First things first - it's just a coincidence that I started reading this book on Juneteenth. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook made some references to the overall Dark Sun metaplot, and I realized that these books were probably going to do the 90s thing where each one, despite being ostensibly about different subjects happening at the same point in time, would also wind up subtly (or not so subtly) advancing the timeline. So the boxed set happens in the year of Priest's Defiance and Road to Urik takes place in the year of Wind's Reverence (thanks to the DS wiki for that, though I am kind of bummed out to be reminded of the pure chaos of the series' later canon), and so on and so forth. In order to keep on track, I decided to read these in order of the series number, and the lowest one I had was 2404 - Slave Tribes.
Is this a good way for me, a white guy, to commemorate Juneteenth? Or is it especially offensive to be reading a fantasy book with this subject matter on this, of all days? I don't know. I don't even know how to begin to answer. But it was on my mind.
Also on my mind, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's an AD&D book, published in 1992, by TSR, about the subject of slavery, and throughout most of my read time, I dreaded the moment where they would try and present me with both sides. Luckily, it never came. I'm actually a little shocked. This book is less slavery-apologist than Skypoint and Vivane. It might even be, dare I say, good.
I know, I know, I've been calling Dark Sun "good" in a way that feels really backhanded, and I don't mean it like that. It's just that it really does feel sometimes like the line is getting away with something, like maybe it fell through some loophole in the TSR corporate structure where it was allowed to be creator-driven and not beholden to Gygax's various first drafts.
It's good to remember that TSR had some talented people working there in the 90s, and if Planescape was occasionally bad, maybe that wouldn't have happened if they'd just let Planescape be Planescape, instead of insisting that it also be Manual of the Planes fanfiction.
Anyway, with my critical conscience now salved, I can say that Slave Tribes' claim to goodness can be best understood by looking at its lowest point, where it came closest to crossing the line - the section with the header "Why Is Slavery Necessary?"
There was some definite clenching when I first read that title. It starts off with the pro-slavery arguments (without it "the natural superiors in society would not be free to pursue greater leisure and other endeavors" or the more reasonable, but still pretty fucked up argument that survival on Athas is so difficult "slaves remain the buffer between civilization and barbarity . . . the ends definitely justify the means"), counters with the anti-slavery argument ("civilization is held down by the weight of slaver, and it will not reach its heights until the weight is cut loose") and then the narrator says the dreaded words, "My own view, for what it is worth, falls somewhere in between."
NOOOO!!! The narrator is a . . . gag . . . centerist. The worst possible thing you can be!
Gentle political ribbing aside, he later concludes the section by saying "I long for the day when we can eliminate this immoral and evil practice of keeping slaves" and he's really only a centrist in that he prefers gradual structural reform over violent revolution, which is maybe not quite so mealy-mouthed a position on a world where intelligent life is on the verge of extinction and slaveholding societies have a monopoly on the few parts of the ecosystem that have not been blasted into ruin. Would the sorcerer kings and the templars rather lose the war and give up their privilege gracefully or call upon terrible defiling magic to spoil the prize on their way out? A conundrum that would face any mass uprising.
The real reason I'm focusing on this close call, though, is that even as it's being the most perilous part of the book, it's also a demonstration of the book's biggest strength. The section begins with the words "Some regard slavery as the natural order." The pro-slavery constituency is represented by the vague collective noun "some." Because the narrator is an ex-slave, and he's only conveying this viewpoint second-hand.
That's kind of the key to this whole thing. Slave Tribes is a book about slavery, but it's told from the slaves' perspective. Only slaves (and monarchs, and like one or two miscellaneous characters like the undead horror under the Black Sun Raiders' camp) get names or motivations. They're the main characters, the ones driving their own stories. And they all hate slavery. Even Werrick, the mercenary who gets paid to track down escaped slaves, is only doing it because she's terrified of going back and "by working with evil and feeding it, she hopes to keep it away from her and her band."
It's not a direction I would be bold enough to explore, but it has a ring of psychological truth to it (as well as perhaps being the only time in D&D history where the "neutral evil" alignment has been portrayed in an interesting way) and most importantly - we never learn the specific names or motivations of any of her clients or former captors.
Normally, a lack of specificity might be considered a weakness, but I felt like it was a refreshing change of pace. It's the exact opposite of most slavery-focused rpg books, where you learn a lot about the different slaveholders, but the slaves themselves are treated as an undifferentiated mass (even in books that loudly and unequivocally denounce slavery as a practice). So, when the narrator says, "only the owners claim slaves are well-treated . . . twice better than terrible is still intolerable" it feels earned, instead of just being a disclaimer.
It's not a perfect book by any means. It could have stood to be more forceful about the horrors of concubinage (it's not especially romanticized, and it's probably for the best that it resorts to euphemism, but making a point of describing ex-concubines as having "few skills to make use of outside their pampered existence" is 100% an unforgivable patriarchy fail). But even with that failing, it's probably as good a discussion of this subject as it's possible to be while still being an entertaining action/adventure fantasy book (whether "entertaining action/adventure fantasy" is an appropriate venue for talking about slavery at all is an entirely separate question).
Ukss Contribution: This one is tough for me, because if I'm being intellectually honest, I'm going to have to pick something to do with slavery. That's what's the book's about, and I don't really have any of my usual excuses. Sometimes, I'll shy away from including an element because it requires an entire context to make sense, but unlike Starships of the Galaxy, where following the book required me to invent a whole new fantasy environment, it's actually extremely plausible that Ukss has slavery. In fact, I directly reference it in two previous entries - King of Commerce Island has a libertarian euphemism for its slaves and Lady Harden is described as occasionally fighting slavers (because that's part of what she did in her original book).
Plus, you know, it's one of the eternal human evils, that is continually manifesting in a thousand different forms, so it would be weird if I explicitly said that Ukss didn't have it (although, this is coming perilously close to Exalted: the Lunars territory, where I whine "but it's not realistic to not include this horrible thing" - a pitfall I had hoped to avoid by not bringing it up).
Unfortunately, my second go-to excuse ("there was some small thing I liked better") doesn't work either, because honestly, my favorite thing here was one of the titular Slave Tribes, and for it to preserve the thing I like about it absolutely requires a slaveholding society for context.
Sortar's Army is a group of ex-slaves who has decided that they are going to war with the city states, and they are completely badass. I almost had an out about including them, because the narrator was being a fuddy-duddy about the whole thing, describing them as being completely in the right, but framing it in this chiding way. "Make no mistake - Sortar's Army is a bloodthirsty band of berserkers."
And I thought, okay, this is TSR's brand of midwestern conservatism coming out. They put in a passage like "Sortar believes that everything within a city-state caravan was bought or built with the sweat and blood of slaves. As such, it is only right that Sortar and his army of ex-slaves be the ones to liberate those goods from the clutches of the templars," but the reason they softened it with a word like "believes" is because they're going to swing around and say that respect for property rights is a key tenet of "good" and we'll get to a stat block that tries to make Sortar a nuanced chaotic evil.
And if they had done that, I could have, with good conscience, gone with my second choice (the slaves-turned-bandits who were really into theater.), but they threw me the swerve. Sortar is Lawful Neutral. His lieutenants are Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral. The only member of the group explicitly called out as "evil" it his ex-templar love interest (also, she's a pretty strong character in her own right, who became a slave due to internal politics, is helping the group out of a desire for revenge, and is plotting her glorious return to power).
Normally, I don't care so much about alignment, because it adds nothing to the game but an out-of-character tag that indicates what the author thought about the characters' motives, but here, it matters because it means that the narrator's tut-tutting wasn't meant to be definitive. Whatever else we can say about Sortar's brutal war of vengeance against the city states, it isn't evil.
So, that's my choice. The principled slave rebellion that "does not limit its targets to only the weak." I will, unfortunately, have to make a slaveholding society for them to rise up against, but I suppose every hero needs a villain.