I was also shocked to find that there was almost next to no crunch in this set. No new spells, kits, monsters, rules tweaks… nada. There was a new artifact, some minor magic items, and that was about it. NPCs were provided with the minimalist 2e stat line (example here), and while there is the usual assortment of high level NPCs, there were also a shocking number of low level and 0 level characters in positions of power. I can’t remember the last time I saw a 0 level character in charge of a village shop in the realms, let alone in a position of real power…
Intrigues abound in the shining sea, helped in no small part to a number of secret, centuries-old groups, some of which are still run by their founding members. Nothing like vampires, liches, and dragons to minimize turnover at the highest levels of an organization…
Because the Realms are so interconnected, an understanding of the various power groups around the area detailed within really is necessary. Knowing who Elminster is isn’t enough. You have to know who the Zentrum are, who the Harpers are, where the Sword Coast is, Skullport, Hastur, Cormyr, etc. You also need to know Realmsian history, at least the major events like the Time of Troubles. Without such knowledge (most of which would be obtainable from the basic Forgotten Realms boxed set) you’re likely to find yourself lost.
I can’t say reading this was much fun. It’s dense like a textbook, but written in a much less formal tone. More like a modern version of the type of travel books written during the 18th and 19th centuries, full of questionable information and personal observations that may or may not be accurate.
Unless you’re Ed Greenwood, and know the Realms inside out, I wouldn’t suggest trying to use everything in here as is. While there is some genuinely useable gaming material that can be pulled from it, a DM will have some work to fully flesh any of it out, and in the process will toss a lot of material that’ll never be used.
The original price of the set was $29.99. Was it worth it? I would have a hard time saying yes. The maps are nice, the book was very informative, but... I would have preferred a shorter book and an adventure or two designed to introduce characters to the shining sea. Maybe one designed for 1st level native characters and another for 5th level foreign characters? As it is, there just so much info that'll never ever see use. I can't imagine many games would even use half the info in this book. I also can't imagine players spending the time to read through 200 pages of stuff that isn't going to impact their characters.
Final Thought: Skip it, unless you're really really interested in Calimshan.