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Monday, October 5, 2015

Halfling's Gem by R. A. Salvatore

Given the empire of Forgotten Realms fiction that R.A. Salvatore has put upon this earth (nearly 22 novels), you'd think the first three novels of his would be classics. Forbes did a great interview with the author, and in it Salvatore gives us a plausible reason for this:

“You don’t have to start at the beginning,” he tells me. “Contrast that with George Martin or Robert Jordan and the way they did their series. You couldn’t pick up the sixth book of Wheel of Time and read it, I don’t think, if you hadn’t read the first five. With the Drizzt books you could pick up the 6th book, the 10th book, the 15th book, the 20th book. It’s more like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond.”

Of course, that is the very definition of pulp fiction, and why Martin and Jordan are hailed as serious authors who shook up the world of fantasy fiction.

Halfling's Gem was an atrocious train wreck that I barely feel deserves a review. Not as bad perhaps as Spellfire, but up there.

Halfling's Gem concludes the Icewind Dale Trilogy. The plot continues the drama between the Calishite assassin Artemis Entieri and the dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden, as they fight over possession of a Halfling thief. Also appearing for the first time, the man who put the price on the halfling's head, Pasha Pook.
Artemis Entreri

The plot ... is ok. Where this book repeatedly fails is in the juvenile level of the text. Juvenile isn't quite correct because even teen literature is often more nuanced.

Character: Halfling characters get the worst treatment. At least Douglas Niles and Kate Novak used female dwarves and halflings. The D and D rules made these characters pretty limited but creating an interesting back story could have at least made Bruenor more palatable. So SPOILER: Bruenor is assumed dead at the start of the novel having ridden a flaming dragon into the abyss. And a neat part of the book is the discovery and fight through the abandoned city, but for whatever reason Salvatore spoils the surprise for his characters and has the all knowing and all powerful Drizzt realize long before the reveal that Bruenor may yet live. Salvatore had a chance for his characters to explore the very real emotions of raw grief, and he shied away from it to point out, yet again, how cool Drizzt is.

Wulfgar is also pretty terrible. We discussed in my review of The Blade Itself the Barbarian cliche. Wulfgar is that cliche, no twist, no subtlety, if you wanted to describe the Barbarian cliche in one word, that word is Wulfgar. The emotions that Wulfgar feels are simple: love, anger and grief. About as skin deep as you can imagine. Grief is not the mere absence of that which is held dear, it is the cacophony of successive failures, missed opportunities and piercingly poignant memories replayed continually within a mind unwilling or incapable of stopping itself.

I guess what I'm saying is that Salvatore keeps telling us when he should be showing us. A classic writing criticism.  This was 20 years ago, I'm hopeful that Salvatore's technique has been honed by 20+ books.

Last, we have Drizzt, in the second novel in the trilogy we learned that he felt his meeting with Entrieri to be a fateful one. That there was a strange connection through skill of arms with the assassin. While this morbid curiosity might have added a dimension to Drizzt's personality, it fails as Drizzt is forced to utter trite truism after trite truism.  It's sad because I've begun to suspect that Drizzt is actually a fairly deep character. For example Drizzt is offered a magic mask that makes him white. And he uses it because people fear the drow. But he comes to quite enjoy the anonymity and access the mask allows him. The notion of "passing" is an extremely loaded one for African Americans and its place in this banal fantasy novel is notable. Another moment has Drizzt stealing a kiss from the unconscious Cattie-Brie. A kiss which is never addressed again. 

As a general rule: If you were to strike every single line of dialog from the book, it would be immeasurably improved.

Cliche: all the usual D and D cliches apply, so I won't waste any time but to list them: Dwarves, halflings, elves, Dungeons and Dragon's Race Cliche, barbarian.

Some new ones include The Kidnapping, the Middle East and the Thieves Guild.  The Kidnapping is pretty self explanatory: it's a common fiction cliche, helpless child/girl/Halfling taken by force on a long journey, vengeful heroes hot on the trail, always close, but never quite catching until the final pages. One difference here is that the Heroes give up catching the assassin fairly early on and simply make for the final destination. One famous example of the Kidnapping motif would be from Tolkien's Two Towers when Pippin and Merry get taken by the Orcs.

Agrabah, or Calimport by Disney
The Middle East cliche  is a common one as well, Calimport is clearly a middle eastern city, and it's denizens, though magical (halflings, humans and wererats follow the same dress and speech patterns. This type of Orientalism would be offensive to some, but the point of the cliche is to save time and space. Calling to mind a westerner's idea of a 1300th century Middle Eastern city provides leagues of description without straining the readers imagination.  As I get older, and my anthropologist wife teaches me to be more sensitive to and less tolerant of micro aggressions that form the undercurrent to overt racism, I begin to wonder about such tropes, and I begin to understand why so many authors have attempted to create whole new worlds, absent of these cliches.
The internets are loaded down with Skyrim images.  Best I could come up with.

The Thieves Guild cliche is an incredibly common one in fantasy.  One the one hand it gives voice to a real world occurrence in a fantasy world, that of organized crime, and on the other hand, it speaks to the shadow economy that likewise exists in every city and state, the sale of untaxable, untrackable, and unregulated goods.  One thing that the Thieves Guild cliche does frequently in fantasy, however, is to neuter the more dangerous and pyschopathic elements of such a community.  To Salvatore's credit, his thieves guild is pretty despicable.  Pasha Pook the crime boss of Calimsport runs the guild with the aid of three henchmen, a dark wizard (fairly servile, as evil wizards go) the deadly assassin Entrieri, and a runaway pack of were-rats.  Though the subplot in Halfling's Gem of trouble in Pasha Pook's organization is never really explored or prevailed upon in any major way, it does give voice to the fact that such an organization would be almost impossible to govern.  But If you're looking for fantasy mafia stories to thrill and awe you, leave Halfling's Gem on the penny shelf, and pick up Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard trilogy.

Completeness:  Sadly, I think Halfling's Gem is not the end of this pitiful story.  As the action closes and the heroes sail away righteous and victorious, we know a larger battle is on the horizon as the dwarves of clan Battle Hammer are massing to retake the mines of Bruenor's father.  Still, this story does wrap up the unexplained nature of the halfling's powers and the mystery of how he obtained his magical gem.  It also sheds further light on several new areas of the Realms.

As I become more home in the world of the Realms, I see that there is very little overlap or common knowledge.  Virtually none of the stories I've read or reviewed so far even occur within the same thirty year period.  While, this excites me on some level to know that the breadth of the history of this place is huge, it also feels sloppy and haphazard in the retelling.  I have attempted to follow the date of publication for these books rather than take a timeline version of the books approach.  I chose that route because I want to see the vision of the realms as its actual creation was occurring, not as a second-guessed, revised version.  However, this choice has lead to some frustration on my part.  Right now the only common element is Elminster, and he's kind of crotchety and fallible for an Old Wizard type. 

On the whole, I'd say feel free to skip the Icewind Dale Trilogy.