Eve Forward, Villains by Necessity (Tor 1995)

One of the great tropes of the fantasy genre is the high epic fantasy, the story of Good vs. Evil in an all-out war to determine the fate of the world.  Heroic warriors and paladins, mighty wizards, cunning rogues, elegant elven archers, and magical weapons.  Evil overlords, trolls and orcs and goblins, the legions of darkness.  In the end, Good always wins, right?  Now, see the story told from a decidedly different point of view, as the bad guys get their chance to shine.

In Eve Forward's debut novel, Villains by Necessity, the final battle between Good and Evil has been over for a century, with Good triumphant at last, and the Six Lands have enjoyed peace and prosperity ever since.  The days are brighter, the nights shorter.  The old dungeons have been cleaned out, the evil temples burned or converted, the thieves' guilds disbanded.  No longer do those of evil tendencies have to labor under their social deformities; spells exist to make criminals and their ilk into productive, satisfied members of society.  In fact, only a handful of "villains" exist, and they're downright bored with the way things are going.  So when the elven Archwizard Mizzamir, last surviving Hero of the Great War, turns his sights to converting them to Good, it's up to our accidental heroes to do something drastic.

Sam is the black-clad last assassin in the world.  Arcie is his boon companion, a short, hairy-footed rogue, thief, and pickpocket.  Valerie is a man-eating dark sorceress from an underground kingdom.  Kaylana is the last of the Druids, dedicated to maintaining a balance between Good and Evil.  Robin is a centaur minstrel, secretly spying for the good guys.  Blackmail is a cursed knight trapped in a suit of blackened plate armor.  These six are all that stands between what is, and what was, and what could be.  They have to find the six fragments of the magical Key, which alone can unlock the final Darkportal and release Evil back into the world.  If they don't, the world risks being sublimated into pure Goodness... and destroyed.

The six unwilling heroes will undergo magical tasks of skill and bravery, cunning and strength, magic and will, each one created by one of the six great Heroes.  Tests that have proven fatal for the unworthy.  And they have to stop fighting amongst themselves long enough to do so.  But can Evil work together to defeat Good, or will their innate natures always overcome them?  Mizzamir and his friends certainly believe so; in fact, they're counting on it.

This is epic fantasy as it's rarely seen.  Forward manages to imbue the "villains" of the story with such character and personality, that even at their worst, one feels like cheering them on against the misguided good guys.  She takes the stereotypes and generalizations of the heroic quest, and turns them inside out.  Root for the bad guys; they've earned the right for a little support.  They may be thieves, murderers, flesh-eating sorcereresses, spies, and people of exceedingly questionable morality, banded together out of enlightened self-interest and a desire for survival, their loyalties balanced on razor-sharp edges, but when the chips are down, they have what it takes to play in the big leagues.  There's riddles to unravel, traps to undo, tests to pass, temptation to avoid, and gods to outwit.  And for those with more than a passing familiarity with epic fantasy Role-Playing Games, don't miss Forward's hilarious send-up and parody not just of Tolkien, but also of the much-famed Dragonlance characters.

Villains by Necessity is a valuable, fresh look at an overplayed, often-stale subset of the fantasy genre, well-written and fast-paced.  It's one of those books I pick up and reread every few months or year, just for the enjoyment.  I'll read almost any book once; it takes a true gem for me to read it a dozen times or more.  If you can find it, check it out.
 

[Michael M. Jones]