[7 August 2006]
R.A. Salvatore has a prolific history of science fiction and fantasy novels that stretches back into the late ‘80s. A character named Drizzt Do’Urden has become a breadwinner of sorts for him, appearing in his novels for just over 18 years. Drizzt, a dark elf (drow), is an anti-stereotype for his race, preferring friendship and peace to the hatred and violence characteristic of his people. Drizzt’s unusual nature creates ample conflict for Salvatore to turn into epic stories of friendship and noble courage (and in turn a voluminous number of novels).
Sojourn is the third installment of The Legend of Drizzt series, which is based in the “Forgotten Realms” setting, part of the world of Dungeons and Dragons. From the outset, Sojourn quickly immerses the reader in Salvatore’s world. The book is conscious of the importance of its past, and brings the reader up to date with both a recap page and two pages of Drizzt character history. A sense of epic is conveyed in the first few pages and grows steadily stronger throughout the book. It’s apparent that The Legend of Drizzt isn’t a simple start-to-finish comic book story. The tale presents itself as immense, with the reader only catching a glimpse of what has happened so far and what is to come.
In book three, Drizzt has escaped the clutches of his family and race. His mother had tried to kill him by sending the reanimated corpse of his father as an assassin. As a testament to his special righteousness, Drizzt does all in his power to escape this particular flavor of parental nurturing. After doing his best to disentangle himself from the evil underground world of the drow, Drizzt decides to live on the surface where he will certainly face discrimination, but hopes to overcome it and make a better life for himself. His first adventure comes when he meets a band of semi-intelligent Gnolls (creatures with human bodies and dogs heads), and decides to kill them rather than help them slaughter and eat villagers.
I haven’t read any of Salvatore’s other books, but based on Sojourn I think a common theme can probably be found in all of them. Villains are nearly always motivated by hunger (for power or food or both) which leads them to try and consume helpless innocents and/or the protagonist. Eating good people is nearly always an unforgivable sin, so naturally the villains are hacked apart in the end.
With Drizzt, Salvatore attempts to fashion a character that faces internal struggle and is more multifaceted than the typical fantasy or comic book hero. Not only is Drizzt supposed to break the mold for his own fictional people, the drow, but also for his genre of fiction. Salvatore is, however, largely unsuccessful in this. Any blood Drizzt finds on his hands is quickly justified and most “internal” conflict is superficial at best. While being significantly more complicated than ordinary stories of its genre, Sojourn quickly slides into the battle between polar opposites of good and evil. The good guys are motivated by being “good”, and the bad guys are motivated by being “evil”, and ultimately it is as simple as that.
This is not to say that Salvatore’s writing is not interesting, but it is far from compelling. The characters are nearly impossible to sympathize with. The not-so-subtle “discrimination is bad” overtones are employed almost solely as a plot instigator, serving only minimally to create character depth. Sojourn only escapes the feel of a Saturday morning cartoon when violence erupts and results in bloody carnage. Exacerbating the artifice of the book, the third person omniscient narrator stumbles over himself to fill in the gaps between the bubbles of rigid dialogue. The narration often feels juvenile and unnecessary, frequently serving only to describe what is obviously happening in each panel.
Much of Sojourn is spent impressing upon the reader the goodness of Drizzt and the evilness of his adversaries. The tension between the two parties builds and builds until finally culminating in a severely anticlimactic fight scene. A true sense of peril for Drizzt is absent from the action not just here but throughout the book. He snoops around in a world of weak beings, himself not unlike the gods of Greek mythology, trying to find a place among the mortals. Drizzt desperately seeks trust and acceptance, but his good intentions are usually met with fear and rejection. The complex social and relational intricacies available to Salvatore are abandoned in favor of developing his sprawling and elaborate setting. Instead of attaching readers to a few polished characters, he introduces a pack of diverse but undeveloped protagonists and villains. The wide variety of characters is interesting, but they almost feel more like elements of setting, rather than long-lasting or identifiable individuals.