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The Neverwinter Saga - A Rant
Recently New York Times Best-Selling author RA Salvatore wrapped up yet another sprawling saga in his ongoing, ever-growing, series of books set in the Forgotten Realms. This hub will serve as part review of the four book Neverwinter Saga, and part rant as I explain why they disappointed me in the end. Spoilers will abound.
For the uninitiated Robert Anthony Salvatore is a popular author of fantasy literature typically writing in the setting known as the Forgotten Realms, an offshoot of the Dungeons and Dragons universe. By far his most popular creation is Drizzt Do'Urden, a noble and good-hearted Drow (or Dark Elf) who forsakes the violent heritage of his subterranean people and travels to the surface world.
Drizzt has been on many adventures since Salvatore first premiered the character way back in 1987. I can still remember discovering the books for the first time after being handed them by a friend. The year was 2006 and I was just out of high school. I spent the summer devouring the first two trilogies that Salvatore wrote featuring Drizzt.
Salvatore's writing style is quite easy to dive into. He's not overly verbose and he tends to know how to write banter between members of an adventuring party. Salvatore also tends to be good at creating memorable and distinct villains. Probably his most praised talent is his ability to write action-scenes, from sword fights to big battles between armies Salvatore knows how to craft an exciting fight.
The main party of heroes Drizzt teams up with are known as the Companions of the Hall but there have been twenty some books featuring the Dark Elf hero and, as most fantasy “races” aren't as long-lived as Dark Elves are, the Companions are dying. As we begin the Neverwinter Saga only one of the Companions of the Hall remains, the dwarf, King Bruenor Battlehammer, one of Drizzt's oldest and best friends. Drizzt is accompanying his old friend on a search of an ancient dwarven city.
The Character Arc that Never Was
Drizzt has been around for a long time. Salvatore has been writing the Dark Elf character for longer than I've been alive so it might come off as pretentious to say that I don't think Salvatore understands the character. At least, I should say, Salvatore doesn't understand the archetype of the hero and doesn't know how to write a satisfying character arc for Drizzt. Since he first climbed from the Underdark Drizzt has essentially remained the same. His friends may have taught him to be truer to himself and his enemies may have taught him to exercise more caution or always stay on alert but basically he is the same. In this case however a character arc was necessary for one simple reason, the world Drizzt lives in has changed and he must change with it.
The Companions of the Hall, Drizzt's old friends, began dying, the curse of the longer lived races. Wulfgar, Regis, Catti-brie, gone. As we open the Neverwinter Saga the only one who remains is Bruenor. For the most part I liked the opening book of the series. Gauntylgrym isn't exactly a masterpiece of fantasy literature but it's a great send-off for Bruenor who dies in glorious dwarven fashion. Imbued with the power of the ancient guardians of the Primordial Bruenor's death was more meaningful than being stolen by the Spellplague.
Now, I thought, it was time for Drizzt to go through all the stages of his grief, not just for Bruenor but, once and for all, for ALL the Companions. At first he would be angry, sad, nostalgic and afraid to let go, but finally, in the end, he would realize that life goes on and so too must his adventures. There are plenty of people, elves, dwarves, and all manner of other creatures in the Forgotten Realms and plenty of good left to be done and adventure left to be had.
Instead Drizzt spends most of the next three books moping. This isn't Lone Drow moping either, this isn't, “I'm a badass, all my friends are dead so don't fuck with me” moping. This is “my wife is dead, my friends are dead, my current companions aren't them, boohoo” style moping. Despite all the complex forces that are woven around in the story, all the enemies and factions playing against each other, when we get down to the main character he comes off as a directionless sap.
Now this is somewhat okay, Drizzt is allowed to waiver in his convictions, moral and otherwise, and I'm glad he didn't become a worthless drunk like Wulfgar (let's never speak of what Salvatore did to proud Wulfgar again) however by the end of the saga I expected Drizzt to have completed an arc and regained his inner-fire. Indeed that's how The Last Threshold seems to be going for much of its length, progress is finally being made. It seems as though a depressed and directionless Drizzt is going to get his groove back.
I've heard many fans of the series moaning about the character of Dahlia. Dahlia is a young elf who was sexually assaulted by one of the saga's main antagonists Herzgo Alegni. She also serves as Drizzt's main love interest during the story. For the first three books her character seems worthless other than as a vehicle to drive Drizzt deeper into the mess surrounding Gauntylgrym, the Dread Ring and Neverwinter itself. She also provides one point to an otherwise pointless love triangle (which just leads to more of Drizzt's brooding bullshit).
Finally in book four, The Last Threshold, Dahlia seems to be given some actual character development and for a while there it looks like Salvatore will extend this to Drizzt as well. Dahlia is faced with confronting her son, Effron, the product of being raped all those years ago by Herzgo. There seems to be some emotional progress being made here as Effron, once hated by Dahlia, joins with her, Drizzt and the would-be party they've put together for the adventure they're on. Here I was ready to forgive Salvatore for book three's love-triangle plot and indeed the continuation of that love triangle in book four. Things were looking up, Dahlia actually was getting an arc.
The End of the Rainbow
So here I was reading along convinced that Salvatore was redeeming himself from what had previously been a serviceable but pretty mediocre four book saga. Drizzt was finally talking about whether he loved Dahlia and whether or not he could love again after Catti-brie's death all those decades ago. Dahlia was finally questioning whether she loved Drizzt or was just using him to ultimately commit suicide and she was finally able to question whether or not that self-destruction was necessary.
Things were looking up. And to make matters even juicier my favorite enemy was back, Errtu, a balor, a powerful demon defeated by Drizzt and company several times. I came to expect that Salvatore would deliver a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a delicious combination of completed character arcs and satisfying action.
To make matters even better Jarlaxale wasn't dead and while this didn't come as a shock by any means (how could anything ever really kill Jarlaxle Bearne?) it was nice to have his unpredictable antics and impossibly long reaching resources back at Salvatore's disposal. It also gave me hope that Entreri would actually be given something to do in the story now that Herzgo's control had been broken.
Yet as I reached the final chapters ready to taste the rainbow I slowly began to realize that Salvatore was digging himself into a hole so black even light couldn't escape it.
The moment at which Salvatore finally ruins things takes place within the last few pages of The Last Threshold. Just a little while earlier the group realize they have been in a mysterious forest for eighteen years. For eighteen years that seem to pass very quickly to them they have been sequestered, apparently magically, in order to let the heat of their pursuit pass. To Drizzt this seems to be the last kind act of his dead wife Catti-brie, acting with the help of Drizzt's goddess Mielikki.
Now, atop Kelvin's Cairn, Drizzt is holding a piece of Scrimshaw that seems clearly carved by Regis. He is standing where he and Bruenor first met, indeed in the general area where he and all the Companions met, having just received the final gift from his dead wife and having just found a relic of his friend Regis. It's time Salvatore. Time to have him LET GO of them. Time to have him throw the scrimshaw away in a not-so-subtle symbolic act of letting go of his past and have him pull Dahlia close with his arm around her to symbolize looking on to the future. Doing so atop Kelvin's Cairn, looking out across Icewind Dale, looking out at the stars above, would be a beautiful way of completing Drizzt's character arc.
It would also be the perfect time for Dahlia to complete her own and finally join the group as more than just a plot device, as an actual character. She would see Drizzt throw the scrimshaw, and be inspired by this to remove all the diamond studs from her ears and throw them, including the one that symbolized Drizzt.
Instead Salvatore offers the least satisfying and most confusing ending imaginable. Dahlia attacks Drizzt when he refuses her advances and leaves him bloodied and essentially dead in the snow. This apparently sets the stage for Drizzt to either pass into another dimension or into death, though the book is vague on which I can safely say that Salvatore probably has the next book done already.
I understand that churning out 1-2 novels a year is a difficult endeavor, especially when they feature the same characters in the same world. Salvatore, however, is more than capable of great things. The Icewind Dale Trilogy, the Dark Elf Trilogy and The Legacy remain some of my favorite works of fiction of all time and all of those series are Salvatore writing Drizzt and the Companions. But returning to those days, returning to the Companions, or having Drizzt be unable to let go of them, is NOT THE ANSWER.
If I do bother purchasing the next book in Drizzt's story it will be a tough fought battle if Salvatore hopes to redeem himself from Neverwinter..