February 6, 2017
The Lone Wolf Books
This is the fourth and final part of a tribute to Joe Dever. You can read the previous parts here: part one, part two, part three. In this post I’d like to discuss the individual Lone Wolf (LW) books and reminisce on some of my favorite scenes. As before, I imagine this as a post by a Lone Wolf fan for other Lone Wolf fans. So I hope you’ll excuse me as a I gush (hopefully preaching to the choir) about my childhood memories and what a great series this is. Fair warning, this post will be filled with spoilers. Make sure you’ve read the LW books before you read on.
Before we begin, as an observation about myself, I’d like to mention that you can see the development of my maturity as a reader through the course of the LW series. In the early books I was pleased and excited by everything (and still am, thanks to nostalgia). Starting sometime around LW13, when I was a teenager, I started to become a more critical reader and so it’s around that time that I started experiencing disappointment with certain aspects of the stories. I’ll explain all of that in detail below, but I just wanted to mention up front that you can see my critical reaction to the books did gradually shift as I got older.
Kai Series (LW1-LW5)
1 – Flight from the Dark
For me and millions of other fans, it all began here. Besides being the entry point into the series, LW1 is distinctively different from the other books because of its nonlinearity. For this reason, the book has always been special and a little enigmatic. Every time I go through the book, I feel like I experience a different sequence of adventures.
There are a few epic sequences in this book that feel big enough that they deserve to be encountered on almost every read-through of the book (but even so, each of them is still optional in this highly nonlinear story). For these I’d include saving Banedon, saving Prince Pelethar from the Gourgaz, and braving the Graveyard of the Ancients. And of course the climax of meeting the King.
Aside from the epic scenes, LW1 has the most variety of encounters of any of the LW books. Some of the scenes are downright unusual to encounter, and that’s why they have a special charm; it feels like you’ve uncovered a buried treasure.
2 – Fire on the Water
This is one of my favorite books from the Kai series. Coming out of LW1, where you spend your time in a forest and hardly meet another human being (aside from Banedon and I suppose the Prince and King, it’s mostly just the forces of the invading Darklord army that you encounter), this one takes a major turn and introduces you to cities, thugs, ships, carriages, traveling companions, and so forth, a successful recipe to be used in many future LW stories.
I like how you are attacked at the very beginning before your mission even starts, setting the tone of impending danger for the book. Another highlight for me is the two-page illustration that you have to study in order to identify the traitor in your group. Also Ragadorn is a great city with that “city of thieves” ambience. And then there’s the epic feel of the fight with the fearsome Helghast and the final sequence where you are attacked by a ghost fleet while under the firey bombardment of Vonotar the Traitor. And of course, finally obtaining the Sommerswerd and vanquishing Zagarna is a sweet ending to an exciting adventure.
3 – The Caverns of Kalte
The frozen wasteland is always a challenging and fun environment for a roleplaying adventure. I liked that you had three traveling companions in this one that sometimes make it out alive and sometimes don’t. I also really enjoyed the tunnels of Ikaya. This one, once inside Ikaya, felt more nonlinear than most, and so it evokes a little of that good LW1 vibe.
4 – The Chasm of Doom
This is another one of my favorites. The Battle of Ruanon scene was immense and exciting, and the highlight of the book. It’s the first time (with many more to come) that Lone Wolf is involved in a large scale battle. In this case, he’s trying to get into a city that is under siege. Once inside, he learns new details that change the scope of his quest.
The excitement in this book also benefits from a tactic that Joe Dever employs frequently: your quest at the outset is not entirely known but rather is only a vague goal that changes dramatically once you acquire key information or after a key incident. He’ll soon do this again in LW5 (more on that coming up).
There were other fun scenes in this book as well. Randomly, I really liked the traveling minstrels scene. The exploration of the Maaken Mines was also interesting, including the encounter with the cat-like Elix.
5 – Shadow on the Sand
This is my favorite of the Kai series and a fitting climax to the Kai series. For starters, it already has a more epic feel because it’s a “two-parter”. The whole first half of the book in Barrakeesh is simply gold; it’s complex and has an exhilarating pace: your mission is foiled from the outset as you are captured upon arrival, and then escape, with countless branching paths to take in the palace and the city, the sewer system, and throughout the exotic, extravagantly wealthy, beautifully-envisioned capitol city of Barrakeesh. And then there’s the climactic getaway on the back of an Itikar to be rescued by Banedon and his crew of dwarves on the Skyrider. And that’s just part one.
In part two my favorite part is the first time (and one of the few times) in any LW book that you are required to use the map in the front of the book in order to solve a puzzle. The way that section was written, I really felt an Indiana Jones-like elation at succeeding with the puzzle. To this day, that is one of my favorite reading memories of LW.
Magnakai Series (LW6 – LW12)
This series introduced some new mechanics to the game and I really welcomed them. It was a smart move on Joe Dever’s part to introduce the basic rules in LW1 and then, only once the reader is good and comfortable with that, add to them. In my mind, the main additions in the Magnakai series are the addition of the bow and Improved Disciplines. Both of these added so much fun to the books.
If I had to choose one favorite book among the Magnakai series, I would be really torn because I really enjoyed them all. LW6, LW10, and LW12 were probably my favorites of the Magnakai Series.
6 – The Kingdoms of Terror
One reason I enjoyed this book so much is, being the first of the Magnakai series, it introduced some new rules and abilities (mentioned above) for Lone Wolf that I really enjoyed. Beyond that, though, it does as good a job, if not better, than any of the other books at pulling you into another place that is vividly imagined and enthralling. You really experience the wartorn, shattered state of the Stornlands. And here, for the first time, Lone Wolf is treated as a foreigner that no one recognizes, making you a stranger in a strange land.
7 – Castle Death
The whole concept and depiction of Kazan-oud was great. This book is a classic dungeon crawl adventure in a sorceror’s keep with a wild array of fearsome creatures, creepy tunnels, puzzles, and weird sorcerous things. Very fun, but at the same time claustrophobic… the book does a good job of making you feel like you can’t wait to get out of that labyrinthine castle! I also liked the introduction of fireseeds, an interesting magic item. A couple of my favorite dungeon beasties were the huge one-eyed Hactaracton and the giant fist that flies through the halls and grapples its victims.
8 – The Jungle of Horrors
Now that the Darklords have fully recovered from Lone Wolf killing their leader in LW2 and again in LW5 and have now elected a new leader, this book starts to elevate the political feel of the series with the impending threat of war with the Darklords. It’s here that I felt the series really started to mature into something grander, something with more meaning than just a connected series of exciting adventures.
This book also features one of the best traveling companions of the entire series in the form of Paido, a goofy, well-realized sidekick that is a little clumsy but still lovable. I also liked the novel experience of traveling on a barge, hanging out in the taproom, and having a creepy encounter with Kezoor the Necromancer. And lastly, the adventure into the impossible tangled depths of the Danarg and the cliffhanger ending regarding Paido’s fate make this one a thrilling adventure from beginning to end.
9 – The Cauldron of Fear
This is another great adventure that takes place primarily in a cityscape. I really liked the way Dever realized Tahou and the underground city of Zaaryx. Also large battles like the Battle of Tahou are (for me anyway) always a crowd-pleaser. Some other highlights from the story include escaping from the prison tower, chasing down the pickpocket (and possibly joining the underworld thieves), and the final confrontation with Zakhan Kimah (although this part also frustrated many people; for more on this, see my comments on the flaws in the series in part three).
10 – The Dungeons of Torgar
This book has so many great moments that it is perhaps my favorite LW book of the entire series. Most of all I loved the epic battle of Cetza, complete with tactical battlefield map (you really get the sense of Joe Dever’s fantasy miniatures wargaming background here). But there were many other great scenes: the creepy Isle of Ghosts, facing the demonlord Tagazin, participating in the siege of Torgar, and the cliffhanger ending involving Archlord Gnaag. Plus a few other fun moments involving the advanced disciplines, such as using magnified vision for the first time and summoning wolves to help you fight a bear (very nicely depicted on the US cover). What a fun book.
11 – The Prisoners of Time
Joe Dever paints a very imaginative and colorful tapestry with this one: the shining city of Yanis, all manner of weird denizens in weird realms, the Chaos horde and their master, Ironheart and his band, and the return of your old nemesis from LW2 and LW3, Vonotar. When you re-encounter Vonotar, you realize that Joe Dever had been setting up that moment since LW2, and that’s very satisfying as a reader. Another highlight for me was being able to spirit-walk for the first time, something that had been teased as far back as LW6 when the advanced disciplines rules were first introduced. In this book, I feel like Joe Dever really delivered on those promises he’d made earlier in the series.
12 – The Masters of Darkness
LW12 was all around amazing and in the running for my favorite of all the books. The premise is great, that of returning to our plane after many years to find the Darklords on the verge of domination with their ironclad technological might and machines of war. Suddenly it feels like an underdog story all over again. Lone Wolf then must infiltrate the enemy territory and their stronghold, traveling into the Darklands and Helgedad itself.
Some fun scenes in this book include the epic fight with the sea creature attacking your ship, the massive Darklord overland transport with the arena inside, discovering the titanic juggernaut they’re planning to send at Holmgard, and encountering Kraagenskull and acquiring Helshezag long after Mr. Dever first gave us a tantalizing glimpse of it in the Magnamund Companion. And last but not least, traveling right into the heart of Helgedad itself made for a fitting climax to the Magnakai series.
The Grandmaster Series (LW13 – LW20)
Lone Wolf has vanquished his arch-enemies the Darklords, so what is there left to do? It’s just a guess but I imagine Joe Dever might have asked himself that same question when he set out to write this part of the series. This is probably an inevitable conundrum in any series that has an epic sweep like this one. Lone Wolf has already overcome so much, what else is out there that could possibly challenge him? The answer is a few new enemies (like Archdruid Cadak) that seem to pale in ferocity compared to the monstrous Darklords he’s already vanquished, at least until Lone Wolf starts to confront demi-gods and gods in the later installments.
I was a little disappointed with the new Grandmaster Disciplines. I felt they were too much a rehash of the same Disciplines that Lone Wolf had already mastered. And since the Improved Disciplines were added in the Magnakai series, it felt like a stretch to find new territory for those Disciplines to cover. For instance, if he already has Huntmastery and all of its improvements, Lone Wolf can already see in the dark, magnify his vision, has heightened senses, etc, so why would I pick Grand Huntmastery… just to be able to see in “total” darkness? This is all just an extension of the same issue I’ve mentioned already, which is that once a character becomes very powerful, then what else can you offer them in terms of challenges and room for advancement?
The addition of Kai Alchemy and Magi-Magic as Disciplines in the Grandmaster Series was an exciting development, though. I was already a fan of both of these from knowing Paido in LW8 and from reading the mini-adventure in the Magnamund Companion where you can play as Banedon (I love that story). Perhaps my only issue with their introduction is that they aren’t really mutually exclusive… in almost all cases, where you could use one you also have the option of using the other to surmount the same obstacle. So I felt there is no real point (in terms of gameplay) in having them both.
13 – The Plague Lords of Ruel
Coming off the extreme danger and exciting climax of LW12, it is a tall order to follow that, and unfortunately I don’t think LW13 is able to fill those shoes (I’m not sure what book could, though, honestly). The first half of the book, with the journey through the forest (or possibly the caves if you have the UK edition) is good, but I disliked that the enemies (e.g., forest creatures) were so challenging for Lone Wolf, who at this point had already vanquished the likes of Archlord Gnaag. Game balance issues undermined the suspension of disbelief for me in this one, but (as I discuss in part three), game balance is a common issue for RPG’s when you have rapid advancement in character power.
All that said, this book still had many great moments. My favorite part of the book is the second half, once you reach the citadel of Mogaruith, and have to infiltrate it and surreptitiously discover (and foil) the nefarious activities going on inside.
14 – The Captives of Kaag
LW14 harkens back to the dungeon crawl of LW7, because that’s exactly what this book is. There are a few interesting scenes in the surrounding city of Kaag, and then you dive into the pyramid-shaped fortress to find your pal Banedon somewhere within its labyrinthine depths. As far as dungeon crawls go, this one is pretty good, but not as enjoyable for me as LW7. I did like the encounters with the remnants of Drakarrim armies in the streets of Kaag, because for me that tied this book back in with the political intrigue of the Magnakai series, reminding us that it’s all still part of the same tapestry.
15 – The Darke Crusade
This was my favorite book of the Grandmaster series. For me it was the one GM book the really evoked that same vibe as LW1 through LW12. One of my favorite parts of the book is when you get trapped underground and by the time you free yourself, you are way behind schedule on completing your mission. This plot twist was great for heightening the tension. Some other highlights are the forest and swamp scenes, the battle at the end, and the snow-covered wintery feeling, and the likeable companion Prarg and deplorable nemesis Magnaarn.
16 – The Legacy of Vashna
The tale of Vashna, greatest of all the Darklords, is a tale that we’ve been hearing since LW2. He was vanquished by King Ulnar using the same sword that Lone Wolf now possesses. In LW4 Lone Wolf thwarted Barraka’s plans to resurrect the dead armies of Vashna. Ever since that time, I always thought it would be a cool plot if someone tried to resurrect Vashna himself. And that is exactly the topic of this book.
While the premise is great, there weren’t as many memorable scenes for me in this one. It introduces the Lavas, dragon-like servants of Naar that will be recurring enemies from this point on, but I found they were less unique and imaginative than prior nemeses like Giaks, Vordaks, and Helghasts. LW16 also introduces Alyss, an impish teenage girl with godlike powers that Joe Dever brought over from the Lone Wolf novelizations by John Grant called Legends of Lone Wolf (of which I was not a fan). The introduction of this character was unfortunate, because she felt unnecessary and out of place, and yet she would go on to play a pivotal role in the fate of Lone Wolf and indeed all of Aon.
Perhaps the most memorable scene in this book is the confrontation with Shamath when she tries to resurrect Vashna. Of course this is also a place where many people became frustrated when they encountered the infamous unsolvable riddle of Shamath.
17 – The Deathlord of Ixia
If LW14 was a throwback to LW7, then this book is a throwback to LW3, because it entails a perilous journey across frozen badlands, into the icy fortress of a dangerous enemy that you must confront. I enjoy frozen wasteland adventures, and this one was pretty good. I found it difficult and a little frustrating, however, because the game balance didn’t feel quite right. On most play-throughs, I ended up in such a weakened state by the time I confronted the Deathlord that I didn’t stand a chance to beat him.
18 – Dawn of the Dragons
Like LW15, Dawn of the Dragons also came close to evoking the old-school excitement of the first 12 books, and I suspect that may have been Joe’s goal with writing a “throwback” adventure like this one. But at the same time it just didn’t feel quite right having Lone Wolf, Kai Grand Master that he is, traveling cross-country like he used to back when he was a regular Kai lord, staying the night at the tavern instead of at the local palace. Lone Wolf is just too much of a celebrity in Magnamund to do the no-name traveller thing that he used to do. Admittedly the no-name traveler thing is one of my favorite things in the LW stories, and perhaps it was Joe Dever’s as well, which is why he returned to it here for “old time’s sake”. I got excited when he revisited some of my favorite places from LW6, like Varetta, but I was also left a little disappointed because the story just kinda breezed through them (which was out of necessity; there was just too much ground to cover to be able to linger anywhere for long). Despite these minor shortcomings, LW18 is still one of my favorites from the Grandmaster series.
19 – Wolf’s Bane
I liked Wolf’s Bane because the places you travel to are imaginative and otherworldly. It felt like a Grandmaster series version of LW11 in which you traveled to the Daziarn plane, and I enjoyed the Daziarn adventures (including War of the Wizards from the Grey Star series). In this book you are imprisoned in a giant carnivorous plant, encounter aliens with the laser rifles, and fly on a giant dragonfly into a castle in the clouds. Exotic and fun fantasy/sci-fi stuff.
20 – The Curse of Naar
Curse of Naar is enjoyable for its imaginative locales which again are literally out of this world. The evil realms you visit are well-realized, though I would’ve enjoyed a more thorough exploration of a few places rather than a cursory hopping around to many places. Nevertheless there are many epic encounters in this book, some of my favorites being with Zantaz the god of the Drakkarim (which happens only in the UK version of the book!) and, perhaps my favorite big bad guy of the whole series, Naar’s champion Keketaag the Avenger.
I have an extremely difficult time choosing a favorite because I really do love them all. But if you were to hold me at gunpoint and force me to choose a favorite, I would probably rank my top 5 like this, based on both my initial impression as well as whether they’ve stood the test of time after numerous read-throughs:
#1 LW10 The Dungeons of Torgar
#2 LW5 Shadow on the Sand
#3 LW12 The Masters of Darkness
#4 LW6 The Kingdoms of Terror
#5 LW2 Fire on the Water
Do you agree with my rankings? Or disagree? Let me know in the comments!
And that concludes my retrospective on the Lone Wolf series. If you’ve actually managed to read this far, thank you for joining me on this trip down memory lane! Please leave comments about your favorite parts of the books as well!