Soldiers of Ice, by David Cook – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Soldiers of Ice, by David Cook. Map. (Forgotten Realms – The Harpers, Nº 7)
Lake Geneva, WI, TSR, Inc., December 1993, paperback $4.95 ([2 +] 312 pages), Kindle $7.99.
There are anthropomorphic novels hidden among the authorized books of popular fantasy-role-playing games. Case in point: TSR’s 1987 Forgotten Realms spinoff of Dungeons & Dragons.
According to Wikipedia: “Forgotten Realms is the name of an imaginary fantasy world that exists somewhere beyond the real world. The setting is described as a world of strange lands, dangerous creatures, and mighty deities, where magic and seemingly supernatural phenomena are quite real. The premise is that, long ago, the Earth and the world of the Forgotten Realms were more closely connected. As time passed, the inhabitants of planet Earth have mostly forgotten about the existence of that other world—hence the term Forgotten Realms.”
The Forgotten Realms merchandising includes well over two hundred novels and short fiction anthologies from 1987 to September 2012, in hardback and paperback editions, from TSR, Inc. (Tactical Studies Rules) and its successor, Wizards of the Coast (including one by furry author Paul Kidd, The Council of Blades). Soldiers of Ice by David Cook, the seventh in the subseries about The Harpers, features the fierce doglike gnolls of the valley of Samek.
“A semi-secret organization for Good, the Harpers fight for freedom and justice in a world populated by tyrants, evil mages, and dread concerns beyond imagination.” (blurb)
“In a snow-bound valley, beyond the aid of even the Harpers, a lone village sits in the path of the relentless advance to ice and the fleeing gnolls, pushing ever southward. Of all the Harpers, only the headstrong Martine of Sembia refuses to abandon the gnomes of Samek to their fate.” (another blurb)
The tomboyish Martine of Sembia is a novice Harper, an acolyte of the foppish wizard Jazrac in the Harper center in Shadowdale. Martine has been getting low-level messenger assignments, and is impatient for some more dramatic mission that will demonstrate that she is ready for full Harper membership. She sees her chance when Jazrac asks her to go to the far northern wastes of the Great Glacier with a talisman that he has prepared, to close an ice volcano dimensional rift.
“’Sometimes things cross over and enter our world. If it’s only one or two of these elemental creatures, it’s not much our concern, but if the rift should expand, it could prove to be a danger. You’re going to go up there and seal it.” (p. 12)
Martine assumes that she can easily fly north on Astriphie, her loyal hippogriff mount; a journey of about a week toward increasingly sparsely inhabited lands and suspicious peoples.
“By this subterfuge, Martine passed through Damara and found herself at last flying over the snowbound ridge of an isolated valley, the last before the walls of the Great Glacier itself. Samek, it was called, home to a village of gnomes, or so the garrulous frontiersman farther south had claimed. ‘Be the last outpost afore the wilds,’ he swore. ‘Mebbe they can guide you to the glacier, though ‘tain’t a harder-headed batch than them little folk. ‘Taint got no trade, an’ they put up with no truck at all from outsiders, big folk especially.’” (p. 19)
Martine lands in the valley of Samek, claims hospitality from Vilheim, the only human settler living there, and asks him to introduce her to the village of gnomes.
“The object of their courtesy was a little man who stood no taller than Vil’s waist […] Despite his stocky build, Martine knew the little man was actually lean for one of his kind. Airy strands of long white beard escaped from the top of the collar […] The gnome’s face seemed ancient, reminding Martine of a shriveled apple. The doorkeeper’s rheumy red eyes were barely noticeable behind his bulbous nose, a pronounced characteristic of his race. Tikkanen’s nose was limned with thin red veins and colored with age spots.” (pgs. 31-32)
Martine asks the gnomes to guide her to the Great Glacier. They decline, but Vil volunteers. Martine and Vilheim, flying on Astriphie, notice a tribe of fierce gnoll warriors at the base of the glacier; the real reason that the gnomes do not want to move further into Samek. The ice volcano on the glacier is more dangerous than Martine expects; Astriphie is killed, marooning her and Vil. The latter returns on foot to the gnomes to get supplies, leaving Martine alone to carry out her mission.
Martine does, but is captured by soldiers of ice, invaders from the other side of the dimensional rift.
“Towering over both of them, a good two feet taller than Martine’s five-foot frame, was an overgrown version of the mephit that had captured her. The beast had the same armor-sheened skin, smoothly flowing over its body to taper off into sharp-edged flares. The icelike carapace rendered the creature insectoid, even though it stood like a man. The look was further enhanced by the fact that its frame was overly thin and elongated […] The creature’s head was triangular, tapering at the chin into a beard of icicles that grew out of its flesh. The barbed ridge of its brow was crusted with more of the same, veiling the deep pits of its eyes. A mouth, small and precise, set below two narrow slots that were its nose, gaped eagerly, revealing a formidable line of spinelike teeth.” (pgs. 70-71)
The cold-blooded creatures dub Martine Hot-Breath because of her warm-bloodedness.
“‘Vreesar, I captured it,’ the mephit boasted with a prattling squeal. The ice-bred imp sprang forward to show off its conquest […] ‘It breathes smoke and steam, hot enough to burn me, but I captured it.’ With these words, the mephit danced about in triumph, waggling its long claws overhead. ‘I captured the Hot Breath! Me!’” (p. 71)
Martine uses her burning warm breath to escape from Icy-White and the other mephitis (ice imps), and is promptly captured by the gnolls. It is at this point that the novel gets furry.
“The leader tore back its parka hood and sniffed the air in suspicion, its glistening muzzle quivering to catch the scents of the night. Its black lips curled back from yellowed fangs as it barked orders to the others. […] The five dog-men acted quickly to take control of their prize. […] ‘What do we with it?’ the smallest gnoll in the group yipped finally. The fur of its hide was still raw beige and downy. It was barely more than a cub, Martine guessed. […] None of the hyenalike men ever once slowed its pace or suggested concern for the struggling human.” (pgs. 78-79)
The hunting pack take Martine back to their longhouse which blends into the snowy moraine at the glacier’s base.
“The fire illuminated a tangle of furry bodies that covered the floor, a carpet that drew back before the blast of winter air that accompanied her entrance. Tawny, spotted arms stretched curiously while muzzles raised to sniff the new scent that had suddenly intruded upon them. Ears twitched; fleshy lips curled back from needle-sharp fangs.” (p. 81)
Martine is about to be killed and eaten by the Burnt Fur [!] tribe when she is saved by Krote Word-Maker, their shaman.
“Martine’s first impression was of a skeletal mockery of a living thing, even of its own kind. He appeared emaciated, with a sunken muzzle and bony pits for eyes. […] From this distance, Martine could see that fully half his taut face was etched with tattooing. Two purple-black scars radiated from one eye, the first cutting a wedge from his matted hairline, the other running down the length of his muzzle.” (pgs. 84-85)
It is obvious to Martine that there is a tribal power struggle going on between the shaman and Hakk Elk-Slayer, the burly chieftain and Brokka, his chief hunter; and that Word-Maker wants to save her for his own ends. Since the alternative is the Burnt Furs’ cookpot, Martine plays along with Word-Maker’s scheming, although his immediate ploy to keep her alive is to persuade chief Hakk to make her part of his harem.
Martine and Word-Maker have just become uneasy allies when the ice warrior leader, Vreesar, arrives to kill Hakk in combat and take over the Burnt Furs. Martine and Krote Word-Maker escape to the village of the gnomes, but Vreesar leads the gnolls after them, on his first step in world conquest and to get Martine to reopen the rift so he can call for more ice soldiers. A grand battle develops of everyone: ice soldiers, gnolls, gnomes, wizards, and Harpers. Of importance to anthro fans is that the focus always remains on Martine and Krote. At first bound by mutual self-interest, they gradually develop a grudging respect for each other that turns into real friendship.
Soldiers of Ice is slow getting started as an anthropomorphic novel, but once Martine joins the gnolls, there are plenty of descriptions of the dog/hyena-man tribe. The original paperback is long out of print, but still available cheaply as a used book, and there is a new Kindle edition.
The somewhat confusing cover by Fred Fields shows Vreesar, the ice elemental (dark blue; he is always described in the novel as icy white), and Martine looking at the body of a gnoll warrior.