Review of Troy Denning - Pages of Pain (1996)
What a chimera of a book this is. It has one foot in plain old fantasy, with quite a few battles, some spell-slinging, and a hero on a quest. The other foot is deep in myth. When I first read this book, around seven years ago, I didn’t quite get it. I was already quite familiar with Planescape, the Dungeons & Dragons setting that forms the backdrop for this novel. However, in the novel, I found little of the vast vistas and wide-eyed wonder that typified the setting for me. Instead, the book’s narrative is almost completely confined to a labyrinth, which offers only a few passing glimpses of all the imaginative places that make up the Planescape multiverse. However, upon a second reading and some brief reflection, I think I now see what Denning tried to do here.
There are two protagonists in Pages of Pain. The active one is the Amnesian Hero, a warrior chosen by Poseidon to deliver an amphora to the Lady of Pain, mystery-shrouded ruler of Sigil, the City of Doors, the place at the centre of the multiverse. The hero has no memories of his past life, except waking up at the shore of a river one day, and doing a bunch of awesome heroic deeds: i.e. slaying mythic beasts. However, the task imposed upon him isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Lady of Pain does not grant audiences, and getting to her to deliver the amphora is a heroic task for which the hero isn’t prepared.
The story is told from the perspective of that other protagonist: the Lady herself. In the Planescape setting, she is that all-important mystery, the divine-like force that guards the City of Doors, and prevents it from becoming the umpteenth battleground for gods, demons, and devils. In this book, though still a mystery, she is much more personal, revealing an obsession with physical and mental pains of different kinds, and also revealing that she might be an incarnation or avatar of the City itself.
As the story progresses, the Amnesian Hero is gradually exposed to the contents of the amphora he is tasked to deliver, but these contents seem more meant for him than for the Lady. Whilst seeking a path through the Lady’s mazes with several unfortunate companions, he regains snatches of his memory, and the pains that come with it.
In a strange, almost anti-climactic way, the book ties up many strands in the end: the hero finds his path through the mazes, and defeats the monster of the labyrinth, but at the cost of death of some others and pain for all, to the strange sadomasochistic delight of the Lady, of whom we never become sure if she is personally tied to the Amnesian Hero and the amphora’s memories or not.
As for the hero, his tale is retold in a different form by Morte in Planescape: Torment, that other brilliant piece of (digital) fiction based on the setting, also featuring an amnesic protagonist. In a trading-of-tales, Morte, the sarcastic floating skull with hidden pains and depths tells the story of a man with no memory at all waking up in an alley. An old woman asks him what his third wish is to be. The man does not understand, but she tells him he has already had two wishes. The man says: “I wish to know who I am”. The woman chuckles sardonically and replies: “Funny, that was your first wish.”
So, what is this book? In the end, it is much like the Planescape setting itself: an admixture of epic fantasy and mythic fiction, but at a level of imagination that surpasses most other settings of the Dungeons & Dragons tradition. The setting is based on the idea that all mortal beliefs have power and reality on certain levels (planes) of existence, and as such it can encompass all other mythologies. In the case of Pages of Pain, the story of Greek hero Theseus is grafted onto a fantasy setting, a tale of regret, pain, memory, and amnesia in a way that is weird and estranging as it is effective.