Elfshadow, the first of Elaine Cunningham’s forays into the Forgotten Realms, is both the second book in the multi-author, open-ended The Harpers series as well as the first book in Cunningham’s smaller Songs & Swords series. The latter series follows the characters of Arilyn Moonblade and Danilo Thann, who are introduced in this work. Elfshadow tells the story of a mysterious assassin who is murdering Harpers, a semi-secret force for “good” in the Realms, and the trail of clues that leads Arilyn to a confrontation with the killer. It also builds up the general depth of the Forgotten Realms setting through connections to the city of Waterdeep and the well-known characters who dwell there.
Published in 1991, Elfshadow was written while the the base canon and lore of the Realms were still being established. There were a lot of areas on the map and in the history books that had only a sentence or two to describe them. The Harpers series did a great job filling in a lot of those gaps. Creating a loosely organized series of over fifteen novels—set in wide ranging areas, with many original sets of characters tied together in The Harpers—allowed a number of authors to contribute their ideas simultaneously without worrying about stepping on one another’s toes.
Elfshadow specifically helped establish a lot of the elven lore that was somewhat lacking in the early, Dales-centric works by Ed Greenwood. The often stormy relationship between humans and elves in the Realms has become a very common feature of both the lore and fantasy settings in general. The threat present throughout this work—that Arilyn could inadvertently bring about the revelation of a portal to Evermeet from the mainland, thus allowing the presumed greedy and rapacious humans free reign—really helped set the stage for future Forgotten Realms novels and settings, including Cunningham’s later work, Evermeet: Island of the Elves.
This novel also introduced a character that remains one of my favourites in all of fantasy fiction, not just Realms lore: Danilo Thann. Although this scion of a noble Waterdeep family appears to be a worthless fop who drinks, wenches, spends his way through a lazy effete lifestyle, and wastes his time with frivolous nonsense, all of that is actually a front. He is an agent of his uncle, the archmage Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun, and a surprisingly accomplished mage and bard in his own right. He uses the cover of his birthright to keep people’s suspicions at bay, make them underestimate him, and allow him access to the salons and clubs where information can be gathered discreetly.
The dual nature of Danilo’s character has always appealed to me. It gives a level of depth to a character who would be superficial if either side of him was the only one we saw. Watching him struggle with playing the fool when he would rather be serious brings him to life in a way that a lot of Realms characters do not. Even when he is playing the fool, he does it with a biting wit and some phenomenal dialogue that is a credit to Cunningham.
Among the primary foci of this story are the ancient Elven artifacts, Moonblades. They are magical weapons, passed down through a family line, becoming stronger and stronger with each generation, and burning to a crisp any unworthy member of the family who tries to wield one. Arilyn possesses one—takes her name from one, even—which, as she is a half-elf, caused no small amount of scandal among the quite insular elven people. Each Moonblade is unique, gaining powers based upon the needs of the wielders. For a wizard, it might enhance arcane powers or help protect from more mundane attacks, whereas for a scout, it might confer temporary invisibility or magically obscure tracks. They are quite compelling both as a concept for a fictional narrative device, as well as for their place in the underlying gaming concepts as used in Dungeons and Dragons.
I always find it helpful to consider the effects that Dungeons and Dragons had on the Forgotten Realms as a fictional setting, and vice versa. So many of the Forgotten Realms authors, early and current, began their careers designing game modules that the influences the two sides had on each other is intrinsic to how the setting developed. The creation, description and execution of these ancestral weapons in the lore really helped support both sides of that equation. Plus, I’m just a sucker for really cool magical swords. Who isn’t?
As with all of the books being reviewed as part of this article series, it is important to establish yourself in the grounding of a setting before you try to engage with the later works built on that setting. For that reason alone, Elfshadow is a must-read for anybody looking to get into the Forgotten Realms. That aside, however, Cunningham has also created several excellent characters with this and with the later books based upon it. With Arilyn and the elf Eliath Craulnober, there some great insights into the interrelation of elves and humans and the various sub-races of elves with one another. With Danilo, you get a surprisingly deep and clever semi-hero that keeps you engaged. And Cunningham’s work with Khelben Arunsun is really second only to Greenwood’s treatment of the character as one of the more powerful figures in Realms lore.
Outside the contributions to the setting, Elfshadow is also just a great book. It’s really a murder mystery, and it builds suspense and tension quite well as the victims begin piling up. The reveal, if not incredibly original in murder mystery fiction, is very well executed and played to the hilt. For fans of mystery who want to get into fantasy and vice versa, this is a great place to dip your toe in. Plus, nowhere else in the Forgotten Realms lore will you find a mage casting Snilloc’s Cream Pie.