When I was a lad, I fell in love with a number of writers, particularly fantasy writers, in the early to mid 80s. Donaldson, Eddings and Gemmell are all authors I still go back to today – each different in their own way, but still resonating for me even now.
Another author I loved was Joe Dever. Dever passed away on the 29th of November, another victim of the killing spree that is 2016. Dever wrote a long running series of what became known as gamebooks (solo roleplaying adventures contained within the covers of a book – start with Choose Your Own Adventures, but then expand out into simple game mechanics involving dice or random number generators as your character battles through a hostile landscape to fame and fortune. Key examples are Fighting Fantasy and JH Brennan’s Grailquest) based around the title character Lone Wolf.
Dever had developed the world of Magnamund in the late 70s as a setting for his D&D campaign. Later, he repurposed it for his Lone Wolf books, where you adventure to avenge your fallen comrades, and re-establish the Kai Order, warrior monks who help defend the kingdom of Sommerlund.
The setting is vast, the history deep, the adventures a great deal of fun. Whereas the Fighting Fantasy world was largely developed ad hoc and only later was it all shoved together to give it coherency, Magnamund was developed from day one and presents a coherent fantasy world with different cultures and peoples and histories and gods and villains. It’s really a remarkable achievement.
One indicator of Dever’s skill and imagination as a writer was that even while you were focussing on the adventure at hand, you had a sense that away from the storyline, the rest of Magnamund was busy with its own concerns. This fed into the sensation that you, as Lone Wolf, were part of something far larger than just your adventures.
I encountered the first book, Flight from the Dark, one cloudy afternoon in 1984. The moody cover, featuring Lone Wolf standing looking at the reader while standing in front of a forest (in later books, Lone Wolf’s back would be to the reader, presenting the idea that it’s YOU on the cover) is immediately intriguing. Internal illustrations on the early books were by Gary Chalk (who designed the earliest Talisman boardgame) and are as evocative today as they were over 30 years ago.
The series allows for development of the character as he picks up new skills each book. Unlike most other gamebook series, Lone Wolf followed a storyline with the same character for the first 18 books, which allows for greater buy in from the reading audience. The later books follow a different character in the same setting.
Dever also wrote the Freeway Fighter set of four book set in a post apocalyptic America dominated by road warriors, and the Combat Hero books where you and a friend play against each other with paired books.
Due to declining sales, the Lone Wolf series finished with book 28 in the late 90s, but not before selling over 12 million copies. The enduring love for the series saw them re-published, first electronically and for free via the Project Aon, and then later in handsome hardcover editions. Dever himself set up Holmgard Press to publish the much anticipated books 29-32, with The Storms of Chai only recently coming out. Dever’s books found new fans in Germany and Italy, and indeed he had to bow out of attending a convention in Italy due to the surgery he underwent before his death.
Dever, who had suffered in recent years from illness, passed away at the age of 60, only fifteen years older than myself. While that is sobering, it doesn’t outweigh the joy I felt and still feel today when each new book came along, containing the promise of excitement and adventure and a glimpse of a vast backstory. The continuing interest in Magnamund and his books, which extended into computer and board games and latterly a full blown RPG, testify to the man’s ability to writing engaging stories that tapped into a deep desire for adventure.
Joe Dever 1956-2016