Dark Elf Fantasy

(Probably not what you were thinking.)

Homeland (Book One of the Dark Elf Trilogy in the Forgotten Realms world of AD&D)
by R.A. Salvatore

I’ve never read these books before, though every gaming nerd I’ve taught English to in the last fifteen years has read and loved and recommended them. Drizzt Do’Urden is one of the most prominent and well-known characters to rise out of the D&D universe, which has run the gamut from role-playing games to countless novels to bad TV shows and worse movies. Drizzt is a Drow, a dark elf, one of the evil races of the D&D universe, like orcs and goblins and the like, and this book takes on the interesting task of making the Drow seem vile and cruel and merciless, while also making Drizzt himself sympathetic.

It’s a tough challenge, but Salvatore did it fairly well. I have read better books with a similar concept — the Elric of Melnibone series by Michael Moorcock are probably the best at this, along with Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books — but this one was well done. Drizzt is born into a noble House of the underground kingdom of dark elves called Menzobarranzan; as the third son (the kingdom is both matriarchal and theocratic, with the dark elf women serving as priestesses of an evil goddess named Lloth) he would have been sacrificed at birth, except that one of his elder brothers assassinates the other the same night when Drizzt is born, opening a slot for Drizzt to remain alive. He does, and grows into a hero, the greatest swordsman of the realm, and, most unusual for a Drow, a man with a sense of honor and a conscience.

The world is very well built, internally logical and consistent and in keeping with the larger D&D world; the Drow read like what they are, a universally evil race who worship a spider-demon and loathe kindness and mercy and love and anything else virtuous or good. It was interesting to see the ways Salvatore used elements of fascism in the Drow world: the children are very clearly indoctrinated, taught to hate an external enemy and blame that enemy for all of their own suffering, though that suffering is clearly inherent in their way of life; at the same time, they must obey the dictates of their own unquestioned supreme leader, constantly trying to curry her favor and savagely turning on those who displease her, even though they do not know why she is angry or why she is happy with any particular Drow. I imagine this is much what it was like to live in Hitler’s Germany, which I’m sure was Salvatore’s intent, or at least his inspiration.

I was a bit less pleased with Drizzt himself. Partly that is because I hadn’t read his previous adventures; these books are an origin story for a beloved character from another series, and so there were moments that were supposed to be meaningful for me that weren’t — for instance, the Drizzt character is well known for his companion, a magical black panther named Guenhwyvar; when she was introduced, I should have thought, “Hooray!” but it didn’t register at all other than :”Hey look, a magical black panther.” More problematic was the author’s attempt to make Drizzt a better man than his family: because there was no particular reason why he should have been more decent or honorable or merciful than every other Drow — he just was. Some of it came from his (not-quite-as) honorable mentor, who trained him; but why was the mentor more honorable then? Well, he just was, too. And sure, that’s how it works in D&D, but I think characters in a novel should make more sense.

The action was good, the world was great, the characters were fine. I’ll be reading the sequel.

If you liked this book, I would recommend:
Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock (And the rest of the series)
The Fahfrd and Grey Mouser series by Fritz Leiber (Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, etc.)
The Conan books — I’d recommend the two Roberts, E. Howard who created the character and Jordan who wrote it better than anyone else since.