In The Howling Delve, Jaleigh Johnson, unlike Erik Scott De Bie in Depths of Madness, does not rely entirely on the dungeon as the setting. Set in Amn in the Year of Lightning Storms, The Howling Delve’s plot revolves around two protagonists: a nobleman’s son who seeks revenge for the overthrow of his family, and a fire elementalist who once lived on the streets of Amn and who seeks something unknown even to her.
Although this is Jaleigh Johnson’s first novel, she has previously published short stories. One can be found in Sails and Sorcery: Nautical Tales of Fantasy published by Fantasist Enterprises. Another appeared in Realms of the Dragons II from Wizards of the Coast.
Johnson’s first novel effort has, in this reviewer’s opinion, been a success. Although The Howling Delve had a rough start, it finally ended strongly with a well-written chase through the tunnels of the Howling Delve. The tortured beginning comes from the choice Johnson made in skipping around in time for the first seven or so chapters. The reader does not actually reach the Year of Lightning Storms (1374 DR) until about the eighth chapter. This is in part because there are two protagonists whose interwoven stories needed separate back stories. While the writing is excellent, I found myself wondering when the meat of the story was to be reached. When it came, it was worth the wait.
The interwoven plot of the two heroes parallels and describes the other. Although Johnson does resort to making that obvious, even to the point of having a character directly state it rather than allowing the reader to get the subtlety on his own, the plot is weaved interestingly enough to hold the reader’s attention. The plot follows a logical pattern filled with interesting characters and some surprising twists.
Rather than delve too deeply into the psyches of the characters, Johnson has given them simple motivations and then allowed the characters to react using situational ethics. The lack of character depth is not a detraction — The Howling Delve is truly a sword and sorcery style fantasy whose protagonists are not particularly deep, but their motivations are pure, and they are, ultimately, good.
This Forgotten Realms: Dungeons novel is better than the previous one. Johnson has created characters using some of the lesser explored areas of the Forgotten Realms setting (i.e. elementalists, a priest of Dumathoin, and the Shadow Thieves) and given them appeal. I hope to see more of these characters in the sequels.