Guardians of the Flame: The Warriors pleasantly surprised me. I’ll admit that going into it I was somewhat dubious: it looked like an obvious cash-in on a clichéd premise. Joel Rosenberg, however, turned out to be a more skilled author than I had anticipated, weaving a fun, fast-paced, often grim series that did exactly what it needed to. The Warriors is an omnibus volume consisting of the first three Guardians of the Flame novels: The Sleeping Dragon, The Sword and the Chain, and The Silver Crown.
The Guardians of the Flame series has a fairly basic conceit. A group of college students are playing a role-playing game transparently based on Dungeons and Dragons with a professor as dungeon master. They’re clearly a rather troubled bunch, with unresolved issues that they get away from by pretending to be hulking barbarians and wily thieves and suchforth. They’re getting along fine and just starting a new quest when it turns out their professor is actually a dimension-hopping wizard and the imaginary game becomes very real, with each of them in the body of his or her character. Now that they’re in the world of the game for real, they’re forced to realize that not everything is quite as safe or secure on this side, and that a world of elves and dwarves isn’t really as simple as it might appear.
Faced with a premise like that, a lot of experienced fantasy readers will respond with slyly winking condescension. Frankly, it looks like the kind of obvious “but what if it were real?” daydream that everyone has at some point, making it something of a target for contempt. There’s an expectation in any literature of a certain distance between the author and the story, and a plot that looks like something perilously close to self-insert fan-fiction just feels a little awkward, as though we can see the book’s underwear when it bends over.
I have to say, though, that once past the first few chapters, it becomes increasingly evident that Rosenberg really isn’t writing daydream fantasy. He’s perfectly aware of the way things look, and works within that framework to surprise his readers. While he never descends into outright parody, he delights in subverting expectations.
The characters are clever, the pacing is good, and on top of it all, Rosenberg manages to give the whole premise a very agreeable sensation of realism, taking full advantage of the opportunity to show what a fantasy universe might “really” be like according to the Dungeons and Dragons rules. In so doing, he creates a grim, bloody, and often disturbing world that appears much as a more barbaric version of our own. The tendency to emphasize that his world is brutal and realistic can sometimes become a bit heavy-handed (probably due to some lingering doubts on the author’s part about whether his audience was going to “get” what he was trying to do), but for the most part it works.
There’s a surprising degree of subtext in these books. Despite the brutality of the magical world, Rosenberg depicts the characters as preferring it to the one they’ve left, suggesting that despite all his elaborate measures against the romanticization of this universe, a dangerous but exciting world is still better than the alternative. His characters feel empty and pointless in the real world, and any escape where they can feel as though they matter is preferable to the existence they were born into, a powerful (if cynical, and occasionally hamfisted) message about emptiness in modern culture.
These novels aren’t great works of art, and based on a well-known gaming system as they are, it’s hard to call them truly original, but they are eminently entertaining. They’re well-constructed and clever, and they know exactly where they’re going and what they’re trying to do. There’s not much of a grand villain in the series, but the universe itself is the villain in some ways: the magnificent enemy who offers a struggle more stimulating than the blandness the heroes have departed. As I mentioned above, Rosenberg can go a bit far with his realism, occasionally to the point of becoming slightly preachy (Karl in particular tends to feel as though he’s somehow studied everything at some point, like a particularly earnest and muscle-bound Thomas Jefferson). Overall, though, while they may be too dark for some, these stories are fairly good pieces of escapist fiction. They’re nothing phenomenal, perhaps, but they’re definitely worth a look and by far exceed the expectations the premise awakens.