Journal

Off The Shelf: King’s Quest

I should start by saying that while the other books we’ve looked at this week have been bad, or at least crazy, I went into this one blind. Then I realised that would make reading hard, so I opened my eyes. The point I’m making though is that this is absolutely not a legendary low on the level of, say, the Planescape: Torment novel, but a book I picked up out of genuine curiosity and interest. King’s Quest you see, sucks. King’s Quest sucks hard...

But seeing there were novels…

Graham is a hefty slab of meat for a guy who can get beaten up by ants.

Graham is a hefty slab of meat for a guy who can get beaten up by ants.

Part of the curiosity is that while you’d think eight games would be enough to lay down some solid foundations for a King’s Quest story, in fact the series spends such little time in its native Daventry or with most of the characters anywhere in ear-shot that there really isn’t any lore, unless you count Williams deciding that Rumplestiltskin and the Three Bears should be hanging out near fantasy’s least impressive castle. For seven games, the closest to character interaction you get is “I will save you, my love!” or “I have saved you, my love!” with the exception being in King’s Quest VII where Queen Valanice tells her daughter Princess Rosella that she has to get married, and Rosella somehow doesn’t turn round and say “Yeah, sure, mom. How about you go have some adventure not involving being locked in something, and then we’ll talk. I’m calling in that marker I’ve been saving since King’s Quest IV.”

Also, of the entire series, exactly two games were proper King’s Quests. Just saying.

This book, which is the first of three, doesn’t start off very well, simply by forgetting that you can’t be a King’s Quest game if your title isn’t a half-arsed pun. “Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow”, “Romancing The Throne” and all that. “The Perils of Rosella” doesn’t really work as a pun on “The Perils Of Pauline”, but lest we forget, at one point King’s Quest VII was going to be “Rosella Vs. The Volcano”, in a name that managed to date it almost as successfully as the final title, The Princeless Bride. The only game after the first not to have a pun was King’s Quest 8: Mask Of Eternity, but that’s okay. That whole game was a joke.

The second King’s Quest novel would fair no better, being called “Kingdom of Sorrow”. Then, presumably someone noticed and demanded the situation be resolved, leading to the final book, King’s Quest: See No Weevil. Which is about weevils. As a used copy of it costs £20 though, to hell with that. The Floating Castle it is.

And you know, it doesn’t actually start out too bad! Prince Alexander is on a walk when a storm breaks out, and in the middle of it, he spots… yes… a floating castle. “No,” says the lost royal scion who rescued his sister from a dragon and learned magic at the hands of an evil wizard he subsequently turned into a cat before fleeing to his familial home for a reunion with his mother from another land and a father who at one point killed Dracula in their castle home full of powerful treasures with a magic mirror surrounded by witches and wizards and trolls and elves fairies and lost remnants of sorcery, “That’s impossible! Castles can’t fly!”

I despair of the Daventry royal family. It’s as bad in King’s Quest VII, when Rosella, a girl brought up in a fantasy land, dreams of stepping through a magic pool into another, slightly different fantasy land.

But hey. At least it’s true to the games!

She may be an evil witch, but at least she takes time to put up clear signage.

Not so true to the games, but honestly quite refreshing, is that the book remembers a rather basic point that usually gets forgotten - King Graham is a King. He has knights. He has subjects. It’s not quite ready to go with my ideal solution to every King’s Quest puzzle, which is to send his bloody army to beat up that yeti until he dreams of being defeated with a pie in the face, but hey, it’s a start! Sanity is now possible!

They’re still not very used to this though, with the official royal response to a dark castle of obvious evil appearing in the corner of the kingdom being to do absolutely nothing for several days except give audiences to peasants.

Four days had passed since the black castle had come to rest beside the river, time enough for the first reports to reach Castle Daventry. Those reports were making it increasingly clear that the black castle’s incursion into Daventry represented a deadly threat to the realm and his people.

All 48 screens of it.

“Whoever brought this outland castle here will have much to answer for,” Graham said, a deadly edge coming to his voice. [...] If I were acting for myself, I might ride forth to confront the knights of the black castle this very day.”

Yeah, because nothing is more terrifying than King Graham on the warpath.

Instead though, he advocates patience, consideration and presumably sneakily ordering a hint book, taking several days before sending a single man in to recon the situation or make any effort whatsoever to protect people from the invading army of evil. Luckily, Daventry has the most placid citizens ever.

The evenness of his response seemed to have a calming effect on all who witnessed it. Even those who at first had appeared near panic eventually left the throne room with an attitude of renewed confidence.

Or, possibly, just a rictus grin of total doom. And not undeservedly, since when Graham does finally get his act together and assemble his knights… which takes another week, the master of the castle just wanders in in the middle of a speech that really should start “We shall fight them on the beaches. We shall fight them in the marshes. We shall fight them in the savannahs. We shall fight them in the volcanos. We shall… could someone tell that geologist to stop crying? They should see what things are like in Azeroth!”

“Physically, the king was not the most impressive person present. He was dressed, as was his custom, in the manner of a squire or a rustic knight, and he spoke in a quiet voice. Such was the aura of vitality and inner strength he projected, however, that he overshadowed all others in that company. The authority he commanded over his knights was absolute, but it was not the authority of force and coercion. Rather, it was an authority derived from the absolute belief and trust he inspired in his people. While Graham occupied the throne, what misfortune could long hold sway over Daventry? What evil could prevail?”

Apparently Daventry’s secret police had done a good job hushing up the dragon that he almost fed his own daughter to, the regular wizard attacks, his own near-death, and the time someone stole his castle.

What the shit? I totally parked it here this morning!

As I said though, it’s at this point that the master of the castle, a necromancer type called Telgrin, just casually wanders into the room and steals his soul. Yes, against this vast army of one guy and two bodyguards, the collected knights of Daventry can do nothing but pretend the wee-wee smell is coming from someone else’s codpiece, leaving Alexander to man-up and go find a mage capable of lending a hand - in this case, a guy called Morowyn, currently mid-way through turning into a tree as part of a poorly-judged life extension plan.

Hmm. A evil wizard comes to town. Bottles up part of the Daventry royal family in a glass container. And to find help, the hero has to track down a doddering old wizard, who- Wait, this sound familiar…

“I cannot go with you, but perhaps I can offer someone to go in my place.”
“Who?”
“My apprentice, Cyril.”

...

NO! NO NO NO NO NO NO!

“Even though he cannot wield magic, he possesses knowledge that may be invaluable to you. I think that you will be surprised at how useful he will make himself.”

YOU’RE CEDRIC! YOU’RE TOTALLY GOING TO BE CEDRIC! ADMIT IT! CONFESS! DIE!

As they plunged though the forest, Alexander’s mood grew increasingly downcast. He found himself becoming irritated whenever Cyril lagged behind and he had to wait for the younger man to catch up.

AAAAAAAAAARGH! NOT AGAIN! NOT AGAIN!

“Whooo! I’m back, bitches!”

Oh, Cedric. The most obnoxious ally ever. In the whole game, he does literally nothing but get in the way, and his one useful skill is getting in the way of a magic blast meant for Graham. Until then, his only contribution is to go “Watch out, a poooooooisonous snake!”, and he screws even that up because it’s a venomous snake.

Oh, the hate that bubbles up at the mere sight of this owl’s face.

But in this case, it turns out that first impression is wrong. Thankfully it turns out Cyril is nowhere near as annoying. As if he could be, without audio. But we’ll get to that soon enough, when danger rears its ugly head, and that shitting owl would have turned and fled.

No, I’m not going in there. I’m going to find somewhere much less silly.

Together, the two set off on a fairly stock fantasy trek to their destination, having adventures on the way. First up is a meeting with some friendly fairies, who give Alexander an oddly named ‘fairy wallet’ capable of producing unlimited bread, which you can immediately tell is going to be put to a far lesser use than ensuring nobody in the kingdom ever starves again, and an offer to spend the entire night dancing. Which Alexander refuses, obviously, because “sleep”. Speaking of which, why do supernatural beings never drop in with this kind of offer to liven things up on a boring Friday night? Why’s it always got to be in the middle of a quest?

Next up is a kelpie, which the duo defeat by throwing apples to lure it, and Alexander trying to garrotte it with rope. Kudos! A fantastic mix of puzzle solving, and those million hours you and Graham spend at the gym!

At last, the kelpie ceased its struggles. Craining its sinewy neck bak so that one wild eye could look upon Alexander, it spoke, in a high airy voice: “Mortal, why do you thus abuse me?”
“Kelpie, I have heard of how you lurk under this bridge, rising up to drown those unwary souls who try to cross the river here.”
“Why, this is in my nature. Do you seek to punish me for that which nature has ordained?”

An argument much beloved of rabid dogs there. But Alexander is oddly not a dope, using his advantage to make it both leave and promise not to kill anyone else, and taking a moment to also add a “Seriously. Try to **** me and I will **** you right back,” threat while still holding the rope. I’m actually warming to Alexander a lot here. He really gets shit done. Not like King Graham, who spends half a game trying to get past a single snake.

In fact, he’s pretty smart about a lot of things. Trying to trick an ogre for instance, he doesn’t merely offer his fairy wallet (wallet, seriously, is ‘cornucopia’ that hard to spell?) and thus risk getting boshed on the head with a club, but freely hands it over and points out that the ogre won’t get to keep it unless it clears out, and instead of demanding a favour, simply offers to look after the carts he was protecting with a:

“You are much too important to waste your time in such an unproductive pursuit. I will stay and look after things here. And I can tender your regrets to the black knights, when they return.”

Nice psychology there. Round of applause!

"HELLO ALEXANDER. HONESTLY, I EXPECTED TO SEE YOU SEVERAL ADVENTURES AGO. HO HUM."

“HELLO ALEXANDER. IT’S ABOUT TIME.”

Which isn’t to say that the book isn’t a bit goofy elsewhere. Just for starters, its kinda-sorta equivalent of the Ringwraiths, the black knights, refer to each other as “One Who Was Edmund” and “One Who Was Harold.” Which proves to be odd foreshadowing for the fact that they were former kings, pressed into servitude by Telgrin as part of his soul-sucking trick, in a surprising display of competence for a man who… well…

Telgrin let his breath out with an exasperated sigh. “Where did you hear about her? Is her presence here widely known in the vicinity? Will we son have other adventurers following in your footstep?”
“Where did we hear about who?” Alexander said helplessly. “I have no idea of what you’re talking about.”
Telgrin stroked his chin pensively. “I almost believe you. Almost. But why have you come here, if not to steal away my lovely Lydia?”

Um. The invasion of Daventry? The king’s soul being in a glass bottle? Telgrin, dude, eyes on the prize.

He does finally remember where he saw Alexander though, musing pretty much “Oh. Yeah, that guy,” and even considering just letting him go on the grounds that, eh, whatever. But, he’s one of Those Villains who can’t resist talking and boasting, in particular about the truth of his black knights - that they’re not merely the souls of kings, but their souls embedded into armour. That’s… actually a pretty smart thing for a necromancer to do! I mean, I’m not sure why he’d want kings specifically, if he’s not going to leave them as puppets or stick around to enjoy the conquest, but it’s nice and dark and-

“You are an evil man.”
“So it has been said,” Telgrin shrugged. “Personally I’ve always found that such abstractions do not apply well to life in the real world. They make matters that are by their very nature complex seem rather too simple, don’t you think?”
“Evil,” Alexander repeated.
Telgrin sighed. “I can see that you’re not really up to a probing and dispassionate philosophical discussion. So be it.”

Oh, come on! There are times villains can play the whole ‘beyond good and evil’ thing, but none of them take place after deciding that your life’s work is going to be flying around in a castle, soul-linking kings to armour for shits and giggles, and all that other stuff. Again, I’m on Alexander’s side here. Though I do enjoy Telgrin’s attempts here, and in particular his passing comment after ordering Alexander to be thrown in the rancor pit. Sorry, wait. ‘Thrown to a barikar’.

“Farewell, my young stalwarts. I do not envy you your last adventure.”

Politeness. It’s a virtue, even for villains.

In the barikar pit, it’s also nice that Cyril, the young wizard who everyone has made a point of commenting, isn’t allowed to use magic, at this point decides “Screw that noise,” and busts out enough fire energy to turn the dreaded, feared monster into its own charred skeleton.

Cyril sprang up, seemingly energised by the success of his spell. “Did you see that? Amazing. I’ve never worked one of the major spells before. I know them all, of course, but I’ve never worked one before. It went better than I’d hoped. Whew!
Alexander’s cloak appeared to have quit smouldering now. He examined it ruefully, finding many holes where the fabric had been scorched through. “It was an astounding spell,” he agreed. “Rather more powerful than strictly necessary, I thought.”

...

Alexander, you arse.

Continuing to explore, he meets up with Owen, the former master of the castle who Telgrin deposed while he was simply a scullery worker. (“Like in Gormenghast?” Alexander doesn’t comment. “No, this is completely different,” Owen actively doesn’t reply.) Despite being a prisoner and also, uh, beheaded, Owen promises to be a valuable ally, even willing to teach Alexander a trick he can use to step through mirrors and thus rescue his daughter and Telgrin’s inevitable future bride Lydia, who he intends to marry to become the true king of the castle rather than merely retaining his status as the dirty rascal. Though given that he’s already flying it into battle and filling it with necromantic servants, it does rather seem like he’s got all that sorted.

At this point, the book takes a turn for the weird, as Alexander and Cyril end up being chased into an ambush, blow a hole in the wall, and more or less fall out of it for a couple of chapters of… uh… trying to get back in. And then we have the most out of character moment in the entire book, as Prince Alexander meets up with a girl trapped in a castle and has this conversation.

The princess frowned. “There’s no need to be shy, Prince Alexander. I know that you have come to steal me away. It is what Telgrin has always feared. It is why he has walled me up here and why he set Lorell (a monster) to watch me. I always knew that someday someone would come…”
Alexander tried to choose his words carefully, but there was no easy way to say what he had to say.
“Princess Lydia, you are a charming and beautiful young woman, and a man would be very lucky to steal away with you. But…”
“But?” she said with a frozen expression.
“But that is not the reasaon I came here. I did not even know of your existence before I came to this case. I’m… sorry if I disappointed you.”

Yes, Alexander. The prince who, after seeing Princess Cassima for thirty seconds, spawned this song…

...is saying “Yeah, no, no thanks. It’s not you, it’s me.”

No wonder these books aren’t canon. And speaking of Alexander being a bit odd…

[The princess] said, “Once, when Telgrin let me visit the keep, I took this from his study. He would not be pleased if he knew I had it.”
“What is it?”
“It is a volume of ancient spell craft and arcane lore. I’ve been secretly studying it and practicing the spells it contains.”
Alexander said “I’ve heard it said that it is extremely ill-advised to attempt to learn magic without a master.”

Oh, Alexander. Every new page, that stick just embeds deeper up your butt. Of all the people to be scolding a prisoner for daring to learn forbidden magic. To explain why, allow me to introduce the wizard Manannan. Manannan, what do you have to say about Alexander, formerly your slave Gwydion, and his stance on this?

“Meow!”

Thank you, Manannan.

Much of the rest continues as expected, with Telgrin torturing Graham to break his spirit, Graham telling him to suck it, and Telgrin asking him if he wants to - I quote - “to enjoy the kiss of the Jewel of Orkae” some more, which is meant to be scary but just makes me giggle, especially as Telgrin employs it and then walks off “still humming, still cheerful.” Dude loves his work! Even after they steal his magic staff, he’s still taking it all casually.

The magician king made an exasperated sound. “Is everyone in Daventry this obstinate?”

I know, you invade a place, it’s just rude for them to fight back. Almost as rude as literally dropping Cyril out of the story when the two fall out of the castle for a chapter or so, all so that Alexander can go schmooze with the princess on his own when he gets back in. But that’s not very interesting. Instead, here’s the final conflict, after Telgrin has been half-blinded and lost control.

This guy is so great…

Trembling slightly, Telgrin’s thin lips assumed a ghastly expression that was somewhere between a snarl and a smile. In a confidential tone, he said “You know, Alexander, I am not normally given to strong emotions. I do not often make declarations of animosity, for these do not agree with my usually thoughtful and scholarly nature. I must, however, tell you that I hate you. Yes, hate you, without reservation or stint. I wish to see you dead, preferably after a program of long, painful, and disfiguring torture.”
Telgrin paused for a moment, glaring at Alexander with his remaining eye, and then continued in the same tone. “The wonderful thing is, I have the power to make it all come true. All of it - the pain, the disfigurement, the death. I tell you, sometimes it’s a truly marvellous thing to be me.”

Why was this guy never imported into the games? Goddamn it, Roberta Williams. It’s not like King’s Quest VII had a memorable villain or anything. Speaking of, this is his response when Lydia joins the fight.

“Lydia, Lydia, don’t you understand? A man wants to idealise the woman he is to wed. This becomes extremely difficult when she keeps bloody carping at him!

Lydia of course makes the noble offer to wed him if he lets Prince Alexander go, but Telgrin is now officially far too awesome for that. We’re talking voiced-by-David-Warner levels of awesome.

Telgrin raised his face skyward and made a short, barking sound of frustration. After a moment he turned his attention on Alexander. “Do you see what you’ve done? You have stolen the affections of Princess Lydia. She’s now willing to marry me, merely to save your worthless life. Willingly! Well, I won’t have it, I tell you. She shall marry me unwillingly, or not at all!”

And when everyone rounds on him…

The magician-king threw up his hands and said “Oh, I see the way of it. It’s blame-everything-on-Telgrin time, is it?”

GIVE. THIS. MAN. A. GAME. IMMEDIATELY!

The rest of the book just goes as expect. Alexander fights, he wins, he gets back home with his father’s soul in a jar, and his blatant attempt to keep Cyril away until he decided whether Princess Lydia was going to be his girlfriend or not ends with her and Cyril hooking up and going off to make beautiful magic together with their tree master who sounds a bit like an Elder Scrolls game. After all, Alexander has Cassima to look forward to.

If not for the scenes of her crushing on him too, it’d be one creepy-ass relationship.

So, what did I think of this book?

It’s not great fantasy, but it’s a hell of a lot better than 6/7th of the King’s Quest series. It’s got much the same slightly polite, unironically retro style to it, where people just stumble into random encounters with an expression of dull surprise, but Alexander has at least a little life to him, we finally see Graham doing something other than shirking work, and Cyril is a much more effective companion than he ever seems like he’s going to be - his magic uncontrolled but essentially fine, and no big sting in the tale coming when he uses it. Having played the games, full of puzzles like pouring invisible ink on yourself to hide and whatever, it’s quite satisfying to see Alexander just asking his wizard friend to blast stuff with fire, with the story not particularly subtle about how it gets rid of him when his use runs out, but at least doing so pretty well and bringing him back for the finale.

This is… a decent book. This is much closer to how King’s Quest really should been all along, rather than the patchwork quilt composed entirely of half-asses that stretches out like a Chessboard Land made with buttocks. What a nice surprise to end Book Week on. I can’t say I feel like checking the others, but I’m pleased that King’s Quest at least now has one villain - one - worth remembering.

If there’s ever another, I insist he returns.

August 8, 2014 - Filed In: General Nonsense