Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: September 1990
Thankfully, we’re still taking a subterranean vacation from the historical fan fiction. Exile is the second book in the prequel trilogy about Drizzt Do’Urden’s early life, released simultaneously with its predecessor Homeland. Last time it was “man vs. society”; this time we’re shaking things up with some serious “man vs. himself” as Drizzt goes slowly crazy in a maze of lightless tunnels. I liked the last book, but can this one measure up to the same standard? Let’s find out.
The setting here is more varied than in the previous book, but still manages to be less interesting despite that. The subterranean wilderness where most of the book takes place is a sprawling, empty place with no clear sense of geography. We see plenty of its inhabitants — svirfneblin, illithids, basilisks, giant caterpillars, corbies, duergar, et cetera — but none of them get quite the time and attention that Salvatore put into fleshing out the decadent and depraved drow society of Menzoberranzan in the previous book. I did like the nice contrast between the safe haven of Blingdenstone, a communal utopia of deep gnomes, intercut with scenes of Menzoberranzan. Ultimately, though, if asked to describe the setting of this book, all I can think of to say is “a big mess of caves.”
Drizzt begins the story as a half-feral wanderer in the wilds of the Underdark, eking out a miserable and solitary existence amidst extraordinary dangers. It’s been ten years since he left Menzoberranzan at the end of Homeland, and and the years haven’t been particularly kind to him — in fact, he’s gone mostly mad. Meanwhile, his family needs to kill him to regain Lloth’s divine favour, without which they’ll almost certainly perish.
Like Homeland, Exile cuts between Drizzt’s story of survival and his family’s political machinations back in Menzoberranzan, making sure to cross the two plotlines over periodically. Compared to, say, Streams of Silver, where there were separate “heroes” and “villains” plotlines which never converged until the very end of the book, this structure works much better. Drizzt’s family, who go to increasingly desperate lengths to capture or kill him, make a good central threat which gradually ratchets up the tension over the course of the book. And since the theme of the book is the struggle for Drizzt’s identity, we get to see him defined in opposition to the society he’s left behind.
I was pleased to see that, despite this sort of “wandering in the wildnerness” setup being an invitation to creating flaccid stories where the protagonists run into one irrelevant subplot after another, Salvatore still manages to keep it under control. Drizzt makes new friends and finds plenty of dangers on his journey, but the plot always comes back to the central conflict of him versus his family.
My only major complaint about the plot is that the passage of time in each thread seems completely unconnected. You’ll have a Drizzt scene, then a Menzoberranzan scene which says “Weeks later, this happened”, and then another Drizzt scene right where the last one left off. It’s somewhat disorienting; you can never quite tell where the scenes live in relation to one another.
Identity is the core theme here, with nearly every major character having lost their identity in one way or another. Drizzt, isolated in the Underdark, loses his civilized self to his primal instincts for survival. Belwar spends ten years as a guilt-ridden wreck until Drizzt reminds him who he really is. Clacker, polymorphed into another species, is a very literal case of losing one’s identity both physically and mentally. Zaknafein’s animated corpse struggles to remember who he was and take control of his body. By the end of the book everyone’s either reclaimed their identity, died, or both. On the whole, it makes this a much more introspective and character-driven book than the previous “man vs. man” or “man vs. society” plots in Salvatore’s previous novels.
This is the first time, I think, that Drizzt gets something akin to character development. In every previous appearance he’s been either aggravatingly perfect in every way or (in Homeland) annoyingly naïve. But he’s got an actually interesting flaw now: the rampant survival instincts he’s picked up during his decade of wandering in the dark, which he constantly struggles to keep in check around others. It’s angsty and over the top, sure, but it’s actually executed pretty well.
More to the point, some genuine vulnerability is what he really needed as a character — a personal problem that can’t be solved by mere violence. Sure, there was the whole “Is it ethical to disguise myself?” thing from The Halfling’s Gem, but that was a fairly minor subplot and didn’t have much emotional impact. Here it’s a question of life and death: when he’s stripped down to the bare shell of a personality by the strict exigencies of survival, does he have the moral strength to stay true to himself and become more than just a creature that kills and feeds? A much more poignant dilemma, that. But alas, he overcomes his issues by the end of the book and becomes aggravatingly perfect again.
Belwar, a svirfneblin who was briefly introduced in Homeland, becomes Drizzt’s travelling companion for much of this book. They make a good matched set: both talented and highly principled, but isolated and suffering from serious emotional issues. Their unbreakable bond seems to form a little too easily, without much in the way of setup, but it’s still a relief for Drizzt to finally get someone to talk to who can actually speak back. (There are only so many scenes you can milk out of a lonely guy talking to a cat, after all.) Later on they pick up another companion, a friendly pech polymorphed into a murderous monster, which makes for some good “will we have to kill our friend” drama until the thread is unceremoniously dropped near the end of the book. On reflection, though, I don’t think I mind how Clacker’s storyline ended abruptly; it’s nice to have the heroes not succeed at things sometimes, and it could only have distracted from the main plot if pursued further.
The novel spends a fair amount of time with Drizzt’s family in Menzoberranzan, where they’ve incurred the disfavour of Lloth, fallen on hard times, and are relying on mercenaries for their continued survival. Although the desperation makes a nice change from the self-assured swagger of the previous novel, it doesn’t really add much to the story — they don’t turn on each other, and nothing particularly bad happens to them for most of the story, only a procession of people repeatedly saying “if they fuck it up this time, then bad things will happen.” Furthermore, this reminds me of what I was saying earlier about how villains who never succeed at anything aren’t particularly interesting. Every fleeting moment of success the Do’Urdens enjoy in this book is due to the machinations of Bregan D’aerthe or House Baenre; the one time they actually attempt to deal with Drizzt themselves, they get beaten down so hard they’re afraid to leave the city again.
Drizzt’s mentor and father Zaknafein returns — well, his animated corpse returns, anyways, with his spirit shackled inside it. This was handled fairly well, with Zak’s personality slowly emerging over the course of his bloody trek across the Underdark, struggling for control with Matron Malice. The inner conflict makes what could have been a straightforward Terminator-style antagonist into something rather more interesting. And he’s just about one of the only things that could be a credible threat to Drizzt at this point, since his family spend the novel as a bunch of butt monkeys who wouldn’t have stood a chance against him personally.
Ths novel also introduces a character who will become much more significant in Salvatore’s later books: Jarlaxle, a flamboyant drow mercenary who makes a tidy living on the inter-house warfare of Menzoberranzan. We don’t see too much of him in this book, but eventually he and Artemis Entreri will be bosom road-trip buddies in the style of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, only with less singing and more murdering.
I’m surprised to say this, but it’s actually not bad. Salvatore has somewhat toned down the majestic flights of purple prose which marred all his previous books, and I haven’t found myself groaning in pain nearly as often at the likes of the overblown dialogue which characterized the Icewind Dale trilogy. There’s still some dialogue that feels stilted, some descriptions which seem affected, but it’s not on the same scale as his previous work. It’s certainly not perfect, but I’m heartened to see the gradual improvement. (Either that or I’m just developing scar tissue from all the terrible books I’ve read, which is a very real possibility.)
The grammar hasn’t improved at the same rate, however. Comma splices are absolutely everywhere here for some reason. Odd; I don’t remember there being quite so many in his previous books. It’s kind of criminal that they weren’t fixed in editing. There’s some fun little continuity errors, too — for instance, Drizzt is described as hunting a crab at the beginning of the book, but then Belwar has to teach him that crabs are edible about halfway through. And apparently Belwar claps his hands at one point, which is tricky seeing as how they were both cut off in the previous book. Things like this make me wonder what sort of deadline they were under to get this book out the door.
This is a pretty decent book, actually, and better than I remembered. There’s some good character work in it. But what really impressed me about Homeland — and what made me give it an A– despite Salvatore’s trademark overblown prose — was the quality of the world-building and the effort invested in building up the society of Menzoberranzan. The “wandering the Underdark” plot here doesn’t permit many chances for that sort of world-building; Blingdenstone is a fairly idyllic and boring place, and the illithid city had the beginnings of some good setting work but got destroyed fairly quickly. All things considered, it’s vastly better than Salvatore’s previous work on the Icewind Dale trilogy, but given the above complaints plus the less impressive antagonists, I’m not quite as pleased with it as I was with the previous book.