Friday, January 7, 2011

Heart of Ice (Part 4)

Figure 1. The cover of Heart of Ice
by Mike Posen (from Morris, 1994).
In this final installment of our Heart of Ice review (see Figure 1), we’ll look at the setting of the gamebook. Returning to our original plan (Wright, 2011); we’ll consider the physical setting, the writing that describes it, and the characters that inhabit this distant frozen world.

3. Setting. Firstly, it’s post-apocalyptic in tone, but not of the Mad Max or zombie-apocalypse genres (though zombies do feature marginally towards the end!). Instead, this icy, glacial future earth evokes an atmosphere similar to science-fiction author J. G. Ballard’s loose ‘trilogy’ of disaster novels: The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World (one could argue that Heart of Ice forms a logical addendum to this sequence as “The Frozen World”).

There is also an element of future dystopia in the milieu when we consider the stinking, decaying cities of Venis and Kahira (see Figure 2) that we encounter during the adventure. Here we find the bizarre mix of both high and low technology that characterize such bleak visions as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, while Paul Mason (2004) has stated that there is at least one reference to Blade Runner in the book.

Additionally, Per Jorner (2007) notes that “there is a palpable ‘dying Earth’ feel pervading the book, with evident homages to [Jack] Vance and the genre in general”. This is best documented in the background section:

It is now 2300. The rich stand aloof, disporting themselves with forced gaiety, waiting for the end. The poor inhabit lawless slums where disease is rife. Between the cities, the land lies under a blanket of snow and ice. No one expects humanity to last another century. This is truly ‘the end of history’. (Morris, 1994, p. 11)

This compares favorably to an oft-quoted section from Vance’s inaugural eponymous collection The Dying Earth: “The vapid mannerisms of pale people, using up their lives. Mincing murder, extravagant debauchery, while the Earth passes its last hours,” (1950, p. 72).

Figure 2. The city of Kahira
by Russ Nicholson (from Morris, 1994).

As we can see, if we’re comparing the writing to Vance, then it must be good! Dave Morris says that gamebooks can be considered thought-provoking literature that explore interesting ideas in real depth (FalcoDellaRuna, 2008), and that is certainly the case with Heart of Ice. To quote liberally from Per’s review:
The success of this setting can be attributed to superb use of exposition, tone, and detail. You can come across historical records, encounter mutants of the frozen wilds, explore forgotten facilities and learn additional information about the world around you. Technology whose deeper secrets are lost to the centuries meshes wonderfully with a kind of freakish neo-Renaissance civilization of explorers, opportunists, merchants and nobles. At all times does this world feel as if it exists outside of your immediate experiences, outside of the page… (2007).

In addition,

The style and narration are virtually faultless. I’ve spoken on the lack of evocation in gamebook prose in the past (which is not necessarily the same as dryness or briefness), but I’d have to turn over all the stones to find something to complain about in this one: it is inspired but not florid, ambitious but not conceited. Dialogues and descriptions frequently contain interesting observations, curious particulars or amusing exchanges. (Jorner, 2007 - see Figure 4)

Of course, if the writing is this good, it would be remiss of me to avoid providing examples. The following are simply some of the passages that you will encounter while traversing the pages of Heart of Ice.

For instance, a chance encounter in the frozen heights of the Atlas Mountains:
The only other people you spy are a group of Hamadan ascetics on their shaggy camels. They pay no attention to you, as their creed insists that they disdain all outsiders. Adjusting their white-and-tan turbans with cold contempt, they go bounding off across the lone and level snows. (Morris, 1994, paragraph 273 - see Figure 3)

Figure 3. The lone and level snows by Russ Nicholson (from Morris, 1994).

 Or this, from the catacombs beneath the Lost City of Du-En:

As you step out from among the stalagmites, you fail to notice at first that a thick glowing vapour is roiling around your feet. …  You take another step, then you realize that the mist is draining your strength. It rises across your vision, a luminous fog that seeps into your skin like ice water. … Then you see a sight that sends a tingle of dread through you. Taking shape within the mist, reaching towards you with ghastly imploring fingers, is a horrible twisted figure that looks like a squashed effigy of white clay… (Morris, 1994, paragraph 39)

The final element of the book’s setting to consider are the characters that share your journey, and intersect, however marginally, with your given choices. These characters actually form a major part of the adventure. To quote Aaron Tubb:

Along your way, and especially near the end, you will encounter other people who heard GAIA’s message about the Heart of Volent; you will have to work cooperatively with some of them to find what you’re looking for, but these are very shaky alliances because no one will want to share the Heart when/if you finally find it. These other characters and their interactions really add some great storytelling to the book. (2010)

Per Jorner agrees whole-heartedly:
The characterization of your competitors surpasses that of many a novel. Suffice to say that I’ve found few gamebook moments as gratifying as telling Boche off on the quay in Venis, or as portentous as stargazing with Janus Gaunt, or as disturbing as coming eye to eye with Baron Siriasis for the final time. This is no gang of Mungos! Your antagonists are smart and resourceful and your only consolation is that hopefully so are you. (2007).

My personal favourite involves an encounter with Chaim Golgoth, the USI assassin:

You find Golgoth squatting by torchlight at the end of the colonnade, where he has laid out all of his weapons on the flagstones. As he checks each, he slips it into its concealed sheath: a garotte wire under his belt, along with a flexible steel blade; poison darts in a bandolier inside his jacket; guns at hip, ankle, and wrist; small flat grenades clipped along his sabretache. You watch him aghast for a few minutes.
                ‘Quite the professional killer, aren’t you Golgoth?’
                ‘Don’t get far if you only make it a hobby,’ he says. 
(Morris, 1994, paragraph 126)      

It was not my intention for this post to degenerate into a series of excerpts from Heart of Ice and its reviewers. However, given its reputation, it seems only proper to allow the book to speak for itself, along with those who have enjoyed it and published their thoughts and reckonings about it online. It’s that good.

The penultimate say on Heart of Ice, the summary of all that has been made evident by this series of posts, goes once again to Per Jorner and his epic review:

I can’t say with absolute certainty that this is the best gamebook I’ve read, but if not it’s certainly one of the very best, with the best character design, the best one-shot world design and the best writing. Almost every point of criticism has to be aimed at something which is clearly the exception and not the norm. Rather than a hackneyed outing that you struggle through and put behind you, Heart of Ice is an experience to remember and reflect on. It shows every sign of having been written by someone who loves the gamebook medium, and with great narrative skill and vision to back that energy up… (2007)

The ultimate word goes of course to the adventure gamebook itself:

As the daylight fades, a gap in the louring cloud reveals a handful of diamond-bright stars. The bar is opened and the atmosphere aboard gradually acquires a current of bonhomie, but you remain aloof and troubled. Most of these people have no further destination in mind than Kahira, no ambition beyond a small profit and a frisson of petty adventure. But your own goal is direly remote: the lost ruins of Du-En, in the far hinterland of the Saharan Ice Wastes. It seems impossible to believe but there in Du-En you will either grasp the ultimate power – or perish… (Morris, 1994, paragraph 246)

[Once again, you can download it here! Enjoy!]

Figure 4. Yes, these are the Pyramids.
By Russ Nicholson (from Morris, 1994).


FalcoDellaRuna. (2008). Dave Morris interview 2008. Accessed from

Jorner, P. (2007, May 31). Reviews part 18: The future’s so bright I

Mason, P. (2004, April 5). bring a friend and share a miracle. Message posted to

Morris, D. (1994). Heart of Ice. London: Mammoth.

Tubb, A. (2010, September 28). Heart of Ice – A solo gamebook adventure in post-apocalyptic Europe and Africa. Review posted to

Vance, J. (1950). The Dying Earth. New York: Hillman Periodicals Inc.

Wright, A. (2011). Heart of Ice (Part 2). Message posted to


  1. Thank you for your epic review and turning my attention to this gamebook. I am familiar with Dave Morris's work through his entries in the Fighting Fantasy line, Fabled Lands (Quest as it was called in the US), and a few others, but wasn't aware of this particular book, or that it was thought of so highly. Thanks again and much success with your blog.

  2. Hi Uwarr, glad you enjoyed the review! Dave Morris is one of my favorite gamebook writers and I'll certainly be looking at the Fabled Lands for instance in upcoming posts.



  3. I found your blog via the Fabled Lands blog, and it looks great! I loved Heart of Ice when I played it, the original version, but until the Fabled Lands reprints I had no idea it was the same guy. It was far better, to me, than anything else I had played at the time - Lone Wolf was better than Fighting Fantasy, and both were better than some of the others I played, but Heart of Ice made them look dull and uninspired by comparison.

    Of course, I didn't discover Fabled Lands until a year or so ago when some genius on the Something Awful forums ran a Let's Play of it, so I missed out on a lot of great gamebooks, despite my school's library having a shelf or so full of them.

    Your blog's going permanently into my RSS reader, by the way. Great review!

  4. Hi 'user'!

    Glad you like the review and blog! I'll be reviewing Fabled Lands book 1: The War-Torn Kingdom shortly, once I get some other posts out of the way. The Something Awful forum Let's Play sounds cool - I gotta check it out. Mystic Mongol did a brilliant thread on King of Dragon Pass there a while back.



  5. Mungos is a reference to Mungo from Island of the Lizard King, who is a fairly two-dimensional character who dies quickly and pointlessly. Per Jorner is comparing him to the characters from Heart of Ice who are rather more capable! :-)

  6. I utterly adore settings involving frozen wastelands, and suchlike. The bleak nature of icy environments appeals to me more than baking deserts. As such, on top of everything you've stated so wonderfully, a huge part of the appeal of this book for me was the writing itself.

    The descriptions of the cold, fighting against the elements, the sense of utter loneliness... It really haunted me. That's why I bought the reissue when it was released by Fabled Lands Publishing!

    A lot of those endings sure are downbeat, by the way!