For many years I've had it in my head that the Fighting Fantasy series goes a little off the rails in the teens. The first ten books are pretty unassailable: mostly set in Allansia (albeit the majority of them retroactively), mostly written by Ian and Steve, and mostly good to excellent (we'll just agree to forget about Starship Traveller). Then from books 10 to 20, the line gets really unfocused. Only three of them are written by Steve and Ian, and only two are set in Allansia (with two more technically in the same world but thematically far away from the standard FF tone). We've got a bunch of different flavours of sci-fi, we've got samurais, we've got super-heroes... It's an eclectic mix, but as a kid I never clicked with a bunch of these books. They were cool I guess, but I just wanted more Warlocks of Firetop Mountain and Citadels of Chaos.
Of the first twenty books, The Rings of Kether is the only one I never read as a kid. The others I owned myself, borrowed from friends, or found at the library. I'm pretty sure one of my friends owned The Rings of Kether, but I never bothered to borrow it. The cover was kind of boring, there weren't any cool monsters in the illustrations, and the whole "smashing a drug ring" set-up didn't grab me. I eventually read it when I started re-collecting the series in my early 20s, but it didn't make much of an impression on me. It's not that hard, and I was happy to breeze through it on my way to Seas of Blood.
I felt much the same when I played through it for the blog. The premise is, admittedly, pretty edgy for a kid's book these days. The "war against drugs" was very much in the zeitgeist when this was published, so it didn't feel out of place at the time, but I'd be surprised to see this one getting republished by Scholastic. Having it structured as an investigation is novel, but also makes it feel a little disjointed. And because it's not that hard to beat, it's over so quickly that it barely leaves an impression. I was expecting I'd end up trashing it fairly thoroughly.
On reading through all of the sections systematically, I found a lot more to like. For one thing, it's a lot less disjointed than it seems: there are plenty of connections between various parts of the plot and setting, but you need to go through the book numerous times to catch them all. And the structure really is different than any FF that's gone before it, and quite intricate. Andrew Chapman has said in interviews that he put a lot of planning into this one, and it shows. Of all the FFs I've played so far, this book was by far the most difficult to map out. There are a lot of paths to victory, and I give Chapman major kudos for managing to link it all together without any continuity errors or structural failures.
Sadly, for all of its neat structural innovations, it's terribly light on the things that make an FF enjoyable. Its open structure, with almost no walking dead scenarios, make it one of the easiest books in the series to complete. The illustrations are competent but unexciting. The villains aren't fleshed out all that much (except for Zera Gross, who is perhaps a little too fleshed out...). The setting is kind of a bland hodge-podge of Asimov, Heinlein and mid-20th century classic sci-fi in general. The major exception to this is the section with the monks on asteroid C230; their serpentine space god is memorably weird, but it's also easy to miss and completely disconnected from everything else in the book. Overall The Rings of Kether is well-designed, well-structured, and perhaps technically more competent than a bunch of the books that came before it, but it's just lacking the spark that made those books unforgettable.
COOL STUFF I MISSED
There are a lot of avenues of investigation in this book, and it's impossible to go through them all in the few attempts I had. Chief among those would be the meeting with Clive Torus and his wife, as well as a bunch of confrontations with various guards and robots, as well as an earlier meeting with Blaster Babbet. Overall I feel like I managed to avoid most of the combat encounters in the book.
There's also a second victory, which comes when you use a key to activate the nuclear reactor on Blaster Babbet's asteroid, thus blowing up the entire operations. It's honestly a more satisfying conclusion than defeating Babbet, who has no character whatsoever, but because it's not paragraph 400 I'd class it as an incomplete victory.
MISTAKES AND RED HERRINGS
As far as I can tell, there weren't any errors in the version of this book that I played, aside from the whole weirdness with the spy ray being taken away from you without it ever being mentioned that you had one. I see on the Titannica wiki that there were bad links in some earlier printings, but they must have been corrected quickly. I played a zigzag edition (maybe a fourth printing?) that didn't have them.
There are certainly red herring clues in the book, most notably those pointing towards suspicious activity on the moon, and asteroid C230. But even those provide clues that point you back in the right direction, so I don't really count them.
As for red herring items, there aren't any. This might be the first FF where your inventory barely matters at all; the only items to be found are a few weapons, some extra Pep Pills and the key that blows up the asteroid.
There are twenty instant death/failure sections in this book. My initial impression was that none of them were particularly interesting, but on reading them back I'm impressed by the variety; they range from simple failure to find the right clues, to dying in a fiery car crash, to spinning off endlessly into space, and even being eaten by a weird space god with a woman's face. You can even be crushed underneath an overweight woman, which has to be an FF first. But for sheer hilarious banality, it has to be the following:
Killed by a paperweight thrown by a scared office worker. What a way to go.
Story & Setting: The premise is unique for FF, and there's more going on story-wise than a couple of play-throughs would indicate. The structure is impressively done, and might have snagged a high rating, but despite some flashes of humour (and the way every character talks like they came out of a b-grade gangster movie) the setting is ultimately forgettable. Rating: 4 out of 7.
(Because I couldn't fit it in organically anywhere else, I'll squeeze the question in here: what exactly are the "Rings of Kether"? The planet hasn't got any rings like Saturn does. There's a ring of asteroids, but those are usually referred to as belts, and would belong to the system of Aleph Cygni more so than the planet of Kether. Maybe it's a reference to the drug rings you're trying to smash. I feel like I've had a revelation here, but maybe it's obvious and I've been a dummy for wondering about this for 20 years.)
Toughness: It's refreshing to play an FF where the path to victory doesn't require difficult fights and a backpack full of weird trinkets, but for me the difficulty was always one of the selling points of the series. Finishing a book in just a few tries was always deflating (and was always my biggest gripe about Lone Wolf), and I still feel that way a little bit. Books that are too hard get a low rating in this category, but so do books that are too easy, and The Rings of Kether definitely falls into that category. Rating: 3 out of 4.
Aesthetics: I don't know what it is about the sci-fi books, but they just never do well in this category. The writing is less evocative, and the illustrations are invariably a series of robots, vehicles, and guys with guns. It's all done well enough here, but there's not a lot to get excited about. (And just who is the guy on the cover? He doesn't look at all like 'Blaster' Babbet, and there aren't any other obvious candidates.) Rating: 3 out of 7.
Mechanics: Much like Freeway Fighter, this book has three different kinds of combat: melee, guns, and vehicles. In this case its spaceships rather than cars, but it's all executed well and balanced so that most characters could get through. Space battles are deadly, and a low roll on your Shields score is probably a death sentence, but there's only one of these fights you absolutely have to do. The rules are solid here. Rating: 5 out of 7.
Innovation & Influence: At first glance it doesn't feel like this book is doing anything new, but it's put together like no other FF before it. In terms of complexity, it's probably only beaten by Steve Jackson's more intricate efforts, such as House of Hell and the later Sorcery! books. Rating: 3 out of 7.
NPCs & Monsters: This is where the book maybe falls down the hardest. It's full of NPCs, from drug runners to corrupt officials, but none of them stand out all that much. The main villain, Blaster Babbet, is a total nonentity. Zera Gross is memorable, but not in a positive way. There are some nondescript robots and a few weird aliens, but little of note. Rating: 2 out of 7.
Amusement: Despite the interesting things I found while dissecting the book, I didn't enjoy playing it all that much. Rating: 2 out of 7.
Bonus Points: 0.
The above scores total 22, which doubled gives this book a STAMINA Rating of 44. That puts it equal with Temple of Terror, which I wasn't expecting. It makes sense though: Rings of Kether isn't as enjoyable, but it's got more going on under the hood.
NEXT: Maybe I'll take a look at The Tasks of Tantalon, but so far I haven't bothered to dig it out of whatever box it's hiding in. If I don't find it, I'll move along to yet another Andrew Chapman joint, Seas of Blood.