Night of the Hunter is the first in a new trilogy in the ever-longer-spanning saga of Drizzt Do’Urden by American author R.A. Salvatore. It continues much in the same vein as the previous novels of the series: plenty of action, fast pacing, and characters we know well enough to not even need introductions. They’ve probably had more dialogue than some authors have words of published writing entirely. As another book in the series, it does just what the others do, and does it well, but I didn’t feel it added anything especially new to the mix.
R.A. Salvatore’s New York Times best-selling saga continues as dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden returns to Gauntlgrym with old friends by his side once again, as they seek to rescue Bruenor’s loyal shield dwarf-turned-vampire. But not only do Drizzt and his allies face a perilous journey through the Underdark and the dangers of the undead that lie within, but they must cross through a colony of drow, who would like nothing better than to see Drizzt Do’Urden dead.
I wasn’t sure what to expect coming into this book. I’ve read novels set in the Forgotten Realms since I was a child, and especially enjoyed the early Drizzt books growing up. I’ve been away for a while, when it comes to Salvatore. Looking at Wikipedia, I’d read the first seventeen books in this storyline, but appear to have missed the most recent ten. I’m pretty sure that twenty-seven books makes this the longest single-character single-plot series of which I know. I also appear to have not needed to read any of those ten novels to keep up with what was happening in Night of the Hunter. There were still a few callbacks to plot elements I missed, but none of them really had much to do with anything now except as a bit of additional character reference. Salvatore’s books have always been very…present…very immanent in a way that makes them enjoyable to read. While you gain a lot of insight into character backgrounds having followed all along, they spend so much time in the moment that you don’t really feel the lack.
What I did feel the lack of, however, was the presence of the much-vaunted incredible combat of Salvatore’s fiction. I’ve heard him described by many (including myself) as one of the premier battle writers in fantasy. Maybe it’s a function of writing these books in Post-Sundering Forgotten Realms with new directives coming from Wizards of the Coast about how to write, maybe it’s just age and maturity making me less interested in ‘wicked cool’ battle scenes. For those of you who have no idea what I mean about ‘Post-Sundering’ I’ll spit out a little paragraph of exposition for you here.
As one of the campaign settings for Dungeons and Dragons, and really the only official Wizards of the Coast published fantasy series connected to D&D, the storyline of the world often has to account for changes to the rules of the game set there. Typically when Dungeons and Dragons changes editions, there will be an upheaval of some sort in the fiction to coincide with it to allow for the necessary changes to how magic works, or which Gods do what, or which cities have been reduced to rubble. When Dungeons and Dragons switched from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons to AD&D 2nd Edition, there was a trilogy of books called The Avatar Trilogy which described ‘The Time of Troubles’ which shook up the pantheon substantially, and created many large-scale political and geographical changes in the world. Now that Dungeons and Dragons is transitioning from 4th edition to ‘D&D Next’ there was an in-world event called ‘The Sundering’ which caused an equally large change to the world which is primarily covered in the fiction by the series The Sundering, written by a set of six of the bigger names in the Forgotten Realms (R.A Salvatore, Paul S Kemp, Ed Greenwood, Troy Denning, Erin Evans, and Richard Lee Byers).
What my issue comes down to is that, as someone who has played Dungeons and Dragons for almost as long as I’ve been reading Forgotten Realms novels, the number of times I could almost literally see the dice rolling, and the feats and skills being accessed really took me out of the action scenes. I can understand when you’re writing for what is more of a game world with fiction in it than a fiction world with a game set there, that certain mechanical elements may creep in, but it got a little excessive. When you can say to yourself ‘I can tell that he missed because I know his sword is only +3 and the other guy is wearing +4 armour’ or ‘Oh look, somebody with the “improved disarm” feat,’ it sort of kills the moment. Add in the issue of weapons being far too light (Who, no matter how strong, actually spins like a corkscrew with two swords, fending off two enemies using different fighting styles for more than five seconds without their arms falling off?) and I found myself wanting to just skim the combat instead of revel in it.
Not that you miss much by skipping the combat. By this point in the narrative (not that we were ever away from it with Salvatore) his characters suffer from a serious case of Legolas Syndrome. After one fight where they seem to pretty much be falling over themselves, getting beaten up, stab wounds, impalements, the whole deal to the point that they nearly exhaust their healing magic, it’s as if they go ‘Oh right, we’re superheroes’ and just waltz gailly through the torrents of blood and corpses that are the rest of the combat in the story without suffering much more than a scratch. A character that has spent much of the book on death’s door, with obviously broken bones and serious injury is suddenly destroying healthy, armed and armoured, trained enemies one scene later? I’m pretty much out.
It’s somewhat hard to really level the above as a criticism of Salvatore’s work, however, since it seems, after the 54 novels he’s written solo, of which I’ve read a surprising 36, like it is just the effect he’s going for. I know a lot of people who love the epic feel and the piles of fighting, and his sales numbers certainly back up that for some types of readers this is solid gold. But my issue can really be expressed by pointing to something within his own narrative. It is the case that most of his Drizzt novels are separated into three or four sections. Each of these sections is typically prefaced by a piece of text written by Drizzt, musing on the philosophy of his situation, of life, of the nature of good and evil, and those passages are GREAT! Why can’t we deal more with the moral ambiguity of racism and prejudice through the whole story? Why does he only wax philosophic during the between times, when on either side he’s just loving the feeling of murdering dozens of putatively evil beings?
In a previous novel, Drizzt was instrumental in creating a treaty between a kingdom of Orcs and the local kingdoms of Dwarves and Humans. This is mostly founded on his belief, as a good member of a race universally considered to be evil, that good and evil are not intrinsic to the makeup of beings regardless of the general tendencies of their races. He hoped that encouraging peace this way might help the Orcs to overcome their natural tendencies towards evil and whatnot. Another of the characters, Cattie-Brie has basically been told by her Goddess ‘Nope, Orcs are born evil, they aren’t people like you are, you should kill them all,’ and it appears to take her all of five minutes to convince Drizzt that the treaty was a terrible mistake, and that they should totally go and kill all the Orcs. What the crap? Yes lets just undo several hundred years of closely held philosophical belief because somebody REALLY MEANS IT. It was a disappointment for sure.
We’ve gotten there before from novels by Salvatore. Fans of his general writing style that are a little disillusioned by the cavalcade of immortal superheroics should really check out his seven book series The DemonWars Saga. It feels like a much more thoughtful treatment of an epic fantasy storyline. It felt a lot less like nobody was in any danger even when told ‘you’re in danger’ and I find they aged better than a lot of his earlier works I enjoyed as a pre-teen and teenager.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Wizards of the Coast via NetGalley