REVIEW: Fire on the Water

In Fire on the Water, the second book of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf saga, everything that made Flight from the Dark an unforgettable and enthralling adventure is offered again on an even greater scale. Instead of facing a journey of a few days over a hundred miles of war-torn Sommerlund, you embark on a quest that lasts more than one month and is closer to a thousand miles in length. In it you must survive pirate-infested seas and the villainous city of Ragadorn, as well as negotiate perilous wild-lands, gloomy forests, and immense subterranean tunnels.

You will engage in battles on the sea as well as the land, face numerous enemies wherever you turn, and clash not only with solitary HELGHASTS (the demonic black-robed servants of the Darklords) but gangs of them! Fortunately, a dramatis personae of powerful allies are there to offer you aid; truly men to walk the mountains with. Even so, you are never given the luxury of feeling safe. In Fire on the Water even the strongest swordsmen or highest-born lord may be doomed to die, and there are plenty of gruesome and humiliating deaths lying in wait.

In Fire on the Water, you play as Lone Wolf – the last surviving Kai lord – and have just gained access to the capital city of Holmgard to warn your king of the destruction of the Kai monastery and all your kin. Your reward for such courage and tenacity? High honours, gratitude, and an epic quest to carry a magnificent golden ring called ‘The Seal of Hammerdal’ to the capital city of the allied but faraway kingdom of Durenor. There, you are tasked with seeking the aid of the Duranese in honour of an ancient pledge made by them to come to the aid of Sommerlund if ever the Darklords threatened again. But there’s more: in exchange for the Seal, you are to be given the legendary Sommerswerd, the last surviving weapon that can defeat the Darklords themselves. Not only that, but YOU are the only person left alive who can wield it…

Given the stratospheric stakes in play, it comes as no surprise that you find yourself marked for assassination. From the outset of the adventure, you will uncover murder, intrigue and sabotage that complicates your journey and forces you to employ your combat skills, Kai disciplines and wits to survive. Plan to take a ship all the way from Holmgard to the Duranese harbour of Port Bax? Good luck, with an active saboteur on board! Want to pay a coachman to drive you from the thief-infested city of Ragadorn to your destination? Very well, but you’ll have to decide who among the other five passengers on your conveyance are out to murder you! Succeed in killing the assassin while staying in the seaside village of Gorn Cove? Well done, but you’ll have to escape or fight off a mob of angry villagers who take you for a bloodthirsty killer! With scenes and encounters like these, Fire on the Water is incredibly good fun, varied and utterly unpredictable.

[Left] Well worth a thousand mile journey!
[Right] Five fellow coach passengers, one assassin…since when have snake tattoos ever been a good sign..?

Given the dangers facing Lone Wolf, it is just as well that you are allowed to choose an extra Kai discipline in this second book of the series. If you do not already have it, the skill of ‘sixth sense’ will prove indispensable in staying alive in a malign and dissembling world, allowing you to avoid danger and read people’s true intentions. You will also need to place a priority on keeping hold of the Seal of Hammerdal, as simply showing it to port officials and Duranese guards will give you access to key sections that assure your progress through the adventure. Additionally, possessing sufficient gold crowns is an important part of the mission; with them you will be able to pay for a coach fare that helps you reach Durenor, and purchase useful items and pay for rooms that allow you to sleep safe from natural hazards and the ever patient assassin’s blade.

As such, Fire on the Water is a little more challenging to complete than its predecessor, though it is still relatively straightforward. Indeed, with the exception of losing the Seal of Hammerdal to thieves, I was unable to find any routes through the book that led to certain failure, and only suffered ignominious deaths by taking on more than I could handle in battle, making unfortunate D10 rolls, or when choosing to do something obviously hazardous, like charging a defensive line of elite Duranese soldiers, hiding in a barrel in a cellar while being hunted by an angry mob of villagers, or barging into the headquarters of the Silent Brotherhood! But, as I’m beginning to learn, the Lone Wolf books are not really intended to be difficult to complete (at least not so far). Rather, Fire on the Water is a deeply atmospheric interactive story that transports you into a coherent, ambitious and multi-faceted fantasy world.

There is no denying that Fire on the Water is packed with beautiful scenes that linger in your memory long after the adventure is complete. Among the choicest for me were killing six town guards in single combat, fighting off angry villagers from the top of a staircase, running through a HELGHAST with a magic spear, and leaping among enemy vessels while wielding the Sommerswerd during an epic naval battle between the Duranese and Darklord fleet. Settings stir and come to life beneath Dever’s pen: locations like Port Bax, shining like a jewel against the coastline and Hammerdal nestling within a ring of mountains and crowned by a majestic tower of glass and stone. Perhaps most impressive of all is the description of Tarnalin, one of three immense tunnels over a hundred feet in height and breadth that cuts for more than forty miles through the towering Duranese mountain chain. For quite some time after reading this, I found myself thinking of the Mines of Moria and other under-mountain dwarven realms of which I have read.

There is little doubting the influence of Tolkien in this ambitious work. From being hunted on forest paths by a gang of sinister cloaked riders armed with black Helgedad blades, to the way the Duranese fleet is initially mistaken for the enemy when it comes into Holmgard’s port to relieve the Darklord siege, down to white cities and brave Duranese captains of war, there is plenty in Fire on the Water to please aficionados of Middle-earth.

In addition to the settings and scenes of Fire on the Water, the cast of characters you meet are equally memorable. On the side of good is the stalwart Lord-lieutenant Rhygar; Lord Axim of Ryme, commander of King Alin’s personal guard; Captain Kelman of the ill-fated ship the Green Sceptre; Admiral Calfen of the Duranese fleet; and others. There is even a race of well-dressed but light-fingered tunnel-dwelling rat-folk (the NOODNICS) who may be persuaded to aid you in avoiding the dreaded HELGHASTS, or as they prefer to call them: ‘Blackscreamerz!’ In an encounter with none other than Vonotar the Traitor himself, you may even recall information offered by Banedon the magician in Book One, and begin to appreciate the interconnectedness of the Lone Wolf series. It’s all extremely immersive and well worth replaying so as not to miss a single aspect of the story, or a paragraph of prose.

Joe Dever’s writing of Fire on the Water is perfectly complemented by Gary Chalk’s trusty illustrations. They are especially impressive when depicting dynamic scenes such as a charging HELGHAST or DRAKKARIM warrior, and the secondary illustrations are just as important in bringing Magnamund to life. The synergy between Dever’s writing and Chalk’s drawings is exemplified in the final paragraph of the adventure, where upon your triumphant return to Holmgard the Sommerswerd reveals its full and devastating potential..!

Fire on the Water is a virtually flawless adventure that astonishes with its scope and scale. From the foundations laid in Book One, Dever and Chalk have proceeded to build an edifice from where the reader can look out and sense a fantasy world that seems to pulse with a life of its own. As Lone Wolf, you are made to feel both powerful and vulnerable, as likely to fall to a hateful twist of fate or a HELGHAST ambush as to claim the most powerful weapon in Magnamund and unleash justice upon the Darklords. It is a compelling dynamic that is almost certain to leave you wanting more.

Light ‘em up! The Sommerswerd as a precision weapon

STORYLINE: After making it to Holmgard, YOU are sent by your king to the neighbouring kingdom of Durenor where you must exchange the Seal of Hammerdal for the legendary Sommerswerd, and beseech your ally’s aid against the Darklord siege.

GAMEPLAY: Although the adventure is fairly straightforward to navigate, you will need certain items and/or Kai disciplines to complete the adventure. There are plenty of grisly fates awaiting the careless, unlucky, or over-confident player, for an army of powerful enemies is ranged against you.

PRESENTATION: Based on the Project Aon e-copy of Fire on the Water that was played for this review, the book is well presented and admirably illustrated by Gary Chalk.

REPLAY VALUE: Though you may or may not fail in your first attempt at this adventure, you will want to replay Fire on the Water a number of times so as not to miss a single paragraph of its excellent prose or vivid illustrations.

Review by KJ Shadmand

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