In the previous episode of my Fighting Fantasy review series, I finished off the Fighting Fantasy releases of 1988 – an era when it seems like quantity was prioritised over quality, with some absolute clunkers slipping out (including Sky Lord, far and away the worst gamebook I have covered yet). There were some signs of hope – the best of the four books I covered in that article, Stealer of Souls, was really very good, perhaps the best Fighting Fantasy book I’d yet tackled in the series not written by Steve Jackson. On the other hand, a tepid contribution by Ian Livingstone – Armies of Death, most charitably described as an experiment which doesn’t quite work – highlighted how the scaled-back involvement of the series’ creators was causing issues.
Remember, Steve Jackson wrote his last gamebook for the Puffin series way back with Creature of Chaos, and Ian Livingstone’s contributions have become more and more sparse; in fact, we’ll only see one more gamebook by him in the remainder of the Puffin series. (He’d be credited with two solo works, but one of them was ghostwritten by Carl Sargent.) This time around, we have another clutch of gamebooks written by other parties, under the “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone presents” banner. This has historically had mixed results; some of these gamebooks have been very good, some of them have been outright terrible, and of course you have the recurring issue where whenever you have a new person beginning to contribute to the series, they always seem to have a period of growing pains as they feel out best practice.
The four books in this review cover all the main Puffin-series releases for 1989 – that’s right, after this we’re out of the 1980s and coming into an era when increasingly sophisticated videogames become serious competitors with gamebooks when it comes to solo fun. That means Fighting Fantasy really needs to pull up its socks now if it’s going to keep up. Does the series manage this? Let’s see…
Portal of Evil
For ages the dense forests at the foot of the Cloudhigh Mountains of Khul have been considered totally inhospitable to humans, occupied as they are by dangerous monsters and hordes of goblins. However, a while back an expedition from the frontier town of Kleinkastel went exploring the forest. The survivors came back with important news – there’s gold in them thar woods! The region has now become the hub of a gold rush, with Kleinkastel becoming a boom town and the centre of mining activities for the region.
Now, however, miners have been disappearing from their camps and villages within the forest. The mining leaders suspect that something is up; you’d previously passed on an offer to come to Kleinkastel and work as a caravan guard, but this sounds like a more serious matter, so as the adventure begins you are travelling into the outskirts of the forest, intent on reaching Kleinkastel and discovering what the problem is…
Portal of Evil is the second Fighting Fantasy book by Peter Darvill-Evans. His first one was Beneath Nightmare Castle, which I generally enjoyed, but knocked down a few marks for a slightly thoughtless recycling of racist tropes. Here Darvill-Evans looks like he is potentially getting into dodgy territory again. Having a gold rush naturally nudges the reader to think of the US one, so the gold being found in lands previously held by inhuman goblins is a little troubling. That said, the introduction does suggest that Darvill-Evans is entirely aware of the colonialist impulses associated with gold rushes, so maybe this will be handled better than expected.
Continue reading “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 11)”