This is where it all began. The first ever novel based on a role-playing game. The book that launched a genre with a thousand titles. An unkind critic might say that it set the tone of things to come.
Quag Keep is a book of many mysteries. The chief of them is the question of how did Andre Norton turn out something so deeply disappointing. At the time of its publication in 1978, she’d been writing professionally for over forty years. The World Science Fiction Society had awarded her the Gandalf Grand Master a year previously, the SFWA would name her Grand Master five years in the future. She’d been already nominated twice for the Hugo. These are not honours lightly bestowed and put her amongst names like Tolkien, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Moorcock, Le Guin, Leiber, and a dozen other undisputed masters of the craft. To pick up something from an author of such singular credentials and receive this was somewhat jarring.
I think it just goes to show that every author had their off days. Moorcock has his Jerry Cornelius tales, Heinlein his Lazarus Longs. Norton, apparently, has this.
The story of Quag Keep is… I’m not actually sure there’s a story. There’s a plot, certainly, but there’s no real tension. The main characters are seven adventurers in the world of Greyhawk, who are also player characters in a role-playing game, who get somehow melded with their players. The players’ memories are subsumed for more or less the entire time, so this is just a device to get them to meet in a tavern and go upon the most railroaded adventure in the history of gaming.
They also each have been given unremovable bracers with sets of dice on them that rule their fate. Additionally, a wizard places a geas upon them to go and solve this thing lest the world be beset by some cataclysm or other.
The prose starts out purple and overwrought, but somehow becomes simpler and easier to read towards the end, possibly as the author got as fed up with the tale as I did. At the start, we get lines like this:
“His pale face above the high-standing collar of his cloak marked him as one who dwelt much indoors by reason of necessity or choice. And, though his features were human enough in their cast, still Milo, seeing their impassivity, the thinness of his bloodless lips, the sharp-beak curve of his nose, hesitated to claim him as a brother man.”
As we near the end, run-on sentences are still the order of the day, but they are more straightforward:
This was no axe-swinging berserker but the were-boar, near as tall as the orc at the massive shoulder, grunting and squealing in a rage that only the death of an enemy might assuage. Milo leaped quickly to one side, lest the animal in battle madness turn on him also, as had been known to happen when friend and foe were pinned in narrow compass.
Likewise, dialogue fluctuates between such florid phrasing and the occasional out-of-place modern idiom.
The characterization is also weak, and especially the focal character, the swordsman Milo Jagon, is boring and his dominant, pretty much only, character trait seems to be insecurity. The story keeps a distance from its characters and they end up having little in the way of personality. This only really works in the case of Gulth, the lizardman, who is inscrutable and difficult for mortals to understand. This works less well for, say, the elf Ingrge, though once you’ve named a character Ingrge, there’s not much you can do to save him.
The lizardman character has some other problems in his depiction. The novel makes a big point of his cold-bloodedness and he nearly dies of the cold in the mountains. He is saved by wrapping him in blankets. Ectothermy does not work that way. It’s the bloody definition of the concept. A blanket, which basically insulates heat, is good for a warm-blooded creature like a human, whose body generates warmth, but will do jack for a reptile who relies nearly entirely on outside heat sources.
The world is… well, sort of there. Though the book is ostensibly based on the World of Greyhawk, this only holds for some of the nomenclature. There’s the free city of Greyhawk, but the world through which our intrepid heroes traverses is all but unrecognizable to one familiar with the more recent and fleshed-out depictions of the setting. According to a Q&A forum thread with Gary Gygax, Andre Norton made most of it up herself, and it cannot be taken as a representation of some sort of proto-Greyhawk.
This brings us to the inclusion of game elements. The novels of Margaret Weis or R.A. Salvatore are often criticized for the reader “being able to hear the dice roll”, for wearing their game system origins on their sleeves. Well, Dragonlance ain’t got nothing on Quag Keep, where the dice really do roll. The characters also seem aware of rules concepts. The party’s cleric is described as a cleric of “the third rank”, and Milo Jagon is explicitly and repeatedly titled “a swordsman”, which was the level title for a 3rd-level fighter. Therefore, we may determine that the party is about third-level. This doesn’t really jive with the stuff that they accomplish, but I’ll let that slide since there is a limit to how much I am willing to complain about the depiction of game rules in a work of fiction. But if you’re going to use them, get them right, dammit!
Quag Keep is also remarkably didactic in its depiction of the alignment system. We are told how all swordsmen cleave to the side of Law and how orcs are servants of Chaos. On the face of it, it looks like the Moorcockian Law–Chaos thing, but it’s really just good and evil by different names. The narration is remarkably contemptuous of neutrals, for some reason. Seriously, The Dark Elf Trilogy had more subtlety in its treatment of alignment.
So, all in all, we have a third-rate fantasy novel with some remarkably stilted prose. Or do we?
As a gamer, I can tease out another reading. It does not really make the book any better, but hear me out. Read as a critique of a bad gaming session, the book becomes quite interesting (and we also run into the problem of deliberately bad literature, which I’ve tackled in the past). The geas and the cursed dice are a depiction of heavy-handed railroading. Much like the player characters in such a campaign, the adventurers of Quag Keep have no agency and little control over their fates. The partial and controllable nature of the dice in their cursed bracers is a metaphor of this lack of freedom, and the resolution of the story, where they have defeated the Game Master and Milo rolls the GM’s dice symbolizes how they have wrested narrative control of the game from their Viking hat GM.
The characters have no personality because they are poorly roleplayed and are more or less extensions of their teenage players’ developing personalities. Milo is insecure because he’s played by a teenage guy with a crush on the only girl in the group. The game terminology leaks into the story because the players keep talking rules during the game and the Law–Chaos conflict is brought front and centre because of its connection with a simplistic playstyle where all orcs are evil and therefore free game and a character’s alignment is all the nuance their moral outlook requires. The modern idioms in the dialogue are because the players don’t quite handle the elevated style they’re going for in their in-character interaction.
So, Quag Keep is not completely irredeemable and does indeed display the mastery that Andre Norton is known for.
I just think it would’ve worked way better as a short story.