Night Masks

Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: August 1992

We’re back for the third installment of the five-volume Cleric Quintet, published a mere four months after the previous book. Has R.A. Salvatore managed to create something worth reading here despite the brutal “four books in twelve months” schedule he laboured under in 1992? Let’s find out.

This time we’re taking a break from the vague machinations of the Evil League of Evil to focus on a smaller-scale story. Cadderly’s evil estranged father has hired a cabal of assassins to kill his son; meanwhile, Cadderly, who’s suffering from divinely-inspired mental illness, would prefer not to be killed. Hopefully Salvatore can’t manage to cram any ponderous chapters-long battle scenes into such a pared-down plot, right? Hah! Sorry, that was a hilarious joke. There are more disposable assassin mooks in this book than there are ninjas in a low-budget 1980s action movie. It’s better than the previous book as far as the pacing of the battles goes, but if there’s one thing Salvatore can’t resist, it’s a long, drawn-out battle scene against hordes of faceless chumps.

Plot

A body-possessing assassin and his underlings have travelled to the town of Carradoon to kill Cadderly, who’s been spending weeks manically moping in a hotel room after the war for Shilmista. His friends show up and they spend the second half of the book painting the town red in a series of running battles with assassins. That said, the pacing is actually much better than most of Salvatore’s other books; there are social and mental conflicts in addition to the purely physical ones, and there are plenty of character moments separating the fight scenes. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than I expected.

Pacing aside, though, the plot is fairly weak. Cadderly has been picked by Deneir, the god of learning, to be one of his Chosen, a receptacle of Deneir’s divine power. In practice, this means that Cadderly spends the first third of the book as a basket case, then acquires flawless control over an improbably wide array of magical powers which he can deploy on a whim. These powers feel like a form of authorial intervention for resolving problems cheaply, a deus ex machina that wraps up almost every scene. They only seem to work when it’s convenient for the plot: they come to Cadderly unbidden when he’s in a situation that the author doesn’t know how to extricate him from, then vanish at moments when they would unravel the plot too quickly.

Something had called out to him, a distant song, a voice of impending danger.

For “something,” read “the author.” By the end of the book he’s become a human plot detector, magically aware of all sorts of things that Salvatore presumably didn’t want to bother having to explain to the characters. Writing tip: when your other characters start lampshading how incredibly annoying it is that your protagonist magically knows everything, maybe, just maybe it’s time to dial the omniscience back a bit.

I had hopes for Cadderly’s “crisis of faith” subplot, but it doesn’t stand up to even cursory inspection. When you’ve got a world where the gods are real entities who grant miracles left and right, a sensible direction for a crisis of faith would be “Should I continue to follow this god? Does their philosophy fit my ethics and worldview?” Instead, we get this:

“I believe in magic,” Cadderly reasoned. “It is an undeniable fact on the soil of Faerûn. And yes, I have felt the power, but where it comes from I cannot say.” [1]

So he’s angsting about whether or not his god exists? Whether or not divine power comes from the gods? Seriously? Look, in the Forgotten Realms, high-level priests can cast spells to commune directly with their gods and have a conversation. Clerics and wizards alike can plane shift to the realms of the gods and go visit them. And it was only three in-setting years ago that the gods all came down to Faerûn and took mortal forms! They were walking around saying “Hey, I’m a god! Worship me!” How dense do you have to be to not be sure if the gods exist under these circumstances? The flat-earth atheist thing just makes Cadderly look dim, not conflicted.

The Night Masks are decent replacement villains. Unlike the Evil League of Evil, it’s actually clear why they’re here and what they’re doing. The conflict between their leader, Ghost, and Vander, his lieutenant, makes for some good cutaway scenes when the protagonists are being tedious, but the rest of them are just faceless mooks to round out the fight scenes. I like that they start with very little information about the heroes and spend the first half of the book just scouting and gathering knowledge, setting up the coming conflict. You get to see a bit about how they work, rather than just having random ninjas pop out of nowhere and attack the heroes. But for professional assassins they’re just about the worst shots in the world, firing dozens and dozens of crossbow quarrels without seriously injuring anyone. I swear, it’s like an episode of The A-Team here. (But naturally, when the heroes use crossbows, they can snipe someone off a galloping horse with their first shot.)

I think there are two reasons why the assassination plot doesn’t work for me. The first is that there’s no clear motivation for any of it. Why is Aballister going to all this time and expense to have Cadderly killed? We don’t know; they’re not even making a big mystery about it. Why are the Evil League of Evil trying to take over the tri-county area here? What’s their motivation? What’s their end goal? Who knows? It all just feels like a big excuse to give the author a chance to slam some evil action figures against some good action figures. I suspect I’ll be repeating this complaint word-for-word in my reviews of the next two books, too, since if Salvatore hasn’t seen fit to flesh out the villains after three books, he’s not going to start now. The second reason is that none of it seems to advance the plot of the series. The assassins are a temporary speed bump filling in the villain slot until we can get back to the conflict with the Evil League of Evil. The only bit that furthers that conflict comes in the very last chapter, when a former villain spills the beans on Castle Trinity to the heroes. I suspect that it wouldn’t have been hard to write this series without this book in it at all by just moving some of Cadderly’s Chosen subplot around a bit. Hell, this series would have been so much better as a trilogy than a pentalogy, because there’s a great deal of flab that could be scraped away to expose a tighter, more focused story around the central conflict — even if that central conflict is kind of dumb.

Themes

There’s some effort at making this a coming-of-age story for Cadderly: he rejects Headmaster Avery, his father figure; he works through his self doubt; he comes into his powers; he loses his virginity. But he doesn’t have enough agency to make the bildungsroman elements land. Everything happens to him, rather than as the result of his choices — the assassination attempts, the magic powers, the lady throwing herself at him — so it feels like the passive accumulation of experiences rather than a genuine story of growing up.

Characters

Cadderly spent the first book as a smarmy know-it-all, then got a fair amount of character development in the second book when he faced some interesting moral challenges. This time around he’s somewhere in the middle; he’s dealing with a crisis of faith that has the potential to turn into something interesting, but goes in an unsatisfying direction. And now he’s back to being an annoying know-it-all, but this time it’s even worse because the knowledge is dispensed by convenient divine wisdom rather than an improbable breadth of book learning. But the underlying problem with Cadderly is simple: he never makes mistakes. When he suspects someone of something, he’s invariably right. When he makes a decision, it turns out to be correct. When he does anything non-optimal, there’s always some extenuating circumstance to explain it. He feels like an author’s pet: too special and important to fail. After three books, it’s getting old. (And he’s still killing people with a yo-yo, which is just about the silliest goddamn thing I’ve ever read.)

Danica is back in the role of satellite love interest for Cadderly. She’s got no motivations of her own aside from “help Cadderly” here, having put her studies on hold to go kick the crap out of anyone who gets in his way. There’s a brief acknowledgement of it at one point, where she worries that she’s going to be forced to choose between her personal goals and her relationship, but I’m skeptical that the author will actually pursue that promising thread. Once the shit hits the fan, who’s going to have time to angst about studying?

The Bouldershoulder brothers return as comic relief, and all the complaints I had about them in previous books still stand. They’re indestructible cartoon characters who burst through walls like the Kool-Aid Man and break things with their heads, they can take an infinite amount of physical punishment and are thus never in any danger no matter what the odds are, their slapstick comedy is a sub-par Three Stooges impression, and they don’t seem to have evolved as characters at all over the course of three books. It’s tiresome, truth be told. Pikel in particular seems like a missed opportunity; he gets some point-of-view scenes in this book, but they’re just straightforward narration. He’s a dwarf who can’t speak normally and seems to have some sort of developmental disability — wouldn’t you expect him to have different perceptions or thoughts from the rest of the characters? I’m not asking for Flowers for Algernon here, but some acknowledgement that he’s a distinct character would have been nice.

The Evil League of Evil sends a henchwizard along with the assassins, an emo kid with a Skrillex haircut named Bogo Rath. I honestly can’t figure out why he’s in this book at all. He’s a chump who’s hopelessly outclassed by all of his allies and doesn’t understand the situation. Self-important, yet unable to villainously plot his way out of a paper bag — a classic case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Why did this series get yet another villain who’s completely incompetent, never succeeds at anything, and is rightly regarded by everyone around him as a loser? We’ve already got one too many of those. I breathed a sigh of relief when he was killed off at the end; at least we won’t have to put up with him for the next two books.

The venal and cowardly Kierkan Rufo returns, weaselling his way into serious trouble and losing his god’s favour altogether. Honestly, though, it’s hard to feel compassion for Rufo because he’s just such an awful shit. I’m a big fan of the “fall from grace” character arc, but for someone’s fall to be meaningful and have pathos, you have to show how they could have turned out better if things had been just a little different. They have to be presented with a choice between following the good or the evil impulses inside them, and choose evil. But Rufo was obviously a bad guy from the start of the first book, a snivelling git without redeeming qualities or good impulses, so his fall from grace is as unsurprising and ordinary as watching a dropped object be pulled to the ground by gravity.

The only interesting villain here is Ghost, the leader of the assassins. He’s a bit dry on the personality side, a moustache-twirling “evil for evil’s sake” character who doesn’t have much history or motivation besides “I like to do bad things.” But he’s reasonably competent, unlike most of the other villains in this series, and puts a degree of forethought and care into his villainy that shows the rest of the bad guys up for the useless chuckleheads they are. His body-swapping and regenerative powers make for an interesting twist on the usual “sneaky assassin with dagger” stereotype, which I appreciated. He’s the only villain in the novel who seems like he could actually successfully kill a person he wanted to kill… but since he’s after the protagonist, he fails at that too.

The side characters don’t get much development. The only one that stands out as a distinct personality is the leprous beggar, but he gets killed off in the scene after he’s introduced.

Writing

The quality of the prose is about what you’d expect from a guy who was trying to churn out four books in a year. It’s rubbish, quite frankly, and sorely needed a capable editor to give it the time and attention it required. There’s stuff like this:

“You regaled your fears for the feebleness of the weapon in your fight with the minotaur, when you readily accepted the image of it breaking.”

Either he has no idea how to use the word “regaled”, or he was just writing so quickly that he free-associated a random word and never went back over his work to correct it. And then there are hilariously bad bits like this which make it look like he was being paid by the word:

“You could not wake me the last three times you came in here?” he asked. Brennan stuttered, surprised that Cadderly had deduced that he had been in the room three times previously. “Three times?” he replied.

You know, I think this is still a bit too subtle. What if we punched it up a little, like this?

“You could not wake me the last three times you entered here, the room that you have previously entered on at least three recent occasions?” he asked.

“I am astounded by your deductive powers!”, Brennan replied, astounded by Cadderly’s deductive powers. “Indeed, I have entered this room, the room that we are currently in, thrice — that is to say, three times — recently, and on none of those three occasions could I wake you.”

There! Fixed it for you.

And of course there’s awkward phrasing and show-don’t-tell violations all over the place. These sorts of things would normally get caught by the author while revising the first draft or flagged by an editor afterwards, but it seems like neither author nor editor had much time to spend polishing this book. It makes for frustrating reading — if the author and editor didn’t care enough about this book to fix the basics, why should the reader care about reading it? (Then again, maybe my indignation stems from the fact that I’ve been reading some actually well-written books lately, and this book is suffering badly by comparison.)

The intensity of the violence is also noticeably higher than in Salvatore’s previous novels. In the Icewind Dale trilogy, foes would be cut down or hammered flat with little fanfare. Here, the narration lingers longer on the smashed jawbones, gouged eyes, broken arms, and severed fingers that the heroes inflict on the mooks during the battle scenes. It’s not yet at the uncomfortable level of “gore porn,” but it’s definitely more lurid than before. I’m curious about whether this will become a trend in future Realms novels.

Conclusion

Grade: C–

Not abjectly terrible enough to deserve a D, but not interesting enough to deserve a B. It’s a pretty middling book; I appreciate the improved pacing and ratio of character time to battle time, but the character work and the quality of the prose are decidedly unimpressive. We’re going to have to wait a long time for the conclusion to this series — Salvatore published the fourth book in 1993 and the fifth in mid-1994, so there’s twelve other books in between here and the end. I can’t say that I mind, really. Four R.A. Salvatore books in one year is too many.

Footnotes

[1] Yes, “soil”. The diction in this book is excruciating.

3 Replies to “Night Masks

  1. I’ve been reading Salvatore’s more recent work lately, and while his penchant for large scale running battles with hordes of enemies dominating the final third is still intact, I feel like based on your reviews his writing must have improved on a technical level quite a bit – which is a good sign after nearly thirty years I suppose!

    I’ve never read a Cadderly book, but hopefully the next Drizzt book is an improvement for you!

    1. It’s definitely improved since the Icewind Dale trilogy. The nadir of his writing was Streams of Silver; I called out a handful of particularly howlingly bad passages in my review, but there were so many others that it was hard to choose. I’m working my way through The Legacy now, and while the writing is still often awkward and sloppy, at least it’s not giving me the sort of deep “what am I doing with my life?” regrets that I had while reading his earlier books.

      You won’t have to wait as long for the next installment as you did for this one! Life was busy lately, but now I’ve got more time to read and write.

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