Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: August 1996
I never thought I would see this day. It’s finally happened: I have run out of R.A. Salvatore books. This is the fifteenth and final novel of his published by TSR, and I’m sorry to see him go. His novels were sometimes good and sometimes bad, but he never failed to give me plenty to write about afterwards, and Passage to Dawn is no exception — in fact, I think this is the longest post I’ve written yet.
But first, a question: Is there such a thing as too much success? For an author, probably not. Being able to support yourself by writing novels is a rare and precious opportunity, and one can hardly fault a successful author for doing their best to make a good living out of their craft. But there’s definitely such a thing as too much success for a story, and for the Drizzt books, Passage to Dawn is the point where it becomes obvious how runaway success damages a narrative. But before we talk about this novel, let’s talk about a different medium.
When you stop and really think about how comic books tell stories, it boggles the mind. For decades , it’s been common for comics to tell stories one issue at a time over a period of months or years, often with little of the story plotted out before it’s underway. New issues only appear once per month, and each issue has only 22 to 24 pages of usable space, so the effect is not unlike a season of a TV show where each episode is very, very short and the writers are making it up as they go along. And all of these separate, often unrelated story arcs tie into an overarching continuity for the world. This goes on and on for year after year, piling up more and more story arcs in the shared universe.
The problem is that comics are almost exclusively character-based. A title is often oriented around a single character, like Superman or Spider-Man, and tells serial adventures about that one person. If that character becomes popular, you can sell stories (and more importantly, merchandise) starring them for decades. But this puts authors in a bind, because now you can’t tell any stories which seriously disrupt the setting or change the character. The readers are invested in the character as an archetype, so if you alter the character too much you risk alienating the readers who keep giving you money. Furthermore, any series that doesn’t sell well on a monthly basis gets truncated or cancelled, so you need to keep it constantly exciting and can’t afford too much downtime. Thus, the trick for a comic book author is to tell stories that are as superficially interesting as possible, with plenty of fights and explosions and whatnot, but which don’t introduce any long-term change for the setting or character. Any consequences are generally temporary, inexplicably forgotten about, or undone in later issues via some improbable means — and the more severe the consequences, the more unsatisfying the undoing feels.
To say that this results in bad storytelling is an understatement of horrific proportions. Under these conditions, it’s unthinkable to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end — if you permanently wrap up a character’s story, you kill off a cash-cow franchise, and the publisher isn’t going to stand for that. From their perspective, when the status quo is profitable, only a fool would shake things up. There are exceptions, good comic stories which don’t run endlessly and have solid beginnings, middles, and conclusions, but that usually only happens when you have a new franchise with new characters so the publisher has no financial investment in things remaining static. (For instance, The Sandman or Watchmen.) But for the A-list characters that people think of when they think of comics (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc.), their contractual immortality has given us decades of reboots, retcons, reset buttons, and implausible resurrections which destroy the potential for drama. In this medium, the demands of a good story are fundamentally at odds with the commercial reality of publishing those stories.
So why am I talking about this?
R.A. Salvatore’s “Legend of Drizzt” books ended up becoming an endless — and endlessly profitable — saga, currently comprising 35 novels published over the course of 34 years. He’s sold more than 15 million books over the past three decades and become a household name among fantasy aficionados. But by this point in the series he’s already fallen into the same trap. These novels are heavily character-focused — you couldn’t kill off Drizzt and keep writing them, after all. So if he wants to keep the books flowing, he needs to generate lots of action that involves as little long-term change to the characters and setting as possible.
In The Legacy, Salvatore killed off Wulfgar, one of the core secondary characters who rounded out Drizzt’s party. It was a good death, fitting for the character: he fell in battle defending his friends from a great evil. The next two and a half books were full of character development for the surviving companions as they all came to terms with his death in their individual ways, but now they’re reaching the “acceptance” phase of grief and starting to move on with their lives. It’s good material, and I appreciate the way Salvatore spent plenty of time on the aftermath of Wulfgar’s death to confront the survivors with a problem that can’t be solved by violence and force them to grow as characters. In short, Wulfgar’s death had meaning.
Except, surprise! It turns out Wulfgar isn’t dead after all. He was just pulled into another plane and taken prisoner by demons. So all of his friends’ grief over his death? Turns out it was pointless. That “meaning” I just talked about? Never mind.
And this isn’t an isolated occurrence. From this point on, I believe that not one single named hero or anti-hero introduced in the “Legend of Drizzt” books to date (including the characters from the Cleric Quintet, who have recurring guest spots) permanently dies. There are dozens of books and maybe there’s an exception I’m not aware of, but the general rule is that every single character we’ve already met will keep coming back, and back, and back, and back for decades. (This became especially hilarious during the 100-year time skip between the 3rd and 4th editions of the Forgotten Realms tabletop setting, where he had to come up with extraordinarily contrived explanations for how the characters with normal human lifespans could still be around.) As a reader, once you notice this, you realize that nothing which happens to a character is going to have any long-term consequences and the possibility for drama dies a miserable death.
To be fair to Salvatore, it seems as if not letting Wulfgar stay dead wasn’t his idea. There were rumours that TSR’s management wasn’t happy about letting a popular character stay dead, and were pressuring him to bring Wulfgar back almost immediately after his death in The Legacy. Salvatore gives his side of the story in an interview from around 2001:
There are two reasons why I brought him back. One, I felt bad that he had become a shallow character, because the book was supposed to have been about him. This dark elf kind of nudged in and pushed everybody out of the way. I really wanted to explore him more deeply, which I think I have done since I brought him back. The other reason that I brought him back, quite honestly… I knew that if I didn’t bring him back, someone [from TSR] was going to, and I didn’t want them to do it. So I did it before they could.
In the same interview, Salvatore also makes clear that he’s well aware of the narrative problems with long-running heroes:
I contributed to this [disgruntlement about resurrections with] Wulfgar, so I admit to it. I am also contributing to it with Drizzt with the ongoing sagas where he should have been dead a hundred times. But here he is, still kicking along. This is something that bothers me about fantasy. I think it is dumbing down fantasy, this idea that the heroes are immortal. It’s like, hands-off with the main character. If you deviate from that the readers get angry. Heroes die… and they should. Would anyone in our time know who Joan of Arc was, if she had not been burned at the stake? Probably not. The truth of it is, as a culture we don’t talk about death. As a culture we don’t understand death. As a culture, because of a crisis of faith, we don’t ask enough questions about it. I think that is changing. Fantasy should deal with the themes of heroism and sacrifice, including the ultimate sacrifice.
But being aware of it is one thing, and being willing to stop a juggernaut franchise for artistic reasons is another. Mind you, this isn’t me criticizing Salvatore personally for being successful or “selling out.” If you’re one of the tiny fraction of aspiring writers who can actually make decent money by selling books, you should milk it for all you can get. Well-crafted narratives are great, but a good story alone won’t pay your mortgage or feed your family the way that selling reams of books will. It’s just that, as a book critic, I can’t talk about the quality of the series without also bringing up the real-world reasons why it ended up this way.
I can’t believe I wrote so many words before getting around to talking about the…
Passage to Dawn is basically The Crystal Shard Part II — same themes, same foes, same setting. But what makes the plot work is that instead of unimaginatively retreading the previous novel’s conflicts, it picks up several plot threads left over from The Crystal Shard and stitches them together into a new narrative. I enjoy seeing all these old plots come to life again. Instead of just inventing some new horrible problem for the protagonists to fix, the author is able to show the long-term consequences of the characters’ past actions and give some weight to their previous decisions. Many authors of serials are leery of tying back into previous stories because they don’t want to alienate new readers who don’t know all the history, but I think that doesn’t give readers enough credit. If you write a great book, people will be motivated to go back and read your old work after they finish it, but there’s only so many times you can say “Oh no! Yet another big bad thing appeared!” before readers get tired of it.
Errtu the balor was a mid-level antagonist from the earlier book whom Drizzt banished to the Abyss back in 1356 DR. Now, eight years later, the defeated demon has a plan to enact his revenge — kind of a dumb plan, mind you, but at least it gets things started. Turns out that Wulfgar didn’t die back in The Legacy; rather, he was dragged into the Abyss by the yochlol he was fighting, captured by Lloth, and traded to Errtu in exchange for a favour at the end of Siege of Darkness. Errtu plans to use Wulfgar as bait to get Drizzt to sacrifice himself, or… something like that.
Let’s see if you can make heads or tails of the plan he’s spent eight years working on, because I’m still baffled. Drizzt and Catti-brie have spent the last six years pirate-hunting on the high seas because she’s seeking adventure and he gets bored when he doesn’t have things to kill. Errtu sends the world’s least competent doppleganger after them to give them a cryptic hint about some mythical island that nobody believes really exists. What would he have done if they’d killed the doppleganger before it could deliver the message? What if the characters had ignored the cryptic hints and gone back to hunting pirates? What if they hadn’t been able to find a map to the island? What if they had died or been shipwrecked in the dangerous seas around the island?
Errtu wants them to go there because there’s some witch with prophetic powers living on the island and he’s instructed her to give the protagonists a message. The message is in the form of rhyming doggerel, both incredibly vague and incredibly badly written. (For all our sakes, let us hope that Salvatore remains content with his success as a writer of novels and never branches out into verse.) The characters spend a long time puzzling it over, draw the wrong conclusions from it, and start heading in the exact opposite direction that Errtu wanted. If some random side character hadn’t gotten a random magic revelation that they made a mistake, they would have completely ignored Errtu and gone back to the Underdark. If they’d said “Why should we trust you, creepy old hag?” and been suspicious about the message, they would also have completely ignored Errtu.
Anyways, they end up meeting Cadderly from the Cleric Quintet, and he breaks the banishment that was keeping Errtu out of the Prime Material Plane. When asked why, his answer is basically “Meh, it doesn’t matter. If I hadn’t, someone else might have.” But… what? Seriously? Has being a conduit for all that divine energy given him brain damage?
It’s a nonsense plan that could fall apart with the slightest push, and it only succeeds due to authorial contrivance. It all feels like padding to me, as if the author realized that he didn’t have enough material in the Icewind Dale portions to make a complete novel and grafted a lot of runaround onto the beginning to stretch it out. If Errtu had just sent Drizzt a telegram that said “Hey, I’ve got your friend. Meet me in Icewind Dale for a fight,” this book would be half as long. Could be worse, though. At least the motivations are solid and the conflict is rooted in the characters’ backstories, even if the actual plot mechanics are wonky. Thankfully, the plot gets much tighter and more sensible in the second half of the book once the characters finally figure out what they’re supposed to be doing.
While all this is going on, there’s also a subplot about some barbarians and dwarves returning to Icewind Dale from Mithril Hall. Once again, the barbarians are having a leadership conflict where a complete dick seizes control of the tribe and starts trouble with their neighbours, and they haven’t forgotten their recent feud with the dwarves over Aegis-Fang. And once again, some hapless schmuck stumbles upon Crenshinibon, the crystal shard, a mind-warping evil artifact of incredible power. (Perhaps some day I will stop reading that word as “Cinnabon,” but it’s not today.) It’s not obvious where this is all going at first, but it ties together neatly with the A-plot once all the characters reunite.
The barbarian parts in particular are fantastic: a meaningful conflict between well-thought-out characters whose fundamental disagreements tie into the setting and the events of the previous novels. We see how the toxic masculinity enshrined in their society is detrimental to the tribe’s well-being and leads to the wisest voices in the tribe being ignored. There are no easy fixes, and the eventual resolution involves both sides having to make sacrifices and compromise.
There’s not nearly as much pointless combat in this book as I expected from an R.A. Salvatore novel. There are a couple of irrelevant fights, like the brief “suddenly, some yetis show up!” moment halfway through. You can practically hear the author thinking “Hey, the heroes haven’t gotten to kill anything in ages. I guess I should put some sort of fight in here to keep the readers from getting bored?” But pacing it too slowly is a much better problem to have than packing half the book with mindless slaughter. Of course, it all eventually climaxes in a giant running battle against a bunch of monsters and fiends, but it’s rather short by Salvatorean standards (only the final fifth of the book) and interspersed with occasional dialogue and characterization. It’s probably the best pacing that Salvatore has done yet, a far cry from the hours and hours of consecutive fight scenes that we had to slog through in books like The Halfling’s Gem and The Fallen Fortress.
I quite enjoyed the “sea voyage” parts of the novel, despite the flimsy plot that shoved the characters around it. The sea is an implacable enemy that can’t be defeated by Drizzt stabbing it, and Salvatore has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how the presence of magic would change life on board a ship. Having a wizard on board to manipulate the wind and weather is clearly invaluable, and ship-to-ship combat involves a lot of arcane wind-whipping, tracking other nearby ships, blocking visibility with mist, and good old fireballs and lightning bolts. Every magical measure also has a magical countermeasure, so few ships sail without a wizard or cleric on board. It’s the little touches of verisimilitude like that which make a fantasy world feel actually fantastic.
Drizzt feels a little less cheesy this time around. In previous books he’s been a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut of death who always intuits the correct thing to do and can never be misled. Here he’s… well, still that, but he gets a couple moments of vulnerability that improve matters a bit. He’s in genuine danger during the fight against Errtu at the end, which doesn’t go nearly as well for him as it did the first time around, and he’s fooled into thinking that Errtu’s prisoner is his father Zaknafein rather than Wulfgar. (Why Errtu bothered with this deception isn’t clear, but so little about his plan makes sense anyhow.) He gets a lot of quiet scenes where we see what he wants (friends, a sense of home), and all of his character work isn’t crammed into the long pseudo-philosophical soliloquies that occasionally interrupt the story. It’s definitely an improvement over some of his previous appearances.
Catti-brie, for her part, feels like a missed opportunity. She gets a couple of quiet moments where she’s trying to figure out what she wants her relationship with Drizzt to be, but that’s about all she gets for characterization. Mostly she’s just following Drizzt around, offering occasional emotional support and shooting things that get in their way. It’s a far cry from the “I’m going to go off on my own and find adventure!” note that the previous book ended on, since this isn’t her story at all.
Bruenor doesn’t get much time in this book, but what time he gets focuses more on his softer side. He travels back to Icewind Dale because Mithril Hall, now that it’s in good hands, doesn’t really feel like home. He misses Drizzt, Catti-brie, and Wulfgar terribly, but won’t admit it out loud. After their tearful reunion, though, he goes back to his usual role of “guy who hits things with an axe.”
I thought Wulfgar was handled well, which is something I never thought I’d say. He spends most of the book being tormented by demons, then gets a chance to wreak vengeance on his captors at the end. During the denouement, it’s made clear that he’s not just going to blithely shake off six years of constant torture and go back to being one of the gang; instead, he’s a post-traumatic wreck who’s going to need his friends’ help to recover. It’s some welcome vulnerability for a character who until now has been relentlessly, irritatingly macho. I vaguely recall that he spends the next couple of books dealing with these issues, so it’s not something that the author’s just going to overlook or wave away. I still wish he hadn’t been brought back in the first place, but if Salvatore had no choice then this was probably the best way to handle it.
And Regis… well, Regis is there too. He hasn’t gotten much in the way of character development since his backstory conflict was wrapped up in The Halfling’s Gem, so he’s mostly a tag-along character whose interactions with the other characters are fairly superficial. But it was nice to see that he’s the one who bravely saves the day at the end in a callback to his role in The Crystal Shard, so he’s not a vestigial appendage who’s only in here for historical reasons.
The author spends plenty of time on the characters’ emotions, fitting in little moments of interaction amongst all the excitement. We know what drives them and what they want, even if it’s often driven home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and it’s satisfying to see them achieve it. All this is a refreshing contrast to the Cleric Quintet, where it felt like Cadderly’s personality and characterization veered about from book to book as if Salvatore never had him figured out.
Speaking of which, Cadderly shows up in a minor role in this book as the badass super-priest who advises Drizzt and Catti-brie on their demon problem, and it turns out to be a pleasant surprise. We get to see how he’s rebuilt his monastery after the events of The Chaos Curse, made tremendous personal sacrifices for his god’s sake, come to terms with his Chosen status, settled down with a family, and matured as a person. He’s too much of a wreck, physically speaking, to go into battles with the protagonists and steamroll all their foes, but within his little sphere of influence he’s become confident and powerful without being a dick. It’s a good epilogue for his story, but somewhat spoiled by the suggestion that his physical deterioration might be reversing and eventually he’ll be 100% fine again. A personal sacrifice doesn’t mean much if your god just gives you back whatever you lost.
I can’t say I was nearly as pleased to see Ivan and Pikel, his aggravating slapstick sidekicks, who get an excruciating physical comedy sequence in their first scene that made me wince with embarrassment. There’s nothing I can say about them that I haven’t already said in previous reviews, so I’ll just point out that the best part of their cameo here is how short it is. Danica shows up too, but not for long, and her role is little more than “be friendly to the protagonists.”
The wacky wizard Harkle Harpell shows up and sticks around for about a third of the book, a development which made me groan aloud. The Harpells’ goofy antics feel so out of place in a Realms novel — they’re all “Unseen University meets the Three Stooges” while everyone else around them is trying to do serious high fantasy. Harkle is so absent-minded that I can’t understand how he survived to adulthood, let alone became a powerful wizard, so I didn’t mind when he unceremoniously ejected himself from the story. This isn’t a fundamentally unworkable concept, mind you. Just toning down the wacky antics and “absent-minded professor” routine a little bit would have gone a long way towards making him feel like a real person, but subtlety has never been this author’s strong suit.
Each of the barbarian characters is a face for a particular aspect of their cultural conflict. The stubborn, prideful Berkthgar represents traditional values and nostalgia for an earlier time. The older, wiser Revjak represents adaptation to modern society and a shift from valuing martial prowess to valuing peace and prosperity, but he has neither the physical nor social clout to prevent Berkthgar from sidelining him. His young son Kierstaad is trapped between the two, spends most of the novel agonizing about it, and then tries to take a third option at the end. I love it when characters’ conflicts tie into the setting and culture around them, so these folks were a big hit with me.
We get to see some scenes narrated from the point of view of Crenshinibon, the evil artifact of doom, and its hapless wielder, and they actually work quite well. You see how it’s patient and cunning, playing the long game of slowly eroding its wielder’s will. It’s not omnipotent — being wielded by a stubborn, devout dwarven priestess really cramps its usual style and forces it to be more subtle — but it’s powerful enough to give the heroes a serious challenge. The manner in which it’s eventually defeated is something that was introduced in an earlier book, so it doesn’t feel like a random ass-pull.
Errtu, on the other hand, is still a fairly boring character. Evil for evil’s sake, driven by revenge, yadda yadda. He becomes more interesting once he finds Crenshinibon and has something to struggle against, since his conflicts with Crenshinibon are far more fun than watching him come up with the world’s most roundabout scheme to draw out Drizzt. Ultimately, though, he’s just a jerk without much personality.
Here’s Salvatore’s favourite theme again: unity trumps dissension. Good people unite and work together, while bad people fight amongst themselves and ruin their own plans. Errtu and Crenshinibon eventually lose because they spend too much of their energy fighting each other, with Crenshinibon trying to dominate Errtu’s mind and Errtu punishing the shard for it. As a counterexample, Berkthgar nearly fractures his tribe and sparks internecine violence, but finally he realizes the wisdom of doing the right thing for his people instead of following his pride. At the end, everyone works together to survive and all the good guys get happy endings.
As themes go, it’s not bad. It’s a good way to provide an explanation for why the heroes succeed and the villains fail that’s more interesting than just “the heroes are so awesome” or “the villains are too thick.” When you have capable villains who work at cross-purposes, the author doesn’t have to arbitrarily hamstring them to let the heroes win. Like I said when this theme came up way back in The Crystal Shard: it’s not subtle, but it gets the job done.
Everyone also spends some time pondering the concept of “home”: what makes a place feel like home? Drizzt realizes what Icewind Dale meant to him when he returns there midway through the book. Bruenor returns to Icewind Dale, but it still feels incomplete until his friends return. Wulfgar comes home in a very dramatic manner. It’s all summed up by this quote from one of Drizzt’s soliloquies:
To me, home is not just a place, but a feeling, a warm and comfortable sensation of control. […] It is both a personal and a shared domain, for it is the place a person most truly belongs, and yet it is so only because of those friends around him.
I’ve had some nice things to say about the plot and characterization in this book, but I’m afraid I don’t have anything good to say about the writing. It’s some of the weakest writing he’s done yet, on a technical level, and I was frequently grimacing or howling in disbelief. For starters, the commas. Jesus, was he being paid by the comma? They’re scattered randomly everywhere.
The island of Mintarn, four hundred miles southwest of Waterdeep, was cloaked in thick trees, and Guenhwyvar was perfectly blended, reclining on a branch twenty feet from the ground, camouflaged so well that a deer might walk right under the cat, never realizing its doom. 
There are so goddamned many commas that it feels like just about every single clause in the book is separated from its fellows. You almost feel sorry for the lonely little sentence fragments.
Of course, the others all knew, Catti-brie’s quiver was powerfully enchanted.
It’s like the book is being narrated by an asthmatic who has to stop for breath after every few words — an excitable asthmatic, no less, given how inclined the narrator is to exclaim things.
From her high perch, Catti-brie picked several more shots, each one taking down a strategically-placed pirate archer, and one driving through a man to kill the pirate goblin sitting next to him!
Maybe this is just a personal prejudice, but I find that the exclamation points give the narration the feel of a children’s book. It’s talking down to the reader, as if they can’t be trusted to figure out that something is cool or interesting unless the narrator double-underlines it for them, and it makes the narrator an intrusive character with a distinct voice instead of the impartial describer of reality. That’s fine if your narrator is actually a character in the story, but it’s woefully out of place for an omniscient narrator.
And boy, is it ever omniscient. The narration tells us pretty much everything, spoiling plot twists (Deudermont’s replacement by a doppelganger, for instance) and often telling us what just happened in an excessively dramatic manner:
They were together again, the five friends, more than ready to face whatever odds, more than ready for battle.
They didn’t know the depth of Errtu’s terror, and didn’t know that the fiend already had Crenshinibon in his evil clutches.
Come on, man, we just saw that happen. You don’t have to remind us, and you certainly don’t have to oversell it so hard. All this, plus some easy typos (“reigns” for “reins,” etc.), make me suspect that this book didn’t get much attention from an editor before it went out the door. But at least I don’t remember running into any parenthetical asides in the narration, which is a habit that I’m glad Salvatore has outgrown.
I think the witch’s prophecy broke my brain a bit. We’ve seen some serious abuses of the English second-person singular in these novels before, but this may be the most facepalmy attempt at antiquing prose that I’ve ever seen:
A challenge, renegade of renegade’s seed,
A golden ring thee cannot resist!
How did an editor not take him aside and tell him how “thee” works? He gets this wrong four times in a 20-line poem, so it’s not just a one-off typo. And it’s embedded in some seriously excruciating poetry. It mostly rhymes and mostly scans, but he accomplishes this by sacrificing diction and meaning to the point where it feels like word salad.
Thanks to the extraordinary vagueness of the prophecy, both Drizzt and the reader are supposed to think that Errtu’s prisoner is Drizzt’s father Zaknafein, not Wulfgar. But the “deception” is set up so heavy-handedly that the reader can’t help but be aware. Both the dialogue and the narration always refer to him as just “the prisoner,” and the verbal convolutions the author has to go through to mention “the prisoner” without ever saying his name are so clunky that it’s impossible not to notice that he’s trying to hide something, even if you hadn’t already guessed it by the end of the previous book. With all the other omniscient narration going on, I’m a little surprised that he bothered to try to keep any secrets.
And of course I have the usual comments about Drizzt’s long-winded philosophical asides, but if a reader hasn’t gotten tired of them after the past nine novels then there’s nothing I can say that will change their minds now.
It’s a very mixed bag. Half of the plot is a ridiculous runaround and the writing is remarkably grating. But the author has done a solid job with the characters and their conflicts, tied up a bunch of loose ends from previous books in an enjoyable manner, and left himself a clear sequel hook. I’m not sure how to balance these disparate elements in a single scalar grade. I did, however, catch myself looking forward to picking the book up after each time I put it down — not just because finding stuff to comment on is fun, but also because the characters were entertaining enough to hold my interest.
In my experience, characters are the most important aspect of a novel. I’ve read novels with beautifully done characters but practically no plot that I still found interesting, but novels with a good plot and bad characters leave me bored. I’ve read books with terrible prose but good characters and been captivated, but books with beautiful prose and bad characters feel like a self-indulgent exercise in writing. Ultimately, every other consideration in a novel takes a back seat to “Do I care enough about these people to find out what happens to them next?” In between all the giant battle scenes, Salvatore has spent many hundreds of pages working on these characters — their backstories, their personalities, their interactions, their needs and desires — and that makes it satisfying to see how things end up for them.
Speaking personally, I feel that this is a good point for me to say farewell to Drizzt and the gang. They resolved a bunch of their problems and came to a natural stopping point in their story, before things got too ridiculous or dragged on long enough that I became bored of them. They may have gone on to have many more years of giant battles and tangled storylines instead of getting the proper ending that they deserved, but I can stop reading and decide for myself that their story ended here.
 Interestingly, this has become much less true in recent years. Exact statistics are hard to come by, but it seems like somewhere in the 2000s was the point at which sales of trade paperbacks and graphic novels outstripped sales of monthly comics, and the trend has just accelerated over the course of the past decade. There’s an interesting discussion to be had about the reasons, but that’s for someone else to talk about on a different blog.
 For added silliness, Guenhwyvar is a six-hundred-pound monstrosity who’s three times the size of a normal panther, yet she can flit silently among the branches of trees and leap three stories into the air. Even in a fantasy world, the reader expects that gravity will still apply.
15 Replies to “Passage to Dawn”
So, speaking as someone who’s still keeping up with the current Drizzt books (though I’m a couple behind currently), something I’ve noticed lately is that even when I might dislike an individual entry in the series, when I look back and think of the last six to nine books I think “yeah, I like these”. Individual characters or moments stand out for me, and I forget which specific book they were in, so my overall memory becomes fairly positive even if those moments were in one of the “bad ones”. I think that’s one of the advantages of a long-running series. The other thing you can get away with is that while you can’t have those big drastic changes, for the reasons you mentioned, like Lolth can never truly go away or the drow society ever truly liberated, or Drizzt die or what have you, you can have slow and gradual change such that, for instance, the Wulfgar and Regis of the current books aren’t the same people they were back in the late 90s. And I think that’s a net positive, even if it means that when you take the series one book at a time it might be repetitive or tiresome.
It’s true that you can still have gradual character development in a long-running series, and enough people feel the way that you do to keep many a long-running series afloat. For many folks, that’s enough, and that’s fine!
This may just be a me problem, but I find open-ended series aggravating rather than satisfying because you know nobody will ever get what they want. If a character resolves their conflicts and overcomes their inner demons — in short, if they become happy — then you run out of stories to tell. So characters in long-running stories seem trapped in a state of perpetual angst and endless struggling, which, despite all the exciting things constantly happening around them, is itself a form of stasis. I usually end up either feeling sorry for their inability to permanently fix anything or annoyed with the author for continually finding more crap to dump on them.
It’s not quite as bad in a series like the Drizzt novels with a stable of regular characters, where the author can take a break from tormenting one character to torment another for a while. But life, for the vast majority of people, is not a never-ending series of life-threatening dramas. Eventually it gets exhausting to read about and I find myself longing for the ending that the character deserves — not necessarily a happy one, but a final one.
The number of recent reviews suggests our esteemed host needs a new calendar. Christmas isn’t for another four months!
That said, I’ve been looking forward to this one:
-In the intro to the final volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle remarked that Holmes and Watson risked constantly being called back onstage for another round of applause and performance. Of course, that’s exactly what happened well before Marvel or DC Comics got into it. I imagine we all know what happened when Doyle actually killed Holmes off, and it’s telling that when Doyle ended the series a second time, he assured the readers that Holmes was alive and well, just retired. It’s also telling that longevity isn’t necessarily bad, either. Stories like “The Bruce-Partington Plans”, “The Dancing Men” and “The Devil’s Foot” are easily as good as anything before Holmes’s pseudo-death. Out of the twelve stories Doyle considered his best, nearly half of them came after Holmes’s return.
I’m not sure that Salvatore was forced to continue with the Drizzt series, though. In the acknowledgements for his most recent Drizzt novels, R.A. Salvatore outright thanks the lawyers who worked everything out with Wizard Of The Coast so he could continue writing the series with a different publisher. It seems like Salvatore, Cunningham and a couple of others actually wanted to keep writing their stories even after WOTC and Hasbro decided they were done with novels. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have gone to all the legal trouble, and probably less royalties so WOTC and Hasbro got a cut.
-I won’t spoil it, but I still recall how shocked I was by a certain death at the end of Dragons Of Winter Night and how I literally sat there and thought “that isn’t supposed to happen!” I was also very annoyed with Marvel Comics writers’ killing off many C- and D-list characters, writing them off as worthless even when I thought more could be done with them. I’ve found myself very reluctant to kill off many characters in a lot of my work, except for Greyhawk novel villains that I know won’t be coming back. When it came to my Marvel stories, I preferred to leave my supervillains in jail instead of killing them, and even when I write them out of the narrative it’s usually because they’re permanently trapped, retired, etc.
A little major character death goes a very long way, in my experience. Characters with plot armor are one thing, but if death becomes too common then it loses all its impact. It’s also a waste of potentially good character arcs if the wrong people are killed.
-Ugh, fantasy poetry. I’ve tried writing poetry, and every time I do it’s utter dreck. I now make it a rule to avoid poetry entirely unless I’m deliberately trying to come up with something bad for comic effect.
-I wonder what our esteemed host would think of Servant Of The Shard and The Spine Of The World. Salvatore really starts to shake up his usual format in these books, notably by dialing back the fight scenes and excluding Drizzt altogether outside of his essays. A couple of the most recent Drizzt books have also moved Drizzt into a secondary role, putting more focus on other ones.
-I never actually noticed the holes in Errtu’s plot, but now thanks to our esteemed host I can’t “unsee” them. His issues with Errtu’s plot are exactly the same ones I have with some of the recent Batman comics I’ve read. They seem to rely on too many moving parts to believably succeed, and if one of them hits a snag the whole thing crashes down. The text tries to justify it by having Errtu talk about how much more chaotic this makes it.
I would ask, though, how else Errtu might have gotten a message to Drizzt. Should he just have had his doppleganger tell Drizzt openly? If I were Drizzt, I would think that was a lie, and that Errtu is lying through his teeth as demons oftne do. The prophecy was necessary to convince Drizzt that Errtu was actually telling the truth about his prisoner, and give Drizzt motivation to unbanish him. It’s one thing to disbelieve a doppelganger, but a magically-gifted prophet who doesn’t lie is something else entirely.
-One of Drizzt’s essays here talks about how demons are more like tools than full-on evildoers in their own right, and that might explain some of Errtu’s actions. He showed a real lack of foresight in trying to attack Drizzt without using any of his powers in The Crystal Shard, and again when he used the antimagic sapphire on Crenshinibon, not to mention spending so much effort on his vendetta against Drizzt.
What I don’t get is how a spineless half-wit like Akar Kessell managed to keep Crenshinibon under control so much better than Errtu does. Salvatore hinted at this a bit in The Crystal Shard, but Crenshinibon actively tries to dominate Errtu more than it does any of the humans or drow that try to wield it.
-The thing that really broke suspension of disbelief for me was how Regis somehow recognized Crenshinbon’s coffer as the one that the glabrezu Matron Baenre summoned in Siege Of Darkness was carrying. It would have been more believable if Regis just made the logical assumption that Errtu used it to carry Crenshinibon around.
-I’m kind of two minds about Cadderly getting Drizzt to undo Errtu’s banishment. It’s not like there isn’t a shortage of demons in the Abyss eager to be called. And if Errtu really is holding an innocent person hostage, isn’t it nearly as bad to leave them to rot in the Abyss without even trying to free them as it is to undo Errtu’s banishment?
-Bruenor leads the party back to Mithril Hall in a later trilogy after Gandalug, who he left as king, dies. Mithril Hall has been suffering from the skulduggery of the rival mining city Mirabar, and Gandalug was too old and frail to effectively oppose them. Going back to Icewind Dale turned to not be Bruenor’s smartest idea. (In fairness, he handles his second abdication much better and hands the throne off to a capable veteran of the then-recent wars with the Many-Arrows orc kingdom.)
-Our esteemed host and I have discussed his criticisms of Salvatore’s comic dwarves, which I compared to Darkwing Ducks. Harkle Harpell is like that here to the point that his bungling is almost an Informed Flaw. He’s probably one of the most useful people in the entire book. His only major screw-up still helps the Sea Sprite escape a pirate ambush, he and Guenwhyvar get rid of all the rats threatening the ship’s food stores, he helps Robillard conjure elementals to keep a storm from wrecking the ship, he keeps the ship from sailing right past Caerwich, and saves it from being essentially marooned at sea.
-I wholly agree with our esteemed host’s comments on how well Salvatore handled the conflict between the barbarians. It’s a subtle parallel with our real world when a culture is suddenly forced to go through drastic changes and its members are left trying to figure out both how to adapt to these changes, how they can retain their identities and even what those identities are supposed to mean now. It’s something that minority cultures are obviously facing…but so too are majority ones.
If I were Catti-brie, I would have added to her other points to Berkthgar that some aspects of the barbarians’ culture changing doesn’t mean that all of it changes. Their worship of Tempus, their battles against the orcs and giants, their hunting rituals and the traditions of the mead hall are still all the same, and they won’t change unless the barbarians decide that themselves. That might make the changes a little easier for Berkthgar to swallow, but it was a genius move on Catti-brie’s part to say his legend could match Wulfgar’s if he made a smart choice.
Out of the twelve stories Doyle considered his best, nearly half of them came after Holmes’s return.
Sure, but I don’t think that Sherlock Holmes is an analogous case. It’s a very episodic series, where you can read them in practically any order without noticing that the chronology has changed. And there’s almost no focus on developing the characters of Holmes and Watson; they remain largely the same between stories and don’t have backstories and long-running arcs the way that Salvatore’s characters do. In short, it’s a series of disconnected stories rather than a saga, so it doesn’t face the same narrative problems.
I’m not sure that Salvatore was forced to continue with the Drizzt series, though.
Oh, of course he wasn’t forced. I get the feeling that he genuinely enjoys writing these characters, and if someone drives a dump truck full of money up to your house and says “Hey, want to write some more novels?”, you’re not going to say no. My point is that a successful franchise is self-perpetuating; it makes everyone involved want to continue, whether it’s good for the narrative or not.
Again, I want to stress that I’m not slagging Salvatore for “selling out” or anything like that. I think that the whole concept of “selling out” and the myth of the noble Bohemian artist are two of the dumbest ideas to ever come out of capitalism. I’m glad he found success and had a rewarding career! But I wouldn’t be doing my job as a critic if I didn’t point out how the books he’s produced are shaped by real-world pressures.
Your comparison of how Dragonlance Chronicles treats character death versus the Drizzt stories is very apt. By the end of the Chronicles trilogy, three of the ten heroes are dead and two of those deaths remain permanent. Both of those deaths were appropriate for the characters involved and would have been vastly cheapened if they had somehow returned. But Dragonlance had it easier for two reasons. First, Dragonlance was never intended to be a hundred-novel franchise — it was just a single trilogy aimed at cross-marketing their D&D supplements, and I doubt that anyone involved in the original trilogy had any idea how ludicrously successful it was going to become. So they didn’t have a canon that they had to stick to, and were free to kill off anyone they wanted without worrying about “the brand.” Second, it fits the theme better. The Realms is high fantasy with tons of magic and gods and individual stories of heroism; Krynn is a gritty, low-magic, low-fantasy world that’s being torn apart by a colossal war. If the party had gotten through that entire war without any of the heroes having to suffer or die, it would have felt fake because the tone of the world is so grim.
It’s one thing to disbelieve a doppelganger, but a magically-gifted prophet who doesn’t lie is something else entirely.
Sure, but they don’t know anything about this witch lady. They’re all “holy shit, there’s a random old woman in this cave!” They don’t know if she’s a magically gifted prophet or another disguised minion of evil or just some schizophrenic hermit. They have no more reason to trust the witch’s message than they would a doppelganger’s message. One evil minion already tried to trick them into going to this place, so “hey, maybe this is a setup” should really have been the foremost thought in their minds and I don’t get why they trusted any of it.
Harkle isn’t useless, it’s true. He’s definitely one of the most useful characters in the book! But my objection to him isn’t about his actions, but about the tone of his scenes and how that tone clashes with the flavour of the rest of the book. Mixing comedy with serious fantasy is very hard, and this slapstick approach is not a way that works for me.
Talking about the Drizzt saga as a whole is also interesting, because the next three books feel very experimental in comparison to this quadrilogy and the trilogy after that. A final confrontation with Artemis, Wulfgar grappling with his imprisonment, sins of the deep past coming up for Drizzt – and then it’s a ‘A Thousand Orcs’ time, and everyone’s – not reset, exactly but still – back in Mithril Hall, ready for the next adventure. And at the same time, Salvatore is writing the Corona/DemonWars series, which is very much concerned with killing major characters and the passage of time and a younger generation taking over. The tension between Drizzt being a license to print money and Salvatore wanting to finish stories is definitely there. Especially because this pattern keeps happening, with Salvatore as content editor for the War of the Spider Queen, where all this stuff happens and Salvatore is on hand to keep Menzoberranzan where he can still use it. (cite: https://www.flamesrising.com/interview-with-author-r-a-salvatore/)
Really been enjoying all these reviews! It’s fascinating to read serious analysis of these books instead of just having them dismissed as genre fiction. I love reading fantasy, but I always struggle on actually breaking it down to the specific mechanics of writing, as opposed to the rules of the setting and what the characters want. I look forward to your next review!
Oh man, I love the interview you linked. This quote makes me want to fly to Massachusetts and give him a 16-years-late high five.
It’s interesting to hear him say that he considers the Drizzt books a series of standalone stories that’s been arbitrarily chopped into trilogies and quadrilogies by the publishers, because that makes a lot of his plotting and pacing make sense retroactively. None of the books in the “Legacy of the Drow” quadrilogy relate to each other much or set up an overarching storyline, and they make more sense as individual books.
I’m glad you’re enjoying this blog! It’s been a real labour of love — for all that I dunk on some of these books pretty hard, I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I hadn’t been captivated by them as a kid. To laud the good stuff and find something interesting to say about the bad stuff feels like… a way to repay these books for all the fun and imagination I drew from them, I guess.
I’m glad you’re enjoying this blog! It’s been a real labour of love — for all that I dunk on some of these books pretty hard, I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I hadn’t been captivated by them as a kid. To laud the good stuff and find something interesting to say about the bad stuff feels like… a way to repay those books for all the fun and imagination I drew from them, I guess.
I’m sure I speak for all the commenters when I say how much I’m enjoying this blog and appreciate your work. I read a number of these novels as a kid myself, and they had a huge impact on my own writing and imagination. The additional writing feedback is also appreciated!
Really been enjoying all these reviews! It’s fascinating to read serious analysis of these books instead of just having them dismissed as genre fiction. I love reading fantasy, but I always struggle on actually breaking it down to the specific mechanics of writing, as opposed to the rules of the setting and what the characters want. I look forward to your next review!
It’s funny that you say this in a Salvatore review. He hates literary snobs who dismiss quote-unquote ‘genre’ fiction, particularly fantasy. I lost the e-mails long ago, but he said as much in his response to some fan mail I sent him probably 20 years ago. I agreed with him then, and what I’ve learned and read since then only reinforces my opinion. When you have the likes of Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov and William Shakespeare all including sci-fi or fantasy elements in their writings, how can sci-fi and fantasy just be dismissed as ‘genre’ work?
Sure, it’s true that some fiction with some fantastical elements sucks. Our esteemed host has proven that. But when you have the likes of Alias examining the need for individuaity, Martine striving to prove herself, Drizzt figuring out how to come to terms with his heritage, the Majere brothers working out the true meaning of brotherhood or Sturm Brightblade striving to live up to the ideal even when the reality is crap, there can be just as much character development and insight in ‘genre’ fiction as there is in any supposedly literary material.
It’s true. I think the literary establishment’s traditional sneering attitude towards genre fiction has lessened a great deal over the last couple of decades, thanks to massive pop-cultural phenomena like the Lord of the Rings movies, the Game of Thrones books and TV series, and Marvel’s superhero movies making genre work something that people feel they can publicly enjoy without seeming like nerds. These days I think critics make more of a distinction between “pulp” and “literary” fantasy than between fantasy and real literature, and hopefully those lines will continue to blur and become less relevant over time.
Are you planning to review WotC books as well?
That’s a good question! I think the answer, at least for now, is “no”. There are so many books in the classic TSR era that I’m unlikely to run out, and I already find myself looking forward to taking a break from the Forgotten Realms to circle back to 1980s Dragonlance. A little variety would be nice.
Certainly plenty to work with in Dragonlance alone, to say nothing of the lines for Spelljammer, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Birthright, Greyhawk, Mystara… plus the odd outlier like Naked Came the Sasquatch and the Gabaria novels.
I have nothing to add except to say that I really enjoy your reviews. I have fond memories of some of these books and because of your work I have repeatedly failed my saving throws against nostalgia.
It has long been an opinion of mine that in order to understand literature (or music, or film) in general you should start not with the unimpeachable classics but with churned out workman-like “trash”. As neophytes, we lack the vocabulary to understand how the Shakespeares of the world construct their plots, but thinking about extruded product like this allows us to build our critical muscles from a young age.
I have yet to convince anyone else of this thesis, but keep up the good work.
Right? I feel the same way. Everything that a culture produces, from the highest literature to the cheesiest advertisements, is worthy of examination because it all gets into our heads and affects our ideas and behaviour. Drawing an arbitrary line between “high” and “low” culture seems to miss the point completely.
The point of the line between “low” and “high” art likely has a lot more to do with flattering cultural elites than anything else.