Home > Review > City Under the Sand: A Dark Sun Novel: My Thoughts

City Under the Sand: A Dark Sun Novel: My Thoughts

This isn’t going to be a review in the traditional sense. I’m using this as a place to reflect on the things I liked and didn’t like about the novel, not as a method of recommendation production.

Background: I loves me some Dark Sun.  It was the first game world I really DM’d, and I played it for years in college.  I am utterly biased in my affection for the setting of this novel, and knew that going in.  I hoped Jeff Mariotte wouldn’t disappoint me and write a novel that didn’t ‘feel’ like Dark Sun.

He didn’t disappoint.  People are enslaved by despot rulers, hate magic of all kinds, use psionics readily, and die frequently.  The very act of travelling from one city to another is cause for massive amounts of death.  That was all very appropriate to the setting. 

I enjoyed Mariotte’s description of the world.  From the bas relief carvings throughout Nibenay, to the stark emptiness of the desert, Mariotte described the world well.  His action sequences were fantastic, which is important in a sword & planet or sword & sandal style adventure novel. 

There are many new creatures, weapons, and terms in Dark Sun, and Mariotte didn’t really hold the reader’s hands with them.  He would use the name for some weapon and then give a brief description of it during a fight sequence.  Some creatures were named but never really describe.d  As an avid Dark Sun fan, I knew most, but not all, of these names; I imagine a reader with no background in Dark Sun might be a little off put by this.  I think that sort of thing also makes the world feel very foreign and unfamiliar, which is good.  I appreciated how he trusted the reader to not need to know instantly what each and every new thing was.

This brings me to my least favorite thing about the novel.  Mariotte didn’t trust the reader to remember the story took place on a world named ‘Athas’.  Characters repeatedly talk about how ‘life on Athas is hard’ or how ‘that’s just how it is on Athas’.  These people have no other reference point than their world.  Why would they keep adding that caveat?  In the real world, people don’t say, “life on Earth is tough, get a helmet”.  There’s no need for the extra stipulation.  Everyone in the conversation is, presumably, on the same planet, daily.  Mariotte describes the sun as ‘Athasian’ at least once.  I suppose it is, but it probably would have worked to just call it the sun.  Is our sun ‘Terran’?  I temper my dissatisfaction on this point with the realization that Dark Sun has it’s roots in sword & planet fiction, so dropping the planet name repeatedly might be a genre convention.

Also, I was particularly sensitive to the conversation in this novel, having just come from a writing intensive assignment of conversation and then reading King’s book which emphasized the topic.  Mariotte has people over communicate.  I have this problem in my writing, too, but there were a few moments where it really stood out.  There were action sequences where people took an unbelievable amount of time to communicate information.  Some I could see a way out of, and some I couldn’t. 

Generally, I think the novel could have used a rule King prescribes: Second Draft=First Draft-10%.  I think the book would have been better with about 10% less.  Of course, he may have already done this, but I would have liked a bit more chipped away.  There were times that I wondered if my main problems with the novel were a factor of it being branded fiction.  Maybe his publisher, Wizards of the Coast, required some extra exposition and use of the name Athas.  I doubt it, but I can imagine the constraints of writing fiction for someone else’s world are difficult to manage.

My final critique: maybe I finished the book on too little sleep, but towards the end I became really confused about who could use magic.  Two protagonists stated explicitly they used magic, but then different characters were described at different times as casting or having cast.  Again, it could have been a lack of sleep on my part, but two or three other characters, who I didn’t think were magic users, may have used some magic toward the end.  Another editing sweep, or more reader sleep, might have cleared that up.

The plot is perfectly good, and reasonably executed.  It’s heroic fiction, so there weren’t any real surprises.  There were some minor relational surprises at the end, but the overall story went about as expected, which is fine.  The main character, a quarter-elf, is likeable and believable.  He makes some ridiculous decisions, but they are consistent with who he is.

I enjoyed the novel quite a bit, and I dearly hope Wizards of the Coast publishes more of these.

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