Okay – this is how this conclusion is going to work – I’m going to spend some time discussing the book as a gamebook, and then there’s going to be a brief essay summarising my personal opinion on some of the authorial choices employed by Joe Dever.
First, the writing – story, the atmosphere and so forth.
I don’t know if the practical reality of the mission ‘background’ was really thought through. The idea of an isolated enemy fortress being penetrated by a single hero is a classic one, which dates back all the way to the very first gamebook of them all. However, there is a bit of a difference between a mysterious mountain (or valley, forest etc) and an island where it is specifically stated that a magical fortress prevents ANYTHING getting through. How the heck would that work? Food, supplies, pay television?
Even some flavour dialogue about how “No-one knows how Zahda has been able to survive with his minions for so long behind the barrier, and this is another of the mysteries which you will need to solve” would have been appreciated.
If you can, in fact, successfully suspend your disbelief, Kazan-Oud is a well-constructed and suspenseful ride. The (comparatively) complete lack of knowledge regarding your possible adversaries once inside the fortress makes the collection of information a key objective, where the only other alternative is ‘trial by error’ (where by ‘error’ I mean ‘dying horribly’).
Many of the encounters take on a real ‘haunted house’ flavour, where they drip with atmosphere and puzzles to be solved, rather than simply confronting Lone Wolf with an escalating series of statistically difficult fights.
Although there are a number of ‘choke’ points that cannot be avoided, there are a refreshing number of possible paths to be taken through the adventure, giving replayability rather than a simple slog after each death back to the place where Lone Wolf last ‘died’.
Images such as the deserted beach, the Lovecraft-esque monsters, the arena and the various illusions and traps are described atmospherically and with well-constructed prose.
In terms of ‘gamebook’ construction, the degree of difficulty is dead (heh) on the money. There are a number of insta-deaths, but on my playthroughs it would be fair to say that the majority of them can be avoided by a combination of information available during the adventure and good judgement.
Some of the unavoidable pitfalls are curiously constructed. The compulsory loss of Weapons certainly serves to make things difficult, and the distinct possibility of not regaining such consequential items as the Sommerswerd appears to be dealt with fairly cavalierly.
From a story telling perspective, it also appears odd that you would be stripped of your ‘Weapons’, but not such items as armour, shield, diamonds (!) and so forth. An in-game explanation for this would have been nice.
The compulsory loss of Backpack at the end of the adventure appears decidedly odd. Happening, as it does, only 1-2 paragraphs before reaching the end, it has a modest (at most) impact upon Lone Wolf’s chance of success at this book. It rather seems like a naked attempt to strip Lone Wolf (partially) ‘back to basics’ before the next adventure.
However, these are minor quibbles with a well-constructed, atmospheric, multi-pronged gamebook. It reads well as a story, and has an appropriate level of challenge as a game.
Alright. Here comes the personal comment.
Language has power. Lots of it. The words we choose have a real impact, with the corresponding responsibility resting heavily on any writer.
Lack of awareness of the impact a particular set of words may have is not an excuse, only a reason.
Having said the above, I think Joe Dever made an error of judgement with regard to some of his choices in this book, along with the phrasing used in certain sections.
As concerns the overall structure, Castle Death falls fairly and squarely within the template of the ‘White Savior’ narrative, which has been an recurring feature in film, television and literature. Wikipedia has a good summary here.
A narrative of this kind involves an oppressed group, inevitably of a different race (or species in science fiction) to the protagonist. With the oppressed group unable to save themselves, the protagonist enters their ‘home’ territory and rescues (or liberates etc) them from their oppressors. Frequently, the protagonist will through some effortless ‘natural ability’ prove himself (and its usually a him) better at an activity, tradition or sport which the oppressed race have practiced for their whole lives. For examples of the latter, think Avatar, A Princess of Mars or The Last Samurai.
Take Castle Death. The prisoners are a collective bunch of (literally) unnamed wretches. The only ‘named’ NPCs are fellow outsiders, trying to defeat the evil overlord. There is no indication whatsoever of any inherent worth or ability possessed by the slaves collectively or individually.
The language used to mark the slaves, their appearance and behaviour clearly marks them as inferior in every way. They do not meaningfully assist Lone Wolf, but rather are either indifferent or, following their ‘freedom’, actively harmful and destructive.
Think also of the descriptions used of the slaves – a ‘pitiful herd of gangling, black-skinned creatures’. All of the descriptors beside ‘black-skinned’ are clear terms of condescension and disrespect. The slaves are LITERALLY dehumanised by being dismissed as ‘creatures’. The Latin term ejusdem generis is used legally to describe a situation where an adjective should be interpreted in the context of the adjectives surrounding it. When ‘black-skinned’ is used in the middle of demeaning terms, it is a natural response for the reader to interpret ‘black-skinned’ as also being a term indicative of contempt.
I am not so arrogant as to think that I can possibly know Joe Dever’s state of mind when writing this book. It is trite (and wrong) to ascribe every creator of a piece of art with a ‘white saviour’ narrative as a racist.
I do think that the structure of story, along with language used, was a mis-step, and notwithstanding my great respect and admiration for Mr Dever, I would be untrue to myself if I did not admit to disappointment.
Next – A Jungle! Apparently filled with Horrors!