Canticle

Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: November 1991

R.A. Salvatore’s star must have been quite ascendant at TSR around this time. After the runaway success of his first two Drizzt trilogies, he received the green light to do an unprecedented five-book series starring a bunch of original characters in a new part of the Realms. These days the Cleric Quintet is remembered, if at all, as “some other books by the author of the Drizzt stories.” But are they forgotten masterworks or a regrettable career detour for an otherwise successful author? Let’s find out.

This book takes place in the middle of nowhere, a largely wilderness area between Amn and the Shining Plains which had never been explored before and, as far as I know as of this writing, was never explored again. Most of it takes place in the same building, an ancient monastery and library high in the Snowflake Mountains. It’s not a bad concept for a setting, in theory; you could make a decent sort of fantasy The Name of the Rose out of it with a little work. Alas, we don’t get much detail about the monastery, so it ends up feeling like a stage backdrop which the characters act in front of rather than a real, vivid place. It really needs more details about the layout, the religious observances, the regular patterns of life, that sort of thing. If your entire book revolves around a single place, that place has to be given all the detail and development that you’d accord to a main character.

Plot

Bad people want to do chaos and evil for nebulous reasons, so they attack a monastery and drive all the monks crazy. A young scholar and his pugnacious lady friend save the day in a manner that owes as much to Encyclopedia Brown as it does to high fantasy. There’s not really that much more to say about it. There’s plenty of slapstick, pet squirrels, karate, and the invention of CPR and the flashlight, but when stripped of the irrelevancies the main plot is pretty threadbare.

There’s so much about this plot that doesn’t make sense. For instance: one of the bad guys enchants their super-powerful evil magical artifact with a restriction that it can only be activated by “an innocent.” Which means that he can’t activate it, and needs to dupe some schlub into doing it for him. Why on earth would you do that? What would he have done if he hadn’t been able to find an innocent in the monastery? Just give up and go home? Salvatore never bothers to give us a reason, so it just makes the villains look like idiots.

Themes

I’m not sure there’s a discernible theme here. “Sometimes bad people do bad things,” I guess. The whole “evil artifact unleashes people’s inner natures” thing doesn’t really give us any lesson about human nature, except maybe the obvious tautology of “If you drive people crazy, they act crazy.” It could have been a good opportunity for creepy suspense and character development if it had been developed more patiently, The Shining-style, with everyone slowly losing control of themselves. As it is, it feels like people go from normal to slightly odd to complete whackjobs in a fairly short period of time — which makes room for all the unnecessarily long fight scenes at the end, I suppose.

There should be an adjective for unnecessarily long fight scenes. Salvatorean? As in, “The alley fight in They Live is positively Salvatorean!” Hmm… yeah, that’ll work.

Characters

In order to properly discuss these characters, we’re going to have to return to a particularly irritating trope that Salvatore just can’t seem to leave alone: the Mary Sue.

Cadderly, the teenage hero of our story, is basically perfect. He’s a young prodigy, already extraordinarily proficient at scholarship, architecture, alchemy, inventing, meditation, rappelling, and yo-yo tricks. He has no flaws to speak of, except for the kind of bullshit not-really-flaws of “too clever” and “too curious,” which turn out to be positive traits in the end anyhow. Like Drizzt, all nice people instinctively like him and trust him, and the only people who don’t like him are jerks. We’re clearly supposed to be rooting for this wunderkind because he’s the protagonist and the author is obviously on his side, but I struggled to find anything about him that was interesting. Drizzt was equally as bad as Cadderly in the “missing flaws” department, but he had a wry sense of humour and a much more engaging personality than Cadderly’s blithe “gee whiz!” attitude, so it was easier to give him a pass for it. Here it’s just inescapable and insufferable, especially since Salvatore gives Cadderly every skill he might possibly need with the handwave of “he read it in an old book somewhere” at the moment when it might come in handy.

His love interest Danica, a young martial artist in training, is a fiercely independent girl who seems to exist largely to give Cadderly someone to emote to. She’s another prodigy who’s entirely without flaws: strong, perceptive, incredibly skilled at martial arts, and attractive. She spends a fair amount of the book tied to a bed and completely out of focus so that she doesn’t distract us from watching our protagonist solve everything. Once she gets untied, she has her own plot thread that doesn’t really go anywhere and ends with her getting her ass kicked. Danica is the epitome of the faux action girl: the reader is told what a badass she is, but she spends the entire book either mind-controlled into idiocy or doing stuff that’s not relevant to the main plot. In the end Cadderly has to save the day over her unconscious body, and she contributes nothing to the story proper except serving as a motivation for the male protagonist.

But I suppose it’s not really fair to say that Danica is only here to contribute to Cadderly’s character development. As it turns out, she does have an independent life goal of her own: to learn to break rocks with her head.

I swear I’m not making this up.

The villain of this piece, who rejoices in the polytrochaic moniker of Aballister Bonaduce, is just about as dull an antagonist as can be imagined. He wants to do chaos and evil and stuff because… well, just because. Apparently he once met the avatar of Talona, goddess of poison and disease, and decided to serve her and kill people. Do they not have any career counsellors in this world? Sheesh. Weak motivations aside, I’ve said time and time again that a villain who doesn’t successfully accomplish anything is one that you can’t take seriously, and Aballister is about as useless a villain as you’ll ever find. At the outset of the novel he’s spent years of ceaseless toil, vast amounts of brainpower, and a small fortune to concoct some sort of magical… thingy. And he has no idea what it does, how it works, or even why he’s doing it! He spends most of the novel just sitting in his evil stronghold, watching and fuming while a more effective villain actually does the bad things that set the plot in motion. This worked better in The Crystal Shard because the villain there was supposed to be a complete loser, a mere tool for a greater evil. Here I get the impression that Salvatore expects us to take Aballister seriously, but he doesn’t give us any reason to. It would have been trivial to write this book without him in it, so the only reason he’s even here must be so that he can reappear in later installments.

And okay, fine, maybe I can accept that maybe there’s one guy who’s sufficiently broken in the head that he’s going to do evil things because he’s just plain evil. But it turns out that there’s an entire castle of them, complete with an army of doom, and they have evil board meetings to decide their evil agenda for the evil fiscal year. Aballister is just a high-ranking functionary in this Evil League of Evil, who are incredibly numerous and well-equipped, yet somehow nobody in the region has ever noticed their evil stronghold. It’s handled with all the subtlety and realism of a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon.

For many years Castle Trinity had aspired to conquer the Snowflake Mountain region, the elven wood of Shilmista, and the human settlement of Carradoon. Now, with the chaos curse, that process might soon begin.

Is it just me, or do these guys have small ambitions? On the scale of a world like the Realms, that’s like saying “We’re going to conquer the tri-county area, starting with the city library!” They’ve got this huge conspiracy with a stronghold and an army and everything, and that’s all they want to do with it? Because we get so little information about who these would-be evil overlords are, what drives them, or how they interact with the rest of the setting, everything they do feels cheesy and unrealistic.

You know it’s a bad sign when the sidekick would have made a more interesting villain than the actual bad guy. Druzil, Aballister’s devil familiar, is snarky, sadistic, and actually evil. He even gets more done than his master, who spends much of the novel sidelined and ineffectual after his rival outmaneuvers him. One thing kept bugging me, though: Imps like Druzil are devils, lawful evil monsters from the Nine Hells who strive to impose their infernal tyranny on the rest of the multiverse. So why is he always going on about the glory of chaos, serving a chaotic evil deity, and trying to bring about this “chaos curse” business? Shouldn’t he be a quasit, not an imp? That’s a rookie mistake which anyone familiar with D&D (i.e., the book’s target audience) can’t help but notice.

The rival in question is another follower of Talona named Barjin, the schmuck to Aballister’s schlemiel. He’s also blandly evil, of course, without any motivations, personality, or backstory. The only thing that distinguishes him from Aballister is that Barjin can actually get things done; he implements an evil plan with a reasonable degree of success, further underscoring how useless Aballister is. I appreciated their rivalry, though, because it was nice to have some conflict between the antagonists to liven up the otherwise staid “good guys versus bad guys” plot. Still, he’s not interesting enough to carry the novel — he’s just so generically “Grr! I’m evil!” that it’s hard to care about what happens to him.

There’s also a pair of dwarves for comic relief: one typical dwarven stereotype, and one mentally handicapped guy whose loopy antics are clearly intended to entertain the punters. I suppose the 1990s were a different time for representations of people with developmental disabilities. Still, say what you want about these two, but at least they’ve got something approximating actual flaws — if not, they couldn’t be played for laughs.

Writing

For the love of God, please stop using the phrase “almond eyes”! Attention all writers: I hereby pronounce a moratorium on all further uses of that phrase to describe anyone without a typically Western human eye structure, whether elves, Asian people, or what have you. You’ve been warned.

Otherwise, well… it’s okay, I suppose. It’s not good, but it didn’t make me groan in real pain like some of Salvatore’s other writing. Nobody’s dropping long monologues in a pseudo-poetic, sesquipedalian style bemoaning their inner torment, which feels like a downright gift after the Dark Elf trilogy.

I well and truly lost my patience at the end of the book, though. There’s an elf who’s actually named “Elbereth.” Seriously? Was it so hard to come up with character names that he had to blatantly rip them off of Tolkien? Sigh. I get the feeling this character is going to recur in the second book, and that I’m going to get annoyed every single time I read his name.

Conclusion

Grade: D

I’m not sure I can suffer through four more of these. Reviewing a novel this bad is draining work. If I had to pick just one complaint to focus on here, it would be that this book utterly failed to give me any characters that I cared about. Instead we’ve got a collection of tropes and stereotypes with little in the way of motivations or character development.

A five-book series just seems like a bad idea on every level. The more constrained the space you have to work with, the sharper your character development and plotting gets — every word needs to do double or triple duty to tell the reader as much as possible about your characters, setting, and story. With five books all focusing on one overarching story, the temptation to indulge in sloppy characterization and meandering plots requires immense discipline to avoid. “Disciplined” isn’t really an adjective that springs to mind when I think about Salvatore’s writings thus far, so I’m not particularly looking forward to watching it go off the rails.

5 Replies to “Canticle

  1. Thank you so much for doing these reviews and running this website! It’s so hard to find critical analysis of Forgotten Realms novels that amounts to more than “some of them are good, but it’s largely dumbed down fantasy for teens” or “there sure are a lot of Drizzt books, what an overrated character he is!” Getting in depth reviews like you’re doing really helps a reader separate the wheat from the chaff, especially in a modern context where some books that were considered classics once might not be all that great in hindsight (whether that be because folks were in their teens when they first read them, or because it was the 90s).

    1. You’re quite welcome! It’s been particularly interesting to see how some of these books compare to my teenage memories of them. Some of them I knew were crap at the time, some of them I remember fondly but don’t enjoy rereading now, and a few still manage to justify their existence. It’s interesting that there aren’t really many that feel like they’ve aged badly; the ones that are bad are usually bad because they’re poorly written or plotted, not because they reflect outdated cultural mores or assumptions. I suppose the fantasy genre is less prone to cultural obsolescence than other literary genres.

      1. I think it might go through cycles depending on who the audience is, and how much of an awareness to deconstruct tropes there is. For example, fantasy has a strong history of cultural appropriation, racism, and sexism inherited from Robert E Howard and to a different degree Tolkien, but it’s also got a history of feminism, social consciousness, and racial equality inherited from authors like Ursula K LeGuin. In the 80s books like Dragonlance certainly felt as marketed to girls as they were to boys, and I think there was a bit more recognition of girls as fantasy readers at the time (hence female protagonists like Alias and Arilyn), but then when you look at the market in the late 90s, early 00s, particularly the “trash” fantasy market as opposed to “prestige” fantasy, it’s become aligned with the typical gamer/nerd culture so that the women in the stories are sex objects and there’s a lot of ugly senseless violence. Move forward to today, and you see the current regime at D&D really putting a lot of effort into inclusivity in their products, and great series like “Brimstone Angels” really playing to the market of women readers that has always existed but not consistently serviced. On the other hand, A Song of Ice and Fire, certainly the most popular contemporary fantasy series, definitely has its problems that it’s inherited both from genre tropes and also a misguided assumption of “historical accuracy”, and D&D itself has stumbled with how to adapt old tropes while still maintaining classic adventure archetypes, such as dealing with the undercurrents of racism in gothic horror (Curse of Strahd), and jungle adventure (Tomb of Annihilation).
        Another factor might be that, especially in the 2nd edition era, TSR was super on its toes about parental objections to their product line, and that while editorial might have been lax on grammar it may have been more stringent on sexual content and violence in a way that means the books don’t seem as objectionable as they could have, versus later on when the market shifted such that children were no longer the presumed readership but rather emotionally stunted young men.

        I’m not entirely sure if I’m making sense, or coming to a point, other than to suggest that the relation of the fantasy genre to cultural mores has not always progressed linearly, but moves backwards and forwards in response to many factors. Which, put that way, sounds obvious.

        1. You’re quite right about TSR being stringent when it came to graphic violence and sexual content. I remember how surprised I was when I began this blog and came across the rapey passages in Darkwalker on Moonshae, which TSR let very few writers get away with again thereafter, because they seemed so off-brand. I’m no prude, but on balance I don’t think it was necessarily a bad thing that they were so restrictive, given how many mediocre authors seem to treat gore and sexual violence as little more than a way to “spice up” an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

          That’s definitely something which can make a fantasy novel feel dated, too. Just look at the Lankhmar stories of Fritz Leiber, where he unironically presents his protagonists as a couple of puckishly heroic rogues, but a modern reader thinks “They are literal rapists and child molesters, what the fuck, Fritz?” Cultural mores around sexual violence are very different now than they were in the 1960s.

          Your point about fantasy reflecting the culture it was produced in makes a remarkable amount of sense. The TSR novels definitely reflect the tenor of their late 80s/early 90s time period in North America: making progress on feminism, but somewhat tone-deaf about racism, and LGBT stuff was still very taboo. If anything, that may be the aspect of them that feels most dated to me — the editorial inability to admit that not everyone is heterosexual, which is something that folks tend to take for granted today.

          I haven’t consumed any recently published D&D novels, but I’ve been very impressed with the way WotC has been steadily ramping up the inclusivity over the course of D&D 3E, 4E, and 5e. Sure, they stumble now and then, but they’re not doing anything as brain-numbingly racist as, say, the King Kong pastiche village in Basic’s Isle of Dread.

          1. I know you spotted a coded gay character in I believe “The Halfling’s Gem”, but I’ll be very curious to see if and when an out homosexual character crops up. I’ll put money on them being a villain, potentially a drow and a lesbian, knowing the 90s.

            Meanwhile, reading recent 5e materials like “Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes” and “Waterdeep: Dragon Heist” has me substantially impressed with the progress that’s been made, and the intelligence of creating in-fiction canonical reasons for players to play whatever kind of character they want — not that they couldn’t before, but some players need the justification, either for themselves or to bypass gatekeeping DMs.

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