Starless Night

Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: October 1993

R.A. Salvatore is an unstoppable novel-producing machine. Starless Night is his dozenth Forgotten Realms novel in five years, and he would eventually go on to write over thirty more. This is the second book in the Legacy of the Drow quartet, and like most second books in a series, it tries as hard as it can to entertain while doing as little as possible to advance the series’ overall plot.

But first — hold everything. We have to talk about this cover. Feast your eyes on the sideburned, jowly senior citizen who is presumably supposed to represent Drizzt. He looks like a Topeka insurance adjuster cosplaying at a con with his granddaughter, who’s embarrassed to be seen with him. Minus the long wig, he looks like…
…the manager of a Buick dealership in the 1980s, about to sell you a perfectly adequate station wagon.
…the kind of man who, for entertainment, would avidly watch the proceedings of the Senate Subcommittee for Social Security, Pensions and Family Policy on C-SPAN.
…a substitute math teacher, called out of retirement to raise his eyebrow in disappointment at the feckless, irresponsible children of a new generation. He’s about to assign you extra homework.

This is the face of a man who voted for Nixon… three times.

What’s the deal here? How did Drizzt’s artistic representation go from a graceful, dark-skinned elf to a wattle-chinned, lily-white baby boomer over the course of a few years? One can only assume that it’s the logical conclusion of good intentions being taken much, much too far. The first illustration of Drizzt on the cover of The Crystal Shard was actually dark-skinned, albeit more bronze than black. The second, on Streams of Silver, was sort of a dark grey colour. By Homeland, though, the whitewashing was clearly well underway. As one of the intrepid commenters on this blog quite astutely pointed out, odds are good that TSR got cold feet about depicting the stereotypically evil race of elves as black-skinned, given the obvious real-world parallels. And fair enough! If the vast majority of people of colour in your fantasy world are irredeemable sociopaths, that’s rife with unfortunate implications.

Making him white, however, is a bizarre way to respond to this conundrum. Not only does it introduce a glaring inconsistency between the image and the character described in the text, but it also paradoxically makes the real-world racial comparisons that they were trying to downplay even more obvious! You can’t help but notice how strange it is, and then you start thinking about why they did that…

After this novel they started experimenting with representing Drizzt and the other drow as dark grey instead, an approach which D&D would mostly continue to use ever since. I think it’s a good compromise; the grey skin looks sufficiently non-human that it doesn’t trigger associations with real-world peoples of colour, while still fitting closer to descriptors like “ebon-skinned” that we’ve seen in the novels and game material. It’s a thorny problem, though, and I expect there have been many people at TSR/Wizards/Hasbro over the years who have wished for a time machine to go back to 1977 and ask Gary Gygax to not make the evil elves black.

“That’s an explanation for the skin colour,” you may be thinking, “but why does he look like he’s only a few years from a retirement home?” That, my friends, is a mystery for the ages.

Plot

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what the plot was supposed to be for most of the book. After his sister’s abortive attack on Mithril Hall in The Legacy, Drizzt is distressed at the thought that the drow will keep coming after him and imperilling his friends in Mithril Hall as long as he stays there. So he decides to meet the problem head-on and go to Menzoberranzan to… do something, I guess? What exactly is he hoping to accomplish? Does he think there’s someone there he can rationally talk to and convince to call off the invasion? Does he think there’s someone in particular he can kill to prevent them from chasing him? Is he going to deliberately sacrifice his life to save his friends? Is he going to kill everyone in the city? He doesn’t say. He just decides that the best solution to his “demon goddess wants to eat my soul” problem is to walk right into the demon goddess’ home turf.

Anyhow, he gets captured after walking straight into a city of 20,000 fanatics who want him dead, and he seems vaguely disappointed by this turn of events despite it being the most unsurprising outcome ever. I can’t help but compare this with the idiot plot from Black Wizards, where Tristan develops some sort of plot-related stupidity disorder and walks straight into his enemy’s fortress in order to ask him “Hey, could you please stop being evil?” The only thing that redeems Starless Night‘s plot in comparison is that Drizzt eventually does admit to himself that, yes, he was expecting on some subconscious level to get captured and sacrificed to save his friends. But it doesn’t entirely make up for the first two-thirds of the book where the reader is constantly thinking “Dude! Wait! What are you doing? Stop being so dense!”

So he gets captured, and there’s a daring rescue… but since this is an R.A. Salvatore novel, the rescue devolves into one giant fight scene which occupies the entire last quarter of the book. (Though, to be fair, a giant fight scene which takes up only 25% of the book is fairly tame by Salvatore’s usual standards.) Dark elves die by the hundreds, things explode, and the heroes implausibly survive walking out of an entire city of pissed-off enemies who know the surrounding terrain better than they do instead of being hunted to their deaths like foxes. The “Drizzt gets captured, then rescued” story doesn’t advance the main “Menzoberranzan versus Mithril Hall” plot very much, and by the end everything is more or less back to the status quo.

As usual for an R.A. Salvatore novel, drama is far more important than internal consistency throughout. For example, at one point a cow gets hit by a quarrel coated with soporific poison and is unconscious before it hits the ground, but a human woman takes a direct hit from another one and stays up until the end of the fight. Why? Because she’s a protagonist, of course. These sorts of things are a dangerous trade-off: always maximizing drama at the expense of everything else keeps the book exciting, but that only works until people start noticing the cheats and contradictions you’re pulling it off with. At that point, the artifice is laid bare to the reader and they lose faith in the veracity of your storytelling.

That said, there are some things to like about the plot. I enjoyed how all the protagonists are still reeling from the emotional aftermath of Wulfgar’s death in the previous book. His death wasn’t just something that was thrown out there to shock the reader and raise the stakes at the climax of The Legacy, but something that motivates the remaining characters on an ongoing basis and affects each of them in different ways. It’s nice to see an author spending some time on what happens after the dramatic heroic sacrifice, because grief isn’t an emotion that we see explored in these books very often.

Characters

Drizzt is a rather mixed bag in this outing. I’ve already mentioned how unclear his motivations are for most of the book, which really got on my nerves. Furthermore, he’s a character who works best when there are other characters around for him to contrast against and interact with, but he spends most of his storyline either travelling alone or being a prisoner. Whenever he’s on his own, his storyline tends to devolve into a non-stop series of melodramatic soliloquies interspersed with random battles. Part of why Sojourn‘s plot was so rubbish is how little time he spends around characters that we care about; Starless Night also suffers in that regard, but not quite as badly. But I was glad to see that he gets some nice moments of frailty which make him seem less infallibly Mary Sue-ish. The author goes out of his way, for instance, to stress how disoriented Drizzt is and how rusty his skills are when he returns to the Underdark after decades spent on the surface, and we see him get his ass handed to him a couple of times in situations where merely being good with a sword isn’t good enough.

I appreciated seeing Catti-brie in an active, badass role here instead of being a supporting character in everyone else’s stories. She goes alone into the Underdark to rescue Drizzt, holding her own in combat plausibly well without seeming superhuman. She takes no shit from anyone — not Drizzt, not Lady Alustriel, not her grieving father, and not Artemis Entreri — even when she knows she’s hopelessly outmatched. And best of all, she doesn’t feel like the usual sort of faux girl-power “strong female protagonist” which fantasy authors are so inordinately fond of. Her stubborn, defensive attitude leads to her being appallingly rude in her scenes with Alustriel, which is a nice demonstration that Salvatore isn’t afraid of letting her flaws drive her to make mistakes. And I liked how her attitude towards killing gradually hardens over the course of the novel; by the end, she’s killing drow as remorselessly as Entreri.

Artemis Entreri returns yet again, his survival from a fatal plummet in the last novel having been clumsily handwaved. Apparently some drow spun a web underneath where he fell to catch him, but that would only make sense if they knew he was going to fall there ahead of time. Sheesh! You can’t just make these things up and casually toss them out there; you have to either set them up in a plausible way beforehand or spend a lot more time on justification afterwards. And I’m left wondering why Salvatore felt he was worth saving, frankly, since he just doesn’t have enough personality at this point. He’s almost entirely defined by his desire to kill Drizzt, so when he and Drizzt aren’t interacting he’s a very flat character. I recall that he gets more backstory and personality later (there are some hints to that effect at the end of this book), but right now his only other interest seems to be self-preservation, which is a boring and universal interest. Besides, who cares about his rivalry with Drizzt — or rather, his inability to accept that Drizzt keeps beating him? That plot thread has been milked to death already; it was stale in the last book and is positively rank now. I’d love to see him move on and finally get a damn hobby instead.

The drow mercenary Jarlaxle, on the other hand, is a much better character. He’s wilful, cunning, practical, and drives the plot forward in the process of furthering his own ends. It’s a good rule of thumb for writers that a bad character goes where he’s told, but a good character goes where he wants — or needs — to be, and Entreri and Jarlaxle really exemplify that dichotomy here. Sadly, after spending the first half of the book setting the plot in motion, he completely vanishes for the rest of it. He’s one of the only consistently great characters in this series, always enlivening every scene he’s in and leaving you guessing about what he’s up to, and I’m looking forward to getting to the later books where he has more of a role.

Bruenor is an occasional side character here, sidelined from the main plot by the weight of his grief over Wulfgar’s death. It’s good to see a vulnerable side to him, where he’s not always the biggest badass in the room, but he’s so beaten down here that he can’t affect the plot or involve himself much with the other characters. He ends up being more of a device for illustrating the book’s theme than an actual character. Probably for the best, though — this book was already juggling enough plot threads without following the Mithril Hall gang any more closely.

Regis doesn’t get much screen time here, but some of it is spent as the interim war commander of Mithril Hall in Bruenor’s absence, which is just plain goofy. He’s a shiftless, lazy glutton whose days are an endless succession of meals and naps. He knows nothing about military tactics or tunnel warfare. There’s nothing in his backstory which would make the reader believe that he could do the job, and there must be dozens of dwarves there who could do it far better than he. It’s nice that he’s getting some character development, but I’d prefer if it were a development that made any sense.

Fret, the camp gay dwarf from Sojourn, returns, but in a brief minor role without the gay coding. A pity; I liked him better when he was subversively fabulous.

Themes

The main theme of this book is grief. All the main characters are broken in one way or another by Wulfgar’s recent death, and each of them deals with it in a different manner. Drizzt tries to commit suicide by cop, Bruenor loses all hope, and Regis keeps his feelings to himself and stays quiet. That leaves Catti-brie as the only one of the party who actually manages to get her shit together and get over her grief in a healthy fashion, finding something else to live for and staying active. By the end of the novel, she teaches everyone else a lesson and they begin to move on with their lives.

I quite enjoyed this theme, actually. Few of the other novels have touched on personal loss in a way that actually felt real; grief is usually just a convenient way to motivate characters to go get revenge and do plot-related things, rather than an actual emotion that the characters explore. (Crypt of the Shadowking, I’m looking at you…) Starless Night‘s handling of the theme is clumsy and without subtlety, rubbing it in the reader’s face while shouting “Here’s the message!” and then tying it up with a moral at the end like a Saturday morning cartoon. But it’s an honest attempt to do better than just “They killed my loved one! Now I am (angry/sad)!” that touches on the different ways people can deal with grief, so I genuinely appreciate the effort.

Writing

I don’t know if it’s just because I read a comparatively well-done James Lowder novel just before this, but the prose here feels surprisingly bad. There’s the overwrought narrative style which verges on parody:

Was the dwarf as resilient in spirit as in body? Drizzt knew not the answer.

Look, even Tolkien didn’t try to do that “knew not” crap in the narration — he was canny enough to save it for the dialogue. And speaking of dialogue, it’s often very silly:

“If you have left a hole in my carpet, I will fill it with your heart,” Triel promised […] In knowing Triel Baenre, [Jarlaxle] honestly wondered how many other hearts were entwined in the carpet’s fibers.

Has anyone told them that that’s not how carpets work? That generally, when you rub a wet, squishy organ around on a fine textile, it gets ruined rather than repaired? That may be the least effective threat I’ve ever read. And then there’s the gruesomely bad exposition:

“Hey!” the plump halfling, recovered from his trials at the hands of the assassin Artemis Entreri, cried out.

In this scene, someone’s just trying to get him out of bed. Nobody’s yet mentioned Artemis Entreri or Regis’ trials or anything — they’re just trying to wake him up. That aside isn’t remotely related to what’s going on in the scene. The first few chapters of the book are sodden with this sort of maladroit exposition, inserting random asides about what happened in the last book completely out of nowhere without tying them into what’s happening. For all that it mattered to the scene, it might as well have been this:

“Hey!” the plump halfling, who had a mild allergy to shellfish and had once heard a song about ducks, cried out.

But wait, there’s more! Salvatore seems to have come down with Ciencin’s Disease, where everything is described to within an inch of its life:

Catti-brie awoke the next morning on a pillowy soft bed in a plush chamber filled with fine lace draperies that let the filtered sunrise gently greet her sleepy gaze.

If he’d only thought to slap adjectives on “Catti-brie” and “morning”, he would have tagged every single noun in that sentence with some sort of modifier. What a lost opportunity!

All things considered, this feels like the worst writing, in a purely technical sense, that Salvatore has done since Streams of Silver. I can only hope that this is a temporary blip and not his new style for the rest of this series.

Conclusion

Grade: C

I recall that, as a teenager reading the Forgotten Realms novels, this was the point in the series where I really lost faith in Salvatore as a storyteller. Entreri’s preposterous survival and the constant milking of his rivalry with Drizzt was the biggest reason — I was sick of seeing the same characters acting out the same plots over and over, and felt that not letting this character die after he’d served his narrative purpose was an obvious lack of courage on the author’s part. Re-reading it as an adult, I’m somewhat more charitable. There are definitely some things to like in here: some characters who are moderately well-done, some intriguing setups for later books, and the unexpected “overcoming grief” theme instead of yet more broken morals about racism. But the quality of the writing, in particular, grates on me more now than it did back then, and that really hamstrings its overall grade.

4 Replies to “Starless Night

  1. My theory on the cover was always that they told the artist some key facts about the character, including that he was a hundred years old, and the artist did no further research on the matter.

    1. Plausible! This was a new artist who hadn’t done any other FR covers before (Robh Ruppel), so it’s entirely possible that it was just a miscommunication. I’m happy to give the artist the benefit of the doubt on the “middle-aged man” bit, but the whitewashed Drizzt appeared in covers by other artists as well, so that had to be editorially mandated.

  2. You know how the Batman Arkham games had a million alternate DLC skins you could put on Batman, like 60s Batman and classic comics Batman and animated Batman and first appearance Batman etc etc?

    I want the new Drizzt game coming out soon to let you download “old white guy” Drizzt as a skin.

    1. That would be brilliant. Hope you don’t mind me linking to your earlier comment in this story; you hit the nail right on the head with it.

      Oh dear. Just watched the announcement trailer for the game. It’s… uhh. Well. That was a thing.

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