Quag Keep by Andre Norton
Series: Quag Keep #1
Published by Atheneum on February 1978
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Quag Keep was the first novel based on the world of Dungeons & Dragons by the legendary grand mistress of SF/Fantasy, Andre Norton.
In 1976 Andre Norton was invited to play a new sort of adventure game by its creator. It was the game that launched the role-playing game industry, Dungeons & Dragons. The creator, E.Gary Gygax, was the head of TSR Industries, the company he formed to sell his game.
Gygax played the game with Andre, introducing her to his world of Greyhawk where she took part in an imaginative session of world building, role playing, and fantasy adventuring, after which she returned home and wrote the novel Quag Keep, a tale of seven adventurers from our world who journey from our world to the city of Greyhawk in order to aid a wizard and unlock the secrets of the stronghold of Quag Keep.
Once, they were role-playing gamers in our world.
They came from different places and different backgrounds.
Now they're summoned together by some magical force...to a land that mirrors the games they used to play.
Can they band together to unlock the secret of their summoning--and rescue from the legendary Quag Keep the person who may be able to return them home?
So, I’m sure it will come as no surprise to those who know me but I’m a huge Andre Norton fan. HUGE. I mainly delve into her Witch World series but I also have/read a good handful of her other works. One of the things I love about Andre Norton was that she dabbled in a lot of different genres, making her backlist a true treasure.
Quag Keep is one of those treasures I just mentioned. With the creation of Quag Keep, Andre Norton (yet again) changed the landscape of the written world about her. With Quag Keep, Andre Norton invented the idea of game novelization. In addition, Quag Keep is also the first novelization of the world of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) – kicking off what would come to be a lucrative and long lasting trend.
One of the first things I noticed while reading Quag Keep was the major differences and similarities between Quag Keep (pub’d 1978) and the Witch World (pub’d 1963). The most prominent Witch World traits I noticed are the geas (an obligation or prohibition magically imposed on a person), the scent of corruption that those who are allied with the Dark (Chaos) emit and (strangely enough) the Sea of Dust. While Quag Keep has it’s Sea of Dust, Norton’s Witch World series has The Waste. The Waste is empty of most life but filled with relics. Norton seems to like deserts & always fills hers with ancient secrets waiting. . .
I did run into a handful of issues that I should have expected: I am not familiar with the gameplay of D&D (though I want to change that in the future!) so I was confused by the alignments. To make it more (and then less) complicated, there are three different editions of D&D with a shitton of alignments. Luckily for me, Norton’s book was written during the first edition of D&D. So. There’s Law, Neutral and Chaos. According to Wikipedia:
Originally the law/chaos axis was defined as the distinction between “the belief that everything should follow an order, and that obeying rules is the natural way of life”, as opposed to “the belief that life is random, and that chance and luck rule the world”. According to the early rulebook, lawful characters are driven to protect the interest of the group above the interest of the individual and would strive to be honest and to obey just and fair laws. Chaotic creatures and individuals embraced the individual above the group and viewed laws and honesty as unimportant. At that time, the rulebook specified that “chaotic behavior is usually the same as behavior that could be called ‘evil'”. Neutral creatures and characters believe in the importance of both groups and individuals, and felt that law and chaos are both important. They believe in maintaining the balance between law and chaos and were motivated by self-interest.
The third edition D&D rules define “law” and “chaos” as follows:
Law implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability. Those who consciously promote lawfulness say that only lawful behavior creates a society in which people can depend on each other and make the right decisions in full confidence that others will act as they should.
Chaos implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility. Those who promote chaotic behavior say that only unfettered personal freedom allows people to express themselves fully and lets society benefit from the potential that its individuals have within them.
Someone who is neutral with respect to law and chaos has a normal respect for authority and feels neither a compulsion to follow rules nor a compulsion to rebel. They are honest but can be tempted into lying or deceiving others if it suits him/her.
– Wikipedia, Alignment (Dungeons & Dragons)
There are seven characters in our little D&D group. Each of them have been pulled from Earth to Greyhawk (the D&D universe) and they all are aligned either with Law or are neutral. There are four humans (swordsman, cleric, battlemaid and bard), one elf, one shifter (were-boar), and a Lizardman. The were-boar also has a miniature pet dragon named Afreeta. Quag Keep follows the swordsman, Milo Jagon (real name: Martin Jefferson) as the MC of the story.
There are a lot of game elements in Quag Keep – I’m sure I didn’t find them all – and the elements were engrossing. I spent quite a bit of time trying to decipher which parts were pure Andre Norton vs which parts were game elements. Of course, as I’ve never played D&D, I had to wonder if the elements I noticed were elements that came from the tabletop editions of D&D and slowly found their way into computer/video games (which I do play).
One of the first game elements the reader is introduced to are the dice. Normally a [game] player rolls the dice to determine their possible moves. Norton re-purposed the dice by turning them into bracelets. The bracelets are permanently attached to the character but the character has very little control of the dice – they spin when a “move” will be made but the characters cannot spin the die themselves. I have to admit that I was not a fan of the dice as bracelets and didn’t find it to be exceptionally well done.
Other game elements I noticed were:
– The “questing party” is formed via a wizard’s geas
– Magical jewelry (i.e. rings, bracelets, etc) are represented by the dice bracelets and Milo’s two thumb rings
– light sources – in computer/video games if a player is in a dungeon there is limited to no light (reducing visibility). Quag Keep has the cleric, Deav Dyne, create a light source for the group.
All of the questing party members are aligned with Law with the exception of the Lizardman, Gulth, who is neutral. Gulth…had the most difficult trajectory in the storyline AND was treated the worse. The were-boar, Naile, and Milo seemed to fall in with each other from the very beginning and Naile had a major issue with Gulth. Naile’s shield brother was killed in a war with some Lizardpeople and Naile has had a hatred for them ever since. Gulth barely speaks during Quag Keep – but he is also barely spoken to. He is treated with a lot of contempt – especially from Naile and especially in the beginning. Although the Lizardpeople are native to Greyhawk, Gulth and his people are considered alien.
“Lizardmen were considered neutral in the eternal struggles and skirmishes of Law and Chaos. On the other hand a neutral did not awake trust in any man. Their sense of loyalty seldom could be so firmly engaged that they would not prove traitors in some moment of danger.”
Although Gulth saved Naile’s life and is the only person who was capable to get the party to their final destination, Gulth is shown disappearing when the group is distracted by an attacked and no reason is given for this action. All in all, I felt Gulth was treated atrociously – thus making the ending of Quag Keep a bit unbelievable.
I see a lot game play in Quag Keep but I also see a lot of Witch World in it. The style of writing is a bit…dreamy in a way. It sorta reminds me of watching a movie while half-sleep. The read reminds me a LOT of Zarsthor’s Bane (Witch World #11). Things -some times mundane and sometimes mystical – happen that are not fully explained. You just have to go with the flow and accept Norton’s word for some things. I was interesting in reading book two – Return to Quag Keep – when I finished, though.
Final Word: I enjoyed this quite a bit but a lot of my group members feel it’s…showing its age and found it to be a difficult read. I recommend it, however, especially if you like to read game novelizations and/or if you are a fan of old school pulp SSF and/or you are a Norton fan.