Author: Elaine Cunningham
Published: August 1995
Elaine Cunningham is one of my favourite Realms authors to date. Her works thus far, two novels and two short stories, have been uniformly good reads. When they succeed they’re well-crafted and great fun, giving us compelling characters in unusual situations. Even when they don’t pan out, as in her short story in Realms of Infamy, they’re struggling to do something interesting and tightly character-focused. But now she’s abandoning the familiar stable of characters she created in Elfshadow and venturing onto R.A. Salvatore’s turf, telling a story of intrigue among the drow of Menzoberranzan. Will this new trilogy manage to do something fresh and interesting with the “good dark elves” concept, or should Cunningham have stayed on the surface?
Well, if the cover art is any indication, this is going to be a tough read. I don’t often comment on the artwork, but I can’t help it this time — this might just be the worst cover that any TSR novel was ever burdened with. I’ll just let Ms. Cunningham speak for herself here: 
…Several years ago one of the TSR editors told me that among their artists were those who refused to read even the one-page art notes. I’m inclined to believe this. For the original cover of Daughter of the Drow, an editor called me and asked for an “iconic image” that would tie the cover painting to the book. The artist knew he needed a human male and a drow female, so he painted himself and his significant other as Fyodor and Liriel, then added her spider-in-amber necklace so there would be some reference to the story. This was NOT because he did not have a detailed description — I was asked to write one and I did, including as always my contact info in case the artist wished to discuss anything. Either the artist was not given these notes, or he elected not to read them.
Let’s have a slow clap for the artist here. Even if this novel were worse than Once Around the Realms, it would still deserve better than what appears to be a traced photograph of two awkwardly-posed cosplayers. (The second printing, thank goodness, had much nicer art by Todd Lockwood.)
Usually I kick these off by talking about the plot, but this novel has an elephant in the room which is forcing me to talk about the characters first. So let’s dive right in, mix some metaphors, and talk about the millstone around this novel’s neck: we spend most of it with Liriel Baenre, a young scion of the ruling house of Menzoberranzan, but she’s not a sympathetic or engaging character. She’s the epitome of the Mary Sue, an extraordinarily special character who’s the centre of the universe. The author seems to be expecting us to root for her, but she comes off as kind of a tool.
Let’s start by looking at her inexhaustible specialness. From an early age, she’s able to use her innate magical gifts to a degree that impresses the jaded archmage of Menzoberranzan. She has a rare talent for arcane magic which she develops to a high level of expertise despite having no formal training at Sorcere. She can wield divine magic too, since she’s got the favour of Lloth right up until she turns on her people. She’s great at extreme sports — have I mentioned that this was the 1990s? She’s got a quirky dragon friend she can go spend time with whenever city life gets too stressful. It goes without saying that she’s exceptionally attractive and graceful, even by drow standards. She’s got no weaknesses of any kind; her only problem is that society doesn’t recognize how special she is and wants to mold her into something she’s not.
I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, Drizzt was also an exceptionally talented Mary Sue with no weaknesses who wasn’t accepted by society, and readers loved him. But what readers were responding to in Drizzt wasn’t just that he was awesome at stabbing things, but also that he was a relatable person with a wry sense of humour, an introspective streak which often led him into self-doubt, a deep well of compassion for others, and an unshakeable loyalty to his friends. As I discussed at length in my long-ago review of The Crystal Shard, he’s both aggravatingly perfect and an interesting, likeable character in his own right. Liriel has the former in spades, but stumbles hard on the latter. She bullies her peers, gets away with misbehaving because she’s popular and comes from a powerful family, and doesn’t seem to realize how incredibly privileged she is. The overall impression is that she’s a spoiled brat.
As an author, you can’t get away with presenting a character sympathetically and having them be a dick. You have to either work the sympathy angle by exploring the reasons why they behave badly and giving them at least a modicum of self-awareness and character growth, or you have to throw caution to the wind and go full-bore on making them a highly entertaining dick. Trying to have it both ways creates a dissonance between what the author seems to be expecting (“Look how great my character is!”) versus what the reader experiences (“I can’t stand this person!”). But Liriel never seems to become aware of the things that make her unlikable and grow out of them. Instead, despite exploring new places and adapting to a seismic shift in her way of life, she continues to seem irritatingly smug.
Granted, she gets a little character growth, but it feels perfunctory. It’s hard to imagine a more poisonous, stunting environment in which to grow up than drow society, with its rampant paranoia, ever-present danger of death, complete lack of love, casual acceptance of murder, and indoctrination about the evils of the surface and its people. There was a great opportunity here to show Liriel progressing across the long spectrum from “society made me evil” to “I’ve decided to be good,” but since she doesn’t feel much like a product of her environment to begin with, there’s nowhere for her to go. She doesn’t display any of her people’s prejudices or do anything overtly evil, but not because she’s taking a principled stand — instead, she throws off the attitudes of her people as casually as if she were taking off an uncomfortable sweater.
It’s not all bad, fortunately. The situation improves at the end of the book once she leaves the Underdark and starts travelling with Fyodor. The shared journey gives her a chance to demonstrate uncertainty and confusion, to have minor cultural misunderstandings, to make mistakes, and to discover new things. If she’d gotten out of the Underdark sooner so that the “road trip with Fyodor” section could be longer, this book might have been much less frustrating.
Our deuteragonist Fyodor, on the other hand, is a much better character. He’s grim, fatalistic, sensible, and cares about his home to the point where he’s resigned to death if it means he won’t cause his community harm. During his point-of-view scenes, we see both his bravery and his quiet desperation. The thing that makes him special — his uncontrollable berserker rage — is as much curse as gift. Every time one of his scenes ended, I found myself wishing for more time with him and less time with all the drow. I particularly love the early scene where he tricks Liriel and escapes; the dialogue is fantastic and funny, and it demonstrates that he’s much cleverer than your average sword-swinging lunkhead.
The characters’ conflicts are solid and well-established. By leaving the Underdark, Liriel would lose many of the things that make her special — her privileged position in drow society, her drow-made magical items, her arcane and divine magic, some of her natural magical talents, and the favour of Lloth — and she’s afraid of becoming just some random elf in a hostile environment. Fair enough! But the resolution feels like a copout because in the end, her desertion doesn’t require her to sacrifice anything she cares about. Elistraee starts giving her clerical magic to replace her Lloth-granted powers. The Windwalker allows her to keep her arcane magic, natural abilities, and magical items. She doesn’t like anyone in Menzoberranzan enough to be tempted to stay or to be hurt by leaving. Her character arc would have been so much better if it felt like she’d been forced to give something meaningful up, but it never happens. Fyodor’s central conflict works much better — he fears that his uncontrollable berserking will eventually lead him to kill innocents and loved ones, and he’s willing to die rather than allow that to happen. By the end of the story they’ve made progress on it, but the eventual outcome is still up in the air.
Villains like Elaith Craulnober and Lucia Thione have been the brightest spots of all of Cunningham’s previous novels, fleshed out with backstories and motivations that give meaning to the heroes’ struggle. I went into Daughter of the Drow hoping for more of the same, but there aren’t any standouts here. Nisstyre, a Vhaeraun-worshipping mercenary leader, is generically scheming and evil in a “less well-characterized Jarlaxle” sort of way. When he got offed at the end of the story, it didn’t feel like much of a loss. Shakti Hunzrin, the fellow priestess-in-training who becomes Liriel’s rival, doesn’t work for me as a villain either because, although she gets some good characterization, you’re never sold on her being a serious threat. She’s established at the beginning as the plodding, dull counterpart to the gifted, interesting Liriel, then never scores any significant successes against her nemesis. Well, not quite never, I suppose — she’s directly responsible for Liriel leaving Menzoberranzan, but it was obvious from Chapter One that that was going to happen, so it feels less like Shakti’s victory and more like a fated inevitability. Instead of being aghast at her perfidy, I wanted to shake her hand and thank her for moving the plot forward.
It’s trying to tackle the same theme as Salvatore’s Homeland: the difficulty of maintaining your individuality in an evil society that tries to grind you down. In that novel, we saw how Drizzt and Zaknafein suffered genuine anguish from the conflict between their deeply-held principles and the cruel culture that tried to crush those principles out of them. Both of them were faced with choices where upholding their moral code put their lives at terrible risk. By that standard, Daughter of the Drow feels like a clumsy effort. Liriel’s main problem with drow society is that they want her to go to school and become a priestess, and that doesn’t sound like fun to her. Her rebellion comes off as the standard complaint of every spoiled teenager: “You don’t understand me! I’m a free spirit and you should let me do whatever I want!” I can’t muster any sympathy for that.
The fucked-up drow society that Salvatore created in the Dark Elf trilogy is fertile territory for creating fascinating, deeply personal stories, but here it ends up feeling like a bland backdrop. For instance, consider the indoctrination sessions that every drow youth is put through where they’re taught to revere Lloth and fear and hate the surface world. In Homeland those scenes were genuinely chilling — we saw how Drizzt was constantly struggling to retain his individuality and avoid being swept up in the seductive rhetoric, how close he came to being brainwashed like the rest of his peers. Meanwhile, here’s Liriel’s experience:
It was impossible, Liriel noted wearily, for a drow to die from sheer boredom. The fact that she sat in this chair, still alive and breathing after listening to four hours of ranting, rambling diatribe, was ample proof of that.
There are a million problems with drow society, but Liriel’s only problem with it is that it so often bores her. Time after time, her sarcasm and disaffection destroys this theme until you’re left with the impression that there’s no real difference between a drow priestess-in-training and the stereotypical apathetic 1990s high-schooler.
Like Elfshadow, this is a buddy road-trip story where two unlikely co-protagonists are forced together and have an adventure, learning plenty of lessons in the process. Liriel is curious about the surface world and bored by the prospect of becoming a priestess of Lloth. When she encounters a human in the Underdark, a Rashemi berserker named Fyodor who’s searching for a way to cure his magical rage disorder, it sets in motion a chain of events that ends with her renouncing her people and leaving the Underdark to travel the surface world with him. Everyone urgently needs the macguffin, a magical artifact amulet called the Windwalker, so Liriel, Fyodor, and the drow trade it back and forth like a hot potato throughout the story.
Unlike Elfshadow, it takes a very, very long time to get the protagonists on the road together. There’s a tremendous amount of setup for Liriel’s backstory: the circumstances of her birth and adoption, her teenagerhood, the circumstances which force her to become a priestess, the designs that sinister figures have upon her, her disputes with rivals and authority figures, and so on. About two-thirds of the book feels like setup — you can tell from the get-go that Liriel and Fyodor are eventually going to be pals, but it feels like it takes forever to get there. The main problem is that Liriel doesn’t work terribly well as a solo protagonist, so the Liriel setup sections felt like something I had to slog through before I could start reading some good character development.
Worse yet, even the plot gets in on the Mary Sue action. Menzoberranzan is a huge (by drow standards) city that’s abuzz with violence and intrigue, with dozens of noble houses in a state of constant covert or overt war with each other. Yet nearly every single drow-related scene is about Liriel in some way. Whenever she’s not on screen, other characters spend a significant amount of time admiring her, despising her, or scheming to entrap her somehow, and very little time doing anything else. Halfway through there’s a big moment of city-wide upheaval that made me think “Cool! We’re going to get some neat drow intrigue and politics going!” But then a couple pages later the big inter-house summit scene ended up becoming all about Liriel. It’s inescapable; she’s like a black hole whose gravity warps the plot around her.
Again, it’s hard to avoid comparisons with Homeland. In that novel, Drizzt was just a small cog in a very large machine, a weapon that his house planned to wield against their enemies. Hell, there were a number of scenes about the political machinations of his family and their enemies where he wasn’t even mentioned. The result is that Menzoberranzan felt like a place that was much bigger than the protagonist, where his wants didn’t amount to a hill of beans next to the vast, unstoppable craziness of drow society, and that was great for reinforcing the theme. It’s paradoxical yet true that characters are more interesting when they’re not the centre of the universe.
Things get a little better in the latter third of the book once she’s out of Menzoberranzan. It still feels as if the world revolves around her, but she’s more interesting when seen through Fyodor’s eyes than through the narrator’s.
I had great expectations for what a new author would do with Menzoberranzan, but this book isn’t quite what I’d hoped for setting-wise. Cunningham has demonstrated a gift for writing about cities in her previous novels, so I thought perhaps we’d discover some interesting new aspects of the drow metropolis that we’d never seen before. Alas, it’s still pretty much exactly as Salvatore left it. There are occasional mentions of trade and farms and everyday life, but by and large we’re still only seeing drow life from the point of view of the most privileged nobles. In some ways it even feels like a step backwards for immersion, since the constant intrigues and upheavals of their society are focused almost entirely around the protagonist rather than giving the impression of a larger world which the protagonist is a small part of.
Mechanically, the writing is good; I’ve always been happy with Cunningham’s dialogue and her use of clever details for characterization and scene-setting. The issues here are more on the macro level than the micro level, because this book is often very sloppy with details. For instance, Liriel and Fyodor can communicate just fine with no linguistic difficulties because… apparently surface Common is sufficiently close to Goblin that they can converse fluently? Or something. It’s a blatant handwave that doesn’t make much sense. And much like the language barrier, the immense cultural divide between them is handled fairly perfunctorily. I would have preferred if they’d started out much more alien to each other and slowly figured each other out, but what we get is more like “they immediately know that they’re soulmates” so that the plot doesn’t slow down.
For a more in-depth example, consider Liriel’s big battle scene with Nisstyre at the end. Earlier, Liriel had a scene with Fyodor where she told him off for announcing his presence before he attacks rather than just stabbing an unaware enemy in the back and being done with it. So guess how this battle starts? She sneaks up on her foe, then announces her presence and starts a conversation. Then during the actual combat, she displays a degree of omniscience about small details (the effects of the wand Nisstyre is holding, or that a random mirror in a dragon’s hoard happens to have the power to reflect magic) so implausible that you can practically hear the author whispering in her ear. And apparently molten gold is cool and solid enough to walk on a few seconds after being melted, because otherwise Liriel wouldn’t get to deliver a cool post-mortem one liner. The stuff that’s going on is ostensibly exciting, but none of it is happening for reasons that fit the characters or make sense in-universe.
I sincerely tried to like Daughter of the Drow. I really did. It’s got a solid premise, some great moments, and a serious effort at making a memorable strong female lead. But it’s so far from realizing its potential that it sometimes hurts to read it, and it’s nowhere near the deft, believable character work that I remember from Elaine Cunningham’s previous novels.
There’s room for future improvement here. This book ends with Liriel preparing to travel the surface world with Fyodor, a situation with plenty of opportunities for good character development. I can only hope that the next book tries to make her a character that the reader actually wants to spend time with, or else this trilogy will be quite the slog.
 Quote source: http://www.candlekeep.com/library/articles/lore_ec.htm
7 Replies to “Daughter of the Drow”
Oof, I can’t fault anything you’re saying, but I still think DoD is one of the better Realms novels, and it remains one of my favorites. A lot of the Realms books fail at a basic mechanical level (as you’ve so often noted of Greenwood’s oeuvre), but Cunningham at least can write. I appreciated her take on the drow. Evil can be boring! Evil can be joyless! The drow society she depicts seems a lot more psychologically plausible, and sustainable, than the chronic sadistic warmongering psychopathy that Salvatore went for.
Yeah, I knew this was going to be a controversial one when I started writing it. There are a lot of Liriel fans out there. I’m happy that you liked it, and I don’t mean to disparage your experience of the novel! But criticism is necessarily subjective, so all I can do is explain why it didn’t work for me.
I agree with you that it’s much better-written, on a mechanical level, than the vast majority of the books I’ve reviewed. I quite enjoy Cunningham’s prose. But I think I’d rather read a book that has clumsy prose but strong characters and themes than a well-written book whose characters and themes turn me off. And I agree with you that there are good stories to be told about boring everyday evil. But in order to tell that kind of story, you need to set up the contrast between the banal quotidian experience of doing the boring evil and the horrible effects of that evil. Otherwise, you’re just telling a story about people being bored, and that’s… well, boring.
(This is on my mind right now because I just finished playing Paradise Killer, a video game about immortal cultists putting in their time in the Lovecraftian cosmic horror mines, just another day enslaving humans and oppressing them and sacrificing them to our alien gods, ho hum, wish they wouldn’t bleed so much, hey, you want to get a drink after work at the bar? It does a very clever job of presenting the smiling, happy face of life on an idyllic island while ensuring that you’re aware of the simmering horror that’s mostly kept just out of sight. Fantastic setting work; loved it.)
In this book Liriel never reflects on society in a deeper way than “I’m so bored!”, and she never grapples with the moral ramifications of her actions because she never does anything bad. The only people she kills are in self-defense, and she doesn’t seem to have absorbed any of the toxic attitudes about sexism, slavery, violence, betrayal, etc. that everyone around her demonstrates. Honestly, she doesn’t even feel that much like a drow to me because I can’t see how someone could grow up in that society without being profoundly affected by it. Drizzt stands in opposition to it, which is interesting; Liriel just sort of ignores it somehow and it’s never dealt with.
Oh, I think everything you said is perfectly true. I just find poor prose really irritating, like being forced to listen to a song that’s out of key with itself, and I’m a sucker for witty dialogue. I also drop all standards for thematic work if I sense that a book simply isn’t trying very hard. Authors who do seem like they’re trying to say something get much more scrutiny for me. I am a lot more turned off by Joe Abercrombie than Cunningham, because Abercrombie is trying to push this idea that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, it’s always going to be a crapsack world, the evil people are too clever and powerful, the good people are too weak-willed, blah blah blah. He ran out of things to say after the First Law trilogy and he’s been repeating himself ever since. I tried to start his latest trilogy and I gave up in disgust at how boring it was. Whereas Liriel’s story is more like, isn’t going off to explore brand new worlds so fun?
Never read Abercrombie before, but I hear you. I too have very little patience for depressing nihilism these days, especially in fantasy. (Which is not to say that all fantasy must be escapist, but simply that I’m not willing to deal with grimdarkness or a general lack of hope in my life now. I get enough of that in the real world — why would I want to get more of it in the stuff I read for enjoyment, too?)
Oh, I don’t mind reading depressing things, ever, not even now. They just have to be intelligent, you know? Even a crapsack world ought to have a few moments of grace in it, and that’s what most of the grimdark stuff doesn’t do, because it’s as shallow as the purely escapist stuff in the end.
That comment about artists refusing to even read the author’s notes about descriptions really grates on me. Why would any business continue employing someone like that if they flat-out wouldn’t do the job they were paid to do? Or is this some sort of art thing that I don’t understand?
As for the book itself, I haven’t read it but your review makes it sound like it has the problem that is frequently thrown at Realms novel protagonists. Namely, that they’re all a bunch of perfect Mary Sues who don’t seem to have much of any flaws. Your comparison of Drizzt to Liriel is especially instructive here-while “uber” characters like Sherlock Holmes and Batman are some of the most popular in fiction, and they have similar traits that make them likable and engaging despite being good at practically everything.
Your comparisons of Salvatore’s and Cunningham’s depictions of Menzoberranzan also stand out for me. The most recent Drizzt trilogy describes a lot of Jarlaxle’s and Zaknafein’s backstory in the years before Drizzt was born, and the novels more generally how drow society impacts everyone in it from browbeaten males to some of its most powerful women.
I only ‘read’ the first chapter of Daughter Of The Drow as a preview in one of Salvatore’s novels published around the same time, but what I remember from it is how Liriel was fathered by Gromph Baenre, one of the most powerful men in Menzoberranzan and how he’s one of the rare men who can demand sex (read: rape) a drow woman without consequence, whereas the gender dynamic is usually the reverse. It sounds like the chance to show how gender expectations impact even the dominant gender in drow society were kind of wasted here.
Re: artists: I don’t know for sure, but I expect it’s just a matter of volume — if you have a production schedule of a couple dozen books a year, and they all need high-quality cover art, and you only have a handful of artists, and making novel covers is only part of their very busy job, you’ve got to take whatever you can get. Artists who can paint at that level would have been hard to find in the days before ubiquitous Internet, especially in south-central Wisconsin, and an artist who paints something from photo reference can work a lot faster than an artist who’s freehanding their work. Odds are TSR would much rather have an artist who does a half-assed job and submits their work on time than someone who does sublime work but holds up the shipping schedule.
Honestly, I think this book would have been better if it had had less of drow society in it altogether. If the author had gotten Fyodor and Liriel on the road together sooner, she could have illustrated drow society indirectly through the cross-cultural misunderstandings between them and by showing all of the habits and attitudes that Liriel has to unlearn. That would have been great for character development. I found the long Menzoberranzan parts to be a real boat anchor on the main “Fyodor and Liriel become best buds” story, which seemed like the heart of the novel to me but didn’t get nearly enough time.