Just when you thought that the saga of Drizzt Do’Urden couldn’t possibly get any longer, we have the next in the neverending story by American author R.A. Salvatore, Rise of the King. Astute readers will recall that we basically already read this book once before back earlier in the series, but for those with a great deal of nostalgia for Drizzt and Co it might be just what the doctor ordered. About as ‘middle book’ as a middle book has ever been, but still chock full of the action that Salvatore is continually lauded for.
In the second book of the Companions Codex, the latest series in the New York Times best-selling saga of dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden, R.A. Salvatore picks up with the fan-favorite storyline of dwarf king Bruenor Battlehammer and his bloody feud with the orc kingdom of Many Arrows.
In my review for the first book of this trilogy, Night of the Hunter, I criticised Salvatore for the degree to which his characters are generally immortal killing machines, and how it makes the action, which comprises a fair percentage of the book, pretty dull to read once you get over any acrobatics. After reading Rise of the King I honestly think that somebody sat him down a little while ago and said ‘Rob, your characters are never in danger. They always win no matter the odds. It’s making the combat less exciting. Where’s the risk?’ and he decided that the best way to fix it was to make the first fight in every book be one where the characters just get beat to a pulp, and then, mission accomplished, defaults back to his immortal face smashing. It’s an issue in Dungeons and Dragons that you reach a point where the characters are so powerful that it’s honestly the case that the best way to put them in danger is to just drop them in the middle of a huge number of otherwise weak monsters. After all, when you roll a 20 you hit automatically, so with enough monsters you’ll roll enough 20s to make it risky. Of course, real life doesn’t really work that way which means fiction at all pretending to represent reality shouldn’t work that way either. It’s actually even -more- disappointing when we can watch the characters easily kill a frost giant, then get nearly killed by a random orc dude with a spear. If you’re going to pick only one fight where the characters are in any kind of danger, how about you pick the days-long siege of a town where everybody is exhausted, worn-down, and low on healing magic instead of the random patrol in the woods?
But then, not much ought to be expected to happen since we’re in a middle book. And boy howdy is it a middle book. We’ve set up every piece, and are poised for resolution after resolution in the third book, but the lack of any real progress in anything resembling the greater plot made this installment drag more than a little. This was the strange thing though, while the content was very ‘middle-book,’ the style really was not. The battles were dripping with all of the epic and dramatic touches that Salvatore is famed for. They were written in a way that said ‘this is a really big deal, what is happening right now’ except what was happening was the cruddy town nobody liked anyway being attacked by a small branch of one wing of an army that was laying siege to a half-dozen other larger, more important places we just didn’t get to look at. I suppose for some it might have built anticipation for the third book, but at least in The Empire Strikes Back some serious important stuff happened.
A larger problem is sort of looming here, however, which I feel needs addressing. I’d mentioned above that we’ve already read this book and I was actually being pretty serious. If I had to generally describe the overall plot of this new trilogy, it would be ‘an army of orcs and frost giants lays siege to the northland, while behind the scenes, drow manipulate events to their advantage’. The Hunter’s Blades trilogy which Salvatore published in 2002-2004 had an overall plot which is described on Wikipedia as ‘The orc King… allied with a clan of frost giants, sends a massive army against the towns of the North. On the sidelines, four drow from the Underdark orchestrate events behind the scenes.’ You may notice that these plot synopses are identical in content. This isn’t even where the similarities end. A great deal of this story takes place in the town of Nesme. In Nesme, the Companions are met with distrust bordering on racism for Drizzt, and a generally crappy attitude towards people who clearly are famous heroes here to save them. Way way back in the 1980s, in The Icewind Dale trilogy, the Companions pass through Nesme, and guess what? Yup. Several hundred years have passed in-world, and the people of Nesme are still the same bigoted jerks they always were. It is especially interesting that this similarity for humans is present in a series which is focusing on whether the race of orcs are intrinsically evil or whether they can change. If the changeable humans are still all jerks hundreds of years later, it’s a pretty strong condemnation of Drizzt’s belief.
It isn’t even world detail that we’re repeating here. There are frost giants in the orc army, which are incredibly tough. There are scenes where they are literally coated in arrows, dumped in a pit with fire elementals and blasted with fireballs, and they’re still alive and moving. Then there’s a scene where Wulfgar, our hammer-toting barbarian hero, kills one basically in one blow by hitting it really hard in the ribs, one of which cracks and punctures its heart. I don’t remember exactly which book it is now (Drizzt is up to 26 books so far) but Wulfgar kills another giant in another book in exactly the same way. Why isn’t this just giant-killing strategy 101 for everybody now? Clearly they have some congenital rib defect everybody should be exploiting. When even the over-the-top feats of heroic strength are repeating themselves, maybe it’s time to stop literally bringing these characters back from the dead just to keep writing about them.
As a guide to myself, since I read books at a fairly fast rate and might already have finished one or two more before I have the writing time to review one, I tend to make a short list of subject headings for which things I want to talk about to keep it fresh. The final heading which lead to the above sections was a paraphrase of the quote attributed to President Lincoln. ‘People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.’ While I meant it as much to remind me of the degree to which events are repeating, it holds true as a recommendation for this book as well. I sort of feel like any reader who started when the Icewind Dale trilogy was new and fresh, who’ve stayed in through 26 books are actually quite happy to just keep on keeping on. Salvatore’s willingness to just stay the course is part of why these books are still so successful after more than 25 years. Whether the statement acts as a strong recommendation for why you will love Rise of the King or a condemnation of why you won’t, it is very very much more of the same. Sort of the Harlequin Romance for 15- to 17-year-old boys, or people who love their action epic, their characters incredibly consistent, and their weapons to all have very silly names.
Dan received an Advanced Copy of Rise of the King from Wizards of the Coast via Netgalley