In Sylvan Shadows

Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: April 1992

Welcome to book two of R.A. Salvatore‘s Cleric Quintet, a five-book series about a monastery in the middle of nowhere and the improbable ways in which it’s menaced by the forces of capital-E Evil. This time we’re in the nearby forest of Shilmista, where a giant horde comprised of every kind of evil humanoid in every Monster Manual ever printed is trying to wipe out the local elves. Goblins, orcs, ogres, orogs, ogrillons, giants — say what you like about the forces of evil, but at least they’ve put a lot of effort into creating a diverse workplace. But before we begin, let’s revisit a prediction from my review of Canticle:

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.

Yep, called it. Every single time. But at least Salvatore didn’t borrow too many other things from Tolkien here. I mean, there’s the bittersweet fading of elven magic and culture which, coupled with the encroachment of humanity, will eventually drive them across the western sea to their race’s ancestral homeland. Well, that and there’s a king who has lost all hope in the face of the invasion, succumbing to despair and leaving his maligned son to try to rally a defense. Oh, and there’s a forest of animated trees who destroy an army of orcs. But apart from that, and the unlikely friendship between an elf and a dwarf, there’s not really that much which—

“I’m betting that me axe takes more heads than yer skinny sword!”

Oh, for fuck’s sake!

There’s an elephant in the room which we need to talk about, and that elephant is a frumpy Oxford linguistics professor. (And that is simultaneously the worst and most fun sentence I’ve yet written in a review.) Nobody has done more for the fantasy genre or done more to hold it back than J.R.R. Tolkien, and In Sylvan Shadows is a sad example of the way his works have stunted fantasy. Hordes of would-be fantasy authors have been inspired to write imitations after reading The Lord of the Rings in their youth, but all of them seem to miss the substance of Tolkien’s work while aping the style and the tropes, automatically copying his ideas without developing any of their own.

As a specific example, let’s look at Tolkien’s elves. They were something that had never quite been done before — the popular conception of “elves” to mean “graceful, aloof, long-lived, pointy-eared humanoids who live in harmony with nature” is an invention of Tolkien’s. In his works, they were the immortal favoured children of the gods; they existed long before humans and their history was full of greater and more terrible things than anything mankind had experienced. Centuries of living among the gods had imbued them with immense spiritual power, to the point that some elves were veritable demigods. They were wise, patient, majestic, and otherworldly. No wonder they captured the imagination of so many budding authors.

But you can’t do that sort of thing in Dungeons and Dragons. Elves in D&D are a playable race like any other, so they have to be roughly at the same power level as humans. The mystical grace which characterized Tolkien’s elves gets pared down to simple mechanical effects like “+2 Dexterity” and “+2 bonus to notice things”, so you end up with ersatz elves who have the same outward form — graceful humanoids who live in harmony with nature — but once you scratch the surface, you find they’re little more than humans with pointy ears. Given those restrictions, how can you write a D&D-based novel that still makes elves seem interesting?

It’s certainly not impossible, because Elfshadow managed it. That book carefully avoided the “nature-loving hippies” characterization of elves, instead making them cosmopolitan, dangerous, and involved in world affairs. They had a complicated social structure with protocol, hierarchy, ancient traditions, and centuries of grudges. Their spiritual side was still present in bits like the lovely Elverquisst scene, but wasn’t emphasized to the degree that it was in Tolkien. And it wasn’t just their culture that avoided the “humans with pointy ears” effect. Given elves’ long lives, elven fighters and wizards would rack up centuries of practice and experience, and Elfshadow wasn’t afraid to point out how that would make them more than a match for most humans. The resulting characters deviated from the Tolkien stereotype but still had a unique feel to them.

Compare that with this bit from In Sylvan Shadows:

“He is arrogant.”

“Most elves are,” said Avery. “It comes from living so long. Makes them believe they have experienced so much more than anyone else, and, thus, that they are wiser than anyone else.”

“Have they, and are they?” Cadderly asked, his shoulders slumping a bit. He hadn’t considered that fact about Prince Elbereth, that the elf had seen more in his life than Cadderly ever would, and probably would live on long after Cadderly’s body was no more than a pile of dust.

“Some have, and they are indeed wise, I would presume,” replied Avery, “but not most. The elves have become increasingly untrusting and xenophobic. They keep to their own, and to their own lands, and know little beyond their borders. I first met Prince Elbereth three decades ago and would guess that I have learned much more than he in that time. He seems much the same as he did then, in body and attitude.”

So basically these elves get to a human-ish level of experience and wisdom, then go into some sort of arrogance-based stasis for the rest of their centuries-long life. This means — you guessed it — they remain nothing more than humans with pointy ears. (Jerk humans, at that.) They’ve got the usual Tolkienish signifiers (isolationist, prancing around in forests, big on trees and nature, etc.) but they don’t have any of the flavour of Tolkien’s work: the antique diction, the constructed languages, the grandeur, the feeling that they’re part a long and fascinating history. Instead, we get a random tribe of pointy-eared jerks with little background and few distinguishing characteristics. They don’t even seem to speak in Elvish; language barriers go almost entirely unmentioned here.

But it gets worse. Not only are these elves not all that different from humans, they’re also a pack of complete idiots. The elves of Shilmista have forgotten their own history to the point where they can’t even read their old books. They’ve lost their connection with nature and can’t command its power any more. Humans have to come along and rediscover their heritage for them, then teach them to be in touch with nature again. Hell, humans have to teach them basic things like “how to muffle your horse’s hooves.” (You’d think that being stealthy in a forest is something they’d already be good at, but apparently not.) Dwarves have to teach them how to build traps and defenses. They seem completely helpless until outsiders come along to solve their problems — so not only are they not different from humans, they’re clearly dumber and less useful.

This is the inevitable result of aggressively strip-mining Tolkien’s works for the past half-century. The graceful elves, gruff dwarves, foul orcs and so on were once new ideas executed with a careful ear for diction and style. Today, after decades of pop-cultural assimilation, they’re just fossilized tropes that every half-baked fantasy author uses as signifiers of the genre and ham-handed substitutes for real imagination. Every time I see an author dry-humping Tolkien’s corpse like this, it makes me unutterably depressed. If Fantasyland is a world of limitless possibilities, then Tolkienville is a sad suburban sprawl covering its hills with an unending succession of identical boring houses. And it’s not Salvatore’s first trip to this particular well, either — Streams of Silver leaned on tropes from The Hobbit quite heavily.

But enough of that rant; I could go on, but I should save it for another day. Let’s talk about the rest of the book.

Plot

The Evil League of Evil from the first book has sent an army of thousands of creatures to conquer the elven forest of Shilmista. Where did this huge horde of monsters come from? How are they paid, fed, held together, and kept secret from the rest of the region until now? Doesn’t matter, apparently — they’re just disposable cannon fodder for the purposes of the plot. Our heroes get swept up in the conflict and help the elves repel the invasion.

…And that’s about it, really. There’s not much else to say about the story. It’s a straightforward series of running battles against monsters throughout the entire book, interspersed with scenes of humans teaching the elves how to do anything else besides shooting some arrows and then running away. The only twist is a subplot where Cadderly’s old rival from the monastery comes along and gets suborned into being a traitor for the bad guys. It’s a good attempt at adding depth, but fails because Rufo is just such a dick that you don’t care what happens to him. A Dune-style unwilling, sympathetic traitor would have worked much better here.

The more I think about the plot, the less sense it makes. At one point, the elves say that they only have 140 elves who can bear arms, which means that the elven community in Shilmista is little more than a tiny village. With such a massive army backed up by a cadre of wizards and clerics, it seems rather odd that the villains can’t take over two small villages and a library, doesn’t it? I like the idea of “the elves can’t afford to take any losses,” which gives the battle scenes some weight, but it really makes the villains seem incompetent.

Themes

One significant theme here is the bittersweet fading of the elves’ magical tie to the land, which, as mentioned earlier, is a poor mimicry of Tolkien’s tropes without understanding what made them work so well in Tolkien’s hands. These elves are such ninnies that it’s hard to care.

I was impressed, however, with the way this book addressed the issues about racism which I raised in my review of Sojourn. Unlike Drizzt, Cadderly has grave moral compunctions about killing the monstrous humanoids in the enemy army, treats his fallen foes with mercy and compassion, and calls his combat-happy companions out on their bloodthirsty behaviour. His willingness to stick to his principles when lives (including his own) are on the line makes him feel far more heroic than most of the characters in Salvatore’s previous books, where the primary criterion for heroism seems to be how tall a pile of bodies you can heap.

Characters

Cadderly is still the same know-it-all wunderkind as he was in the first book, but it’s much less annoying here and the Mary Sue elements of his character seem much mitigated. He’s outside the library for the first time in his life, which means he’s out of his element and not equipped to deal with the practical problems of the real world. In particular, he’s a pacifist who finds himself embroiled in a brutal war. We see him try to balance his personal ethics about violence against the greater good of defending Shilmista from evil, an internal conflict which persists throughout the book without getting neatly wrapped up or pushed aside. He doesn’t find any easy answers, and ends up committing acts of violence in self-defense, but he continues to discourage his allies from engaging in unnecessary bloodshed and stands up for what he believes in. It’s one of the rare character developments in this book that actually feels real.

And then there’s Elbereth, our Legolas-meets-Faramir mashup: an elf prince whose father doesn’t think much of him. Hell, there’s so much Tolkien pastiche going on here that the full name on his driver’s license is probably “A. Elbereth Gilthoniel.” But his Faramir-style “try to earn his dad’s respect by doing dangerous things to save his homeland” character arc actually works reasonably well, gets a fair amount of screen time in the story, and ends on a more-or-less satisfying note. Unfortunately, Salvatore heavy-handedly tries to set him up as a rival to Cadderly at the beginning, having him be pointlessly rude and interested in Cadderly’s girlfriend just for the sake of manufacturing early conflict. Interpersonal conflict is something that should arise naturally from the differences between two characters’ personalities and experiences, but here Elbereth just seems to act like a dick for only the first few chapters for no well-defined reason, after which he becomes fast friends with everyone. And like all the elves, he’s fairly useless; Cadderly is the one who enables him to awaken the trees and who defeats the final boss at the end, so it feels like Elbereth is a supporting character in what should be his own story.

Danica, Cadderly’s martial artist girlfriend, is ostensibly in the book, but her role in the plot is limited to punching and kicking wave after wave of mooks. There’s a bit of an attempt to use her as the opposing viewpoint for Cadderly’s pacifism theme, where she argues that violence is justified in good causes, but it doesn’t get the screen time it needs to breathe. If the author had trimmed out a few of the overlong and unnecessary battle scenes to fit in a couple more theme-supporting interactions between these two, it would have been a noticeably better novel.

At the start of the book Ivan and Pikel, the comic dwarves from the previous book, were said to have left the monastery to go travelling, and I was so very relieved. But my spirits sank when they showed up again partway through, introduced in a very long and excruciatingly unfunny physical comedy sequence. Their scenes make me feel like I’m watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, where you have normal human characters existing alongside goofy, indestructible cartoons who operate according to a completely different set of rules. They can take infinite amounts of punishment — hit by rocks, falling off of things, pummelled by unending hordes of monsters, et cetera — without any ill effects, especially when it would be slapstick for them to do so. They never tire, or seem hurt, or show fear, or have trouble with combat, no matter the odds. I can appreciate the usefulness of having dwarves as a contrast to the elves, but this novel needed some real characters in the role instead of the Two Stooges. Characters like that are antithetical to drama.

Here’s a tip for writers: If you want readers to take your villain seriously, don’t introduce him in his very first scene as a short-sighted fool with grandiose misconceptions of his own magnificence. Aballister, now the leader of the Evil League of Evil, only gets two scenes at the beginning and end of the book, and they’re both spectacularly underwhelming. He does nothing at all but daydream about how swell it will be to be an evil overlord, and even the other characters present think he’s acting like a loser. Frankly, he is a loser, and the format of the story mandates it. The problem with a five-book series of light pulp fantasy novels is that you can’t have five separate stories of adventure and derring-do where the heroes always come out on top. After the second or third book, having the villains constantly lose at every turn just makes them look like a bunch of useless chumps, and there goes all your dramatic tension for the rest of the series.

Dorigen, a wizard who serves the Evil League of Evil, is the only interesting and competent villainous character here. She comes up with a reasonably cunning plan for defeating the heroes by planting a traitor in their midst, then does her best to fulfill her goals given her limited resources. After her non-lethal defeat at Cadderly’s hands, there are some unsubtle hints that she might end up pulling a heel-face turn later, so we’ll see where that goes. [1] My hopes aren’t very high that it’ll be handled effectively, though; redemption for villains is usually a very easy and hand-wavy thing in fantasy, where their decades of past crimes are wiped out by one plot-related good deed. The other villains, including the big tough monster general and the barbarian who’s uncomfortably keen on rape, are one-dimensional and not worth describing further.

Writing

The quality of the writing is a bit odd for Salvatore. The prose is plainer and less purple, with a more down-to-earth style than his previous two trilogies, but it feels as if it was written in a rush and didn’t get the same amount of attention. There’s plenty of awkward phrasing and telling-not-showing:

“That would not be wise,” Elbereth replied, but for purely practical reasons and not because of any doubts he had concerning the ancient summons.

The pacing, as per the norm for Salvatore’s books, is a mess. The last quarter of the book feels like one huge never-ending battle scene that rapidly gets boring — there’s only so many orcs and orogs the invincible heroes can splatter before it loses all dramatic tension. It’s not like he’s going to kill off any of the characters we care about in book two of a five-book series, after all.

There’s a trap that all novels which involve lots of martial arts and barehanded fighting seem to eventually find themselves in, and In Sylvan Shadows falls into it right away. When you’re describing long, complicated martial arts sequences, the experience for the reader is not unlike trying to visualize the instructions for assembling an apartment’s worth of IKEA furniture while someone is describing them to you out loud. It all looked really impressive in the author’s head, I’m sure, and would be fantastically cinematic if we could actually see it, but the stream of minute details about what the characters do with each individual arm and leg bog down the battle scenes in a way that doesn’t generally happen with swordfights.

Conclusion

Grade: C-

It’s not quite as bad as I thought it would be. The Tolkien ripoffs really get on my nerves, but this book was redeemed from the scrap heap by Cadderly’s “pacifism vs. real-world conflict” theme, which was surprisingly well-executed — especially since it’s such a change from the behaviour of Salvatore’s previous characters and of fantasy protagonists in general. I’m willing to cut it some slack for trying something new.

Footnotes

[1] This was a scene that particularly failed to land for me. The author tried to give the impression that she has some sense of morality left by having her be horrified when Aballister proposes hiring assassins to deal with Cadderly. But given the long, long list of crimes she racked up over the course of the book, I was left thinking “Seriously? That’s where you draw the line? You’re cool with mass murder, rape, torture, blackmail, and arson, but someone hiring assassins to kill a relative is beyond the pale?” Sheesh.

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