Troy Denning was one of the primary game designer for Dungeons & Dragons’ Dark Sun setting, so it is no surprise he got tapped to pen the first Dark Sun novel, The Verdant Passage. Dark Sun is one of D&D’s more vivid settings—with arresting artwork by Brom—and it bears scant resemblance with its sun-blasted landscape, bizarre monsters, psionics, and environment-destroying magic to the watered-down Tolkien pastiches of Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms. But it does fit squarely with D&D’s roots.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth are most frequently cited as primary inspirations for Dark Sun. In his famous list of inspirations for D&D as a whole, Appendix N, Gary Gygax lists explicitly lists both. And another work explicitly listed on Appendix N was likely a major inspiration for Dark Sun: Hiero’s Journey by Sterling Lanier. Hiero’s Journey is set in our own post-apocalyptic future, not a secondary world, but it includes many elements in Dark Sun. First and foremost is the prominent role of psionics (although present in the Barsoom books, but to a much smaller degree). The works are dystopian and post-apocalyptic. Each features inventive, bizarre monsters. They share a certain environmentalist moral. The four leg of the stool holding Dark Sun is Brom’s artwork, which gives the dark fantasy world its own distinctive feel.
The Verdent Passage centers around four main characters living in Tyr, a city state ruled by an immortal sorcerer-king Kalak. Tithian is a High Templar, serving Kalak and charged both with completing his massive ziggurat (generations in the making) and the gladiatorial games that will mark its completion. Rikus is slave to Tithian, gladiator, and Mul (a dwarf-human hybrid), who is focused on winning the ziggurat games to win his own freedom. Sadira is a half-elven sorceress and member of the Veiled Alliance, who is undercover as one of Tithian’s slave. Agis of Asticles is an enlightened aristocrat, psionist, and member of the ineffectual senate. Together (in the loosest sense of the word) the four will challenge Kalak’s rule.
The Verdant Passage suffers from the usual bugs of a D&D tie-in novel, and it isn’t as good as Denning’s Twilight Giants trilogy, but it is an enjoyable read. There is too much “our elves are different,” too much time spent describing city features and monsters in great detail for the DM’s benefit, monsters so distinct as to be hard for Denning to describe and the reader to picture. But the gaj really is a cool monster, and the setting really is a highlight.
The Verdant Passage stands alone well but is part of a 5-book series. I don’t know if I will continue on with it. It is central to the story of Dark Sun, which unfortunately makes it hard to read anything about the setting without spoiling the book.
3.5 of 5 Stars.