A Breach in the Watershed by Douglas Niles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The mid to late ’90’s wre something of a golden age for Dungeons and Dragons derived fantasy. Foremost among these, of course, were the various novels and short story collections put out by TSR (bask when it was still a going concern an d not just another sub-division of a subsidiary of a giant conglomerate) But the influence of the game extended far beyond into the fantasy genre directly. A new generation of readers and writers whose primary contact to fantasy fiction came as much from Saturday nights crowded around a gaming table in someone basement as it did from actually reading stories was rising.
Douglas Niles is one of the authors that came out of these scene (for lack of a better term,) part of the same pack that included RA Salvatore, Richard Knaak, as well as the inestimable team of Weis and Hickman. He was one of the original writers to work on the Dragonlance setting, and wrote the very first Forgotten Realms novel, Darkwalker on Moonshae. The Watershed Trilogy was among the first works he died outside the warm embrace of TSR.
In terms of style and plot, it shows its origins quite oplainly, being very much in the tradition of that old school high fantasy birthed by tolkien annd transmitted via D&D to ensuing generations. The hero, Rudger “Rudy” Appenfell, is a mountaineer (in the parlance of the world, an ‘Iceman’) who follws the usual hero’s path from rustic obscurity to world-changing adventure and the ultimate showdown against the Evil Dark Lord. Pretty much standard fare by any account.
What I find interesting about this story (aside from nostaliga for my lost youth) isn’t the plot, which is rather forgetible, bur rather what iut symbolizes. The effect dungeons and dragons has had on the developmenr of the fantasy genre over the last two ot three decades is a profound one (for better and for worse.) High fantasy tropes were cemented in place, with elves, dwarves and so on become the “default” races, for lack of a better term. , and in the process pushing the genre further into the mainstream.
When the Watershed trilogy came out, the mainstreaming had only just begun. In the eyes of the culture, fantasy was scifi even more dorky little brother and if you were into Dungeons and Dragons you tended to keep it to yourself (at my high school no one went around wearing a t-shirt with DUNGEON MASTER written on it unless he had a death wish…) Magic the Gathering was just an odd card game and an incipient moral panic. None of us at the time had an inkling that less than two decades later the genre would be winning academy awards and inspiring hit tv series on HBO. The generation of writers and readers raised on Dungeons and Dragons had a big part to do with that, and while the Watershed trilogy might count as little more than a footnote in the story of the fantasy genre, it was a sign of things to come.