Forgotten Realms

Annihilation, by Philip Athans

annihilationLolth has abandoned us.
We have abandoned her.
Well, what could she expect?
-The Lichdrow Dyrr, and Matron Mother Yasraena Dyrr

There’s a lot to cover in Annihilation, book five of the War of the Spider Queen.  So, I’ll get right to it.

The crew from Menzoberranzan has managed to capture a ship of chaos (complete with demonic captain), which they plan to use to travel physically to the Abyss and determine what has become of Lolth.  On the downside, it’s not quite ready to go, requiring some additional “fuel”.  The demon, on the other hand, doesn’t really feel like serving a bunch of dark elves, and demons have a sense of treachery equal to that of the drow.  At the same time, Quenthel is finally losing what little grip on reality she has left, and Danifae Yauntyrr finally gets the opportunity to rid herself of a long-standing irritant.  In the meantime, the siege on Menzoberranzan has come to a waiting state, with the minor exception of two extremely powerful wizards who look to finish each other off.  On another front, Ryld Argith is having trouble on the surface reconciling his feelings for Halisstra Melarn and the fact that she’s been chosen to kill off his goddess.

And ahead of all of them:  the Abyss, and the Demonweb Pits-and possibly, the fate of Lolth the Spider Queen.

As the penultimate chapter of this series, you could expect that big things are in store for our characters.  Considering that the expedition consists of a bunch of drow elves, some of whom were ready to kill each other in the last book, one shouldn’t be surprised that nerves are frayed.  Pharaun gets a chance to renew his “acquaintance” with a fiendish friend-who he’s not really willing to trust too far, since she’s marginally involved with forces attacking Menzoberranzan.  Quenthel is…well, she’s at the end of her rope.  She wasn’t exactly a personality well suited for extended waiting, and that does take up a good portion of this book.  To say that the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith is losing her grip would be a kind way to put it-and among the drow, if you don’t exercise your power regularly, somebody is always happy to step in and claim it for themselves.  Valas begins to wonder if he has too much more purpose in the expedition, while Danifae puts plans into motion to both gain in personal power and claim a heaping of vengeance at the same time.

On the surface, Halisstra is just about ready to roll in her appointed mission to do the impossible-but her lover, Ryld, has only stuck around for her; the swordmaster really doesn’t have any desire to worship Eilistraee, and he has a serious dislike for the World Above as well.  Adapting to the dangers of the surface proves difficult-however, the problems of the surface pale in significance compared to the danger unleashed upon him later in the book.  In Menzoberranzan, Gromph Baenre is about to have his rematch with the lichdrow-after regaining his sight in a rather…messy…manner.  Let’s just say it’s a bad idea to be a captive of the archmage, and leave it at that.

While this book spends much time getting the ship of chaos up to speed, Athans does an exceptional job of keeping it from being boring.  The captain of the ship is cunning enough to cause a number of problems for his “crew”, and really rubs Jeggred the wrong way (and the final resolution of this little conflict was one of the high points of the book-I just loved Jeggred’s last word on the subject).  Danifae’s plans demonstrate a skill with treachery that show that the battle-captive is as skilled as any high priestess in plans for revenge.  A fight on the World Above is a marvelous set of sequences that brings in not only Ryld and his relentless opponent, but also some folks who were unlucky enough to be on hand to add more confusion to the fight.

The real fun in this book (besides the climax, which I am not even going to hint at) is the duel between Gromph and the lichdrow.  Reading about Gromph’s preparations for this conflict, and then the actual battle itself between two extremely powerful wizards was a joy.  The methods of magic in the Forgotten Realms setting has always seemed ill-suited to a one-on-one battle between wizards, but Athans pulls it off perfectly.  As a bonus in this conflict, we finally get to see the true nature of Nimor Imphraezl and those of the Jaezred Chalssin; I’m not ashamed to admit I didn’t see it coming, but it makes sense.

In the end, I can say that Annihilation has set a high bar for the final book in the War of the Spider Queen to reach; the climax of the book changes the tone of everything.  But even before that end, the book keeps a lively pace, and has set up the series for what I anticipate as a stellar ending in Resurrection.

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Extinction, by Lisa Smedman

extinctionClimb out of the darkness, rise into the light.
Turn your face to the sky, your elf birthright.
Dance in the forest, sing with the breeze;
Claim your place in the moonlight among flowers and trees.
Lend your strength to the needy; battle evil with steel.
Join in the hunt; to no other gods kneel.
Purge the monster within and the monster without;
Their blood washes you clean, of this have no doubt.
Trust in your sisters; lend your voice to their song.
By joining the circle, the weak are made strong.
-Invitation to join Eilistraee’s priestesses

Imagine that you are a priestess of Lolth, and highly ranked in your city.  Then imagine that one day, your spells stopped working-as well as those of the other priestesses.  Now imagine that a few months later, you are homeless, your city gone.  You travel with a number of other dark elves, along with your battle-captive.  With them you reach the very doorstep of your goddess’s realm-and discover she’s not answering the door.  Imagine the frustration of losing your power, your status, and ultimately your faith.  This, then, is Halisstra Melarn’s inner conflict, and the most significant plotline in Extinction.

The drow from Menzoberranzan and Ched Nasad have returned-rather abruptly-from the Demonweb Pits, where the Spider Queen makes her home; and yet again, they are on the surface.  Tensions are running high, as Pharaun, Quenthel, and Jeggred nearly give in completely to their antagonism.  Cooler heads prevail, allowing Quenthel to come up with the next step of their journey-she still wants to try to contact Lolth, which means they need to get to the Abyss.  Unfortunately, they pretty much killed off the last method they used.  A combination of magic and blood secures a possible way that they can travel back to the Abyss (and it will be one familiar to old gamers of the D&D Planescape line).  It should come as no great surprise that the method involves yet more travel, this time to the homes of one of the more alien forms of life in the Underdark.

Not all of the group are going on this leg of the journey.  Halisstra volunteers to head to Menzoberranzan, taking along with her a message from Quenthel-and followed by Ryld Argith, who has entered into an unusual relationship with her (well, unusual for drow, anyway).  She isn’t destined to get far-as she and Ryld fall into the hands of people who are a little annoyed at Halisstra because of a minor matter of a murder in the last book.  Her time with them will force her to make a life changing decision-return to the life she knows, or to try another choice-one that doesn’t include having to watch her back every waking moment.

While all this is going on, nothing remains static in Menzoberranzan.  The forces of Chaulssin are still knocking on the door, the armies of duergar and fiends making plans with Nimor to crack open the strongest bastions of the city.  Gromph Baenre is still out of action, having failed to best the lich Dyrr; don’t count on him being out for long, with some rather interesting allies on his side.  Triel Baenre is only now learning a bit of the nature of what opposes her, and she’s not stupid-she comes up with some workable tactics against the invaders.  Too bad that Nimor’s not exactly slow either.

The back cover of this book indicates that this is a somewhat quieter book, and it’s true.  Extinction doesn’t focus as much on the quest to find Lolth as much as it does on the personalities of the main characters of this book.  It’s primarily on Halisstra, who really is at a point in her life where making a such a choice is actually something to consider, where before she’d kill anyone who even hinted at it.  At the same time, it’s tricky to figure as to whether any choice she makes can be considered truthful-she herself goes into this believing that anything she says she really won’t mean.  It’s never that easy, though.  The other protagonists aren’t neglected, though:  Valas deals with a transformation equally life changing (potentially), while Quenthel and Pharaun decide that this quest will go a lot easier without the other one.  I was a little surprised by it, although I shouldn’t have been-the two have been rubbing each other the wrong way since the beginning, and drow nature being what it is….  And Ryld, well, he cultivates a “friendship” with creatures that are pretty much unknown to the drow, but are a staple of a number of fantasy stories-and an early encounter may very well cause a change in him as well.

There’s still enough action to satisfy fans of that kind of thing (Gromph’s strike is nicely ingenious, which I’d expect from an archmage of his age, and the siege of Menzoberranzan proceeds apace; and that’s not counting little things like dealing with demons, outwitting underwater foes, and very, very big monsters).  Don’t expect boring out of this book-it may be quieter, but there’s still a lot going on.  By the time we reach the end of Extinction, a destiny is taken up, a big step in the siege is taken-along with a price paid for such a step-and an exceedingly dangerous new leg of the journey begins.  How’s that for a set-up?

The War continues….

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Condemnation, by Richard Baker

condemnationWhat did you mean about that last bit?  About the betrayal?
About each of us betraying someone?  Why, I couldn’t begin to guess.  It’s the nature of magic to offer cryptic predictions like that, threatening little riddles that you have little hope of solving until it suddenly becomes obvious that the event you feared has come to pass.  If only one of us doesn’t have some shocking act of treachery to pull off in the near future, I must say I’d like to know who’s sleeping on the job.  He’ll tarnish our reputation if he’s not careful.
-Jeggred and Pharaun Mizzrym

Our merry band of dark elves have had a time of it in the previous book.  The Spider Queen remains silent (and it has become more and more obvious to the reader why), and a drow city has fallen in a rather spectacular fashion, and now they’re in the last place they want to be-the surface.  Now, they need to seek out the only lead they have to find out why Lolth has seeming withdrawn her favor from the drow.  Unfortunately, there’s a number of turns along the way.  In the meantime, things are moving in Menzoberranzan, as the usual intrigues are mixed with the plans of Nimor Imphraezl, the Anointed Blade of the Jaezred Chaulssin-who is manipulating dark elves, gray dwarves, and fiends to a single goal:  the destruction of Menzoberranzan.

Condemnation picks up right where Insurrection left off, as the “envoys” of Menzoberranzan are in the desert of Anauroch with a couple of additions to their group-Halisstra Melarn and her battle-captive, Danifae, both formerly residents of Ched Nasad before its effective demise.  It doesn’t come as a surprise that the pair have their own motivations, which evolve a great deal (especially in Halisstra’s case) in the course of this book.  With them in tow, the crew of Pharaun, Ryld, Quenthel, Jeggred and Valas travel all over-from the deserts of Anauroch, to a city of the gray dwarves, to the doorstep of the Spider Queen’s realm.  Along the way, they have to deal with not only the various assorted challenges along the way, but also with the rampant distrust that colors their entire culture in microcosm.

A very significant amount of space in the book is also dedicated to Nimor’s work.  We finally get a good look at just what mortal forces are stirring things up in Lolth’s absence.  The Patron Fathers of Chaulssin, City of the Wyrmshadows, seem to have managed a conspiracy that stretches across at least three cities of the drow (well, two now…).  Admittedly, they seem to have gone a little too far with Ched Nasad, but they see that with Lolth’s absence, they’ll never have a better opportunity to change the nature of the drow forever.  Nimor himself manages to set into motion the fall of Menzoberranzan, with allies both outside of the city, and within it-and some of those allies are powerful enough to give even the Archmage of Menzoberranzan pause.

As far as Quenthel’s gang goes:  well, it’s nice to see that some things remain constant.  While the constant bickering between Pharaun and Quenthel is nothing new, we’ve now got the Ched Nasad contingent in the mix.  I wasn’t all that surprised to see that the two are doing their best to find a way to make themselves valuable to Quenthel; I also wasn’t surprised that Danifae also had her own ideas of her future, which preferably not include Halisstra-who is in the process of having trouble figuring out her own future in light of the continuing divine silence.  Valas is beginning to look like the most rational character there, followed closely by Ryld-although Valas does find himself in a rather ticklish situation later in the book.  It’s not always good to know more than a priestess of Lolth….

The pacing of the book feels just right, too.  There was only one portion of the book that felt a little rushed, but it’s at the back end of the book, just before the final leg of the journey.  The book switched at the right times between our group of drow protagonists and the work of Nimor and his allies-never seemed awkward.  And the final chapters of the book make it clear that while our “heroes” have reached an important destination in their trip, more questions remain.  Condemnation moves things along nicely, and makes it clear that this series isn’t so much a war of the Spider Queen as much as it is a war against her-and the outcome of this war is still very much in doubt.

(Talk about not being sure who to root for…!)

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Insurrection, by Thomas M. Reid

insurrectionYou could have trusted us.  We gave you no reason not to.
You are a dark elf.  That alone is enough for me not to trust you, but beyond that, if you think we’re going to trust anyone in this cursed city, you’re the biggest fool I’ve met in a while.
-Halisstra Melarn and Pharaun Mizzrym

Ingredients:  one underground city.  Add a population of dark elves, complete with slave races and their own tendency for backstabbing and betrayal.  Add a distinct lack of communication with their goddess.  Stir until the nature of the dark elves start them looking to take advantage of each other, and the slave races start looking for payback.  Finally, add a small group of powerful dark elves from another city into the mix.  Shake well.  That pretty much sums up the plot of Insurrection, the second of the War of the Spider Queen books.  Don’t consider this a bad thing, though; I’ve omitted some of the secret ingredients that would spoil the book.  But let’s see where things are at now.

After Dissolution made a general mess out of the city of Menzoberranzan, Thomas Reid brings us the drow city of Ched Nasad, and makes a bigger mess.  Triel Baenre has sent off her sister, Quenthel, to find out if Lolth’s silence extends beyond Menzoberranzan, and to “reclaim” some trade goods there that are “rightfully” theirs.  Sent with her are the pair Ryld Argith and Pharaun Mizzrym, a draegloth demon called Jeggred (who has some really vile eating habits) and Valas Hune, a mercenary scout with an unparalleled talent for stealth.  The final member of their little crew is Faeryl Zauvirr, who is at last going home.

Sure sounds like a simple mission, doesn’t it?  Of course, it’s never that easy.  First, they have to get to the city-and they are harried through the caverns by an alu demon and her small army of orcish-like servitors.  It doesn’t help that Quenthel is always keen on asserting her authority, ignoring even good advice (nothing like a little ego).  While they’re trying to reach the city, an army of duergar dwarves have quietly infiltrated Ched Nasad, with help from one of the Houses there, to prepare for a little of the usual treachery that marks the time in a drow city.

I rather liked the descriptions of Ched Nasad.  Unlike Menzoberranzan, which always struck me as a city like many others, if you got past the underground part of it, Ched Nasad is suspended among giant web strands (earning it the nickname of “The City of Shimmering Webs”), with buildings being built from what look like egg sacs.  It also makes you wonder what spun those webs; you don’t want to know….  Still, the city does have some commonality with Menzoberranzan-the place is beginning to get nasty, as the knowledge of Lolth’s silence begins to spread, and anarchy begins to fall upon the city.  By the time our protagonists arrive, things are just about ready to really get out of hand.

Believe it or not, roughly half of the book concerns getting out of Ched Nasad.  While this may seem like a bad thing, Reid does a creditable job on keeping things moving quickly and in an exciting manner.  I won’t go into much detail about why the characters are leaving, but if you’ve got a handle on drow psychology, it’s not hard to figure out.  Let’s just say that it’s an object lesson as to the kind of things that happen when you don’t think your plans through 100 percent.

On the character front, Pharaun continues to be the break-out character; it’s amazing that he’s lasted so long in a society that does not encourage wit (or sassing off to a priestess who holds the power of life and death).  Overly clever, confident, powerful, and possessed of a sharp sense of humor, it makes him stand out from almost all the other drow that we’ve seen in other Forgotten Realms books (except for Jarlaxle in Salvatore’s books; but that character’s an exception in many respects).  I was taken by surprise by some of Faeryl’s actions, even though it seems obvious in hindsight; we also get a pair of additions to our merry band, which may end up causing some friction down the road (as if there wasn’t enough already!).  And the major plot is advanced as well, as we discover just exactly how universal Lolth’s silence is, and the possibility of another nose being poked into this whole business.  And the one-page prologue sure hints at really, really bad things for the Realms if I’m interpreting it right….

Insurrection continues the War in high fashion, and it’s quickly becoming apparent that it’s not a war in any conventional sense; it’s not even totally a civil war.  Rather, it’s a war for the survival of an entire culture, and so far, it’s failing pretty badly.  But then, it’s still very early in the series; in many ways, the fun’s just starting.  This book continues the quality of the first book, and I find that I’m regretting picking up this series less and less.  I’m happy that I had that empty slot….!

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The Lone Drow, by R. A. Salvatore

lonedrow I am weak, perhaps, or I am a fool.  Whichever the case, I am not yet ready to stop this war I wage; I am not yet ready to abandon the warmth of the spilled orc blood.  These beasts have brought this pain upon me, and I will repay them a thousand thousand times over, until my scimitars slip from my weakened grasp and I fall dying to the stone.
-Drizzt Do’Urden

In The Lone Drow, the longtime readers of the adventures of Drizzt Do’Urden see why this series is called “The Hunter’s Blades”.

Way back, in the Dark Elf trilogy (which I believe is being reprinted at this writing), when Drizzt left his homeland, he submerged all of his more noble instincts to the more primitive ones, where one had to fight or die-or to be more accurate, to kill or die, all by instinct.  It was the only way to survive outside of Menzoberranzan.  In time, though, he was able to come out of such a state, and learn to truly live again.  He’s always been an extremely dangerous fighter; but acting as the Hunter, he’d even make the assassin Artemis Entreri wet his pants (hm, now that’s a really disturbing image…).  But that was a long time ago.  He found a cause worth fighting for, and friends worth dying for.  Unfortunately for Drizzt, at the end of the last book, it appears to him that he would never get the chance to die for them-for they are all dead (or so he believes).  Now, he is The Lone Drow, and the only thing he lives for is to kill the orcs that took his friends away from him.

This offering of the trilogy has a number of different tracks to follow, some of which converge, and some that do not.  Obviously, the big draw is Drizzt’s plot; not only is he dealing with the death of his friends, but he’s also having a little crisis as he realizes that he will (barring his own death by the sword) outlive almost everyone he would care for.  He’s able to put these questions aside for the most part, mainly because of his methodical goals of killing as many orcs as possible-perhaps even get to Obould.  At the same time, his friends are out to defend Mithral Hall-well, most of them; Bruenor is mortally wounded, leaving…well, let’s just say it shouldn’t be any surprise to longtime readers who is named Steward to lead the dwarves in this dark moment.

But there’s a lot more here.  Drizzt is shadowed by a pair of elves from the Moonwood, who want to warn him about one of their own who wants him dead-not realizing that she has already faced the dark elf (and didn’t come out of it).  The Bouldershoulder brothers are still here, helping along with the dwarves from Mirabar.  Speaking of Mirabar, the sceptrana Shoudra Stargleam and her gnome aide, Nanfoodle, are also on hand, under orders from the mad Marchion to ruin the ore of Mithral Hall-yet Nanfoodle is affected by the courage and honor these dwarves demonstrate (and believe me, Nanfoodle offers one of the most fun moments of this book-I wish I could even hint at it, but it’s just too good to spoil).  I can’t neglect the continued presence of the quartet of dark elves; I especially liked a theory from Kaer’lic concerning Drizzt and how he manages to avoid getting killed by servants of Lolth-and it even makes sense, in a twisted way.

Salvatore does his usual job of portraying massive warfare from the point of view of the main characters; while there are huge amounts of orcs (along with giants and others) that assail the forces of Mithral Hall, we primarily see only portions of this, as seen by Wulfgar and Cattie-Brie, and by Drizzt.  Even though small groups aren’t much of a threat to these heroes, the fact is that the orcs can afford to lose a few dozen-and our heroes can’t even afford to lose one.  And one cannot overestimate the danger Obould represents-for in the beginning of the book, he gains the blessings of the orc god as well.  All through the book, it’s apparent that Obould is something special…well, as far as orcs go.

As usual, the star of the show is Drizzt; the character is going through a substantial crisis.  He’s still not as lost to the Hunter as in the past, however-a legacy, perhaps, of his time with Bruenor and the rest, and he does get some help as the book progresses.  All of the Companions of the Hall get substantial face time (well, mostly; Bruenor isn’t exactly in the best of shape); Regis trying hard to be a good Steward in Bruenor’s absence, and having to make some really tough choices; and Cattie and Wulfgar have a meaningful discussion on the merits of loving a dark elf (and I want to especially mention how impressed I was with how Wulfgar is portrayed here; being married himself now has certainly done wonders with him) while trying to cope with an invasion of orcs at the same time as facing a future without the dwarf who effectively raised them both.  It’s these character moments that really made this book stand out, even beyond the efforts of the dwarves to fend off what is increasingly looking like a doomed struggle.  The Lone Drow should satisfy Salvatore fans-but it will also whet the appetite for the final book in the trilogy.

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Dissolution, by Richard Lee Byers

dissolutionWhat does the strange behavior of the goblins have to do with the rogue males?
I don’t know yet, but we have two oddities occurring at the same time and in the same precinct.  Doesn’t it make sense to infer a relationship?
Not necessarily.  Menzoberranzan has scores of plots and conspiracies going on at any given time.
-Ryld Argith and Pharaun Mizzrym

I was real close to not purchasing this book, much less review it.  But, I had a slot I needed to fill on my review schedule, so….

I did have reason to be hesitent.  Firstly, this is a Forgotten Realms book, and it concerns the drow, also known as dark elves; now, I’m a fan of Salvatore’s signature character, but it has felt to me sometimes that the publishers are trying to over-market them; banking on the popularity of Salvatore’s books.  Secondly, it is the first of six books, in one of those “event” books.  That makes me nervous too, as the last Forgotten Realms “event” book I read left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  Finally, the series itself-released in hardback-is being written by multiple authors, which sometimes works well, sometimes doesn’t.  Still, all three together combined to convince me to put this on my “wait until paperback” list.

But, I had a slot I needed to fill….

Deep in the bowels of the earth, there are all kinds of underground creatures and races.  One of the most feared are the drow; their entire matriarchal society revolves around worship of their goddess, Lolth.  Everyone there has power as their goal; they will murder friends and family to acheive their goals.  Layers upon layers of intrigue and shifting alliances in an eyeblink is the hallmark of their cities, such as Menzoberranzan.  Still, Mezoberranzan has had a number of reversals lately (primarily because of consistent desires to get at a certain drow ranger), so things are a little…delicate.  And this is where we start the novel Dissolution.

Gromph Baenre is the city’s most powerful archmage, a member of the most powerful House in Menzoberranzan.  And he’s quite the busy little beaver.  On one hand, he sends a Master of Sorcere (the city’s school of wizards) named Pharaun Mizzrym to seek out the reason why drow males are suddenly vanishing-and even more disturbingly, staying vanished, having taken nothing of value with them.  And it isn’t restricted to one House, and not restricted to commoners or nobility.  Pharaun “recruits” a friend and swordmaster, Ryld Argith, to aid him.

But Gromph doesn’t stop there.  He’s also interested in increasing his own status in the city, so he sends magical creatures secretly to assassinate his sister, Quenthel, who is currently the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith, the place where priestesses are trained (it also helps that he doesn’t like her all that much).  Naturally, he can’t be seen to have been responsible, especially if the attempts fail.  Quenthel, in the meantime, is consolidating her position, since her students seem to be a rather uncooperative bunch.  And in a seemingly unrelated plot point, Faeryl Zauvirr, an ambassador from the drow city of Ched Nasad, is concerned about caravans from her city never arriving in Menzoberranzan; worse yet, the Matron Mother of the most powerful House in the city, Triel Baenre, seems to have taken a sudden dislike for her, and that is not a good thing.

Everything starts to make sense (or mostly anyway), when Pharaun comes up with a theory after an unpleasant meeting with his sister (remember what I said about family in Menzoberranzan?); if true, it will shake the foundations of not just Menzoberranzan’s society, but that of the entire drow race.

I liked this book more than I thought I would; as a concept, I think that Menzoberranzan has been mined out.  After everything that Salvatore did to the city in his books, it amazes me how it is even still around!  In addition, it’s hard to root for the drow; these are not nice people.  In spite of that, Byers has managed to make at least two likable characters, Pharaun and Ryld; even though they are still pretty evil elves (at one point, they casually talk about murdering a drow patrol to cover their activities), they have a wit and charm that just accentuates the danger they represent.  And you have to feel a little sorry for both Quenthel and Faeryl, who are both under various types of assault without having a clue why; of course, that’s just life in a city of the drow.

While I won’t spoil how it ends (really, why would I do that?), I will go so far as to say that Menzoberranzan takes some more hits in this book, and promises a look to other drow cities outside of Menzoberranzan in the next book.  As far as I’m concerned, that alone was worth the price of admission.  So if you like Drizzt Do’Urden’s hometown, the drow, or even the prospect of the dark elves having a heaping sequence of bad days, you may consider picking up Dissolution.  It starts the War of the Spider Queen off pretty nicely, and I hope the following authors can match or exceed it.

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The Thousand Orcs, by R. A. Salvatore

There are times when I so wish that things could be different, that tidy and acceptable endings could find every tale.
-Drizzt Do’Urden

Orcs get no respect.

It’s true.  While the Lord of the Rings movies may reverse that trend a bit, the fact is that ever since Tolkien, orcs have done the grunt work.  More than your average city guardsman, these guys are the cannon fodder; they exist for the sole purpose for heroes to carve through them like a hot knife through butter.  They rate slightly higher than goblins.  But King Obould Many-Arrows is looking to change that perception, at least in an indirect manner.  He’s an orc, and he’s got a desire to take back a former citadel of his, before a batch of dwarves came along and took it while he was busy with a rival band of orcs.  However, his ambitions are destined to put him along with his army against the most famous heroes of the North.  But why should he worry?  He’s got The Thousand Orcs.

The first thing to understand is:  if you’re looking to see Drizzt Do’Urden, famous drow ranger of the Forgotten Realms in a steel cage match against a thousand orcs, forget it.  In spite of what the inside cover and back cover say, this is not a solo Drizzt book.  Besides, if a scene like the one on the cover ever actually happened, our hero would be in serious trouble.  Plus, I figure he’d avoid direct confrontation, staying in shadows…!

Enough of that.  Time for the basics.  As of the close of the last book Salvatore wrote, Sea of Swords, Bruenor Battlehammer had gotten word that the King of Mithral Hall had finally died-which meant it was time for him to once again resume the throne (long story).  But Bruenor has it in his mind to have one last great adventure, rivaling the finding of Mithral Hall in the first place-an ancient stronghold known to the dwarves as Gauntlygrym.  Another motive to find it is the fact that the city of Mirabar is also looking for it, mostly because their mining business has been hurt by the work of the Mithral Hall dwarves.  In the process, however, they find themselves sidetracked by evidence of orc raids, aided by significantly larger allies.  And behind them in the shadows, a quartet of drow elves who are (amazingly) not interested in ruling the surface or hunting down Drizzt, but are instead rogues from their assorted cities.

Salvatore’s books over the last couple of years have been fairly solid stand-alones.  In other words, they weren’t so much a series in that sense of the word as much as they were about single stories.  While it was certainly helpful to have read previous books, it wasn’t highly required.  Well, with The Thousand Orcs, we’re beginning a trilogy; the first book means this is as good as it gets as far as backstory-the next two will probably not be as kind.  Salvatore’s going for more of an epic feel off of this trilogy, though, and the titles of the rest of the trilogy should give a foreboding feeling as to the tone those books will take.

Yet this one starts in a hopeful manner-for the first time in a long, long time, the Companions of the Hall are together again, adventuring together again.  Wulfgar, Cattie-brie, Regis-they’re all here.  And each of them have a fair amount of time giving the reader insight into their current characters-mostly during scenes in which it makes sense.  There’s a number of interesting subplots going on in the background too.  Even setting aside Obould’s plans and the drow rogues, there’s intrigue going on in Mirabar, where its ruler has crossed the line from being a rival to the dwarves of Mithral Hall to an outright enemy; this move has a chilling effect among some very important dwarves in Mirabar, threatening its peace.  Speaking of dwarves, a pair of dwarves known to readers of some of Salvatore’s earlier works are making their way to Mithral Hall themselves (and if you understand the significance of “doo-dad”, then you know who I mean!).  Salvatore also manages to work in some contemplations on the relationship between Cattie-brie and Drizzt, recognizing some very significant obstacles to it, as well as a greater appreciation for the nature of mortality.

The Thousand Orcs is a fairly action packed story, which I’ve come to expect from Salvatore; it keeps the reader turning pages until the rather chilling epilogue (which is all you’re getting from me until the next book is released).  It represents a turning point in the lives of the major characters, and foreshadows a danger to the entirety of the Spine of the World.  So don’t think of orcs as cannon fodder; think of them as the biggest danger Drizzt Do’Urden and his friends have ever faced.  Really.

Categories: Forgotten Realms, Legend of Drizzt, The Hunter's Blades | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Sea of Swords, by R. A. Salvatore

Like old times?
We didn’t win many of the fights in the old times.
-A conversation between Morik the Rogue and Wulfgar

It’s been a few books, but R. A. Salvatore has returned to his most well-known character.  Sea of Swords is the fourth book in the “Paths of Darkness” series, the other books being The Silent Blade, The Spine of the World, and Servant of the Shard.  Although the book centers strongly on the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden, it is as much a story about the barbarian Wulfgar as it is Drizzt.

The book opens in Icewind Dale, where Drizzt, Cattie-Brie, Bruenor and Regis have once more settled.  Settled, however, doesn’t mean they’ve retired-in the process of dealing with bandits, they discover that their leader has a rather odd brand-one that matches a unique symbol inscribed on the magical war hammer known as Aegis-fang.  The companions decide to find out just how the hammer ended up in bandit hands, and at the same time, discover the fate of the man who had owned it.

That man-Wulfgar-is also looking for his hammer.  Having lost it a some time ago (to put it kindly), he’s joined Captain Deudermont on the high seas to find the pirate queen who has it-a woman by the name of Sheila Kree.  However, Wulfgar’s also having a bit of a moral crisis; unlike his previous problems, attempting to recover from the torture of the demon lord Errtu, he’s now having a problem determining just who he is-a barbarian warrior, or devoted husband and father.  That makes him a little dangerous to have around, according the ship’s mage.

Even as all this is going on, though, an elf named Le’lorinel is hunting for a hated enemy-an enemy named Drizzt!

All three trails are destined to come together….

For a long time, I was rather put off by Salvatore.  I enjoyed his books, but I found that the way he “killed” Wulfgar way back in The Legacy to be rather offensive-it was obvious to me he was trying to clear the way for a romance between Drizzt and Cattie-Brie, who at the time was going to be marrying Wulfgar.  I thought Salvatore was taking the easy way out.  I was gratified to see the barbarian return, though, which I felt righted that wrong.  What Salvatore did with Wulfgar afterwards made perfect sense-a strong warrior being tortured for years physically and mentally wouldn’t return to normal life without scars-and those scars made up most of the first two books in the “Paths of Darkness” books.  Now I’m really happy to see that he’s making more profound changes in this book.

As for Drizzt, it seems that some of the darkness of previous books has begun to lift; the inside cover of this book, which has one of the popular “Drizzt journal entries”, made it clear to me that the character is beginning to enjoy life again, fighting the good fight.  For those who enjoy his staunch morality, take note that there are some things that have not changed one bit!

One of the things that kept me intrigued throughout the book was the reasons behind Le’lorinel’s hatred for Drizzt.  I’m sure some readers will hit on it almost instantly, but I was kept uncertain due to certain minor details until the very end.  As for the pirate Sheila Kree, she has an organization in place that makes it very believable that she’s eluded capture or worse for so long.  She has a number of interesting allies, from wizards to ogres.

Readers of the continuing saga of Drizzt and company will be sure to find that Sea of Swords continues his run of good books in this setting.  In many ways, it feels like things have come full circle (which is reinforced by the last few pages), and it will be interesting to see if the next Salvatore books is a new chapter of “Paths of Darkness”; especially since it seems that the darkest times have past.  (Heh.  Not likely!)

Categories: Forgotten Realms, Legend of Drizzt | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Summoning, by Troy Denning

You surprise me, elf.  I take back half the bad things I’ve ever said about you.
-Vala Thorsdotter to Galaeron Nihmedu

Well.  The back of The Summoning hypes this as the “most Realms-shaking event since The Threat From the Sea”.  Seeing as that wasn’t all that long ago, that didn’t exactly impress me.

There was a time, not too long ago, that I collected the Forgotten Realms series of novels as a matter of course.  Lately, though, I’ve found myself purchasing far less of them, grabbing only the ones that related to authors who’ve always entertained me (such as R. A. Salvatore or Elaine Cunningham).  Troy Denning has been one of the authors who I’ve been rather iffy about.  Some of his books I rather liked (such as Pages of Pain) and some that left me a little cold (such as Crucible:  The Trial of Cyric the Mad).  So when this came out, I decided to take a chance…even though it’s billed as the first book in the Return of the Archwizards.

It opens near the elven city of Evereska, where an elven patrol encounters a number of human crypt breakers led by the mysterious wizard named Melegaunt Tanthul.  The encounter becomes far more dangerous when a race of creatures called phaerimm are freed accidentally from their mystical imprisonment.  The leader of the patrol, Galaeron Nihmedu, finds himself working with the crypt breakers to find a way to defend Evereska from the assault.  However, Melegaunt’s motives include far more than simply acting against the phaerimm.

To be honest, I really couldn’t get into this novel.  Enjoyment of this book really requires extensive knowledge of Forgotten Realms lore, and some of that lore exists in the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game.  Some of it really asks a lot out of a casual reader.  Denning also sneaks in a character from Crucible-and I’m not sure why he bothered putting him in-as well as a character who may have had some origins in a Dungeons and Dragons computer game (although I can’t prove it; the resemblance in character is uncanny, but on the other hand, truly original concepts are hard to come by).

I would only recommend this book for folks who have every Forgotten Realms book and every role-playing supplement.  Well, maybe not every one, but certainly with a solid backing in Realms lore.  The plot didn’t draw me in, and I consider that an important part of the book-that, and intriguing characters.  It has a couple characters that are interesting, but it’s asking a lot for just that to carry the book.  I will have to give serious thought before purchasing the rest of this series.  For folks just beginning to read Forgotten Realms books, give this one a pass.

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Servant of the Shard, by R. A. Salvatore

I know not-that has apparently become the litany of my existence, Dwahvel.  I feel as if the foundation upon which I have built my beliefs and action is not a solid thing, but one as shifting as the sands of the desert.  When I was younger, I knew all the answers to all the questions.  I existed in a world of surety and certainty.  Now that I am older, now that I have seen four decades of life, the only thing I know for certain is that I know nothing for certain.
-A moment of reflection for Artemis Entreri

It’s been a long time since Salvatore wrote his first novel, The Crystal Shard, featuring a young barbarian, a grizzled dwarf and his adopted human daughter, and a dark skinned drow elf.  He brings the saga of the Shard to a close in this new offering, Servant of the Shard (although certainly not the end of Salvatore’s novels with his heroes-in fact, there is another one in the works).  Amazingly enough, it involves none of the characters that the Shard’s saga began with. In fact, the major characters are the villains of previous books!

The story opens in the Arabian-like city of Calimport, with one of the Houses of the city having been quietly taken over by the drow, the dark elves.  More specifically, it is taken over by Bregan D’aerthe, the mercenary band that operated out of the drow city of Menzoberranzan.  Its leader is an eccentric dark elf named Jarlaxle, who operates in a constant state of whimsy…which is not to be confused with “nice” humor.  Unfortunately for him, he also came into the possession of the crystal shard called Crenshinibon, an artifact of awesome power which has a habit of bending its owner’s will to its own.  In Jarlaxle, it finds itself in the hands of the most capable host it has ever encountered.

Allied with Jarlaxle, although initially unaware of the shard’s influence, is Artemis Entreri.  Readers of previous books will remember that Entreri is a cold-blooded assassin, and the fighting equal of Drizzt Do’Urden, the most popular character of Salvatore’s books.    Here, though, he finds himself over his head; the drow are far more deadly, more manipulative, and they outnumber him.  Entreri is looking for nothing more than a way to be free of the power they hold over him.  He finds it early on, but achieving that goal is substantially harder.  Entreri finds himself in the role of the manipulator as a result, with his life as stakes.

The book might be a little tricky to follow with all the backstory behind the crystal shard.  On the other hand, I found that it can probably stand fine if a reader has only read the previous two Salvatore efforts, The Silent Blade and The Spine of the World.  There are some disappointments, from my point of view…I would have liked to see a bit more insight on Entreri’s character-and make no mistake, while Jarlaxle is on the cover, this is Entreri’s book-and a bit more on the goals of the shard.  But on the other hand, there’s a lot going on in this book:  Entreri’s attempts to free himself from the tangled web of the drow, Jarlaxle’s fight against the influence of the shard, the manipulations of the drow and the assassin, and the final journey to deal with the shard once and for all.

This was not the book I anticipated when I first got word of it.  I don’t consider that a bad thing, though, as it shows that Salvatore is branching out from his signature character and on with other characters.  His last book featured the soul-weary barbarian, Wulfgar, whom he had unceremoniously disposed of for several books.  Now he’s looking at the bad guys-and it shows up as an entertaining story.  But don’t feel too much sympathy for these characters…while they show some sympathetic traits, neither Jarlaxle nor Entreri are going to win any Boy Scout awards.  In spite of that, Servant of the Shard makes for a nice read for an evening or three.

Categories: Forgotten Realms, Legend of Drizzt | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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