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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Homeland, R.A. Salvatore, Forgotten Realms

I was always a DragonLance man, so for many years I figured reading Forgotten Realms books would be treason.  How silly is that?  Of course, they never made a DragonLance videogame worth its salt, though attempts were made on the 386!  Did I date myself or what?!

So my first Forgotten Realms experience was actually through the truly excellent videogame, Baldur's Gate (which is really a precursor to DragonAge Origins.) And I loved it.  Years later, after seeing R.A. Salvatore books on the shelf, and being suitably intrigued.  I finally decided to go for it.  If you want a phenomenal history of the Realms go to Wertzone site

Since I'm taking a break from Memories of Ice to read this, it's interesting to note the stark differences in contemporary fantasy with fantasy from two decades ago.  Salvatore did not invent the Realms.  Far from it--Ed Greenwood did.  I actually a did some research for this post, something I rarely do, but the Realms have a complex history.  And unlike DragonLance whose seminal volumes were all penned by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the Realms were created by a collective of writers drawing on the maps and notes of an accomplished Dungeon Master.  The Realms were designed to be free floating, more loose than DragonLance which took place in the middle of a continent spanning total-war.

Anyway, the point of all this is to show, once again, that good fiction does not have to be genre busting.  In fact, it can draw on cliche's so overdone as to be boring and repugnant, and still make a good yarn.

Let me say from the outset, I thoroughly enjoyed Homeland, and intend to immerse myself in the Realms, 20 years after their creation.  I have one caveat.  The book, though an absorbing and fun read, is no poetic work of genius.  It's a good romp through an interesting world.

1.)  Character.  Drizzt Do'Urden is the name of the main character for this volume.  I grew up with this cat, though I didn't know it.  I saw his picture on shiny hardcover novels all over the Barnes & Nobles of my youth.  Homeland is definitely a plot based story, nonetheless its characters are compelling.  The story begins with a race of dark elves called the Drow, dwelling in lightless caverns called the Underdark.  I've always found evil races to be an interesting study.  How can such a society function?  All societies are based on trust and cooperation--which is a flat impossibilty for the genetically evil.  And of course, this is a central conflict in Homeland.  The Drow worship the spider Goddess Lolth, who believes in corruption and greed, and encourages her priestesses to war with one another.  However, Drizzt, and his father Zak are different, possessing an inate innocence that puts them at conflict with the larger drow society.  They don't like to kill, yet both of them are singularly gifted fighters.  So the natural conflict set up here is between Drizzt and his entire race, his entire culture, and closer to home, his mothers, sisters and brothers.  Which brings us to cliche.

Mindflayer from FR wiki

2)  Cliche.  Elves, Dark Elves, Coming of Age, Dungeons & Dragons, are all cliches used by Salvatore.  Elves figure only as a distant enemy to the Drow, but as the Dark Elf cliche is built off the Elven cliche, much of the same is true about both.  Elves are long-lived, beautiful artisans, dwelling in nature, strong, yet slight, natively good, and are beautiful to look upon, and inherently magical. All this is true for the Drow, save the natively good part.  The city of Menzoberranzan is carved from stalagtites, and the buildings and temples are designed to look like spiders.  A thoroughly disgusting concept, yet one requiring a degree of skill in art and engineering to execute.  The drow live as long as elves, except for the fact that they keep on killing each other.  This means that despite the native difficulty of breeding (elven females ovulate infrequently, like every 50 years or so) a concentrated effort is made to breed, since family strength is a direct and certain route to power.  This culminates in some interesting breeding practices practiced by female drow. The drow is likewise beautiful to look upon, but they have black skin and pure white hair.  Like elves, the drow is capable of casting spells from an early age, and all drow are capable of casting certain spells, regardless of caste.  Which brings up the Dungeons & Dragons cliche.  Every single item or monster in this entire novel has a series of stats to back it up, from the adamantine twin scimitars which are Drizzt's hallmark, to the tentacular mindflayers who dwell in the Underdark.  Anyone who ever played Dungeons & Dragons knows the mindflayer intimately, even those who didn't ever have to fight one, the picture was just so frickin cool you had to look at it.  These cliche's for the most part are informative.  However, for a non D&Der, and we're dying out, some of the cliches are just obscure.  Halfling and Gnomes.  All manner of small people.  Halflings are familiar because of the Lord of the Rings, but most people are familiar with the term hobbits instead.  There are no hobbits in Dungeons & Dragons.  Just halflings.  Gnomes are another one.  We're all familiar with garden gnomes, those cone hatted, blue skirted small creatures, but just how are they different from dwarves?

3)  Scope.  The scope is immense and confined all at once.  The Realms are hard and fast.  Ed Greenwood's world is all mapped out, its creatures are decided, it's politics analyzed.  It's open ended in terms of story telling, but the world, like ours has a physics that is entirely determined by the roll of six, eight, twelve and twenty sided dice.  This makes for a very interesting fantasy setting.  Half of the joy of fantasy is discovery, does the comprehensive mapping elminate this joy?  It turns out, no.  I look at they world map, and I wonder what famous warriors have traveled to Cormyr?  Who is the greatest wizard in Waterdeep?  All this and more, after reading Homeland, I intend to find out.  Now of course, I wonder, how should I read these books?  Drizzt wasn't a character started in Homeland, far from it--he was first mentioned in the Crystal Shard, (again, hat tip to the Wertzone).  I have determined that the best way to do this is to read the books in order of publication, though I may drop off after the first ten books or so.  I always found that the splinter novels in the DragonLance series were of a drastically lower quality, and that the events that occurred in these books had no play in any of the more central literature.  Even so, the more limited scope is Menzoberanzan, the drow city.  And in this Salvatore is the acknowledged champion.

4)  Magic.  Dungeons & Dragons magic.  After having spent a lot of time with more complex brands of magic.  Sanderson's Allomancy, Jordan's The One Power, Erikson's Warrens, the system of magic in the Realms is reassuringly simple.  Most spells require ingredients, and must be memorized to be cast.  They can only be cast once or twice, depending on the sophisitcation and "level" of the wizard, and then they must be re-memorized.  Magic is important, of course, but having owned the 2nd edition Players Handbook, I know most of them already.  There is no magic to devastate an entire city here.

5)  Theme.  As stated above, this novel is no scintillating work of genius.  It's fast moving, absorbing, with interesting characters and a fun, unpredictable plot line.  It's candy, it's beach reading, even more so than most fantasy is considered to be.  That said, the writing isn't poor by any means--it's just there to communicate a story, not to edify.  There is a tone to Salvatore's writing, but its businesslike and not self-reflective.

This book is definitely worth a read, and it has definitely inspired me to read further.  Unfortunately, my wife has decreed an end to all fantasy books, and so I can't buy anymore of them unless they're grand slams.  (It's not the money so much as it is the space on our shelves)  I think I see a Kindle in my future.


  1. Hey, I never even thought to recommend these books to you. I guess I assume they were too easy since I read them all when I was young, as well, the wife and mother didn't care for them in recent years.

    You captured the difference between Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms very well. Forgotten Realms is very fragmented with characters and separate storylines in separate novels, but interesting in that random cross-overs can happen. What gets even more interesting was Ravenloft and how the authors could snatch up characters from either world and have them interact in storylines.

    I don't remember the Crystal Shard being that interesting for Drizzt's part. In fact, I seem to remember the voice of his character to be inconsistent with the later books, but I could be wrong. The later books after Homeland are good though.

    I also liked the Curse of the Azure Bonds trilogy (Pools of Radiance, Curse, Pools of Darkness maybe?). The games were fun as well.

    If memory serves me well, Kaz the Minotaur was a good read for a splinter novel. Just to offer a counter-example to what you were saying earlier.

    Anyway, I have all of these books sitting here so you're welcome to read them next time you're back.

  2. That's friggin' awesome. Not only can I read them, I can return them after I read them. Ya, I didn't know you had read the Realms!