Guardians of the Flame by Joel Rosenberg – Series Review
“A one. How did I roll a one?”
“Your mage miscasts his spell and, without warning, the white filaments of the web spell smother your friends in a sticky embrace, slowing movement and stopping the warriors from swinging their weapons. The orcs step back, laughing at your misfortune, certain of their victory. At the rear the orc with the crossbow begins to reload. All fighters take minus 2 to damage, speed is slowed by 3. Roll for initiative.”
Hey, we’ve all been there and if you haven’t, what have you been doing with your life? You roll your character, create their traits and then send them out on an adventure controlled by the whims of the dice and caprice of the dungeon master. Joel Rosenberg, author of the Guardians of the Flame series, takes this starting point and gives his characters, those sat around the D&D table, their greatest wish. He lets them become their characters for real.
Karl Cullinane is a student without a goal. During his years at college, he has taken every course available for two weeks or even less, never sticking to anything, trying to find his way in life. His current goal in life is to make some progress with Andy, an attractive woman who finds his obsession with Dungeons and Dragons funny and strange. Still, Karl tries to get her involved, to keep some contact and his chances alive. It is with yet another invite that the novel begins.
Meeting up with the Gamesmaster, Doc Deighton, the group; a sports jock who studies agricultural sciences, a disabled computer science student, a domestic arts student (I had to look that one up and it was no surprise that the character in question was female – the book was written in 1983 and, thankfully, an author would just not get away with this any longer), a history major and civil engineering major with power issues, begin the game.
Tonight the game will be unlike anything they’ve experienced before. Barely minutes into the game and the group find themselves transported into the fantasy world they have only travelled in their imagination. It is from here on out that the real story begins.
How do college students, young and brash, knowing it all but knowing nothing, cope with such a change? And not just of their location. Their bodies have changed too. Karl, our main protagonist, has had his slim frame expanded to become a strong, powerful warrior. Of more note, and perhaps slightly cheating us of a more interesting set of circumstances, the computer science major is granted the able body of a dwarf warrior. In counter-point, and maybe softening our more modern dislike of this cheating, one of the group goes from able-bodied to losing an arm.
So, all must cope with change and find their way in this new, and dangerous world. All they know is to seek out the Gate between Worlds, for this may be their only route home.
Like any good novel there are twists and turns along the way and an overarching plot reason for their relocation to this new world. But first, they have to survive and in a fantasy world, as we readers know, that can be a tough prospect. There are laws, rules, guilds and customs they don’t understand. Politics and power-plays must be navigated. There is always someone who wants something from the newcomers.
As the title of the first book, The Sleeping Dragon, tells us there is indeed a dragon involved. And though it remains a standard, medieval world, fantasy dragon, there is a twist in how the group meet it and how they treat it. There are other positives to the characters. Both female leads hold their own and are agents of change in the novel. Yes, they are romantically linked to the male characters and there is tension in the group over this, but they are in charge of their actions.
What you have, in the Guardians of the Flame series, is an almost innocent fantasy adventure story. First appearing in the early 1980s, the series takes on a slightly darker tone with group’s main “quest”, to rid the world of slavery, in the later novels. A noble quest if ever there was one and, if you are of a mind, you could see this as an attempt to tackle the realities of medieval life, even in a fantasy world. Serfs, peasants and slaves made up the majority of the population – the rich oppressed the poor.
Did it shake up the world of fantasy? Of course it didn’t, but not every book needs to change the world. Some just need to be damn good stories that carry the reader from scene to scene and don’t ask too many questions. Sometimes you just want to enjoy the story and I enjoyed this one. I’d bet there are others who did, and others who didn’t. That’s book reading for you.