Endless Quest Crimson Crystal Adventure #4: Stop That Witch!
"Your training as a ranger hasn't quite prepared you for the day you return to your village and find all the inhabitants turned into lizards by a mysterious red dragon." --from the back cover.
Stop That Witch!, by Mary Clark, is book 4 of the EQ spin-off series of 'Crimson Crystal' books. Basically it's a gimmick where they include a little rectangular clear red plastic film with the book, and certain pages contain pictures in mostly red ink, but if you hold the film up to them you can see the gray lines showing the 'hidden' picture (although it's really not hard to see the gray lines without the 'crystal' actually).
I'll state up front that I wasn't a big fan of this book when I was a kid. I got it because of the gimmick, and was rather unimpressed by it. So I never got any more in the Crimson Crystal series. Re-reading the book now, I realized that the story in it isn't as bad as I remember. It's no where near as bad as Spell of the Winter Wizard.
In the book, you're Hedge, an apprentice ranger from a small village of rangers. You and your hawk Springer are out on a training exercise when a red dragon (the evil witch Carlynn polymorphed into a dragon, actually) flies into the village and then flies away. When you get there, everyone's been turned into a lizard. A young, timid cleric arrives, and despite the fact that he seems hopeless, you team up with him to rescue both your master Pebo (now a chameleon), but the cleric's master who's stuck in a mirror of life trapping in Carlynn's castle. Due to his first spell he tries to cast on you backfiring, you give the cleric the nickname Sparks.
The book starts out with a fairly linear narrative, but after a while it begins branching, and has some good options and interesting encounters. It does have an unfortunate tendency to offer you a choice, and then if you pick the 'wrong' choice, it then gives you another choice to pick the option you didn't or continue with your original choice. Every single time, this is telegraphing a bad ending if you continue. These sorts of 'training wheels' are just a waste of space, in my opinion. If I'm gonna get a bad ending, I can go back and pick the other one myself. I don't think anyone needs the author guiding them to the right path (likely this is one of the reasons I didn't like this one as a kid--it felt too 'kidified' for my tastes).
Another minus is the fact that your character, Hedge, is a bit of a douche. He's a braggart who then gets surprised that his master actually thinks he can do more than wipe his own nose. He bullies and berates Sparks, whines and complains about his hawk's advice (which unlike many sidekick animals, tends to be a bit sensible and not overly moralizing), and his speech is full of phrases like 'criminey!' and 'yoiks!' I don't remember 'Zounds!' in there, but it's kind of annoying.
On the plus side, one cool thing about this book is that there's a fairly coherent narrative. No matter what path you take, there are certain particulars that don't change. For example, Carlynn is not the real Carlynn, it's her apprentice Jenna who usurped the real Carlynn's power. The Mirror of Life Trapping is always in the same place. The down side of this is that many of the endings then end up being very similar. There are actually quite a few good endings, but most are rather low key. "OK, the witch is defeated. Say, could anyone change my master back into a person?" I think the fact that there are so many good endings, and not one of them really stands out as a 'best' ending, is another reason I didn't like this book as a kid. It's too easy to get a victory.
Finally, the art in the book is fairly uninspiring. The cover by Keith Parkinson is serviceable, but the interior art by Mario D. Macari seems rather lackluster to me. The fact that it's pixelated like in an old Sunday newspaper cartoon doesn't help. I like clean ink line drawings much better. And the gimmick 'crimson crystal' pages are generally not so interesting. One interesting side note is that the 'crimson crystal' pages are still very white, while the normal pages have tanned considerably.
Overall, this is not a great Endless Quest book, but it's not completely worthless. There are some interesting events and encounters, at least, so there may be some ideas worth mining for your home games. It's also maybe a good book to start younger kids reading. The English level didn't seem much lower than normal EQ books, but it's much more forgiving of poor choices (the telegraphing of bad endings by giving you a second chance to choose the correct option, paired with numerous good endings).
Protagonist: A conceited Ranger's apprentice on his first real mission.
Sidekicks: A hawk who isn't too preachy, a Cleric lacking self confidence, and depending on your path, your Ranger master polymorphed into a chameleon or an Elf named Wynn.
Adventure: Linear at the beginning, but with some good branches and interesting choices later.
Endings: Too many good ones, and most of them are rather low key for a victory ending. Only one neutral ending that I remember reading (you don't die, but don't make it to the castle either).
Art: So so cover (Parkinson), unappealing interiors (Macari).
Overall: Poor, but not worthless.