The Crystal Shard

Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: March 1998

Darkwalker on Moonshae was already in a half-completed state while TSR was still compiling the Realms material, so they were able to rush it out quickly to accompany the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, the seminal “Grey Box”. (In fact, the cover illustration for Darkwalker did double duty as a cover for one of the Grey Box’s sourcebooks.) But The Crystal Shard, the first Realms novel written from scratch, didn’t come out until ten months afterwards. This would mark the longest gap between novels in the Forgotten Realms series. For the next twenty-eight years there would be a new Forgotten Realms book at least once every few months, with some years having over a dozen new releases. No chance of me running low on material to work with, that’s for sure!

R.A. Salvatore was easily the most prolific of the authors who wrote for the Forgotten Realms series. Of the roughly 290 Realms books, Salvatore wrote, co-wrote, or contributed stories to 52 of them [1], and The Crystal Shard was not just his first Forgotten Realms novel but his first published novel as an author. TSR held an audition of sorts for authors to write the next trilogy in the Forgotten Realms series, and Salvatore, who had come to their attention thanks to a draft novel he’d sent to them a few months earlier, submitted a sample chapter which won him the position. Thus, this book marks the humble beginning from which he went on to dominate the New York Times bestsellers list.

But is it any good? Let’s have a look.

Because its early drafts predated the publishing of the Forgotten Realms setting, Darkwalker was set in a remote far-western corner of the world with a pseudo-Welsh culture and didn’t have much Realms-specific flavour to it. With the release of the setting materials, however, The Crystal Shard seized the opportunity to show off Faerûn proper and demonstrate the uniqueness of the world by… setting itself in a remote far-northern corner of the setting with a pseudo-Norse culture. Well, so much for that!

That’s not quite fair, though. The Crystal Shard was already partially written by the time TSR decided to make it a Forgotten Realms novel, so there was still a fair amount of setting surgery involved. And compared to the Ffolk, the people of Icewind Dale feel much more diverse and much less directly based on a real-world culture. The townsfolk and fishermen of Ten-Towns are a varied and fractious lot, and we’re treated to details about their informal, ineffective government and the economics of their ivory-based gold rush which make the setting feel plausible. The setting does a good job of informing the story, too; for instance, Salvatore immediately introduces several customs and traditions of the barbarian tribes (the Norse analogues) not as window-dressing details for the setting, but as deadly serious aspects of the tribes’ political wrangling. Better yet, the Norse-ish barbarians only form a small part of the book’s overall plot, so it doesn’t feel like like you’re stuck in Fantasy Counterpart Culture Land the entire time, and you get to see how their culture interacts with the other, less immediately derivative culture near them.

Icewind Dale is also a much more interesting setting than the last book’s fantasy Wales. It’s a frozen waste on the northern margins of civilization whose population is currently booming due to the exploitation of ivory from a local fish. The fishermen of the barely-civilized frontier towns are overfishing the lakes as fast as they can (humans, am I right?), while dealing with goblin and barbarian raids and the exigencies of survival in the harsh tundra. It is, in short, a shithole. The arctic terrain is described well enough to make you want to wrap yourself in a blanket while you read. All things considered, it’s got a lot of potential for interesting stories and definitely goes further afield from the commonplace “England but with magic” of many fantasy settings, which I appreciate.

Plot

The plot is broken into two sections, each of which involves the rise of some threat and a great battle which ends it. The two-part construction actually works very well; the first section introduces us to Icewind Dale and sets up characters and themes which recur in the second section in slightly different ways.

The first section, which is about the first quarter of the book, describes a barbarian invasion which forces the ten towns of the aptly-named Ten-Towns region to band together and repel them. We’re introduced to the various protagonists and get a good overview of the cultures of both sides. Meanwhile, the second section is set up when a would-be wizard discovers an ancient evil artifact which lets him realize his sad little dreams of being a petty tyrant.

Then we skip ahead five years. In the second section, we follow the education of a barbarian lad taken prisoner by dwarves at the end of the previous invasion. He learns well, does remarkable deeds, then goes out of the story for a while; the bildungsroman elements are in focus for about a quarter of the book, but take a back seat at around the halfway point while the main plot builds up steam again. In the meantime the evil wizard guy has built up an army of goblins and orcs and such to invade Ten-Towns, and once he does so, the rest of the book is a bunch of big battle scenes.

Like with Darkwalker on Moonshae, the battle scenes are overlong and get tiresome after a while, especially when there’s not much of a pause for breath between them. The first half of the book, which is full of establishing character moments, felt more enjoyable to read than the last half, which was mostly non-stop fights and battles. Unlike Darkwalker, though, this one actually feels like it was intended to be the first book in a trilogy; the end of the book is all about sending the characters off on their next adventure once the denouement is done.

The two-part structure ends up making the barbarian tribes an interesting part of the story. They start off as villains, and you cheer along with the protagonists when they’re defeated. But in the second section you see the aftermath of that battle on their society when some characters discuss how hard the past five years have been for the survivors, mostly the women and elderly, after the crippling losses they suffered at the end of the first section. They end up banding together under a violent thug to survive, but once he’s disposed of, they finish the novel fighting heroically with the other humans against the monsters. It introduces an interesting note of moral relativism that most pulp fantasy novels lack. Every battle has its consequences, and unlike the Northmen from Darkwalker, the entire culture isn’t inherently good or bad, merely misled. (This open-minded attitude doesn’t apply to the goblins and orcs, of course, but at least it’s a start.)

Theme

If the book can be said to have a theme, it’s the importance of cooperation. The first section of the book is about the barbarian tribes uniting to invade Ten-Towns, only to be defeated by the clenched-teeth cooperation of the rival towns and their allies. The second section of the book involves the evil wizard wannabe coercing a wide variety of monsters into forming a common army; the townsfolk fail to cooperate this time around and things are very bad. But then they exploit the natural divisions between the monsters and learn to cooperate again, and things get better. It ends with a new era of unity dawning for the surviving humans of Icewind Dale.

Short version: united good, divided bad. It’s not subtle, but it gets the job done.

It’s also a coming-of-age story for a young barbarian man, as I mentioned earlier, but that’s more of a subplot against the greater backdrop of armies and evil wizards and whatnot.

Characters

The characters introduced in this novel would go on to star in dozens of later books, so there must have been something about them which captured people’s imaginations. Let’s see if we can’t tease out what.

At first glance you can see a tremendous influence from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You’ve got the nature-loving elf and the gruff axe-wielding dwarf who make a pair of unlikely friends, the doughty human warrior, the halfling who’d rather stay at home than go on adventures, and the distinct absence of female characters. Thank Christ Elminster doesn’t show up in this novel or we’d have a Tolkien ripoff overdose, right? But Salvatore goes out of his way to play with each of the archetypes just enough that the party doesn’t feel like a straight ripoff.

Bruenor Battlehammer is a dwarf straight out of Central Casting. Like Tolkien’s Gimli, his people were driven from their ancestral halls after delving too deep and awakening ancient evil; like Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit, he’s the leader of a clan of exiled dwarves who want to reclaim their homeland. I rolled my eyes all the way through that exposition, intensely irritated at the obvious unoriginality. And yet, despite the shamelessly derivative backstory, he manages to be a reasonably engaging character. He’s deeply sentimental but hides it under a gruff and prickly exterior, always finding practical explanations for his acts of charity. He loves his family and friends, but can’t bring himself to express it in any healthy fashion. He’s got more of a sense of humour than any of Tolkien’s dour dwarves ever did, not to mention a streak of mad bloodthirstiness. It all adds up to a character who, while not necessarily original, feels larger than life and fun to read about.

Like Bruenor, Regis seems on the surface to be extremely derivative of Tolkien — a pint-sized, portly halfling who yearns for the comforts of home and makes an unwilling adventurer, like Sam or Frodo. Yet his differences from Tolkien’s hobbits show up early: far from the valiant middle-class heroes of Lord of the Rings, he’s a lazy coward and an unrepentant thief. He’s not going on any quests out of a sense of duty; he gleefully manipulates people for his own benefit and only puts himself in danger when he’s cornered and there’s absolutely no other option. It wouldn’t take much to make him seem like a sociopath, but you see enough of his internal monologue that he never quite crosses that line for the reader. (Plus I’ve always had a soft spot for the “guile hero” archetype anyhow.)

Wulfgar is a barbarian lad who, after being wounded and captured in battle, ends up as Bruenor’s ward. I’m of two minds about him as a character, honestly. On the one hand, he gets a lot of good character development. The story opens by introducing the warlike customs of his Norse-ish tribe to give you a good baseline for the culture whose values he’s absorbed. It then follows Wulfgar through the years of his education under Bruenor and that other guy, where his early prejudices are systematically dismantled, and finally comes full-circle when he returns to his tribe as a changed man with new ideas. You can’t say he’s a static character… but despite being the focus of the story for a significant period of time, he still feels flat to me.

The others are Tolkien pastiche, but the best description for Wulfgar would be a Conan pastiche: barbarian lad, great warrior, grows up into a shrewd and canny king. He’s a macho archetype, all muscles and bravado, who solves all but one of the problems that come his way with violence. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and there’s nothing really mechanically wrong with him — he gets a solid character arc, ends the book a different and better person than he was at the outset, has good establishing moments that set up each of his decisions and plot points, et cetera. In the absence of any obvious problems stemming from the text, I can only conclude that my perception of him as a flat character is just because I don’t like him. He seems like the designated hero whom we’re supposed to root for, but his entire character is built around glorifying violence and his role in the story only occasionally rises above “the big guy who hits things with a big hammer,” which really doesn’t do it for me. The other characters have more going on inside when we see their internal monologues, but his basically boil down to a bland “I am determined!” or “I am torn!” and don’t really give the sense of a complex character inside the same way the others’ do. His entire subplot wraps up about two-thirds of the way through the book and then he basically vanishes until finally reappearing at the end of the story, which doesn’t help matters.

Also, like Tolkien, Salvatore seems to have no idea how to write female characters and opts to just leave them out instead. There’s only one with a name in the entire novel: Catti-Brie, Bruenor’s adopted human daughter. I vaguely recall that she gets more screen time in later novels, but here she doesn’t even show up until Chapter 12 and serves no purpose plot-wise. She’s basically Wulfgar’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she’s a pretty, free-spirited waif who shakes him out of his stodgy worldview, but has no apparent goals or motivations of her own. I hope she eventually gets more interesting, because this story is a sausage-fest and could really use some characters who aren’t just scrambled-up versions of the usual fantasy stereotypes.

I found the villain of this first book, Akar Kessell, surprisingly well done at first. He starts off the book as an inept mage with poor morals and little wisdom, manipulated and then left for dead by his supposed allies. He’s hapless, pathetic, and dickish. But once he finds the eponymous crystal shard, he uses its power to turn himself into a petty tyrant even as it slowly crushes his weak will and takes over his mind. You end up both despising and feeling sorry for him, which is a tricky tightrope for an author to walk. He gets very, very hammy near the end of the novel, though, which spoils the effect somewhat.

Errtu, on the other hand, is a big scary demon who does big scary demon things. Meh. I haven’t much to say about him because he’s just not that interesting.

And that’s it!

No It’s Not

Sure it is! That’s all of the characters in the—

We Have to Talk About the Damn Elf

Okay, fine.

Drizz’t Do’Urden is probably the single most popular and iconic character to ever come out of Dungeons & Dragons. He’s been featured in a long succession of novels, sourcebooks, comics, and video games over the course of nearly three decades. He’s become an archetype that’s been parodied, deconstructed, and reconstructed so many times that now it’s like an overchewed piece of bubble gum, flavourless and tacky. He’s a surprisingly divisive character — his fans propelled Salvatore’s Realms novels to the top of bestseller lists, but many D&D enthusiasts will groan in real pain at the mere mention of Drizzt or the whole “misunderstood drow” character concept. And this was his first appearance, where Salvatore made him up on the spur of the moment as a sidekick to Wulfgar, the character he apparently considered the real protagonist originally.

The short version: Drizzt Do’Urden is a drow (a race of evil subterranean dark-skinned elves) who’s rejected the wicked ways of his people and come to live among the surface dwellers. They hate and fear him because of the reputation of his people, but those few who are open-minded enough to see past his skin love and trust him unquestioningly. He’s brave, good-hearted, possesses innate magical powers from his drow heritage, has a magical panther as a pet, and is one of the best swordsmen in the Realms.

We’ll get into the racism angle in a later review, because that’s a whole barrel of fun right there. For now, let’s talk about the concept of the Mary Sue, since that’s a phrase that inevitably crops up in any discussion involving Drizzt.

“Mary Sue” is a term which originated in fan fiction as a derisive way to describe authors’ pet characters — you know, those characters that are so special, so good at everything, so uncritically adored, etc., that you start feeling like they’re some form of wish fulfillment on the author’s part rather than a well-realized character. There’s no universally agreed-upon definition of the term (and in recent years it’s sometimes used as a mere pejorative for “a character I don’t like”), but there are a number of classic traits which are considered a litmus test to detect a Mary Sue in fan fiction:

  • Distinctive appearance, often with unusual eye or hair color: Yep. Like all drow he’s got stark white hair, and his lavender eyes are noted as being unusual even among his kind.
  • A particularly unusual or dramatic backstory: In spades. He’s exiled himself from his whole race of stone-cold killers, unable to reconcile the evilness of drow society with his incorruptible morals. We get a couple tidbits about how that went down in this book, but there will be entire books devoted to his tragic backstory later.
  • Exceptionally talented in many areas: Drizzt is one of the best swordsmen in the world, but — just in this book alone — is also a skilled outdoorsman, a master of military tactics at all scales, and an expert in demon lore. At no point in the book does he make a mistake or fail to correctly analyze a situation.
  • No real character flaws: His exceptional attributes are balanced by no negative traits whatsoever so far. He’s unfailingly good, loyal, brave, thoughtful, and compassionate. This book pays a bit of lip service to giving him “overconfidence” as a flaw, but his confidence is actually justified by his implausibly extraordinary talents, so it doesn’t pan out.
  • Universally loved by anyone who isn’t an asshole: Plenty of people don’t like him, but they’re all basically complete dicks, and the “we don’t like him because of his race” angle is played for drama and sympathy. Anyone in the story who isn’t a dick trusts him instantly and unconditionally; it is merely a fact of the universe, like gravity.

So is Drizzt the King of the Mary Sues, or a well-realized character? Well… the more I consider the question, the more I think the answer is “both”, which is the reason why he’s such a divisive character in D&D fandom. He’s definitely much too perfect and special, ticks a large number of the Mary Sue boxes, and here in his first appearance has never done anything wrong or had to struggle with anything. It’s no surprise that he gets on the nerves of a big subset of the community. But he’s also more than that — he’s a sympathetic character with a wry sense of humour, genuine concern for the people around him, and a quiet, selfless sort of heroism that’s considerably less tedious than Wulfgar’s manly bluster. Even as I was rolling my eyes at the sillier aspects of the character, I had to admit that I was having fun reading his scenes. It’s not hard to see where a lot of people would find him a compelling character to read about if they didn’t find the Sueish aspects as distressing, because he’s reasonably well-written despite them. Unlike many a Mary Sue, there’s more to him than just a collection of positive traits… but we’ll see whether that opinion holds out for the next dozen or so of his novels, because that’s a long, long time to spend with a flawless character.

Part of the fan backlash about Drizzt as a character is the fleet, the legion, the veritable horde of imitators that he spawned. Nearly everyone who played D&D during the 1990s rolled up a drow character at some point, and they would inevitably be some variety of misunderstood rebel loner who just wanted acceptance. It even became a part of the setting, with more “good drow rejected by surface society” cropping up in the source materials. There was even a goddess of misunderstood rebel drow in the elvish pantheon. It was an attractive archetype for tyro roleplayers; you could be kind of edgy without having to actually be bad. With all that overexposure, it’s hardly a surprise that the character concept has become so discredited in RPG and fantasy circles.

We’ll be revisiting the topic of Drizzt in future reviews because wow, are there ever a lot of novels starring him. Let’s leave it at that for now.

Writing

It’s not terrible, but not great either. Definitely feels like a first novel, with plenty of slightly awkward or stilted turns of phrase, but the description is more vivid and the dialogue more animated than Darkwalker‘s serviceable but uninspiring prose. I found myself frustrated, though, by the consistently-applied spelling mistakes that any editor worth their salt should have caught: “principle” for “principal”, “chord” instead of “cord”, et cetera.

Some pedantry: I’m not a big fan of Salvatore using “lichs” as the plural of “lich”. That might make sense if it were pronounced “lick”, but I’ve only ever heard it pronounced “litch” and pluralized as “liches”.

Apparently verbeegs (a smallish, not terribly bright species of giant) are all British Cockneys who talk like Dick van Dyke from Mary Poppins, which is somewhat jarring.

“Blimey!” cried one of the verbeeg, unconcerned with its dying companion. “A great huge cat, it is! An’ black as me cook’s kettles!”
“Be after it!” hollered another. “A new coat ‘e’ll make fer the one whats catches ‘im!”

Conclusion

Grade: C+

It’s fun. It’s not great art — the characters aren’t exactly original, it’s full of fight scenes that never seem to end, and the writing is okay-ish. But the setting is interesting, the plot structure is halfway decent, and there’s time spent on developing the characters and giving them good interactions. It’s an enjoyable light read, all told.

So if Darkwalker was a D+, and I’m giving Crystal Shard a C+… I guess that means that quality is improving linearly! Surely I’ll be giving out straight As in no time!

Oh god. What have I gotten myself into?


[1] A precise count of “Forgotten Realms novels” is difficult to determine due to some anthologies containing mixed Realms and non-Realms material, some series being set partially in the Realms and partially elsewhere, et cetera. I’ve no interest in the tedium involved in coming up with an exact count, so I’ll just scrape the Wikia page and call the “290” and “52” numbers sufficiently close estimates.

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