17 Novels: City of Ravens

What a weekend of football we just watched! I’m an Eagles fan, so I was delighted to see them rise up to the challenge of a fast, talented Atlanta team and beat the Falcons with a well-designed offensive game plan and an extraordinary defensive effort. (I was telling friends all week that I felt the Eagles and Nick Foles were sorely underrated by football watchers everywhere; glad to see my confidence was well-placed.) But the tense Eagles win just paled in comparison to the amazing endings of the Jags-Steelers game and the Saints-Vikings. I don’t see why Marcus Williams chose to go for the blow-up-the-receiver hit on Diggs instead of wrapping him up and securing the win, but I guess that’s the way the pro game is played. I can’t even imagine what the Vikings fans must have thought about that play!

Anyway, on to the next part in this little blog series: my fourth published novel, City of Ravens.

City of Ravens

After the rocky start with my cancelled Birthright novels, I kept my ear to the ground for opportunities to jump in on new novels in different worlds. Due to the strict non-compete agreement that was a condition of my employment in TSR/WotC’s game department, that was my only path for pursuing any kind of fiction-writing career alongside my day job. Fortunately, the folks in the Book Department liked what I’d shown them in Easy Betrayals and The Shadow Stone, so they were looking for chances to give me another novel. The only problem was that there weren’t an unlimited number of novel slots, and a other writers wanted their shots too. That meant I had to be flexible about taking whatever came along and making the best of it. So when I was asked if I wanted to write a novel that had been “promised” to the RPGA for years, I said yes, even though I knew next to nothing about the Raven’s Bluff campaign (and, to be honest, regarded what I had seen of it as pretty silly).

Oh, and the book also needed to be city-themed, since the business team had decided that it was really part of the new Cities series, and not a novel about the Living City campaign. And it was also one of the first novels set completely in the 3rd Edition era of the D&D game, so we wanted to showcase some 3e-isms like sorcerers. So there were a lot of objectives for this mission, and I had some misgivings about it.

Yet out of my misgivings came a novel that is still my personal favorite (well, in the top three, anyway): City of Ravens.

I started off by studying what proved to be an indispensable resource: Ed Greenwood’s 1998 sourcebook The City of Raven’s Bluff. The sourcebook was a little notorious within the RPG design group because it had come in from Ed vastly overwritten; Ed is nothing if not enthusiastic and prolific. Rather than take out the chainsaw to make the manuscript fit, editor John Rateliff decided to retain as much of Ed’s work as possible. As a result, the whole sourcebook is in tiny 9-point type with minimal margins. It was tough to read twenty years ago; I can’t imagine trying to do it now. On the bright side, Ed’s sourcebook named every street, hundreds of buildings, and hundreds of characters in the city of Raven’s Bluff; armed with that information, I was able to make the city itself a character in my book.

Since a city-based story just cries out for a roguish hero (or antihero), I settled on a thief and swindler as my protagonist . . . and, since I knew we wanted to highlight something 3e-ish, I decided that a thief who dabbled in sorcery would be even better. Thus Jack Ravenwild came to be. I’d actually played a character a lot like Jack in a great after-hours game that my colleague Andy Collins ran, so for a second time I wound up basing a novel character on a character I’d made for a game. (I know it sounds geeky, but when a character gets in your head sometimes you just have to write that guy, no matter where he comes from. I really don’t do that very often.)

The other thing that I did with City of Ravens, as if I didn’t have enough objectives to keep in mind . . . I made this book my love letter to Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance. I’d been re-reading The Eyes of the Overworld and the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories when I was starting work on City of Ravens, so I deliberately turned up the sword-and-sorcery dial and went all-in on Vancian dialogue, especially for my protagonist. And then I added in every little Easter Egg and sly reference to old D&D that I could think of, so the book is just chock-full of in-jokes for longtime D&D fans.

And somehow it all works.

I stumbled across the key to pulling it off in the second chapter. Jack Ravenwild, hired to recover a lost treasure by the mysterious Elana, goes to visit the sage Ontrodes to seek advice. When a Red Wizard named Zandria comes to consult Ontrodes on a different matter, Ontrodes throws out Jack in favor of a paying customer. I figured out that Jack’s natural response is of course to eavesdrop on the ensuing conversation. And when Jack gets caught, I thought about what I might do or say to get out of the situation, trying to figure out what best fit the scene—and in a flash of inspiration, I realized that whatever I (or any reasonable person) would do, Jack would do the opposite. So Jack admits to eavesdropping, and then claims that it’s only his sincere desire to be helpful that led him to do it. Everything else in the book unfolds from that one key insight.

As far as the book’s plot, well, the easiest way to describe it is to say that Jack is vigorously pursuing every opportunity he can to get ahead. He’s looking for prizes worth burgling, he’s doing his best to swindle rich nobles, he’s selling his services as a treasure-finder, and he’s working on a plan to beat Zandria to the prize that she’s after, all at the same time. And then everything blows up in his face, because Jack is not anywhere near as clever as he thinks he is. It’s all great fun, and I even managed to weave some of the major plot points of the Living City campaign into the big troubles that Jack gets himself tangled up in.

One last note I’ll add about City of Ravens: The ending was originally three chapters longer. In my first draft, Jack spent a lot more time as Myrkyssa Jelan’s unwilling accomplice as her plot moved toward its completion. My friend and colleague John Rateliff (same fellow who edited Ed Greenwood’s sourcebook) read the draft for me, and pointed out that the penultimate chapters just seemed to bog down before the final confrontation. That stumped me for a bit, but ultimately I decided that he was right—and that rather than fixing them, the best thing to do would be to get rid of them altogether. So Jack really manages to go from the frying pan to the fire in the last chapter of City of Ravens, and it works much better. Thanks, John.

 

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