Siege of Darkness

Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: August 1994

Sorry for the delay between installments there, gentle readers! Times have been trying for everyone lately, so I decided it would be wise to take a break and read some good books instead to help restore my stamina. A critic’s lot is a woeful one. Now, without further ado, let’s talk about Siege of Darkness, the third book in the Legacy of the Drow quartet.

Plot

As the name implies, the drow have finally gotten around to invading Mithril Hall after two and a half books of faffing about. The dwarves and their uneasy alliance of friends and neighbours struggle to survive against the combined forces of the entire city of Menzoberranzan, but eventually drive them back with heavy losses on both sides. With a plot summary like that, you’d expect that it would be a tiresome slog, a grim, never-ending series of battle after bloody battle like so many of Salvatore’s other books. Fortunately for my continued sanity, it ended up being much less sloggish than I had anticipated.

There are two things that make this plot work. First, the villains. There are many of them, often working at cross-purposes to one another, and their internal struggles are given plenty of time to breathe. I’m not going to go back and count, but it feels like the book is about half-and-half hero scenes and villain scenes, showing you both sides of the conflict as it develops. The book opens with the upheavals inflicted upon the drow’s theocratic society during the Time of Troubles, when magic stops working and their goddess’ avatar comes to Menzoberranzan. The resulting fallout — conspiracies, inter-house warfare, and eventually the invasion — seems like the logical consequences of these events on the drow society Salvatore built up in the previous books, rather than merely plot for plot’s sake. Better yet, Siege of Darkness spends plenty of time fleshing out several drow factions, all of which are fallible and vulnerable in some way, and the uneasy entanglements between them. When everything eventually falls apart for them at the end, it doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina or a cheap victory for the heroes, but the inevitable result of the intra-villain conflicts that were set up at the beginning of the book.

Second, the unusually spacious plotline. The drow don’t even show up in Mithril Hall until about two-thirds into the book, and the remainder is padded more with character development than battles. The heroes get lots of quiet time for characterization and subplots before the war starts, which is a rare thing in an R.A. Salvatore novel. Bits like the diplomatic rift between Mithril Hall and Settlestone, or Drizzt and Catti-brie hashing out their awkward relationship, or Catti-brie’s struggle with her creepy mind-controlling magic sword are conflicts that can’t be solved by stabbing things and give us lots of decent character interactions. They don’t feel as necessary to the plot as the villain setup, but it’s a welcome change from the usual non-stop violence that characterizes many of Salvatore’s books, and doesn’t leave the reader feeling exhausted by the halfway mark.

Characters

Now that I’ve finished the Cleric Quintet, I find myself struck by how much more consistent the characterization is in the Drizzt books. Aside from occasional lapses, like Wulfgar and Vierna in The Legacy, the reader can be confident how every character will behave in any given situation. Perhaps it’s because they started out as fairly straightforward pastiches of characters from Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, so it was easier for Salvatore to find the characters’ voices right off the bat. In any event, that sense of trust in a set of familiar characters gives the reader the pleasant impression of slipping on a pair of old, comfortable shoes when they start reading.

Matron Baenre, the big bad drow villain, is more or less the main character of this book. She sets the invasion plot in motion, crushing all internal dissent in Menzoberranzan in the first half of the book and besieging Mithril Hall in the second. She gets more time for character development than any of the heroes; we watch her “calculating chessmaster” personality be swept away by a wave of religious fervor and then devolve into full-blown megalomania. She’s got quite an arc, where she goes from single-handedly ruling Menzoberranzan with the favour of Lolth to being ignominously slain in a random cave. Frankly, she’s more interesting than the heroes. The rest of the Baenre clan are fairly well-done, too, all repugnant in different ways and all scheming against each other, united only by fear of their mother.

Jarlaxle returns to play his usual role of “only sane person in Menzoberranzan.” He’s an audience surrogate for the brutal freakshow that is drow society, standing just enough apart from it that he can see its flaws. I’ve always thought he was one of Salvatore’s best-handled characters, but he’s particularly good in this outing because he’s no longer as smugly omniscient: the series of city-shaking events have left him barely able to stay afloat, let alone maneuver events to his advantage. He doesn’t accomplish anything particularly noteworthy plot-wise, but he’s got an interesting point of view and it’s good to see him struggle for a change.

Meanwhile, the heroes are finally starting to recover from the death of Wulfgar two books ago, having gotten through the worst of the grieving process. It’s a shame that he’ll come back in the next book and ruin all that juicy character development… but I’ll have more to say about that once I get to Passage to Dawn in 1996. There’s some quiet foreshadowing in this book that he’s still alive, and I can already feel my hackles rising about it.

Drizzt is decent here, though he doesn’t get much focus. He’s got a subplot about Guenhwyvar’s statuette being destroyed and repaired which doesn’t particularly go anywhere and feels like a waste of time, but at least it gives him a chance to angst and worry about a problem that he can’t stab. The rest is mostly him helping Catti-brie with her “evil mind-controlling magic sword” issue, which lets them explore their relationship and settle into a comfortable “let’s just be friends” state. Frankly, it’s more mature than I expected. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the author had pushed them into some sort of soppy romance, but it wouldn’t have felt at all realistic so soon after her fiancé’s death.

Speaking of which, Salvatore’s handling of Catti-brie has come a long, long way from the days when she was just the manic pixie dream girl to the male characters, a quirky supporting character who helped the lads deal with their issues but had no real goals or agency herself. Now she’s a badass in her own right who, after helping save Mithril Hall, sets off at the end of the book to find her destiny. I can’t help but think that killing Wulfgar off helped considerably with this transformation, since it freed up more story time to let the more interesting characters shine and vastly reduced the party’s testosterone overload.

There’s a particularly weird bit between Drizzt and Catti-brie where her magic sword tries to mind-control her into sleeping with Drizzt, and he figures out what’s going on and turns her down. Later, she thinks to herself “oh, he was so noble and he’s such a good guy!” Seriously? Look, refusing to sleep with someone who’s not in control of their actions doesn’t make you noble — it’s just table stakes for not being a completely awful trash person. The way the episode is handled feels a bit tone-deaf and icky, even if the author’s intentions were probably good.

The other heroes don’t get much in the way of time or character development, but they don’t need it as much. Bruenor has passed through the “moping” stage of grief into the “murderous drow-chopping rage” stage, and Regis is… well, he’s there too, I guess. There’s a whole passel of allies on the heroes’ side — dwarven battleragers, human barbarians, svirfneblin, wizards, knights, et cetera — but there’s so many of them that most of them don’t get more than a brief characterization. The main exception would be Berkthgar, the tiresome barbarian chieftain who could basically be described as “Wulfgar if he was even more of a dick.”

Themes

Pretty much the same theme as The Crystal Shard: cooperation is strength, but internecine conflict guarantees defeat. The defenders of Mithril Hall are a heterogenous bunch who have come together to help ensure the dwarves’ survival; they may all be of different races and from different places, but they’ve got unity of purpose. The drow, on the other hand, are a bunch of backstabbing psychos who probably can’t even agree what to have for lunch without considering who benefits the most from the decision (and how to kill them afterwards), and this is what ultimately defeats their war effort. Drizzt even harps on the importance of cooperation and friendship in one of his inter-chapter monologues, just so you don’t miss the point… and then the narration keeps pointing it out to you over and over, just to ensure that you didn’t forget.

Thus, it was not greater numbers that won the day in Keeper’s Dale. It was not the courage of Berkthgar or Besnell, or the ferocity of Belwar and his gnomes, or the wisdom of Stumpet Rakingclaw. It was the dawn and the distrust among the enemy ranks, the lack of cohesion and the very real fear that supporting forces would not arrive…

Whatever happened to “show, don’t tell”? Sheesh! Way to take a good idea and beat it to death.

There’s an interesting interlude during the big outdoor battle where Alustriel takes a minute to think about how socialism justifies her involvement in the conflict: none are free unless all are free, and the bourgeoisie are the enemy of generosity.

What was happening in her own city, the lady wondered now… Silverymoon had earned a reputation as the most generous of places, as a defender of the oppressed, champion of goodness. The knights had gone off to war eagerly, but they weren’t the problem, and had never been. The problem, the wounded Alustriel came to realize, was the comfortably established bureaucratic class, the political leaders who had become too secure in the quality of their own lives.

It feels rather out of place in this story, given that Silverymoon’s internal politics have little direct relevance to the drow-versus-dwarves conflict, and a bit weird when you consider that her war is propping up a hereditary monarchy, but it’s fun to see actual politics enter a Forgotten Realms novel in an indirect way. (The only other example I can think of is Crusade, whose “interventionism” theme paralleled developments in American politics around the time of its publication.)

Writing

It’s surprisingly light on action for a Salvatore novel. The first two thirds are all setup for the invasion, with lots of character moments and foreshadowing but little combat. Once the fighting starts, it’s your standard Salvatore mook horror show where cannon fodder creatures die by the hundreds, but it keeps cutting away to the characters having quiet moments together or the fractious villains intriguing amongst themselves just long enough to give you a break. All things considered, it’s probably the best pacing he’s done since the Dark Elf trilogy.

It’s hamstrung, though, by some cringeworthy attempts at comedy. The early scene with the dwarven battleragers running into the wall is just more bad physical comedy again, like Ivan and Pikel from the Cleric Quintet. Ditto for the “holy water tasting” scene with the slapstick dwarven clerics. What is the deal with Salvatore and his comedy dwarves? It’s a change from the usual “dour dwarf” archetype, sure, but it’s not a change for the better — it just makes them look like a race of incompetent dopes, which is exactly the wrong thing to do when you’re trying to show them fighting for their survival. The Harpells, too, feel woefully out of place in this tale of gruesome, no-quarter-given war: a clan of silly wizards whose antics seem to have been designed to appeal to the comic sensibilities of ten-year-olds. They don’t set the right tone for the story the author was trying to tell — you can’t put “wacky” next to “life-threatening drama” without those two elements being at war with each other, like a strawberry ice cream and roasted chicken sundae. (The only one I’ll give a pass to is Bidderdoo, whose characterization goes from “funny incompetent” to “berserk throat-ripper” over the course of the war.)

I think few authors appreciate just how brutally hard writing good comedy is. Cheap laughs, like watching a person hurt themselves and then go “durr, that hurt,” are very rarely all that funny, and when they are they’re only funny once. The best comedy (and the best drama, not coincidentally, depending on how it’s played) comes when you have well-realized characters in situations that are antithetical to them, or two well-realized characters who strike sparks off each other in ways that support their characterization. Unlike “man runs into wall”, this sort of character-focused comedy increases your investment in the story instead of distracting from it. The only authors thus far who have actually managed to get a chuckle out of me with a reasonable facsimile of witty repartee are Novak/Grubb and Elaine Cunningham [1], and I don’t expect to see Salvatore ever join their ranks.

Drow names have been getting increasingly ridiculous over the course of these novels. “Zeerith Q’Xolarrin”? Seriously? Buddy, you can’t just mash your face around on the keyboard and call it a name. But then, it doesn’t help that apostrophes in fantasy names are a personal pet peeve of mine. They have no real meaning — they’re pretty much never used as actual glottal stops or clicks. Rather, they’re just ways to separate words that look fancier and more alien than plain old spaces. Fantasy authors are far too fond of slathering this sort of superficial set-dressing onto ordinary things to give a vague impression of exoticness. (I ranted about this before in my review of Darkwalker on Moonshae.)

And of course the dialogue is overwrought and excessively dramatic, but that’s a given for an R.A. Salvatore book. Seems like there’s little point in continuing to complain about that after all this time; people who don’t mind it will enjoy themselves, and people who do mind will be annoyed.

Conclusion

Grade: B–

It’s actually pretty okay, which came as somewhat of a surprise after finishing the Cleric Quintet. The pacing is good, there’s plenty of focus on the characters and their individual journeys, and the villains are as interesting as the heroes. There are plenty of minor annoyances, but nothing that got on my nerves enough to completely derail my enjoyment of the story. Salvatore’s going to take a long break after this point, contributing nothing more than a few short stories to the Realms for the next two years, so this was a good high note on which to go out.

Footnotes

[1] I will admit to a snicker at the kitten-naming scene in Spellfire, however. If Greenwood‘s characters had done more of that sort of thing and less bantering, I might have added him to the list.

4 Replies to “Siege of Darkness

  1. You can tell Salvatore knew he’d done a good job with this one, because I am reading one of his books from like 2017 where he is still referencing the events of this book, which occur like 130 years earlier.

    I hate Salvatore’s comedy. His dwarves just get immensely tiresome and the fact that they have this really juvenile humour about them when Salvatore is also doing rated R sex and violence in other parts of his books is just such tonal whiplash.

    But yeah, I’d say this is a high point for a while. Glad you’re back.

    1. PS. I would bet that much of the well fleshed out nature of the Menzoberranzan factions is as a result of the release of the boxed set for that city that Salvatore worked on with Ed Greenwood and others for TSR that was released in December of 92

    2. It’s good to be back! I’ve already started reading The Ogre’s Pact, and… well, I can tell I’ll have some things to say about it. Seems like there are reasons why nobody ever talks about that series.

      Good point re: the boxed set! I’d forgotten all about it.

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