[4 April 2006]
I’ve seen R.A. Salvatore’s name around the best-seller list, but have not read anything he’s been involved with. According to Salvatore’s biography at his Web site, the character Drizzt Do’Urden was introduced in 1988’s novel The Crystal Shard. Drizzt, a hugely popular character in the world of Dungeons and Dragons novels, makes his comic debut here.
Within the first dozen pages, I was overwhelmed with the names of characters and places that I have had no previous exposure to. The generic artwork didn’t help either as all of the characters were depicted with long white hair and ponytails. The women, however, are distinguished by their overly developed chests. Since Drizzt has purple eyes, it’s easy to follow his identity in a world of doppelgangers. Instead of Devil’s Due using essentially blank page chapter breaks, a who’s who page would have been a nice addition to possibly expand reader base instead of just marketing to the existing fans.
In the Underdark, a secret world below the Forgotten Realms, danger and death await even the strongest and most alert. The city Menzoberranzan (see what I mean?) is the setting of Salvatore’s story; it’s two miles wide and 1,000 feet high (why there aren’t regular cave-ins isn’t explained but I questioned it). Human-looking Drow, dark elves with obsidian-colored skin, dwell within this city and engage in evil, Machiavellian political machinations. In an interesting twist from the male-dominated fantasy genre, women rule through a hierarchical system of family “houses”. Men are just pawns in war and procreation; on second thought, maybe this does still fit in with the standard male fantasy fulfillment.
Less than six pages in and I’m already frustrated with the needlessly complex and difficult to pronounce character names. To me, this isn’t memorable; it just makes me want to go read something else. It seems, at least initially, remarkable that these stories could have such a massive following.
There is a conspiracy within the house of Do’Urden to destroy the rival house of Devir. The female leader of Do’Urden, a very pregnant Matron Malice (there’s a simple and memorable name), is going to sacrifice her yet-unborn child to increase their psychic attack on Matron Ginafae, the leader of the house of Devir. Apparently, such things are common place in this society.
But conspiracies abound within Homeland as the oldest male of Do’Urden, Nalfein, is slain by his younger brother Dinin. Dinin does this to gain power within his family. As an unintended result, the unborn child is saved: no longer the third in line (apparently 3 is the magic number here), he need not be sacrificed. This purple-eyed baby in a world of red-eyed Drow is our protagonist, Drizzt.
Magic is an integral part of the Underdark. The Faceless One (Gelroos Hun’ett) is a master of magic whose brother, Masoj, slays him right before he is able to kill Alton, the last of the Devir. Alton Devir, a master of magic himself, promises to mentor Masoj in exchange for his life so that Alton can enact revenge upon those who decimated the house of Devir. With the help of some acid eagerly supplied by Masoj, Alton now becomes The Faceless One, once a teacher and now a sleeper awaiting revenge in the house of Do’Urden. Not only are the names confusing, but the complicated plotlines mirror the secretive political maneuverings within the story.
Zaknafein, a deadly warrior and the most revered male in the house of Do’Urden, teaches Drizzt the ways of the warrior (13 years of warrior training takes just a few pages in finest montage style). Zaknafein is a conflicted character who questions his limited role in Drow society and why treachery and murder are the norm while friendship and love are suppressed. He sees that general lack of sympathy in most of the warriors he trains. Within Drizzt, however, Zaknafein sees an empathetic warrior. But, even Drizzt has to follow the rules of this vicious society as he is eventually forced by Matron Malice to kill another warrior in a test to proceed to the Academy and become a prince of the house of Do’Urden.
Zaknafein has one last fighting lesson with Drizzt before leaving for the Academy. Zaknafein tries to instill that although Drizzt might be sympathetic to his opponents; winning in any way possible is the lesson: “You may win a thousand fights but you can only lose one”. It seems that despite his conflicts, Zaknafein is ultimately trapped by his heritage. Drizzt, however, may be different.
During his nine years in the Academy, Drizzt is fed propaganda about how faeries, once friends, slaughtered many Drow and caused them to flee to the Underdark, where they were taken in and aided by the Spider Queen and her magic. Drizzt listens and weighs the words they use against what Zaknafein taught him and what he has actually seen from the Drow people. It seems to be a tale of nature versus nurture, as Drizzt begins to internally rebel against his societal conditioning.
This will lead Drizzt onto a path where he becomes the target of a murder plot. This propels us to the end of this trade paperback featuring more deception and treachery as a friend becomes an enemy and more secrets are revealed.
I struggled with the first part of this book because of the names and my lack of character knowledge. About a third of the way through, it all fell into place and I really began to enjoy the story. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the book (and subsequent revisit for this review) that I realized how rich and detailed of a story this is. Breaking it down to the simple “good vs. evil” blurb wasn’t as easy as I originally thought. Salvatore’s world is complicated and nuanced, with far more shades of grey than one might expect. Reflective of the world of today, even fantasy can make you question your loyalty to your homeland and the unthinking tendency to follow orders and make you reevaluate what your eyes see versus the rhetoric fed to you in school, by your family, and by your leaders.