail, so Ravenloft DMs and players who are interested in that campaign setting may find this a good cross-over novel.
It also introduces the new (and now-canonical) concept of Azalin splitting into two incarnations after leaving Barovia: a mortal wizard and an undead king, named Darcalus. The mortal wizard lacked his memories and eventually confronted Darcalus, whereupon the two magically fused and reformed Azalin the lich. DMs can take inspiration for altered-memory adventures featuring the PCs: drop them in Darkon with no idea of how they got there or what they've missed, except for tantalizing hints, which will lead them to strive to found out what happened to them. Then when they do find out, show them that knowledge has its own unwelcome price... and that by regaining their memories, they may have become the exact thing they were trying to avoid. Additionally, DeWeese gives an interesting portrayal of the political tensions in Darkon. Rival lords and nobles vie for the king's attention, all the while awaiting a chance to overthrow him. While it's not a major part of the plot, it does give DMs a taste of the backstabbing and intrigue in Ravenloft's largest domain.
Perhaps for space concerns, there are several important periods that the book leaves out. Azalin's servitude with Strahd is summarized in just a few paragraphs (perhaps allowing P. N. Elrod to establish canon in her later "I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin"). His trip to Mordent is left out entirely, and his transformation into lich-hood is glossed over in vagaries. The book also ends chronologically just as Azalin takes control of Darkon, so later developments such as the Kargat, Grand Conjunction, and Llowellyn Dachine are left out. As it is, the plot is complex enough and DeWeese tells it well.
To conclude, the novel is a good source of information on Darkon and Oerth, while introducing believable new concepts to Darkon's early history. Although it's a little wobbly on Azalin's character, it hits all the facts just right and introduces plenty more of its own. Ravenloft readers should also read the sequel "Lord of the Necropolis" (containing several non-canon references) as well as "I, Strahd" and "I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin" by P. N. Elrod. DeWeese and Elrod shared information while writing their books, and the result is a startling degree of continuity between authors.
Four out of five noose-knots.
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