Monday, September 25, 2023

Review: The Road to Neverwinter by Jaleigh Johnson

It turns out you can have a lot of fun this many levels of adaptation in. Who knew?

It’s a novel based on a movie which is itself based on a tabletop role-playing game. In reading this book, we are three layers into the adaptation-mania that is cultural production under late-stage capitalism. I got this on a roll of the dice from a library, mostly because I had liked Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and to my great joy I found that it was actually quite good, and that under the swashbuckling heroics and magic we all love from D&D there’s some really smart stuff in it.

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves: the Road to Neverwinter (another curse of cultural production under late-stage capitalism: SO. MANY. COLONS.) is written by Jaleigh Johnson, an author I didn’t have any experience of. Well, whatever she did before, it prepared her well for this, in the way I understood why Lucasfilm chose Timothy Zahn to save Star Wars after reading his Conquerors trilogy (a series I love).

The Road to Neverwinter is a prequel to Honor Among Thieves, detailing how the merry band of misfits that had broken up by the start of the film got together in the first place. As you may suspect, it’s a heist, and plot-wise there’s nothing groundbreaking (but it must be said that D&D codified a lot of these tropes, so they’re everywhere). The author more than makes up for that in how well she captures the voices of the film characters; you can imagine Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez and Hugh Grant saying all their lines, and it helps you get in that goofy fun mood the way the movie did. Even better, Johnson totally sells you on the notion that these people could make an adventuring team (someone should make a movie about that). She also has the knack of humor, and I guffawed several times. It’s good for the soul.

What really struck me about this book is that Johnson understood that she’s writing a novel adaptation of a film adaptation of a tabletop game, and that therefore there is plenty to play with in terms of the ways people create fictions. Firstly, there’s the frame story of Edgin recounting the story to his daughter Kira (about nine years old at the time), who was involved in several of those events and wants them told a certain way, which has all sorts of implications for modern fandom (and perhaps throwing a little shade at some fans). Beyond that, it gets rather spoilery to discuss it in depth, but there are several layers of representation and performance and adaptation and whatnot that add a clever subtext to the whole thing.

And, of course, there’s the certain je ne sais quoi that I can’t put any other way than ‘feels like a D&D game.’ The film had it, and this book has it too. Johnson does a good job of making the world feel like a D&D game while still working as a novel, and there are several personal interactions that feel joky in the way that players who know each other are. That isn’t usually how you write pseudo-medieval fantasy, but here it helped with the vibe. The whole thing feels a bit wacky and improvised, and I mean that in a positive way.

The Road to Neverwinter felt like warm soup when you have a cold; in a world this dreary, you need something filling and wholesome and warm. It’s a fantasy romp in the proudest tradition of D&D and a good thing for when your RPG group isn’t in session if you have the hankering for it. It rounds all this off with a self-awareness that enhances proceedings rather than encumbers them, and it complements the film like hand in glove. If you enjoyed the film, you’ll enjoy this.


The Math

Highlights: witty dialogue, subtle but clever meta-weirdness.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.