Last December, the Managing Editor of Wizards of the Coast contacted me, asking if I'd be willing to read the bound galley of an upcoming (April 2007) Forgotten Realms book by Richard Lee Byers. Unclean, a blend of horror and fantasy, appeared to be interesting, so I told him to send it my way. I made no promises pertaining to a book review, as I now receive too many novels to reading and reviewing even half of them.

Well, the new year saw me attending Bar classes and seminars and workshops, and that until next May. Forced to rely on public transportation to go downtown (I'm not getting stuck in gridlock and I'm not paying 12$ for parking every day -- no way!), I hence needed something to read for my morning/afternoon commute -- something "lighter" than what I read at home. Unclean seemed to be just what the doctor ordered! Anyone who knows me will tell you how much I hate Montréal's subway. In all fairness, I don't much prefer Berlin's U-Bahn, Paris' métro, or New York City's subway system. Still, Unclean helped me cope with this frequent ordeal. I'm aware that this is not the sort of quote that will find its way on the book's back cover, but from me that's saying something!

The first volume of The Haunted Lands trilogy, as a typical sword and sorcery offering, suffers from the habitual shortcomings of that sub-genre. There's too much action and unnecessary battle scenes. Sadly, the format precludes multilayered storylines and in-depth characterizations. Having said that, kudos to Byer for the crisp pace he sets, insuring that there is no dull moments.

The tale takes place in Thay, the Land of the Red Wizards. I would have liked to learn a lot more about the power struggle between the Zulkirs and the Tharchions, but the politicking is kept to a minimum to make room for fighting sequences. Which, in the end, is a shame, since the very same politicking lies at the heart of the story. Had a bigger portion of the narrative been dedicated to the political backstabbing which occurs throughout the book, it would have have fleshed out the conflict in a manner that would have made for a more enjoyable reading experience. Indeed, the transition between the various plotlines would have been smoother. Things feel rushed toward the end, as there's a relatively clumsy attempt to bring everything together in a very Palpatine-like, Revenge of the Sith sort of way. In my opinion, a little less action and a little more storytelling would have prevented that and would have assured a better ending.

And yet, though the novel suffers from the usual shortcomings associated with sword and sorcery works, I must admit that Byer's multiple-POV approach was a bit refreshing. The author's prose is also much better than what is commonly the norm in tie-in fiction books/series, which was a pleasant surprise.

If you're into lots of action, magical battles pitting wizards and soldiers against hordes of undead creatures, demons and other supernatural creatures, unhole alliances, a lich making its move to conquer all, and a doomed love story, then this rousing tale of good vs evil is for you! Fans of Cunningham, Denning, Salvatore and Kemp should enjoy this one!

Unclean is a cut above the conventional sword and sorcery fare. I doubt that Richard Lee Byer will make a lot of noise outside that sub-genre, yet, along with Kemp, he should continue to please fans who are looking for something to read while eagerly awaiting the release of the next R. A. Salvatore book.

The final verdict: 6/10

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