As a novelist, Gary Gygax was a very good game creator. I recently re-read (or, rather, read, since I'm pretty sure I didn't make it all the way through the first time around) Night Arrant, Gary Gygax's collection of stories featuring his character Gord The Rogue, written around the time he was losing control of TSR at the end of 1985 and published in 1987 by his short-lived post-TSR venture, New Infinities Productions. In some ways the book is better than I remember it (and the other books in the series, which I haven't re-read since the 80s) being at the time. Alas, in other ways it's not.
Unsurprisingly, Gary's writing is at its best when he's describing places or things, just like he was used to doing in D&D adventure modules. Gary had a great feel for his city of Greyhawk, where most of the action in the book takes place. He really makes it feel complex and alive - sort of like a mix of Dickens' London, Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, and (presumably) the depression-era Chicago of his own youth . The city is huge and teeming the way Gary describes it, with a multiplicity of districts and neighborhoods that each have their own distinctive culture and feel - the wealthy areas, the poor areas, the working class areas, the student areas, the commercial districts, the halls of government, the foreign enclaves, and so on. He drops so many street and business names (especially inns and taverns) that it feels almost infinitely large, like trying to make a map of the place would be an impossible task. Reading this books, you come away with a real sense of the place, and its size, and its complexity; you can imagine going there and meeting the people and having adventures. In this regard, and I know it's probably tantamount to blasphemy, it feels to me like he's slightly outdone Leiber - that Greyhawk comes across to me as more detailed and distinctive in feel than Lankhmar.
The other locations described in the book don't get as much detail but are also colorful and distinctive - Weird Way, the village of Grimalkinsham with its tavern of hags, the royal city of Rel Mord, Gnarlvergia and Avalondria, and of course Greyhawk Castle itself are all locations that would feel right at home in an AD&D adventure. That, really, is what is best about this book (and the series as a whole): that it shows you what "D&D world" looked and felt like to its creator. The way the characters talk and think about spell casters and magic items, how they deal with encountering monsters, and how they react to the concept of travel to other planes and parallel universes are all instructive as to the type of world Gary envisioned, and certainly put to rest any notion either that the World of Greyhawk is a "low magic" setting, or that D&D characters were assumed to be naive or ignorant of the world around them (e.g. whether the gods are real, how to deal with monsters, etc.).
All of that's the good stuff, that I feel makes the book something of a must-read for AD&D and Greyhawk fans and that caused me to include it (and the other TSR-era Gord novels) in the canon. Unfortunately, in terms of plot, characterization, and dialogue it's not nearly so good, to the point that reading it felt like a chore - like homework that I had to bull through to get to all the colorful descriptions and setting detail.
The plots of almost all the stories consist of either a series of random encounters or a straight-line plot with no significant twists (and when he does introduce an occasional minor twist, they're all very obvious). For instance, here's a significant chunk of the plot of the story "The Weird Occurrence in Odd Alley" (which, by the way, we know was written while Gary was still at TSR because he bragged in Dragon #102 that it had been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of the then-TSR-owned fiction magazine Amazing Stories): Gord and Chert have a reliquary urn that they stole from the temple of Nerull which no fence or dealer in Greyhawk will touch and which is causing assassins and daemons to pursue them; they venture to Weird Way (a cool extradimensional Goblin Market with all kinds of rich gaming potential that absolutely 100% exists in my World of Greyhawk) where they find a buyer and haggle a selling price of 11,000 gold pieces - 7,000 in gold coins, 4,000 in platinum - which they take delivery of in a big chest. That's too bulky to carry around, so they decide to trade it for jewels, but the jeweler's shop doesn't open until morning, so they check into an inn. During the night some thieves break into their room but because Gord's magical sword gives him infravision he's able to make short work of them. He and Chert question them and learn that their boss is the night manager of the inn. They go to confront him, learn that he's a vampire, fight him, and drive him away. They have a few more encounters before leaving the place, but you get the point.
That sounds like a pretty typical - and pretty fun - session of D&D, but as I work of fiction I feel like there should be more to it - not just a series of random events but an actual overarching plot or theme. I'm reminded of the novels of Lin Carter in which, similarly, the characters just kind of wander from place to place and stuff happens and there's no particular meaning or structure or even really any continuity to any of it. I suppose the case could be made that this fits with picaresque tradition going back to Don Quixote or whatever, to which I'd counter that even in an episodic work there's still generally some element of structure and theme present within each episode, whereas Gord's adventures tend to feel much more like they're just, well, a strung-together series of random encounters in a D&D game.
The (obviously completely unfair) comparison to Don Quixote highlights another way in which this book (and the whole series to which it belongs) comes up short: the characterizations are completely flat. Gord is the main character of every story (and six other novels) but he remains a complete non-entity throughout, with no discernible personality, voice, or even any interestingly memorable quirks. He's totally flat, boring, and generic, and his companion Chert is even worse - a one-dimensional beef-headed lout with no other distinguishing characteristics except that his axe make a humming noise in battle.
An ironic counterpoint to this is that one story, "The Five Dragon Bowl," has Gord and Chert as supporting characters and focuses instead on another pair - Digwell Biffson the halfling thief and Poztif, cleric of Pholtus. Although they only appear in this single story, both of them seemed much more interesting and made more of an impression upon me as characters than either Gord or Chert ever did. And I think I know at least part of the reason why: in the story, Biff (as he calls himself) is described as being a servant of Melf, and "Poztif" seems very likely to be a TSR-copyright-claim-avoiding name-swap for Serten, a secondary PC of Gary's oldest son, Ernie. Which means both of these characters presumably came from actual game-play, and had developed distinct personalities through that interactive process, which is why, at least to me, they both felt so much more authentic and real than the other characters, who were presumably created for the book. It makes me wonder if Gary had followed a different track with his fiction, if instead of making up new characters he had used more of the existing ones - if his novels had been about the exploits of Tenser and Robilar and Otis and Melf and so on - if they might not have been better, at least in terms of characterization.
Last but not least is the matter of the dialogue. The quality (or lack thereof) of Gary's dialogue has been raked over the coals enough over the past three decades that there's no need for me to pile on further here. I know that writing authentic-sounding dialogue is harder than it seems, and that a lot of authors struggle with it. That said, Gary seemed to struggle more than most (or at least more than most of the authors I read). Gary's idol (and friend) Jack Vance had a trick to getting around writing dialogue, which is that he made it so exaggeratedly pompous and verbose that you immediately understood that it wasn't supposed to be taken as "realistic" - that his characters weren't supposed to sound like real people but more like comic characters in a stylized play. It's one of my favorite things about Jack Vance's writing, that makes his books so distinctive and so much fun to read.
Gary was certainly no stranger to Vance's particular "voice" - it is, after all, pretty much the voice that he affected in the AD&D rulebooks, where "evil" becomes "perforce the antithesis of weal" and so forth. What people call "high Gygaxian" could just as easily be called "low-to-middle Vancian." Given that, it seems like a shame to me that Gary didn't employ that style (or at least attempt it) in his novels. Perhaps he didn't think he was up to sustaining it for the length of an entire novel (ultimately a series of novels). Or perhaps he thought he'd be accused of just copying Vance (although considering the extent to which he courted comparisons to Leiber that doesn't seem too likely). I hope he didn't start out writing it that way and let some friend or editor talk him into changing it. But, whatever the reason, the end result is that the dialogue in Gary's novels is not funny or clever or mellifluous in the manner of Vance, and is instead just really awkward and flat and terrible.