What Do I Know About Genre Fiction? The Binding Stone
I was deeply invested in 3.5, but I never got into Eberron. I was way too busy picking up every sing “core” D&D release, and every single Forgotten Realms release, that I just never got into the setting. Over time, there has been a lot that ended up intriguing me about the setting, not the least of which is the idea that the traditional “evil” races aren’t necessarily so in Eberron.
With the resurgence of Eberron and the impending release of the new 5e hardcover, I decided to investigate Eberron by picking up one of the novels to get a feel for the setting.
- Disclaimer number one, away—Unlike the Forgotten Realms, the Eberron novels weren’t considered canon. I’m not examining this from the lens of what is “canon” for the setting, so much as, “they wanted to use this product to promote the setting.”
- Disclaimer number two—fire!—As with some of the other things I’ve written, I’m criticizing the work more than the author. A lot of what we see are unfortunate trends that show up, that should have been broken, but weren’t established in this book.
If you aren’t familiar with Eberron, it’s a fantasy setting, but one where magic is used more like technology. There was a world war that just ended not too long ago, there are lightning rails (magic trains) and airships. There are sending stones that act as magical telephones.
In a lot of ways, Eberron feels like a 1930s pulp setting, but instead of the technology we expect, people have wands instead of guns, still carry around swords and wear armor, and there are still all kinds of fantastic creatures flying around, like dragons and eldritch abominations from beyond.
Back in 3.5, the setting touted that alignment was more fluid and situational, which I read as “let’s confuse people instead of getting rid of something that doesn’t work for the setting,” but I get what they were trying to do.
In addition to “fuzzy alignment,” species don’t have their traditional roles in the setting. Orcs were the first druids. Goblins had an ancient empire that predates humanity. Elves raise their elders to keep an eye on them with not-evil undead (that don’t get called undead, because 3.5 was still being weird about fluid alignment and undead being BAD THINGS).
That doesn’t mean the setting doesn’t have fantasy racism, but it does mean that fantasy racism is less based on the setting itself going out of its way to show us that certain species are “born bad.” So, I was expecting some interesting protagonists and character development.
Casual Racism Among Friends
Eberron also has a few unique demographics that don’t exist in other D&D worlds, at least not as formal elements of the settings. One of those unique groups are the Shifters, people descended from lycanthropes, that have less extreme animal-based supernatural powers.
One of the protagonists of this novel is a Shifter, who is friends with a druid. That druid, in the first half of the book, is constantly making jokes about Shifters having fleas. He points out whenever his Shifter friend does or says something he doesn’t agree with that “this is why people are afraid of Shifters.”
We are told that the people in the small town where the Shifter and his druid friend live wouldn’t have accepted the Shifter, except that the druid vouched for him. But after vouching for him, he seems to constantly remind his “friend” that Shifter stereotypes exist and that he wouldn’t be accepted without someone vouching for him.
I’m not saying that this attitude wouldn’t exist in the setting, or that you couldn’t tell a story using this as a plot point, if you did it carefully. This was not careful, or thoughtful. We are introduced to a “new” species unique to this setting by laying out all the negative things people think about the species first. Other than his commentary on his Shifter friend, the druid is portrayed as a wise and open-minded character. So essentially, the narrative is guiding us to thinking, not that the wise and open-minded can be wrong, but that his causal racism is completely normal.
Another protagonist in this novel is a Kalashtar, a character that is not from the same continent as the other characters, who has bronze skin, and different facial features. Then we get a comment that we don’t get about any of the male characters, pointing out that her “exotic” features were attractive.
There is an instance where a serving woman mentions that a man is attractive, but all her attraction is focused on how well dressed and well-groomed he is, rather than his features.
In addition to the Kalashtar, we have dark-skinned tribe members that have been subverted into a cult by a powerful outsider for generations. They aren’t portrayed as evil, but they do get slapped pretty hard with the “noble savage” trope, being vulnerable to being manipulated by the smart evil outsider that dazzles them with his powers.
There is also one member of the tribe that turns on the others because she realizes how bad their evil leader is, but this then plays into the “one good one” trope, which is very icky as well.
Traditional Fantasy Racism
When we get to a discussion of the ancient goblin empire or to orcs as the original druids, this isn’t presented as just a historical fact. Both goblins and orcs are still presented as largely viewed the same way people view them in other traditional fantasy settings. It’s unbelievable that the evil, savage raiders they know in the present era could have ever been more “civilized.”
Eventually, the group runs into an orc druid, and that character is presented as a pretty rational, relatable character, but once the group visits his tribe, the tribe is harsh and vicious. They are protecting the world from a “greater evil,” but they are, themselves, presented as savage and dangerous allies. Additionally, the orc tribe is cruel towards the half-orc character that is traveling with the protagonists.
The overall effect is less “this is the traditional portrayal of goblins and orcs you are accustomed to,” so much as “these are 90% the goblins and orcs you are used to, but 10% of their backstory is deeper than you realize.”
Eberron has a type of magic called Dragonmarks where characters are born with the mark of their family bloodline, and this gives them access to magical powers based on that mark. The Dragonmarked Houses are big, important organizations in the setting.
This is a trope that reinforces “some people are better than others,” but given that the houses are often shown to be akin to modern corporations, “better” doesn’t have to mean, “more morally correct.”
The problem is, the primary way we get this information about the Dragonmarks in this novel is through the woman who turns on her tribe, who is descended from a member of one of the Dragonmarked houses, who was forced to stay with the tribe and become one of them, but his mark didn’t get passed on to her. The narrative surrounding this exposition feels a little too close to saying that the tribe wasn’t civilized enough for the Dragonmark to “breed true.”
It seems clear that this novel wanted to introduce several unique elements to Eberron, but it did so by telling us the stories filtered first by racism and stereotypes, then filtered down to what was “true” and contextual. If we had more time with our Shifter where he could present his own thoughts on Shifters, and we had more interactions with people that didn’t immediately point out racist attitudes directed at his people, maybe we would have gotten a better view of the setting element. The same holds true with our Kalashtar character.
If we had gotten anything that played against type, with perhaps people expecting the druidic orcs to be more savage than they actually were, with the orcs understanding and interacting with societal elements with more proficiency than expected, proving the biased parties wrong in their assumptions, it might have been a nice subversion.
It almost feels like the novel is afraid to deviate too far from what the 3.5 D&D baseline was, so any deviation was introduced slowly, and through the lens of racism bias that was the assumed “norm” in D&D.
Of course, all of that doesn’t make up for fetishizing a woman that represents “the other” in the novel, but thankfully, that largely gets left by the wayside once she begins to interact with the other protagonists later in the novel.
The Bonus Round—Audiobook Narrator
I listened to this book in audiobook form. Want to guess what accent they gave the woman that broke away from her tribe and delivers most of the tribal perspective exposition? If you guessed that they gave her a heavy Caribbean accent, you would have been correct.
From everything I had heard about Eberron, I just wish this had been a better introduction. While it wasn’t perfect by any means, It wasn’t too long ago that I finally read the Taladas trilogy of Dragonlance novels. In many cases, point of view characters got to determine a lot more of their own narrative when they were introduced, so while we may have known that some cultures were in opposition to one another, we didn’t have the relative ranking of “civilized” versus “primitive” in quite the same way from the point of view characters.
Yes, we did get some of that later in the books from cultures that were introduced and that did not have a point of view character, and that isn’t great, but it was minimized compared to how we are introduced to various cultures in this novel.
On a broader note, a lot of what is unique about Eberron that gets referenced is “off-screen.” This feels much more like a “traditional” D&D adventure, in a setting where, far off in Sharn or wherever else is beyond the scope of the story, there are all these magi-technical wonders. Far in the past, there are these nonstandard origins for species. But in the present, and where the story is focused, it’s pretty much standard D&D-isms all the way down. That feels like a lost opportunity.