The first time I ever recall encountering Dungeons and Dragons, I was still in elementary school, I think. I remember finding a group of people with these awesome-looking books, and really wanting to join them. I was going to make an elf, I think. Sadly, this was the late 80's/early 90's, and my mother had bought into the moral panic of the time, and I wasn't allowed to play. A similar opportunity to play Palladium's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness resulted in little more than a lengthy character building session, and I didn't see D&D again until I was in college. I had a lot of catching up to do, but luckily Third Edition launched around the same time, so I was able to learn the new rules as everyone else was. But even now, over a decade later, my late entry to the hobby leaves me lacking a certain common touchestone that other adult gamers seem to share: a knowledge of (and often reverence for) Gary Gygax.
I am aware that Gygax is not the only 'founding father' of tabletop RPGs, but he is certainly iconic, and through playing alongside those who he has inspired, I've begun to assemble a picture of his ouvre: detailed, flavorful descriptions of the mechnics of a fantasy world, a love of lethal traps, and a background in military history. So when I found a copy of The Samarkand Solution at Half Price books, I was intrigued by the opportunity to go back and experience the work of one of the most influential people in modern gaming.
The book is part of a series following the adventures of a semi-retired Wizard/Cleric/Secret Agent named Setne Inhetep living in "Aegypt", and while the author's gleeful detail in describing the mechanics of how his magic powers work make it easy to believe that you are reading a novel written by a game designer, the book is largely remeniscent of a Poirot mystery with sword and sorcery trappings, doused liberally with an Orientalist vision of ancient Egypt that can make it difficult to believe this book was written as recently as the mid-1990s. Still, the book is quite pleasant at the start. Gygax's talent for creating compelling fictional worlds is certainly on display here, and his protagonist is pleasantly atypical: aging, wealthy, already well-known and respected, his adventures here read like a peek into the life of a standard Fantasy mentor when he isn't busy leading a group of fresh young adventurers around by the nose.
The novel is written in the third person, but frequently describes the protagonists thoughts, which tend to revolve around his freed slave/adopted daughter, whom he alternately dotes on like a proud father and relies upon like a domestic partner. The result would be unbearable creepy were it not for Setne Inhetep's implied celibacy, and even so there were times during the novel when it felt like I was reading the fanfiction of a dirty old man. For example, when Inhetep escapes a collapsing room during a raging fire and finds himself in an underground lair inhabited by a blonde slavegirl wearing nothing but jewelry, my eyes rolled so hard that I had to put the book down for a couple of days. His awkwardness in the presence of an attractive young woman provides a lot of (largely unnecessary, somewhat distracting) comedy during the middle portion of the novel, but her odd mixture of doe-eyed ingenue and buxom sexpot comes off as unbelievable, and one is left to wonder if she was included largely so that the publisher could justify putting a half-naked woman on the cover. I'm certainly not averse to sexual situations in fantasy novels, nor am I a prude with regards to sexually confident women in fiction (or real life), but Gygax never really defines the character in a way that makes her feel necessary to the plot. She provides exposition and a few clues to the protagonist, spends large sums of his money on a shopping spree, briefly seduces him, then disappears from the narrative after he pawns her off on an almost-nameless side character of a similar age (defined as "younger than Inhetep").
Gender representation aside, the novel is a reasonably well-paced "sealed room" murder mystery, hobbled somewhat by the author's frequent references to arcane regional politics which are poorly described here, but would perhaps have been more familiar to someone who had read his previous novels, or is more familiar with North African/Middle Eastern politics of that time period. It's nice that the author did so much research in preparation for this novel, but the result left me in want of an almanac or a regional map to make sense of the political alliances that form the motive for the conspiracy at the heart of the story. Reading the novel did give me what I was looking for though, as an experience of Gygax's work: pleasant at times, frustrating at others, but ultimately compelling enough to leave me willing to read another.