Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: September 1990
A few years after his introduction in The Crystal Shard, Drizzt Do’Urden had proved to be such an unexpectedly popular character that his creator R.A. Salvatore got the green light to write a trilogy of prequel novels detailing Drizzt’s upbringing in the Underdark and escape to the surface world. Welcome, then, to the first book: Drizzt’s early life from his birth in the drow city of Menzoberranzan to his flight from his people.
Menzoberranzan is effectively a character in its own right in this book. Drizzt isn’t even old enough to talk for the first 20% of the story; instead, all that time is spent setting up the society and culture of the drow city. It’s an investment which pays off handsomely.
Salvatore’s take on drow society is an answer to a common argument among D&D players back then: how can a race of chaotic evil creatures have a functioning society at all? Menzoberranzan has a set of laws and customs for which the penalty is generally death, but its citizens are expected and encouraged to break those laws whenever possible provided that they don’t get caught. Thus, you end up with a society which destroys all but its most devious and ruthless members. Any alliance or friendship is a fragile thing where the benefits of cooperation are always evenly matched by the risk of betrayal — even family ties mean nothing where ambition or power are concerned. And it’s all watched over by a capricious demon goddess who keeps the city’s warring families at each others’ throats. Salvatore does a good job of making life in Menzoberranzan feel exhausting: the constant distrust, the ever-present danger, the conversations full of subtle insinuations and innuendos, the speed with which even the mighty can be destroyed with one false step.
The details that convince you that it’s actually a subterranean city are quite well done. For instance, the drow can see in both the visible light spectrum, like humans, but also in the infrared spectrum, so that even pitch darkness looks like a comprehensible pattern of subtle heat gradations. This is the first time that a Forgotten Realms author, rather than treating this as “Elves can see in the dark” and leaving it at that, has actually explored what it would mean to have heat-sensitive eyes. Drow strap heated objects to themselves to break up their humanoid outlines as camouflage, their invisibility spells cool the target off, their timekeeping system relies around a giant heat-based clock in the centre of the city, and so on. It’s not just introduced and then forgotten, but brought up continually throughout the book. Details like that both make the setting seem like a real, internally-consistent place and remind you that Menzoberranzan is exotic, not just an ordinary city that happens to be in a cave.
The structure of the book suits it well. It would have been tedious if the story had just focused entirely on Drizzt, since we wouldn’t have seen the true face of the city or drow society through his sheltered, naïve perceptions. Instead there are two main threads: one which focuses on Drizzt and his education, and another about House Do’Urden and its deadly struggles for supremacy with various other houses. The latter gives context for the former, contrasting Drizzt’s lack of sophistication with the intrigues surrounding him. Better yet, the two threads cross over often, with Drizzt frequently used as a pawn in the inter-clan cold war.
The story opens with Drizzt’s birth, introducing the fractious members of House Do’Urden and demonstrating how drow society works by showing us a quiet, carefully conducted war between two noble houses. House Do’Urden wipes out nearly every living member of House DeVir, then settles in for a few decades’ careful entrenchment against dangers from houses both below and above them in the social order. Drizzt is considered a valuable resource for the house’s conflicts, trained from infancy to fill one of the two roles available to noble male drow: wizard or warrior. And being the exceptional Mary Sue that he is, he excels to a degree that makes both his peers and his own family wary of him.
He learns the ropes of drow society through a series of painful experiences, gets a taste of the surface world, comes into conflict with his teacher over a misunderstanding, acquires Guenhwyvar, and then eventually gives up on the whole rotten mess and walks away into the Underdark. Thinking about it now, I can see why this book was so successful. What fantasy-novel-reading, D&D-playing kid in the early 1990s wouldn’t appreciate a story about a misunderstood, good-hearted loner, ostracized from their society, who makes a true friend and strikes off on their own instead of trying to fit in? That sort of thing is pure nerd porn.
In his earliest chronological appearance, Drizzt has finally acquired a character flaw: hopeless naïveté. He’s an unrepentant idealist in a land of cynical killers who takes an incredibly long time to twig to the reality of his situation. On the one hand, the conflict between him and his society is the core of the book, and needs plenty of screen time; on the other hand, it’s sometimes frustrating just how oblivious he can be in the face of obvious deceit and danger. In every other respect he’s still the perfect prodigy that we saw in the Icewind Dale trilogy, but without the wisdom or sense of humour. As such, it’s no surprise that he’s far from the most interesting character in the novel.
Zaknafein, his mentor and father, works rather better. He’s a foil to Drizzt, an example of what Drizzt would become if he were to stay in Menzoberranzan: cynical, self-loathing, and holding on to the tattered shreds of his ideals. He’s far too given to uttering ridiculously purple soliloquies at the drop of a hat — see below for an example — but his dialogue with other characters is generally good, and the scenes from his point of view give a unique perspective on drow society from someone who doesn’t fit into it well. More importantly, the often-adversarial relationship between these two stubborn, principled characters makes a fine emotional heart for the story.
The matriarchal nature of drow society has forced Salvatore to actually write multiple female characters with real motivations and goals, which is a minor miracle after the sausage-fest of his last trilogy. All the movers and shakers of drow society are dangerous, ruthless priestesses of an evil demon goddess, and much of the plot centres around their power struggles. The matron mothers, including Drizzt’s mother Malice, are all cut from the same mold — scheming, arrogant, volatile, domineering — but at least they’re not boring. Special mention goes out to Drizzt’s sisters Briza and Vierna, though, who are interestingly tragic characters. Briza is basically a younger version of her mother with less of the confidence, slowly learning to be as evil and controlling as Malice. Vierna seems as if she might not be entirely irredeemable, displaying more sentimentality than any of the other drow females in the story. One wonders if her story could have turned out differently under different circumstances.
A long subplot concerns a pair of wizards, Alton DeVir and Masoj Hun’ett, who demonstrate the masculine roles of drow society which Drizzt might have fulfilled if events had transpired differently. They’re scheming, back-stabbing underlings whose sociopathic and self-destructive behaviour ultimately subverts all their attempts to achieve their goals, which means they provide a good pair of foils to Drizzt and Zaknafein as well as a good metaphor for their society as a whole.
In an evil society, what does it mean to be good? Zaknafein deals with it by adapting to his culture, knuckling under to the evil all around him and sublimating his desire for a better life into murderous rage at the matriarchs whom he holds responsible. Drizzt, less willing to compromise his ideals, eventually deals with the dilemma by walking away and leaving it all behind. Neither are able to effect any lasting change because Menzoberranzan is an obstacle that’s just too huge and unyielding for any single person to overcome. There’s a strong undercurrent of hopelessness running through the book, particularly with Zaknafein’s point-of-view bits, which makes Drizzt’s eventual escape all the more satisfying.
As I said earlier, the setting work and little details are really well done. Unfortunately, his writing is still just as overwrought and over the top as always. Here’s an early example that made my jaw drop with its excruciating melodrama:
“What place is this that is my world; what dark coil has my spirit embodied?” he whispered the angry disclaimer that had always been a part of him. “In light, I see my skin as black; in darkness, it glows white in the heat of this rage I cannot dismiss.
“Would that I had the courage to depart, this place or this life, or to stand openly against the wrongness that is the world of these, my kin. To seek an existence that does not run afoul to that which I believe, and to that which I hold dear faith is truth.”
Really? We’re supposed to take this seriously? In a just world, some editor would have committed seppuku rather than allow that last sentence to go to print. And this sort of thing is all over the book, generally in the meandering, excessively dramatic soliloquies which Drizzt and Zaknafein will deliver at the drop of a hat whenever they find themselves alone:
“His life has been my lesson, a dark scroll etched by the heavy price exacted by Matron Malice’s evil promises.”
To be fair, though, aside from these overwrought monologues, the quality of the writing is generally quite good compared to Salvatore’s previous books. The dialogue is usually expressive, the descriptions of the city are vivid, and there were far fewer passages that made me cringe and grimace in stunned disbelief than there were in, say, Streams of Silver. Maybe he’s actually improving?
I’ve thrown a fair amount of shade at Salvatore in my previous reviews — the Mary Sue characters, the stilted dialogue, the incredibly florid, dramatic prose style — and all of those flaws are still present here. But despite all that I have to admit that this is a surprisingly good book. The effort put into fleshing out the Byzantine, merciless drow society and what it’s like to live in a city of subterranean creatures is quite impressive, to the point where this novel basically defined how people viewed the drow in D&D ever since, and the setting is full of reasonably well-done supporting characters. If only he could have been consistently at this level of quality, I’d be looking forward to the rest of the Drizzt books a lot more.