Elfsong

Author: Elaine Cunningham
Published: January 1994

Has there ever been a Dungeons & Dragons class as maligned as the poor bard? Next to a guy who chops monsters up with a sword as big as he is, or a mage who can drop fiery comets on her foes’ heads, a friendly fellow whose special power is singing songs has always felt pretty weaksauce. Bards have been the subject of decades’ worth of jokes by D&D players, even in editions where they were mechanically decent, because the problem lies not in the rules but in how the archetype doesn’t work in a modern context. The initial inspirations, back in the days of D&D yore, were Viking skalds and the ollamh and filí of traditional Irish culture — learned keepers of oral tradition whose wordcraft was respected by kings and common folk alike. [1] But modern culture doesn’t have anything even remotely equivalent. The only noteworthy position in society occupied by musicians these days is “rock star,” which isn’t a concept which translates well to a medieval setting. Without the cultural context necessary to understand the importance of music to a pre-literate or semi-literate culture, D&D players (and often the D&D authors themselves) just treated them as minstrels who have magic for… some reason. The stereotypes range from libidinous lechers to laughable losers, but very rarely do you hear of someone playing a bard straight and doing a good job of it.

This, then, was the situation which brought about Elfsong. This book seems determined to single-handedly pull bards out of their goofy niche and make them respectable members of D&D society again. They’re everywhere: bards as villains, bards as heroes, musically inclined monsters as mooks. It didn’t work, of course. The fundamental problem is that we have no cultural point of reference for how a musician could make sense in a dungeon-delving, monster-slaying context, and a single book isn’t going to change that. But it’s very good to see someone exploring territory that the other Forgotten Realms books have largely ignored. In fact, now that I think about it, I believe that until this point bards were the class with the least representation in the Realms novels to date.

Plot

Like Elfshadow, its predecessor, this book focuses on internal dissension within the Harpers’ ranks rather than telling a simple story of “good Harpers versus bad people.” It’s good to see authors painting the Harpers as a heterogenous, loosely-coupled group of people with different perspectives and goals, rather than as an organized bureaucracy of idealists. Here’s the short version: the renegade Harper bard Garnet is furious with them because she feels that they’ve spent centuries meddling overmuch in politics while neglecting their duty to preserve knowledge and culture. To teach the Harpers a lesson, she applies a healthy dose of poetic justice — quite literally.

Let Khelben and his ilk see what happened when music and history no longer served them and furthered their political games!

With the help of the green dragon Grimnoshtadrano, she rewrites the memories of bards throughout northern Faerûn so that they sing songs which reveal Harper secrets and damage their reputations. Danilo Thann, the upper-class dandy from Elfshadow, is tasked with figuring out what’s happening and who’s behind it. Meanwhile, the Knights of the Shield, a clandestine cabal of Tethyrian merchants, hope to use the chaos Garnet is sowing as an opportunity to overthrow the Lords of Waterdeep. But their agent in Waterdeep, Lucia Thione, is only loyal to herself and has been keeping secrets from everyone. Meanwhile, the villainous moon elf Elaith “the Serpent” Craulnober is on a mysterious mission of his own that keeps intersecting with Danilo’s, but his motivations remain opaque until right up to the end of the novel. There are ancient magical artifacts, monster fights, assassinations, riots, assaults, and it all ends in a big dramatic climax with a dragon attack.

Just reading the synopsis above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like the kind of overstuffed story where there are too many characters and plot threads to cram into a 320-page novel. It’s understandable — there are two separate hero threads (Danilo and the Lords of Waterdeep) and no fewer than five separate villains with overlapping motivations (Grimnosh, Garnet, Lucia, Elaith, and the Knights of the Shield), which keeps the point of view jumping from character to character constantly. What saves this story is the clever way that they’re all woven into the main narrative. There are no extraneous scenes; each scene furthers the main “Garnet versus the Harpers” plot line in one way or another by either demonstrating how she and her allies spread chaos and misinformation, showing how the heroes react to it, or raising the stakes for the confrontation. The character development happens along the way while the plot is advancing, rather than periodically dragging the plot to a halt to show the characters interacting. The whole story is carefully thought out and skillfully woven, and the end result is a book where the pages just seem to fly by.

That said, this novel has the same problem as its predecessor: the solid construction makes the plot’s cheats and contrivances stand out even more, like stains on a fine white tablecloth. This time around it’s significantly worse. Like… why would Garnet give the heroes a riddle which drops clues about the powers she’s acquiring and where she’s going to go to acquire them? Why not send them on a wild goose chase, or just give them an insanely complicated riddle where the answer is “go fuck yourselves” and then laugh about it for years to come? How would the answer to a riddle translated from an extinct foreign tongue rely on peculiarities of English spelling? Why would the Knights of the Shield pay for their nefarious deeds with a recognizable currency that screams “Hey, this person is up to no good!”? And how convenient is it that Garnet and the heroes just happen to end up in the same room in Sundabar (a city of 15,000 people) just as the heroes are discussing their plans out loud where she can hear? The individual scenes are very well done, but the connective tissue that moves the characters between them is often shaky.

Still, I particularly enjoy the emphasis on conflicts which can’t be solved by violence. The conflict between the heroes and Garnet is fought with riddles and wits, and the conflict between the Knights of the Shield and the Lords of Waterdeep is a battle of propaganda and public opinion. There are occasional combats, but they’re brief, dangerous, and not the meat of the story. It’s such a refreshing change from the likes of R.A. Salvatore‘s hours-long gorefests.

Characters

Once again, Danilo makes a good hero. He thinks of himself as a moderately competent jack-of-all-trades who’s been thrust into a situation which calls for someone with actual talent, and his character arc is all about learning that he’s got much more potential than he gives himself credit for. Humility is often used as a bullshit character flaw by novice writers: “Oh, he’s just too humble!” You know, the sort of “flaw” that makes a character secretly look good anyhow. But it works on Danilo because it feels like the inevitable side effect of his shtick: you can’t pretend to be a useless fool for so long without starting to believe it yourself to some degree. By the end of the novel he’s ready to give up his upper-class twit persona and start being honest about who he is, a satisfying decision which was a long time coming. Meanwhile he enlivens the scenes he’s in with his guile and ready sense of humour, which is a welcome change from some of the dreadfully bland protagonists we’ve had in the past.

Morgalla, Danilo’s dwarven companion, is a fascinating character, and I’m going to have to take some time to explain why. Dwarves have a serious problem in fantasy literature. Nearly every dwarf in literature is cut from the same Tolkieny mold: short, dour, bearded, technologically inclined craftsmen who speak in faux-Scottish accents and hit things with axes and hammers. Other common fantasy species like elves and dragons get a wide variety of racial and cultural attributes in various different universes, but there’s almost no variation in the way that fantasy authors portray dwarves, and the Forgotten Realms books have been no exception. Morgalla, on the other hand, is a big middle finger to that stereotype. She’s got a wry sense of humour rather than a dour or bloodthirsty personality. She’s artistic, and not in a “creating stone or metal crafts” sort of way — she’s a talented caricaturist, portraitist, and dancer, and has the makings of a good musician to boot. And best of all, she’s a female dwarf, which is something that’s been very rare in the Realms books thus far. There have been plenty of dwarves, but they’ve all been lads; the only other lady dwarf I can recall offhand is Finellen from the Moonshae trilogy, dozens of books ago. Not even Salvatore’s Drizzt books, despite prominently featuring an entire underground community of dwarves, have included a single named female dwarf. I think the masculine coding of the dwarven stereotype (stout, huge beard, etc.) makes authors less inclined to think of using female dwarves, so it’s fun to see someone buck that trend.

Vartain, the riddlemaster whom Danilo and Elaith hire to help them with their riddle-related problems, is a decent character. He starts off as humourless, annoying, and pedantic, then defrosts over the course of the story to… slightly less humourless, annoying, and pedantic. (Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day.) He gets the single cleverest moment in the novel, where he demonstrates that he’s figured out Elaith’s secret motivation with his powers of deduction — but it’s delivered in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clause in a sentence in his internal monologue during one of his rare point-of-view scenes, well before the reader gets let in on the secret. It’s the sort of thing that many readers probably wouldn’t notice on their first pass through the book. You can tell the reader that a character is intelligent by having other characters say how smart he is, or having him say smart-sounding things, but this was a clever way to show that he’s smart without drawing attention to it, and I found it delightful.

They’re not all winners, though. Wyn, the elven bard who accompanies Danilo, feels like he didn’t get nearly enough time and attention. He’s kind and accepting and morally upright, but he feels a little… bland, I suppose. It’s so much easier to characterize villains than heroes; there’s something inherently interesting about villainy, even when it’s distasteful, but the good guys have to work hard to capture people’s attention. Wyn’s role in the story is to teach spellsinging to Danilo and give Elaith the occasional “you should be nicer!” lecture, but outside of those moments he stays far in the background.

Garnet, the story’s main antagonist, is actually pretty decent. She’s not one of those cardboard “I’m evil, so I like doing evil things!” villains; she started off good and became twisted by bitterness and anger, but still thinks of herself as basically good even as she’s ravaging the lands of the North. She’s got an external conscience in the form of her asperii companion, and the asperii’s growing discomfort and disgust with her life-bonded master makes a great running commentary on the “do the ends justify the means?” theme. She has great moments of pragmatism, yanking Lucia around like a fish on a hook and never exposing herself to unnecessary danger. But her evil plan, as I mentioned earlier, doesn’t actually make a lot of sense, and she falls victim to several Evil Overlord List cliches. Always stick around to ensure that your death trap actually kills the heroes! Don’t tell them how to defeat you! Don’t give them clues about your plan! What is your deal, lady?

Elaith Craulnober, on the other hand, is a great villain. He teams up with Danilo to defeat Garnet, but he’s not the sort of token evil teammate who learns a lesson about the value of friendship by the end of the story. Instead he murders his way through most of his difficulties, remorselessly racking up a huge body count and betraying people left and right. He’s got an uncharacteristically noble goal in mind and doesn’t care how many people have to die for him to accomplish it. Even so, you still see traces of humanity in him, moments of doubt and vulnerability, but they only nudge him slightly off-course instead of making him do an about-face. His redemption arc ends with him becoming just mostly evil instead of completely evil, but still makes him a more well-rounded character by the end. It’s so nice to see an evil character who actually seems like a person with real motivations and history, rather than just a lever that shoves the plot along — especially when he’s got his own motivations that don’t overlap with the other villains. Until I read this, I hadn’t realized how sick I’ve been getting of stories that are just “Team Good versus Team Evil.”

Lucia Thione, a Tethyrian noblewoman who escaped her country’s French Revolution-style Reign of Terror, makes a good mid-level villain. She’s an agent of the Knights of the Shield, but ends up suborned by Garnet into doing her bidding as well. But she’s been lying her ass off to both her masters the entire time, building a precarious house of cards out of lies and misinformation that threatens to topple in every scene, and the threat of exposure drives her to more audacious acts of villainy each time. She’s not an essential character — it wouldn’t be hard to write this novel without her in it, or with a reduced role for her — but her duplicitous antics make it more fun.

Khelben Arunsun returns as a minor character here, and it’s a memorable appearance. Despite being a prominent high-level character in Realms lore, here he’s not a badass archmage who solves everyone’s problems. Instead he’s the one with all the problems, and they’re ones that can’t be solved by magic: public opinion in Waterdeep is starting to turn against him, and he’s entirely unprepared to deal with Garnet’s spellsinging abilities. It’s good to see his moments of genuine vulnerability and frustration when he’s outmaneuvered, not to mention moments of his domestic life in Blackstaff Tower with Laeral. I’d love to see more authors handle high-level characters this way: they may be extraordinarily skilled, but not necessarily at the skills the plot needs at the moment.

Arilyn Moonblade, the heroine of Elfshadow, makes a brief cameo at the beginning, but after that the focus switches entirely to Danilo and she goes off on a separate adventure somewhere else. We won’t see her again until an anthology short story later in 1994, and she won’t get another novel of her own until mid-1996.

Themes

There’s a few to unpack here. This, for starters:

“There is an old saying, ‘Let me write a kingdom’s songs, and I care not who writes its laws.'”

As I mentioned earlier, Elfsong tries hard to justify the existence of bards, frequently pointing out their role in preserving culture and swaying public opinion. It didn’t resonate with me very much, though. We do see a couple things mentioned that the Harpers failed to help preserve, like the barding colleges, but we don’t really learn anything about them which would make us care. And we see what happens when bards twist popular opinion to their own end, but the fact that they’ve been doing a fine job and maintaining a stable society right up until Garnet brainwashes them all to start problems doesn’t make her case any more compelling. Mostly we just hear characters talk about how important music and poetry are, which isn’t a great way to reinforce a theme.

Here’s a stronger one: Do the ends justify the means? For Elaith, they certainly do; he spends the entire story trying to accomplish something good by doing evil, a contradiction which he doesn’t even notice until it’s pointed out because evil is such an ordinary, ingrained habit for him. Garnet thinks that the Harpers have lost their way, sacrificing their original ideals as upholders of culture to further their political aims. But she falls into the same trap: in order to teach them a lesson and hit them where it hurts, she has to commit acts which compromise her ideals. She spends most of the novel unaware of how far she’s fallen, and you keep waiting for her to put the pieces together and have that moment of self-realization, but she never quite does. The story handles this theme with subtlety, not outright saying “Garnet’s cause is wrong” or “The Harpers were wrong,” but presenting the conflict as a fundamental difference in philosophy. This theme arises from the characters’ actions, not their dialogue, which makes it much more compelling.

There’s also an underlying theme of racial tolerance in the heroes’ thread. Unlike Elfshadow, this book actually has an elf in it who’s not a racist shitbag of some sort. Wyn, Danilo, and Morgalla become unlikely friends despite their cultural differences. Danilo scandalizes his elven companions when he demonstrates that the traditional elven art of spellsinging is something a human can learn, but eventually wins their respect for it. By the end, Danilo becomes good friends with a bunch of elves and dwarves whom he met over the course of the story. It’s the polar opposite of the previous book, where all the stiff-necked elves kept insisting that humans were incapable of comprehending their culture.

Writing

Rather good, actually. The descriptions are lavish without going overboard, the vocabulary is varied, and the dialogue crackles breezily without woodenness or excessive dramatics. Cunningham does a good job at making minor characters memorable, giving us them distinct personality traits and showing us little snippets of their life stories. There’s the occasional rough paragraph here and there which could have used smoothing, but nothing serious enough to give me pause.

It’s great to see Cunningham return to Waterdeep, since she’s been one of the only Realms authors so far who can write fantasy cities convincingly. We see in passing the everyday lives of the inhabitants and how they’re affected by festivals, weather, and regional misfortune. Scenes jump from the filthiest, most dangerous gutters to the salons of the wealthy and powerful. Characters take carriages to get around, stop in at restaurants for lunch, and engage in other little daily activities which make a city seem like an actual place instead of just a collection of disconnected buildings within which the scenes happen. Much of the story takes place in the High Forest or the magically blighted countryside around the city, however, which is fine but less compelling.

This novel contains the single funniest scene of any of the Realms novels to date. I won’t spoil it by describing it here, but it’s one of the only moments in any of these books which spurred me to genuine laughter — not just a chuckle, mind you, but a full-on belly laugh. I’m very surprised that it got past TSR’s prickly censors, but the humorous and bawdy parts are so integral to the scene they’re in that I can’t see how they could have chopped it.

Conclusion

Grade: B+

Its characters are lively and well-rounded, its scenes are exciting, its writing pops… I almost love this novel. It’s very close to great. But the plot is shot too full of holes for me to give it an A — in fact, the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. I enjoyed reading Elfsong a great deal, and I’m looking forward to more upcoming stories about these characters, but it falls just short of being one of the best.

Footnotes


[1] The Celtic roots were particularly obvious back in AD&D 1st Edition, where you were required to multiclass through the druid class to become a bard. The idea doesn’t make any sense to a modern D&D player; you need some familiarity with ancient Celtic culture to see how those two things connect.

8 Replies to “Elfsong

  1. I just finished running a campaign set in 6th-century Britain and my wife played a bard, and she had an amazing and it was a great time – precisely because her character existed in a context where it all clicked into place. She wrote praise songs for the other party members and various patrons and it was probably one of the best “straight” bards I’ve seen.

    1. Exactly! Modern players have some sort of cultural touchstone for all the other classes — kung fu movies for monks, hippies for druids, etc. — but you have to reach really far back in history to find something for bards. I love the idea of a 6th-century Britain campaign… some fun research must have gone into that!

  2. Just dropping in to tell you to keep up the good work. Constant reader, enjoy this project immensely. Especially because I’m curious about all these books but wouldn’t make it through most/all of them myself.

    So you not only have my attention as a reader, but also my respect as a man.

    1. Thank you! That’s very sweet of you to say. No need to worry about me keeping it up; I’ve already started reading Crown of Fire, so maybe the next one will be out in a couple weeks or so.

  3. Elfsong was probably my favorite of the FR books when I was younger. As someone with lifelong major depression who uses humor to cover the gaps, I empathized a lot with Danilo. And Elaith always put me in mind of Lord Vetinari from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. (That counts as high praise, IMO.)

    Really, my main disappointment with this book was the feeling of missing out on larger picture because I didn’t want to read the other five thousand Harpers books by much crappier authors to track the metaplot. That and I always felt like Arilyn’s obsession with that dumb forest was a weird artificial piece of character development.

    1. It was one of my favourites too. I went into this fully expecting to give it an A, but was surprised to find that it doesn’t stand up quite as well for me today. I think that as a kid I cared much more about characters than about plot, but now I have to look at the whole package. You’re right that those two are fantastic characters, though; they must have been, to stick out so strongly in my memory for two decades.

      Fortunately, there’s not really a metaplot connecting these novels. The Harpers books were very standalone, occasionally mentioning each other (there’s a very brief reference in Elfsong to a minor character from The Ring of Winter, for instance), but never tied together plot-wise. Cunningham’s books so far have been loosely connected — this one starts off in Tethyr just after the end of her short story in Realms of Valor — but you’re not required to read the others to know what’s going on.

      This isn’t the one where Arilyn gets obsessed with a forest; in fact, she’s barely in this one at all. I think that was 1996’s Silver Shadows? We’ll get there eventually.

      1. I could have sworn it was. At least I remembered that Arilyn wasn’t in it much, and I was very strongly a Danilo/Arilyn shipper from the get-go.

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