Mistshore is the story of Icelin, a girl scarred by spellplague and left with a perfect memory and very imperfect magic -- the kind that tends to break free of her control and holds the potential to kill her and everyone around her. She encounters a scarred elf named Cerest. Cerest knows secrets about Icelin's past and her family, and soon becomes obsessed with claiming Icelin for his own. With the help of a butcher named Sull and a thief/monk named Ruen, Icelin flees to Misthore, the most dangerous part of the city of Waterdeep.
Mistshore is a fascinating place, a makeshift town on the water, made up of wrecked ships and other debris. The inhabitants are the lowest of the low, but still preferable to the cold evil that is Cerest and his hirelings.
Like the Blackstaff books, this one follows a small party through an adventure, but it didn't feel like an Adventuring Party. Whereas the Blackstaff books dealt with powerful (high level) characters, our heroes in Mistshore have a more common feel to them. They're less heroic, and more just regular, everyday people trying to survive. Ruen was the only one who really stood out as having an actual character class (dual-class monk/thief), such as when he uses his monk abilities in unarmed combat or to catch missile weapons. Sull is no fighter. Though he fills that role, he's simply a butcher doing what he can to protect Icelin. His weapons aren't daggers or axes, but his meat cleavers. And while Icelin shares some traits with D&D style wizards, she doesn't feel like a Wizard or Sorcerer.
There were still moments I stumbled. I don't know what the spellplague is, for example. (I suspect my Forgotten Realms friends can fill me in on that one?) And there were other references I missed, but nothing that completely threw me out of the story. As with Blackstaff Tower, I think most readers would be able to pick up Mistshore and enjoy it regardless of whether they've read anything else from the Realms.
This is a somewhat gritty book. Mistshore isn't a pleasant place, and Johnson allows us to see some of that ugliness. Some of it still feels a little romanticized -- the lepers with the hearts of gold, for example. But you get enough of the harsh edges to realize how nasty a place Mistshore can be. Combine that with Cerest -- he's an elf in a fantasy world, but he's also a very realistic stalker. The obsession with which he pursues Icelin ... let's just say it was vivid enough to make me uncomfortable, and I mean that as a compliment to Johson's writing. The result is fantasy which isn't shiny and fun and heroic, but down-to-earth and desperate and real. Not the tone I was expecting from a Forgotten Realms book, but it worked well.
Good setting, good characters, and a good plot. What more does a book need?