This post has taken me quite some time to get started, and that's because it's difficult to know quite where to begin. Here's the problem: Caverns of the Snow Witch covers a lot of ground. It's expansive in a way that no other book in the series has been to this point. (Okay smart-ass, Starship Traveller is more expansive, I guess. But I didn't have to write an Exploring Titan about that one, did I?)
I suppose the best starting point is to point out something I've already mentioned in earlier posts: this is the first book which mentions Allansia, and treats the place as a unified setting. Ian wrote his last three books as a loose trilogy, and then in Warlock magazine #1 published the first ever map of the Fighting Fantasy world, as seen below.
(I'm going to credit the creation of Allansia primarily to Ian rather than Steve. Most of Steve's fantasy books take place in Kakhabad, or in the Trolltooth Pass area south-east of the map above, whereas pretty much all of Ian's are set in Allansia.)
Caverns of the Snow Witch takes place over an area that spans much of the north-eastern portion of Allansia, so I'm going to split this post into various topics and discuss each in turn.
The Icefinger Mountains
The Icefinger Mountains stretch across northern Allansia, a range of snow-capped peaks. Winters in northern Allansia are said to be "cruel and bitter", with thick snow, icy winds, and frozen lakes. (This seems to only be true in the areas north of the River Kok, as there's no mention of ice and snow once the hero travels south.) The foothills of the Icefinger Mountains are dotted with outposts, where merchants from the south travel to trade cloth, utensils, weapons, salted meats, spices and tea for furs and ivory carvings made from mammoth tusks. Little else is said of the people who live in these outposts. In Deathtrap Dungeon there was a mention of "druids of the north", and an implication that the barbarians in that book hailed from the north as well. There's not much else north of Fang besides the Icefingers, but whether those druids and barbarians are connected to the outposts remains a mystery. The only native we meet in this part of the book is the ill-fated trapper, and he doesn't seem like fit either description.
The Crystal Caves
A network of caverns that lies beneath the Icefinger Mountains, they were carved out of a glacier by the followers of the Snow Witch. The trapper mentioned above describes them as "legendary", and says that he's been searching for them for the last five years. Legends have circulated about the Snow Witch's treasure being frozen in the cavern walls. This all raises the question of just how old these caverns are. "Legendary" would suggest that they're very old indeed. They can't be older than the Snow Witch herself, but as a vampire she's effectively immortal.
The caves are inhabited mostly by the Snow Witch's servants, a collections of slaves that is composed of various humanoids including orcs, goblins, neanderthals, elves and dwarves. Possibly the most intriguing inhabitant of the caves is the Ice Demon that the Snow Witch's followers worship, but more on him later. A good portion of the Snow Witch's followers are there unwillingly, and have been taken from areas as far south as the Moonstone Hills. (Whether Redswift and Stubb were captured while close to home or on a journey to the Icefingers is never clarified.)
The Snow Witch
One might expect a lengthy entry here, given that she's the major villain of the book, but the Snow Witch is very much a blank slate as of this book. She'll get an interesting origin later on in Titan, but none of that stuff is relevant to what I'm doing just yet, so I'll focus on what we learn about her in this book.
The trapper (him again!) describes her as "a beautiful yet evil sorceress who is trying to use her dark powers to bring on an ice age so that she can rule supreme over the whole world". We know that she has her lair in the Crystal Caves under the Icefinger Mountains, and that the vast majority of her servants are slaves that are kept under her control with magical collars. Oh yeah, she's also a vampire. Nobody knows why. And after she dies, her spirit enters a crystal orb. She seems to have an affinity for playing games, and is a stickler for adhering to the rules - she even allows herself to die when she loses a game to the hero of the book.
Aaaaand that's it. Like I said, she's kind of a blank slate at this point.
The Journey South
The hero (along with Redswift and Stubb) journeys south from the Icefinger Mountains, reaching the River Kok after two days of walking. They cross the river some fifty miles downstream from Fang, then walk across the Pagan Plain passing west of Firetop Mountain, heading for Stonebridge. The trio sleep exactly once on the way to Stonebridge, which means that the journey takes less than two days. (If these travel times are accurate, then Allansia is seriously small; the map above could be traversed in no more than a week on foot.)
The mentions of Fang and Firetop Mountain leave things suitably vague as to whether the events of Deathtrap Dungeon and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain have happened yet, but there's no such ambiguity when it comes to The Forest of Doom. As soon as the hero reaches Stonebridge we're treated to a lead-in to that book, as Stubb leaves to take part in the doomed expedition to find Gillibran's Hammer, while the Hill Trolls are massing for war. Chronologically speaking, this book may be the earliest of the series thus far; if it were easier, it would make the perfect lead-in to the rest of the series.
(At this point I'd like to point out something of an inconsistency in the way that Darkwood Forest is described in The Forest of Doom. It's supposed to be really dangerous, but there are far deadlier monsters in the Pagan Plain as depicted in Caverns. Some of that is that the Trolls are massing for war, but it still isn't very consistent.)
The Moonstone Hills
I believe that this is the first time that the hills are named in a gamebook, although it's possible that I'm wrong and they were named as such in The Forest of Doom. We learn here that the Moonstone Hills are home to a tribe of Wood Elves; there's also an encounter here with some Wild Hill Men, which is a lovely call-back to The Forest of Doom. The hills as presented here are densely populated with various hostile humanoids, but their most interesting inhabitant is the Healer.
The mysterious Healer lives in the Moonstone Hills, and will heal you of the death curse laid on you by the Snow Witch. If you meet Redswift's brother Ash, he will relate the Healer's origin story: he was disfigured and cursed with disease by "the Dark Ones", for ridding the wizard Nicodemus of a Death Curse that they had cast upon him. (Nicodemus, of course, is the reclusive wizard from City of Thieves. As for the Dark Ones, they're described here only as "evil spirits of the night", but they'll get a bit more backstory in Titan.) After being disfigured, the Healer withdrew from society, and will only see those who are sick. His magic is more ritualistic and shamanic than that of other Allansian wizards, and seems to be tied to the many masks he has hanging on his wall; one such mask helps to cure you of the Death Spell. This cure also requires a number of trials, and I've never been quite sure of the purpose of them; how does crossing a chasm in the dark and walking past a shrieking Banshee help matters? Whatever the answer is, the Healer doesn't provide it - he's quite secretive, albeit in a benevolent manner.
There aren't a lot of new monsters in Caverns of the Snow Witch - in introducing Allansia as a unified setting, it uses a lot of pre-existing monsters in ways that make sense. From earlier books we get Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, Orcs, Zombies, Neanderthals, Cavemen, an Air Elemental, Centaurs, a Werewolf, Hill Trolls, Wild Hill Men, a Man-Orc, a Genie, and some Hobgoblins. Gnomes have appeared in the series before, but usually as inherently magical creatures - the one here is simply a cook. Bird-Men have appeared in the Sorcery! epic, but this is the first evidence we have that they exist in Allansia as well. There are also some monsters that are simply variants of pre-existing monsters, adapted to a snowy clime: the Snow Wolves, the Frost Giant, and the White Dragon.
The Mammoth and the Yeti are both appearing here for the first time, but there's not much to say about either. One is an unusually large and hostile elephant, and the other a shaggy beast that is vicious enough to slaughter an entire outpost for human flesh. They match up very closely to portrayals in general pop culture.
The Ice Demon is interesting in that it's being worshipped by the Snow Witch's followers; obviously she's in league with it somehow, although their exact relationship isn't spelled out just yet. It's also not clear whether the demon seen here is in its true form, or is simply a spirit animating an ice statue. It's also not displayed with much intelligence, but it does have an icy breath that can freeze its foes.
The Crystal Warrior is a statue carved out of quartz, and animated by the Snow Witch's magic. Presumably, they're difficult to make, because she only has one of them. It's completely impervious to bladed weapons, but can be harmed with a war-hammer. It also relies on sight to detect it's enemies, as it's able to be avoided by turning invisible. (It's quite possible, as presented here, that this Crystal Warrior is unique, and that only the Snow Witch knows how to create them.)
The Sentinel seen here is a guardian of the Snow Witch's treasure - it's encountered when you pick up a golden idol from said treasure, and it bursts out of your hand to become a golden warrior. Again, it's possible that this is another construct that only the Snow Witch knows how to make.
The Brain Slayer is a D&D Mind Flayer with the serial number filed off - a robed humanoid with an octopus-like head and the mental power to entrance its victims. Unlike the Mind Flayer, which feeds directly on brain matter, the Brain Slayer merely wraps a tentacle around its victims head and feeds on its "brainpower". To be honest, it robs the creature of a lot of its horrific aura.
Flesh Grubs are also D&D analogue monsters, this time standing in for Rot Grubs. They're basically big maggots that will burrow into exposed flesh with their hook-like fangs. Brrrrr.
A Dark Elf appears for the first time here. We've seen Black Elves a few times before this, but not Dark Elves. They're described here as the natural enemies of wood elves, and they wear "familiar black cloaks". We get little else, and there's no explanation of the difference between Dark and Black Elves. No mention is made of them having dark skin, either.
The Night Stalker lives in a cave in the Moonstone Hills. It's a hunched, sinewy, creature with an ashen face, folds of grey skin, and sunken eyes (and a hell of a set of fangs if the illustration is to be believed). It skulks through its dark cave, lighting its way with a dim lamp, and attacks intruders on sight.
The Pegasus, appearing surprisingly for the first time (I
think), is the classical winged horse of mythology. The Healer summons
one, and claims that it will fly you anywhere for a gift of silver.
I believe the Banshee that appears here is the first in the series. It's described as a "hideous spectre whose face and hands are shrivelled and who only has one large nostril and a single tooth". It's also explicitly female. Curiously, the Banshee is harmless if you're able to pass by it without displaying fear or otherwise acknowledging it by speaking or touching it. It will let out a "doom-laden" howl, but let you pass if you're able to resist lashing out at it. Not only does it scream, but it can speak as well, and does so by telling you that you're going to die. Such is the fear that it induces that many foes will be frozen while battling it (rolling under your SKILL score with two dice is required, or you automatically lose the Attack Round).
So that's Caverns of the Snow Witch done and dusted. I doesn't introduce a lot of original elements, but it does a lot to draw pre-existing elements together and establish the flavour of Allansia going forward.
Next: Next up is Warlock magazine #3, which contains a preview of House of Hell that apparently changes many things from the book. I'll probably cover the non-gamebook stuff first, then the House of Hell preview. I'm looking forward to it.