War of the Spider Queen

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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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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