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The Anubis Murders (Planet Stories Library) Paperback – September 11, 2007
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The Anubis Murders is, for what's it worth, more sparing on both the introversion and the petulance. The book is still set in an RPG game world, but this time it is linked to Mr. Gygax's "Dangerous Journeys" RPG. The story follows Magister Setne Inhetep, wizard-priest of Aegypt and dilettante of the mystery. Setne is accompanied by Rachelle, his foxy young bodyguard and personal Watson.
The book begins with the murder of a powerful sorcerer. An attempt to summon an air elemental backfires and the conjurer is devoured by a demon instead. The scene set, the reader is then whisked to Setne and Rachelle's vacation in sunny "Iberia". After some nude water-frolicking with his bodyguard, the wizard is interrupted by the arrival of three delegates from "Avillon". The Avillonese (Avillonian?) need Setne's help. It seems that the conjurer-snacking wasn't an isolated incident. An eldritch terrorist known as "The Master of Jackals" has been blackmailing the many kings and dukes of "Aeropa". To refuse TMoJ is to invite disaster. The murder of the powerful wizard was merely a demonstration of TMoJ's unstoppable power. Pay up - or else.
Although Rachelle is keen to go forth and fight evil, Setne's curiosity remains unpiqued until the Avillonians link TMoJ to a member of Setne's native "Aegyptian" pantheon: Anubis. The jackel-headed god isn't a bad guy, so Setne feels compelled to go forth and defend his divine honor.
The mystery, such as it is, thickens. Setne is himself blamed in a wave of anti-Aegyptian sentiment. He also uncovers a strange cult - supposedly of Anubis, but, upon scratching the surface, seemingly of some darker power. Rachelle, despite being a supposedly-invincible warrior, is promptly kidnapped and spends most of the book as a hostage, leaving the wizard on his own. This is for the best, as the scenes between Setne (the near-immortal) and Rachelle (the persistently under-dressed) have a distinctly Gorean element to them. No matter how you paint it, old men buying five year old girls at the market and grooming them into sexual partners? Not romantic, just creepy.
Despite being set up as a mystery, this is no more a novel of detection than your average Twitter feed. The who and the how of the central crime is unsolvable to the reader - especially since a last-chapter twist introduces completely new villains into the mix. There's certainly a conspiracy involved, but Mr. Gygax prefers to explode now and explain later. Setne magically blasts his way across the landscape, pausing intermittently to recap some of his more cryptic maneuvers. Mr. Gygax's style glorifies the means rather than the result - what Setne accomplishes is of far less interest than the components, reagents and wands he used to do it.
Mr. Gygax is no mystery writer, but he is one of the finest imaginations when it comes to the detailed systemization of magic. Fortunately, in what might be the book's saving grace, the practice of magic is core to the crimes committed. By writing the story about spellcasting, the author has the excuse to prattle on endlessly about occult mechanics. There's enough relevance to keep from being entirely self-indulgent, and, to be honest, there are less interesting topics ("spellbook" fiction rather than "kitchen sink"). If a supposed mystery has to be a thinly-veiled introduction to some random topic, it might as well be magic. The Anubis Murders is an inferior work of fiction and a great introduction to the Player's Handbook.
Bizarrely, the authorial decision I found most off-putting involved the setting. The adventure takes Setne all through Avillon, including the city of "Camelaugh" and the lands of "Cymru" and "Caledonia". The other Aeropean countries (including "Skandia" in the north) go unvisited but are oft-referenced. Everything is exactly as you'd picture. The Avillonian people are Arthurian and Celtic ("Kelltic"), the Aegyptians build big pyramids, the "Teutons" are stubborn and the "Phonecians" build ships. (Honestly, that last one bothers me most of all. That's a typo run rampant.) There's also an air of undeserved self-congratulation about the entire thing - tiny little touches to prove that Mr. Gygax knows more from the World Book Encyclopedia than you do.
A fantasy world should either wholly absorb the reader or absent itself entirely - it should never be a distraction. Setne isn't actually a bad character. The Aegyptian is slightly cheeky and a wee bit arrogant - not wildly out of place on the Howard/Leiber spectrum of sword & sorcery protagonists. However, he's certainly not so compelling that he can overcome Mr. Gygax's misplaced devotion to world-building. Or world-appropriating, as the case may be.
At the conclusion of The Anubis Murders, the reader has only a vague sense of whodunnit and why, but is swimming in hows and wheres. It is, in essence, game tie-in fiction. Ignore the plot, buy the supplement. And if you don't like the story? Buy the rulebook and write your own. You too can blow stuff up like Setne can! (Slave girls not included.)
Second, interesting protagonists. Magister Setne Inhetep, a worshipper of the Aegyptian god Thoth, specializes in solving mysteries and catching criminals. He's depicted very similar to Sherlock Holmes, actually, down to identifying people's occupations by merely glancing at their hands or disguising himself as street riff-raff to infiltrate nefarious organizations. He's aided in crime-solving by Rachelle, officially his slave, but actually his body-guard and adventuring companion.
Third, a good mystery. High-level leaders, kings, and sorcerors are threatened with death unless they turn over power to a mysterious Master of Jackals. When they refuse, they're soon found murdered in ways that are seemingly impossible. Who is the Master of Jackals and what ties all of the murders together?
Fourth, middling execution. Gygax is certainly competent as a fantasy writer, and sometimes very good--the opening chapter is quite atmospheric, for example. As a mystery writer, however, he's unfortunately below average. The Master of Jackals is revealed to be a character never before seen, and the way Inhetep solves the mystery doesn't seem particularly plausible to me. In other words, this is not the type of whodunnit that can be solved in advance by a careful reader, because the solution comes from way out of left field. A good introduction by Erik Mona speculates that perhaps Gygax thought that the mere mention of the villain's name (taken from real-world Finnish mythology) would be enough to make readers gasp with excitement. If so, he thought wrong.
Overall, not great but not terrible--and a good example that writing a solid mystery novel is harder than it appears.
The novel is written by Gary Gygax, co-creator of the Dungeons and Dragons Roleplaying game. The novel itself is not set in the D&D universe; rather a world like ours with countries' names changed slightly to add a familiar, yet different feel.
The plot is that influential mages and rulers throughout the world are being systematically targeted by a mysterious cult that seems to be connected somehow to Anubis. Setne Inhetep, a cross between Sherlock Holmes and an Ancient Egyptian priest, is called off of vacation to investigate these magical deaths. Will he succeed in his mission? Buy the book and find out!
While it is not going to win any awards for the most literary book I have ever read, I do feel it is a good read for both casual and frequent fantasy readers. This book is just pure fun. I have read over 60 books this year, and this is probably the most enjoyable one I have read.
Gygax wrote a few other books with Inhetep as the protagonist. They are The Samarkand Solution and Death in Delhi. The Samarkand Solution is set to come out in the Planet Stories line in March 2008.
Hope this is helpful to you.