Whenever anyone ever mocks me for being a science fiction/fantasy book reviewer – and they do! – or criticizes adventure fantasy specifically for being mindless literary fast food, I always ask them if they’ve ever read any of R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden novels. That shuts them up every time.
Although this saga is breakneck paced, nonstop action and adventure, Salvatore’s Drizzt saga is essentially an intense, and oftentimes lyrical, exploration into what it means to be human – and Salvatore’s signature character, the scimitar wielding dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden, is arguably the most complex and deeply contemplative fantasy character ever created.
Salvatore’s narrative is profound existential and spiritual enlightenment wrapped in literary escapism. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from his latest, Gauntlgrym, the first installment of his Neverwinter trilogy.
And this from The Orc King: “…emotion clouds the rational, and many perspectives guide the full reality. To view current events as a historian is to account for all perspectives, even those of your enemy. It is to know the past and to use such relevant history as a template for expectations. It is, most of all, to force reason ahead of instinct, to refuse to demonize that which you hate, and to, most of all, accept your own fallibility.”
Set decades after the conclusion of The Ghost King, Drizzt and his dwarven friend Bruenor Battlehammer forsake the comfort (and stagnation) of Mithral Hall and set out in search of the legendary homeland of the Delzoun dwarves – “the most sacred legend of their history” – Gauntlgrym. During their Odyssean quest, they travel to the Sword Coast and as they near the city of Neverwinter, a volcanic cataclysm strikes and destroys the entire area.
After another decade spent searching for Gauntlgrym, the devastated area surrounding what was once Neverwinter has become home to any number of unsavory characters. “Enemies abound: Shadovar, those strange cultists sworn to a devil god, opportunistic highwaymen, goblinkin, giants, and monsters alive and undead. And other things, darker things from deeper holes…”
And Drizzt, who is finding increasing pleasure in losing himself to the rage of battle, is drawn back to this place and its growing evil...
The character of Dahlia is particularly intriguing: "Her tall, lithe elf form was topped by a head shaved clean but for a single thin clutch of raven black and cardinal red locks, woven to run down the right side of her shapely headand nestle in the hollow of her deceptively delicate neck..."
Longtime fans of Salvatore's Drizzt novels will experience a decidedly "fresh" tone with Gauntlgrym. Not only is Drizzt changed, but the realm is changed as well. New places, new characters, new existential issues to overcome...
Last year, while blogging about the concluding volume of Salvatore’s Transitions trilogy, The Ghost King, I described Bob as “so much more than an adventure fantasy novelist. He’s a philosopher, a sage, a literary shaman, a changer of lives” – and I’m pretty sure that most of the fantasy fans who have read his Drizzt cycle will wholeheartedly agree with me. These novels aren’t just topnotch adventure fantasy, they’re deeply introspective, profoundly moving, explorations into the psyche of a character that exists in all of us. Who of us hasn’t experienced loneliness? Ostracism? Prejudice? Doubt? Heartrending loss?
“More than any maulana, my morality is a by-product of a dark elf named Drizzt Do’Urden... Who is Drizzt? Drizzt is exile. Drizzt is immigration. Drizzt is assimilation. Drizzt is self-hate. Drizzt is victim of racism. Drizzt is brilliant. Drizzt is accomplishment. Drizzt is what Bigger Thomas wasn’t, what Malcolm X was but for a moment, and what Muhammad is not permitted to be. Drizzt Do’Urden, the Dark Elf, also known as the ‘drow’, is honor.”
The bottom line is this: R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden novels are unarguably one of the most underrated fantasy sagas ever published. Yes, I know they’re perennial bestsellers and the saga will undoubtedly go down as classic adventure fantasy but, again, they’re so much more than that. Imagine Søren Kierkegaard with scimitars and a magical panther, or Socrates singlehandedly fighting off an army of orcs and you get the picture…
All I can say is this: these novels are as entertaining as they are edifying. I challenge you to read this series and not be changed in some way…
FYI: R.A. Salvatore is BarnesandNoble.com’s special guest in the Fantasy & Science Fiction forum this week (November 1 – November 5) so if anyone has any questions and/or comments for the literary shaman and creator of the iconic Drizzt Do’Urden, stop by and say hello!
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.