A divine, desert-faring warrior ruler living the high life gets more of the high life while sashaying on a revenge quest.

     I say warrior ruler because I see little difference between regular battle and Sorcerous Combat. Typically, players enjoy spellcasters for the different feel or playstyle. But the rules here grew too dense to allow much magic. And I wonder why The appears in the title when the previous book, Sea of Madness, lacked The? Anyway, the book lets players choose a ready-made warrior or build a new one. The mechanics, while derivative, allow for easy memorization of a rule-heavy system.
     This gamebook, in fact, demonstrates how to make a long list of rules more comprehensible for getting started reasonably fast. Thus, it can and does work where many writers have gone overboard by overcomplicating their systems. A few mild concerns arise, though. The one javelin with its one damage point, and the shield of randomness, feel like tiny tweaks not worth the time. The item slots, at least in my playthrough, seemed underused. The game presents vendors so frequently, I can't think of an instance where any player would have the maximum item allowance. And a staff counts as a one-handed weapon? The hero leads a whole tribe of nomads, yet no one will arm him?
     The first choice presents two themes in the game, randomness and names made of random syllables.

“Where will your tribe go to next? East, to the Melloskine Salt-Flats (turn to 25), north to the Desert of Hakar (turn to 65), or north-east, into the Sea of Sand (turn to 1)? ”

The random directions do suit the leading theme, though. It involves loosing oneself in the enormous desert and seeing where it spits out the tribe. As a consequence of the semi-free-roaming gameplay, the same problem found in Evan's story crops up here. The repeated sections have banter which makes no sense when restated.
     But apart from the strange aesthetics, the system functions smoothly and looks carefully balanced. The overall design and map structure works wonderfully, with some missions to complete, clues, and item investments that pan out. Some creative uses of the mechanics in-game liven up the simple rules. Players will find plenty of good ideas for upgrades and items. The game includes a suite of adventures. The worldbuilding looks excellent, though it feels like a set of novels condensed or a whole box of crayons melted together.
     The text appears well edited grammar-wise. I only found a few mistakes. On 71, clade should become clad. Section 8 has a missing period. Elsewhere, we find “On the fourth day your place seven pebbles . . .” Plurality issues abound such as here: “The amount of Gold your hero [singular] has demonstrates how wealthy they [plural] are.” And here: “If it reaches zero, your tribe are all dead.”
     Regarding format, I wonder if something went wrong with the tabbing. The first paragraph of each section lacks indentation. Or do gamebooks do this for style? I do know the dialogue on 61 ought to go in its own paragraph.
     Speaking of paragraphs, the first line of the first paragraph contains six adjectives. The text gets so adjective-dense, I feel overwhelmed and can't remember much of the descriptions. When you mix all the ink colors, you get black. Even the fictional writers in the story like to string adjectives.

“Of Shahad, the great poet Adulazar once said: 'Her pearly lamp-lit towers are the beacons that beckon me homewards across the vast sable fields of the night.'”

Much of the flowery prose seems insincere and randomly generated from a pool of desert terms. The rituals on 43 also look improvised. And no matter how dazzling, most of it just sinks in the sea of adjectives.
     Consider this example:

“The Temple of the Sun Goddess is a gleaming pyramid of burnished bronze on an estuary island reached only by orange-sailed dhows. Her priestesses wear ochre robes and golden face-masks, and are guarded at all times by eunuch warriors armed with two-handed tulwars.”

Eight adjectives, not counting Sun. Like bodyguards, they get in the way of eight nouns. Consider the simple math of the issue. Can you remember the eight adjectives in those two sentences as easily as you can remember, say, a humble three?
     The same overdelivering appears in every long-winded line. Wright has an excellent vocabulary, though he horribly abuses it. The bombastic writing contains mostly filler that doesn't push the plot anywhere. Like Evan's work, Wright also tries to accentuate his writing with exclamation marks. The story offers philosophical moments, but it all feels like disingenuous padding because of the garishness and complete lack of subtly. Wright has beaten the dog until it's made every whine and squeal for the sake of creating noise. Whenever I read a sentence, I only see the legs of the dog flailing as it yelps the tune of every key on the piano. I think Nora Roberts fans might like this style, but I find it comes off as copywriting better suited for back blurbs.
     The writing appears to follow some guidelines, but mostly just grammar rules and “go big.” The tautologies list: lift up, continuous drone, much-learned sage, down below, and (possibly) holy scriptures. The cliché list: as far as the eye can see, new horizons, there is no telling where, since time immemorial, fast as lightning (everybody was Kung Fu fighting), dark secrets, frozen in time, legend has it, in the blink of [an] eye, to the four winds, a master of your own destiny, and I don’t like this place one bit. I see several instances of a lot and and then, plus stringing of prepositions: “You lead your tribe out from within the . . .”
     Too much of anything becomes toxic, including hyphenation.

“Out on the baking expanse of the salt-flats your tribe comes across the carcass of a Spirullan, one of the much-feared mollusk-men from the marshes to the south.”

Only much-feared needs it.

“It is the slave-leader Kartacus, a massive-shouldered man, clade in bronze plated armour and armed with a gore-encrusted battle-axe. He sees you and charges across no-man’s land, howling a battle-cry to his heathen war-god Morez. Defend yourself!”

Six hyphens. I suspect Wright did this to hit exactly 25,000 words like I did. But we can free up hundreds of words by removing nearly every “turn to” and putting the section number in parentheses, among other saner methods. For instance, “Record the codeword Gherib” appears twice on 92, though it could simply appear once if moved higher. Also, Testing Sorcery gets explained in the rules, but then gets restated everywhere with “Roll one die and Test your SORCERY.”
     Other areas merely state the obvious. “Using a Shield in combat may help prevent you from suffering wounds.” The story does contain some great novel ideas:

“Many of the tribes’ canteens have been ‘sweating’ water through their skins in the heat, while many more were destroyed when several camels that were carrying them rolled awkwardly down a dune, flattening the lot.”

Sadly, though, the writer must tell us that camels roll down dunes awkwardly. Do they roll down dunes in any other way? In the heat should probably go too, since they sweat in a desert, in a book called Sea of Sand, with tribesmen worried about dehydrating to death on that same section. We find another example of pleonasm here:

“In the evenings you and Saifuldin recline on velvet sofas, smoke from silver shisha pipes and contemplate the untold mysteries of the stars in the skies above.”

Most of already knew that stars exist in the sky, in evenings, and above us.
     Obviously, I can't list all the sentences with too many adjectives because I'd have to post the whole book here except for one line: “The most noble of all metals!” The wit works well there, and with just six words.
     On an even more subjective note, and as hinted in the logline above, I just can't root for a hero who already has it all and wants more. I think Wright intended for players to select one of his two glorified female heroes over his boring, average Joe male adventurer. Then, he could lavish obscenely gratuitous luxuries and praise onto her, and no one would mind spoiling a princess. Entire sections, town after town, devoted to unctuous praise and prestige will satisfy narcissists but disturb mostly everyone else, perhaps especially so in these precarious economic times. In the romance genre now, millionaire studs don't cut it. No, our generation needs billionaire boyfriend fantasies. I believe some forms of escapism work better than others, and some work for the wrong reasons.
     Did anyone see The Adjustment Bureau? Don't you just wish rats would chew off Matt Damon's face so he can lose something real for a change?
     I enjoyed the religious claptrap throughout Sea of Sand, though an ending where zealots take over makes me wonder if I've merely replaced one form of slavery with another. Wright achieves some great storytelling and a crescendo nearing the end. But the same noisy prose found everywhere tries to make everything a climax, which dampens the real one. I normally dislike randomness—it inevitably leads to frustration and loss of too much control—but Sea of Sand has built-in efforts to reduce those problems. The RPG character-building aspects also work well. It feels like a big world, easy and fun to get lost in. For this review, I had to return after finishing the rest to thoroughly compliment Wright on his excellent grammar. I recommend this work for Nora Roberts fans who like decent gamebook combat systems.


 


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