Friday, 15 July 2016

Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone Collector’s Edition, by Joe Dever (Mantikore Verlag) | review by Rafe McGregor

I wonder if (m)any readers remember the thrill of picking up The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for the first time? Of realising that they hadn’t lost their thread in the real world, but were lost in the maze under the mountain? Or of not realising they were in the maze until the appearance of the deadly Minotaur? Firetop Mountain, the brainchild of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, was the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, published by Puffin in August 1982. The series was a great success, with fifty-nine books available by 1995. The first instalment nonetheless remained the most popular, spawning two sequels – Return to Firetop Mountain (#50, 1992) and Legend of Zagor (#54, 1993) – various spin-off products, and reprinting as late as 2010. I find it difficult to convey the excitement of Fighting Fantasy to twenty-first century readers, but one must remember that they appeared in a decade without the internet or household computers, where “TV games” (for those who could afford them) were restricted to Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure series, which was well underway when Firetop Mountain appeared, Fighting Fantasy was aimed at young adults rather than children, with the best adventures combining compelling storytelling with pleasing terror at what awaited in the next numbered section. I must have played Firetop Mountain for the first time in 1985 or 1986, but quickly left Fighting Fantasy for a newer series. Lone Wolf was written by Joe Dever and launched with Flight from the Dark, first published by Sparrow in 1984. Where Fighting Fantasy were all standalone adventures, some of which took place in different universes, Lone Wolf adventures were self-contained but constituted an extended quest by a single character who progressed to new levels of expertise in a vividly-drawn and complex world called Magnamund. The epic began with the extermination of the Kai – an order of warriors dedicated to protecting the nation of Sommerlund as well as the rest of the free (medievally-speaking) world – at the hands of the demonic Darklords of Helgedad. Readers adopted the persona of Kor-Skarn (Lone Wolf), the sole survivor of the Darklord attack, and his first mission was to convey the bad news to the king. The missions became gradually more challenging as Lone Wolf advanced in power and ended up with the destruction of the Darklords in The Masters of Darkness (#12, 1988). The road to Helgedad and beyond was a rocky one, however, no more so than for Dever himself.

The first sign of the troubles ahead began between books 7 and 8, Castle Death (1986) and The Jungle of Horrors (1987), when Dever had an acrimonious split with his illustrator. Once the Darklords were destroyed and the (New Order of the) Kai re-established, there seemed little work left for Kor-Skarn, but Dever launched the Grand Master series with The Plague Lords of Ruel in 1990. Although readers continue with the same character, who had by now reached unprecedented levels of power, there was no overarching epic quest and each new adventure saw Lone Wolf troubleshooting evil in a previously unexplored region of Magnamund. I must admit my interest flagged a little at this stage – partly due to my age, no doubt, but also because I found the individual missions something of an anti-climax after the extended campaign of the first dozen. If some, like me, left the fold temporarily, replacements must have been pouring in as the Grand Master series raced to its conclusion in The Curse of Naar (#20, 1993). Kor-Skarn’s powers were now demigod-like and Dever did something risky but astute, introducing a new persona for readers. Twelve books were planned for the New Order series, beginning with Voyage of the Moonstone in 1994. The second New Order adventure, The Buccaneers of Shadakai, was published in the same year, but Red Fox had concerns about the internet-technology-inspired loss of interest in gamebooks and dropped Dever after The Hunger of Sejanoz (#28, 1998).

Dever then made another wise decision, authorising a group of enthusiasts calling themselves “Project Aon” to upload all of the gamebooks as free ebooks in various platforms, i.e. used precisely the technology that had killed the series to maintain interest. Such was the fan base that all twenty-eight books were made available over the next fifteen years (Project Aon completed in 2014 and can be found at www.projectaon.org). In the interim, the secondhand market for Lone Wolf paperbacks went berserk. There had been some problem with the publication of The Buccaneers of Shadakai, the result of which was that it sold out almost immediately in 1994. Five years later, copies were selling for hundreds of pounds. I confess to spending the most I have ever spent on a book (£200) at a time when I really couldn’t afford it (1999) to acquire a copy (left on my town centre doorstep by the postman). A new copy of the same paperback is now going for £999 on Amazon. The final instalment is currently the most sought after: The Hunger of Sejanoz varies between £699 and £999 for used copies.

The gamble with Project Aon seemed to pay off in 2004 when Mongoose Publishing launched a Lone Wolf Role Playing Game. The following year, however, Dever underwent surgery for cancer and was out of the public eye for some time. In 2010, with Dever fully-recovered, Mongoose announced that they would republish all the Lone Wolf books in a hardback Collector’s Edition, with new illustrations and fresh revisions by Dever. The books were priced at about £15, very reasonable given the quality of the covers, paper, and binding, and Mongoose furthermore offered a Megadeal: all twenty-eight plus the previously unpublished books 29 to 32 for something like £300 (a substantial saving). Despite my previous profligacy I was wary, having been burned by small presses before (and since). I was initially proved wrong, with seventeen books released in three years, but there was a lull of a few months in 2012 and the following February Dever announced (via Project Aon) that he and Mongoose had split by mutual consent. Two further announcements followed in quick succession: the German Mantikore Verlag would be publishing books 18 to 28 (in English) in the same Collector’s Edition format (March) as well as the final four volumes (April).

Mantikore published book 18, Dawn of the Dragons, in May 2013 and began the New Order series with the Collector’s Edition of Voyage of the Moonstone – which this review is supposed to be about – last year. The Buccaneers of Shadakai was also published in 2015 and I have found them easiest to acquire via Amazon (rather than the publisher). The books appear to automatically revert to “unavailable” on the publication date, but can be bought at the same price (still £15-odd) via secondhand sellers (at least one of which is based in Germany). Regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes, all my Mantikore edition purchases have been entirely satisfactory – purchased more for support than anything else as the first gap in my collection is book 25. I’m not completely convinced I’ll ever hold a copy of Trail of the Wolf as publication appears to have slowed down again, although cover artwork is available for Mydnight’s Hero (#23) and The Storms of Chai (#29). According to Wikipedia, the series (published in numerous languages – there are three on Project Aon alone – and including numerous spin-offs) has sold eleven and a half million copies worldwide, but the real figure must be considerably higher given all the craziness on the secondhand market.

Voyage of the Moonstone begins thirty-three years after Flight from the Dark and readers must create a new character by use of the series’ standard method, a random number table. I’m afraid my New Order warrior has the rather delicate name of True Friend, but he is a Kai Grand Master, can kill you with his bare hands, live off the land indefinitely, and move small objects by looking at them, so you’d better not tease him about it. True Friend’s first mission is to return the magical artifact called the Moonstone (with which readers of the series will be familiar) to its rightful owners on the Isle of Lorne. One of the reasons Dever’s decision to reboot with True Friend was shrewd is because it does away with the only consistent criticism of books 3 to 20: that they are either too easy or too hard, depending upon the combination of whether one acquired the Sommerswerd (the broadsword to end all broadswords) at the end of Fire on the Water (#2, 1984) and one’s Kai level (determined by the number of books one has previously completed). I think the critique is overly harsh because I picked up the Sommerswerd on cue, but remained far from invulnerable – aside from which there are various other magic weapons to be found in unlikely places. Notwithstanding, True Friend has no such problems, carrying no Sommerswerd and with no previous adventures counting towards his skills.

Given my emotional and financial investment in Lone Wolf, I can hardly do anything other than recommend Voyage of the Moonstone. I shall, however, say that although the first New Order adventure is as good as many of the originals (and perhaps better than several of the Grand Master series), the finale – always a single combat with a particularly nasty denizen of Magnamund (or the Daziarn Plane) – is a little disappointing. The Otokh is a giant lightning-spinning sea-spider (depicted on the cover), which sounds sinister as I type, but wasn’t quite as menacing as some of the antagonists I’ve dispatched with the Sommerswerd. A regular feature of the Mantikore editions has been the inclusion of a bonus mini-adventure and the first New Order Collector’s Edition continues this practice with a return to Kor-Skarn entitled “Echoes of the Moonstone” (written by Eberhard Eschwe and Swen Harder). This is an unusual choice, subject to the problems noted above despite having a strategy for dealing with them, but is close to the main adventure in length so the reader at least gets two for one. Voyage of the Moonstone ends midway through the mission such that it is not clear whether True Friend will end up on an epic quest of the likes of his master’s early years or take over as Magnamund’s chief troubleshooter. The mission continues in The Buccaneers of Shadaki – going for a song at £13.71.

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