Given this week's theme of conspiracy theories, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Darksword Adventures (1988), may seem like an off the wall pick. First and foremost, Darksword Adventures isn't even a real book. It is fundamentally an RPG gamebook, and a weird one at that.
The Darksword Trilogy (published earlier in 1988) takes place on Thimhallan, a world where everyone has magical powers. A bit like Xanth, except without the kiddie porn or bad puns. Magic springs from "Life" (one's personal energy and a transferable substance) and everyone is born with the capacity to channel one of the magical mysteries (Air, Fire, Shadow, etc). Those rare individuals without the capacity to use magic are deemed "Dead" and systematically ostracised. The trilogy follows the adventures of Joram, the heir to the throne of Merilon, one of Thimhallan's larger city-states. Joram is also Dead, a deception that, when uncovered, leads to his exile.
The series is a black sheep in the stable of Weis/Hickman worlds (metaphor mixed!) and certainly never achieved the popularity of Dragonlance or the Death Gate Cycle. There are a few obvious reasons for this. Joram, the series' putative hero, is an asshole. He's a moaning, emo, whinging jackass. Granted, he's been shafted by the system, but his bitterness makes him a poor guide for a series largely based around immersive world-building.
Darksword also ends on a low note. [Spoilers!] Thimhallan, Xanth-like, ends up invaded by folks like us - normal Dead people from Earth. Magic is defeated by technology and, in a twist left largely unresolved, may be conquered entirely. [Metaspoiler!] Remember the end of "Flight of Dragons" where the dude beats the big bad by shouting about how magic sucks and has been replaced by science? Darksword is kind of like that, except even more grindingly soul-sucking. [/end Metaspoilers] Hey kids, see this world of wonder? KERSUCKIFY! [/Spoilers]
Darksword Adventures is essentially a plea for forgiveness. Although set up as a game guide (and the latter half of the book is all "crunch"), Adventures introduces the world of Thimhallan through an interconnected series of short adventures based on the wanderings of the illusionist (Shadow mystery) Wildreth. These adventures take place in the pre-trilogy lands of Thimhallan, already encouraging the reader to shunt all knowledge of the series' gloomy ending from their mind.
More than that, the gamebook itself (both crunch & '"fluff") is framed by another short story - that of an aging catalyst (Life mystery) and tutor. He describes the game (the RPG) as something called "Phantasia", a child's game that he's adapted to teach royal pupils about their world. And, to put it in the context of the Darksword Trilogy, he's now adapted said game to teach Thimhallan's new residents/overlords about the history of the land.
This is the mulligan's mulligan - an intra-textual plea to readers to ignore the events of the Trilogy because there's still plenty of un-ruined world that was there before it. (As much as any world is "there".) As a way to mollify fans, this is impressive; as an exercise in transmedia acrobatics, it feels decades ahead of its time. Weis and Hickman post-rationalise the systemisation of a world that they've already destroyed, as well as leaving the door open for all fan activity to be authentic without being canon. In a word, "wowsers".
One further note on the crunch - which really does deserve a separate review - the game mechanics are constructed in a deliberately archaic way. Hand signals replace dice (apparently that's more Thimhallan-y) and the results system is dubbed "TAROC", based on the Thimhallan pocket oracle. I can't think of any other RPG where the mechanics are written in-character. (There must be others, please let me know in the comments...)
All that out of the way - how does Darksword Adventures connect with this week's theme of conspiracy theories?
Even within the boundaries established by Darksword Adventures (pre-Trilogy quasi-canonised ahistoricism!), Thimhallan is an unusual place. Although the land contains all the trappings of epic fantasy (dragons and knights and robed wizards and such), it is fundamentally a dystopia. Granted, this could be applied to most epic fantasies (absolute monarchies, etc. etc.), but Thimhallan is a truly miserable place. The existence of measurable magical prowess (in the form of Life) allows for a quantifiable social structure. More than that, worries about the decline of Life (in the increasing numbers of Dead being bored) have led to a program of eugenics. Before having children, a couple must register and be tested by the Church.
The Church itself is the monopoly of Life - an organisation made up of all the catalysts. An individual catalyst is weak (he or she can only provide Life, but not use it) but incredibly valuable. By creating an insoluble union, in the form of a religious institution, the catalysts quickly became the most powerful political force on Thimhallan. Magic is used for everything and the Church controls the energy supply. Darksword Adventures alludes to the Church's aggressive actions in the past to maintain their control - including the eradication of all members of two other mysteries (Spirit and Time).
Although the other mysteries have their guilds and affiliations, the only institution to equal the Church in power is that of Fire. The "Warlocks" of this discipline all pledge their allegiance first to their organisation, secondarily to whatever political/religious faction that employs them. All wizards talented in Fire are spirited away at birth to be trained (and brainwashed) in their mysterious headquarters. As Fire is the combat discipline, the Warlocks are a powerful force - used by monarchs and the Church to maintain order. If the Church has the monopoly of the world's energy resource, the Warlocks have a monopoly on discipline. The two groups work closely together to maintain Thimhallan's status quo.
As a result, traditional political structures like cities and kingdoms are almost entirely marginalised. Monarchs maintain some power over their citizens, but this power is enforced by the Warlocks and fueled by the Church. The only regions with any true independence are Sharakan (where a renegade Cardinal keeps the Life flowing and forbidden technology offsets the missing Warlocks) and the undersea city filled with mer-people (who told everyone else to piss off centuries ago).
In a sense, the trilogy's irascible hero, Joram, is justified in his sullen behaviour. Thimhallan is a strict autocracy with the ruling caste in firm control of everything from breeding to the weather. But Joram is a unique case - someone chucked from the top of the pile to the bottom - and he's an asshole. Throughout the trilogy, the reader gets the sense that Joram would be unhappy anywhere, and his impression of his world is too jaded to take seriously.
The travel diaries of Wildreth, the protagonist of Darkswords Adventures' fluffier bits, more accurately depict Thimhallan's dystopian nature. Wildreth, a merry illusionist, begins in Merilon. His parents are killed in mysterious circumstances and his loathsome uncle inherits his family's wealth. Wildreth is forced to leave the city - both to seek justice and preserve his own skin.
The actual plot is shallow and, as you might expect, serves primarily as an excuse for Wildreth to see the world in a gamer-friendly way. But in-between marvelling at Thimhallan's magical and geological wonders, Wildreth bounces against many of the land's power structures: guilds, Church and rebels. Throughout, he's being helped by the (suspiciously friendly) Warlocks. Although their guidance is deliberately cryptic, Wildreth is able to drop their name and watch doors fly open. Wildreth's search for justice eventually comes to an abrupt conclusion when his clumsy investigations actually turn up a rebel cell. The Warlocks swoop in and clean up everything. Wildreth is re-established, his enemies are removed, peace is restored. A slight side-quest takes Wildreth to the Church. He's tested while he's there and discovers that a beautiful Catalyst has been selected as his mate to be. They're both delighted and live happily ever after.
Wildreth is ultimately delighted by the system. He finds justice (from the secret police) and his one true love (through eugenics). His enemies are punished (they were the good guys) and his family name restored (he's a pawn of the state). His brief time as a penniless begger, selling his Life for food and shelter, only reinforces his appreciation of Thimhallan's class system. The only injustice Wildreth battles is that which inconveniences him personally.
Joram is Luke Skywalker; Wildreth is a twit from Coruscant, delighted to find that Darth Vader has made the trains run on time. If the main trilogy is despairingly conventional (lost prince, born special, saves world, bleh), Wildreth's story is more potent for its unusual approach - he intimates the awfulness of Thimhallan's evil empire by showing how it successfully functions.