"In a game of chess, someone has to take the black pieces." - In that one sentence, Eve Forward brilliantly summarizes the premise of her debut novel. Most fantasy writers feature a battle between good and evil where good wins at the end. However, "Villains By Necessity" takes a different approach, and explores exactly what happens AFTER good has triumphed over evil...and the result is one of the most compelling books I've ever read!
In Eve's novel, the ultimate triumph of good over evil has left the world dangerously out of balance. Days are lasting much longer, night is almost non-existent, and almost everyone is blissfully unaware that the overwhelming presence of light over dark is threatening to burn out everything in existence. Thus, five villains team up to reintroduce evil into the world in order to save it.
There's so much to like about this book. On the surface, you have an intriguing plot and the five villains are all fascinating characters. The villains are made up of a brooding assassin, an enthusiastic thief, a wise female Druid, a mysterious silent knight, and a twisted sorceress. Each one has their own distinct personality and are fun to read about. (One of Forward's greatest tricks is how she was able to inject so much personality even into the black knight character while he's completely mute and concealed in armor.) There's a lot of humor that works, and more than enough action to keep things exciting.
While the main story is more than enough to make this a good read, what really won me over was how Forward used the premise to explore the concepts of "good" and "evil" more deeply. For example, the supposedly "good" guys are very morally ambiguous at times...one uses his wizardry to brainwash villains and force them to become good, which raises ethical questions throughout the novel. Furthermore, the fact that "evil" people are trying to save the world also brings into question people's tendencies to apply labels on others. There's one scene where the villains engage in a brilliant debate over whether there's really that much difference between good and evil...for example, the assassin foiled an attempted rape by killing the attacker...is he "good" for preventing the rape, or "evil" for killing someone? By tackling such themes on morality, Forward takes an already-epic tale and builds it into something truly profound.
There are some flaws in this book. While Forward does most things well, the fact that she is a novice writer does show at times. Her prose can be somewhat clumsy, and she doesn't do a very good job of establishing the world where this all takes place...sometimes city names are thrown at the reader as if we already knew the history of this fictional world before even reading this book. And then there's Robin...a centaur who joins the villains in order to act as a spy for the good guys. Robin is so very whiny and annoying at times! Normally, these flaws would have made me knock a star off...except that the good parts of this book are SO darn good! "Villains By Necessity" has been out-of-print for some time, making it hard to find, but trust me, it's worth the effort!