Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review - Return to Quag Keep

Return to Quag Keep by Andre Norton and Jean Rabe (mostly Rabe) is a 2006 sequel to the classic D&D novel Quag Keep by Andre Norton. This book continues the story of a group of a group of real world gamers who find themselves in their characters bodies, with their memories constantly shifting between character and player. In Return to Quag Keep they are trying to find a way home and trying to find out why they were brought to the world formerly known as Greyhawk.

Old School Credentials: Return to Quag Keep is a sequel to Andre Norton's classic 1978 book, Quag Keep, the first D&D novel. As such, its connections to old school gaming are strong, even though they aren't evident in book itself.

The Good: The book is well written, the story flows well, and there are a couple of good ideas in it.

The Bad:While not the abomination that some reviews make it out to be, Return to Quag Keep has numerous flaws. Perhaps the worst flaw is the lack of a setting. Quag Keep was solidly set in The World of Greyhawk, although a less defined pre-1980 folio version. For whatever reason, this novel does not, likely could not, use the Greyhawk setting, but doesn't create a new one either. Because of this insistence on being generic, the reader will get sick the words "the city" faster than I would have imagined possible. Whenever Rabe breaks away from this genericism, the results are good, but it happens all to rarely here.

It's obvious that a few of the original characters weren't to the new author's taste as one is killed and two are sent away for virtually all the book. This, along with the generic setting, makes the book seem even less like a sequel than it should.

Another minor annoyance is the excessive overuse of "modern" music such as Danny Boy and She's Always a Woman to Me and the nearly non-stop reference to real world locations gets old very quick.

Without giving away any spoilers, I will just mention that the ending is the worst problem with the book. The book ends with the characters in a new predicament that would have likely been the focus of the third book in the series if it had ever been written/published.

There are a few other problems that other reviewers have noted that I'm willing cut Rabe some slack on. A few critics have had conniption fits over a minor spelling change in the name of a tertiary character ("Afreeta" vs "Alfreeta"). Considering that Rabe based the story, at least partly, on notes from a respected, but elderly, author who misspells Wollheim in the introduction, a little tolerance is in order. (Even the original had spelling issues as "Harvel's Axe" is "Marvel's Axe" on the back cover).  And the personalities of the characters are very different than they are in the first book. However, this can be rationalized by the fact that their game personas are somewhat dominant in the first book, while their real world personalities are in nearly complete control in the second. 

Value: It's tough to put a value on a used book, but with the book available for $4 ($.01 + $3.99 shipping) from Amazon, I call it a poor value. It's just not that good a story. However, if like me, you want it as much for a collection as for reading then its a decent value. 

For the larcenous GM: Surprisingly there is a bit here that could be used to enrich many RPG campaigns. Glothorio, the god of coin gatherers, and his tattooed priests could certainly be added to most worlds. As a minor deity, he could certainly add a bit of flavor and the tattoo/sigil magic that they use in casting their clerical spells is interesting. There are also a couple of interesting magic items that could be put to better use than they are in this book.

Overall: Even if you aren't expecting much, this book is likely to disappoint. Removing the setting just sucked the magic completely out of this book.*  I can only give this book a D. Only Rabe's competence at storytelling saves this from being an F.

*Yes, that is a reference to something in the book.


  1. I read the original Quag Keep about a month or so ago. Not great, but likable in a strange way. I think I will give this a pass.

  2. Good call! The original isn't Norton's best work but is enjoyable enough beyond its status as the first D&D novel.