Author: Elaine Cunningham
Published: April 1996
This year we’re fortunate to have not one but two new novels from Elaine Cunningham. Despite the occasional misstep, she’s got a good track record for delivering entertaining novels with vivid characters. Unfortunately, one of the missteps was Daughter of the Drow, the first novel in the Starlight & Shadows trilogy, and this is its sequel. Can she improve on that shaky start, with its irritating protagonist and slow-moving plot, and create something more engaging? Let’s dive in and find out.
If you’re an author writing the second novel in a mass-market trilogy, you face a difficult dilemma. You’ve undertaken to tell a single story over the course of three books, but you have to divide them into three separate chunks, and each of those chunks has to be worth reading on its own. Sometimes your story’s beats aren’t amenable to that sort of division, or sometimes you find you only have enough plot for two books but are contractually obligated to stretch it to three somehow. What can you do?
There are several strategies that an author on the horns of this dilemma might employ. The easiest is to punt on telling an overarching story altogether and turn your trilogy into three disconnected stories that share the same characters. I can admire that sort of “if you’re in a room with a problem, don’t talk to it” approach — as long as each individual story is fun to read, you end up with three tasty tapas plates instead of one giant dish, and a reader is free to pick up the series at any point. We’ve seen Forgotten Realms authors take this tack before. Consider the Finder’s Stone trilogy, whose books were self-contained stories that didn’t require reading the others, or the Shadow of the Avatar trilogy, which had no single overarching plot.
Another would be to give up on making three individually entertaining books with a beginning, rising tension, climax, and conclusion, and instead end the second book on a cliffhanger that leads directly into the third book. In this case, you only have to write one giant book and arbitrarily chop it into two or more pieces for publication. This neatly sidesteps the difficulties of dividing your plot into discrete chunks, but risks alienating your readers with an unsatisfying and anticlimactic second book if it’s not done well and makes the second book indigestible for a new reader who might pick it up. One example would be Tolkien’s The Two Towers, which ends on one of the most famous cliffhangers in all of fantasy. Nearer to home there’s the Realms’ own Viperhand, which strands its protagonists amidst a civilization-destroying apocalypse at the conclusion.
Some authors are willing to face the fact that the material they’re working with just can’t be made into a satisfying trilogy. If you only have two books worth of plot and you’re wary of stretching it too thin, like a little pat of butter scraped over a big piece of toast, perhaps it’s best to set down that plot in two good books and then find some other side story to tell with the third book. This strategy gives you better odds of realizing at least two high-quality books with a consistent vision, but makes it likely that the third book will feel like a pointless appendage to an already completed story. A classic example would be Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, which tells an epic story of intrigue, murder, and betrayal in two books, then gives us a final book where a character we don’t much care about wanders around a brand new setting.  An example from the Realms might be the Cleric Quintet, where the overarching plot is resolved by the end of the fourth book and then the fifth book has to build a second climax out of plot remnants left over from its predecessors. (A sort of narrative scrapple, if you will.)
But most trilogy authors seem to live by the adage “when in doubt, pad it out.” They set up the first half of the series’ plot in the first book, take a detour to do something completely unrelated with the second book, then complete the story in the third. When done well, it’s a good compromise: you get three individually interesting books, and readers will remain anxious to pick up the third book to find out how it ends. When done badly, though, you end up with a second book that feels pointless and tanks the momentum of the series’ plot. Worse yet, the more you procrastinate by pushing off plot resolution to the final book, the more difficult it becomes to weave your many plot threads into a successful conclusion. One noteworthy example would be The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, which is an excellent second book that does little to advance its trilogy’s overall plot and left its creator mired in writer’s block for a decade and counting. An even more egregious object lesson in how not to plot books would be Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which has several entire padding novels that seem to exist for the sole purpose of murdering as many trees as possible, and the author didn’t even live long enough to write the ending. But a more familiar example to readers of this blog might be Starless Night, a Drizzt novel partway through the Legacy of the Drow series where nothing that happens advances the ongoing “war between the drow and Mithril Hall” plot.
When I first picked up Tangled Webs, I was quite curious about which approach Cunningham would choose. At its core, the plot of the Starlight & Shadows trilogy is very simple: by the end of the first book, we’ve established that all of Fyodor’s and Liriel’s personal problems will be solved by taking a magical artifact to a particular old tree and carving a rune into it. So how does one stretch the process of defacing a tree into two more books? You could put the tree very far away, in which case it becomes “pad the second book.” You could make the tree very hard to deface, in which case you’re padding it in a less awkward way by manufacturing new plot complications. Or you could just let them deface the tree in the second book and trust that you’ll eventually think up some new plot for the third book, which is what Cunningham has done here.
It works well for Tangled Webs, which is a solid self-contained novel with a satisfying conclusion. That’s not something I often say about the second book in a series! But it seems to have been tough on the trilogy as a whole because Cunningham didn’t return to this particular series for seven years. She wrote several other books for TSR and Wizards of the Coast between 1996 and 2003, but it took a very long time for her to pick up the adventures of Liriel and Fyodor again. I’d venture a guess that it was because she felt she’d written herself into a corner here. All of the heroes’ major issues — Fyodor’s uncontrollable berserking, Liriel’s magic and goddess problems, their uncertain relationship status — are resolved at the end of Tangled Webs, and then they say “Well, I guess we should go all the way back to Rashemen and tell everyone that we succeeded.” It sounds less like the plot summary to the third book in a series and more like a book-length denouement. This could have been a perfectly satisfying two-book series, but TSR was big on trilogies and Cunningham presumably had a contract for three books.
For all that the plot ties up satisfactorily at the end, it takes a hell of a long time to get moving at the beginning. For the first quarter of the book, neither the characters nor the reader have any idea what the plot is. Liriel and Fyodor have random adventures with the world’s most cheerful, least bloodthirsty pirates; meanwhile, there are cutaways to completely unrelated things that some unfamiliar villains are doing. I kept putting this book down and reading other books during this period because it wasn’t giving me any reasons to care. The plot doesn’t catch up with the protagonists until the pirates finally stumble across some sea elf gherkins and get embroiled in an evil conspiracy to enslave the island of Ruathym, and from there it steadily gathers speed. I liked how the Chekhov’s guns introduced early on (like the tainted mead, or Rethnor’s rings) were consistently paid off later off in the book, and the constant cutaways to the villains did a good job of raising the stakes once we’re finally told who the villains are and what the stakes are.
I can’t shake a persistent sense of irritation, however, about how most of this plot is something that happens to the protagonists rather than something that involves them. The political machinations of Luskan and the Kraken Society have nothing to do with the heroes or their goals; it’s just a situation they stumble onto which puts obstacles between them and the tree-carving. The only connection between this plot and the protagonists’ journey is the presence of Liriel’s old rival Shakti Hunzrin, who’s shoehorned back into the story via an extremely improbable coincidence. (Out of all the creatures in the infinite multiverse, Shakti sends after Liriel a random monster from the Elemental Plane of Water who just so happens to be good friends with the leader of the Kraken Society in Faerûn.) But once you accept the randomness of the plot and slog through the slow beginning, it turns out to be a good tale which gives its heroes a rewarding send-off.
My other main complaint, however, is one that will be familiar to my readers because I keep having to harp on it so often for so many novels. Many scenes here are resolved by having Liriel whip out any power she might find useful at the drop of a hat. Between her arcane magic, clerical magic, and enchanted items, she’s always got some magical trick up her sleeve that hasn’t been mentioned before but is perfectly suited to solving any particular problem. Need to sink a ship? Casually enchant some throwing blades to become anti-ship mines. Need to save the Elfmaid from a sudden tsunami? Enclose the entire ship in a magic bubble. Attacked by a huge water elemental? Just summon thousands of sea creatures to help fight it off. It’s never been established that she’s capable of doing any of these things, so the reader just boggles and thinks “Wait, she’s doing what now?”.
I discussed the topic fairly extensively in my review of Elminster: The Making of a Mage, so I don’t want to belabour it further now. I’ll just point out that if we don’t know the limits of what she can and can’t do with her magic, then how are we supposed to know when a task is difficult or a situation is suspenseful? And the longer the story goes on, the worse it gets. The climactic battle for Ascarle plays out like this, slightly paraphrased:
And then Liriel waved her hand and everyone’s ass got kicked. As her foes writhed under the repeated applications of divine boots to their posteriors, they all thought “Oh man, this sucks! I guess Liriel is way more awesome than I am!”
And just like that, two villains we’ve spent the entire novel building up are booted from the story in the space of a single page. It’s a disappointing waste of good setup that left me feeling cheated — we’ve been building up Vestress as a huge badass for the entire novel, and Liriel effortlessly crushes her before she gets to do anything.
The central question for this review is “Is Liriel a more enjoyable character than she was in Daughter of the Drow?” The previous book suffered heavily in my estimation because everything in the setting revolved around Liriel in some way, and she came off more as a spoiled and petulant teenager than as a sympathetic character. I was braced for more of the same but was very pleased when it didn’t appear. Here, rather than being the centre of the universe, Liriel is merely a minor actor stumbling into a big conspiracy. She finds herself playing a major role by the end, but it never starts to feel like she’s the only person in the story who matters. There’s much less of the “spoiled teenager” impression this time around, too; she displays a surprising degree of emotional maturity and evinces genuine concern for other people.
Don’t get me wrong, it could still use work. Liriel is still much too perfect. She nails almost every feat she attempts — shark-hunting, high-seas piracy, rune-carving, casting unfamiliar and massively difficult spells — on the first try. (Her only actual failure that I can think of is her first encounter with the banshee.) And as I mentioned above, her magical powers being a “solve everything” button gets very, very old. But it’s counterbalanced by her emotional vulnerability, where she’s often at odds with Fyodor over moral and ethical issues and often ends up admitting that she was wrong. She’s frequently at a loss when dealing with humans and has to accept that there are situations where Fyodor should take the lead. And she has a difficult time handling her first real romantic relationship, which nothing in her loveless upbringing has prepared her for. In short, she’s still perfect in the action scenes but displays more humanity in the quiet scenes, which is a big improvement over the previous book. I’ll take it.
The novel serves as a journey of self-discovery for Liriel. Now that she’s adrift in an unfamiliar culture and surrounded by strangers, she has a chance to examine her values and redefine who she is. It’s no surprise that she turns out to be a good person, but it’s nice to see an author actually show some of the emotional work it takes to get there. One major aspect of the “deciding to be good” conflict falls rather flat, though. Liriel is still tempted by Lloth and is willing to sacrifice her soul to the spider goddess to gain the power to help her friends. On paper, it sounds like a good way to force some interesting moral decisions, but in practice it works out great for Liriel because Lloth just gives her the power to do whatever she wants without requiring anything of her in return. Only once does Lloth force Liriel to do something evil, at the very end, and it’s a matter of Lloth using Liriel as a sock puppet rather than Liriel facing an actual moral quandary and being tempted to do an evil thing for good reasons. Liriel doesn’t even act all that concerned about the possibility of losing her soul, so it’s Fyodor who does most of the worrying. A waste of a good opportunity, really.
Happily, this novel manages to avoid the trap that many of the Drizzt stories fall into: whenever the good-hearted drow hero meets a bunch of surface-dwellers, all the good people instinctively like him and all the bad people immediately hate him. There’s a little of that here (e.g., Xzorsh), but for the most part Liriel’s acceptance in surface society is hard-won. She has to earn people’s respect through her actions, and often requires Hrolf or Fyodor to vouch for her before the good people will even give her the chance to prove herself. It’s a refreshing repudiation of black-and-white morality since, as I’ve pointed out before, the drow’s evil reputation is richly deserved and it’s only sensible for even the most open-minded surface-dweller to mistrust them.
Fyodor was my favourite character from the previous book, so I was pleased to see that he’s still well-handled here. He’s got a great central conflict: he has the power to resolve dangerous situations at great personal cost, both physical and emotional, and with great danger to everyone around him, so it’s much more interesting than just watching a superhero beat up some bad guys. Every time he succumbs to his battle rage, neither he nor the reader have any idea what the outcome will be. He’s pretty far out of focus for much of the novel, though. Most of this novel is told from Liriel’s point of view, and Fyodor spends a fair amount of it off-screen doing human stuff with other humans while Liriel pursues her own goals separately.
The relationship between them, where they start off as close but awkward friends and then navigate the difficult terrain from there to full-blown romance, is done quite well. It’s not an easy journey for either of them, and there are plenty of obstacles that make the eventual resolution feel earned. Their disagreements are real issues that are fundamental to their characters — “Evil goddesses should not be treated like spell-dispensing gumball machines,” for instance, or “I’m not your boss, I’m your romantic partner” — rather than the contrived misunderstandings and love triangles that characterize most terrible romance writing. By the end they’ve gotten a lot of character development out of dealing with their emotional baggage. I wish more of these novels would bother depicting relationships where love is something you have to work at and build, not something that just automatically happens when two people are near each other for long enough, because it feels a damn sight more real that way.
The supporting cast is fairly good as well. The raider captain Hrolf starts off as a sort of caricature of a drunken pirate, but gets enough time and character development to wriggle free of the stereotype and steal some scenes. Xzorsh, his honest and forthright sea elf ally, fares less well; he’s necessary to the plot, and he makes a thematic counterpoint to all of the backstabbing schemers in the story, but I can’t think of much to say about his characterization except “I guess he’s a nice guy.” (In that respect he reminds me of Wyn from Cunningham’s Elfsong, who was similarly tepid.) We also get brief appearances from established Realms characters like Khelben Arunsun, Danilo Thann, and Caladorn Cassalanter. None of them are necessary plot-wise, but they serve to tie the story into the larger world and remind us that there’s more to the Realms than the ships’ decks and small islands where Tangled Webs is set.
There are several villains in this novel. Most of the time, when a novel crams in too many villains, it’s an unmitigated disaster. (Black Wizards springs to mind as a notable example.) There’s only so many words and so much characterization to go around, and bad authors usually want to focus on the heroes as much as possible, so the villains end up underbaked or pull the story in contradictory directions. But here Cunningham spends a long time with each of the villains, giving each of them point-of-view scenes, interesting interactions with other characters, and distinct motivations and personalities. Because they’re all loosely allied and they all interact with each other to some degree, it doesn’t feel as if time spent with one of them is taking time away from the rest. Best of all, despite being generally awful, nearly all of the villains are sympathetic in some small way. One of the apparent villains even turns out to be reasonable and honourable by the end, which sells the idea that people aren’t arbitrarily divided into heroes and bad guys. The only one of the lot who seems completely unnecessary is Shakti, Liriel’s old rival from Menzoberranzan, who spends most of the story doing nothing and then disappears.
The most prominent theme here is feminism, given that you can’t swing a dead cat in here without bopping a woman who’s rejected her culture’s gender-related values in some way. Liriel has many fish-out-of-water moments trying to comprehend Ruathym’s strictly patriarchal society from the perspective of her matriarchal upbringing. Dagmar is driven to cooperate with the conspirators because her culture’s restrictive gender roles offer her no opportunity for social advancement, so there’s no healthy outlet for her ambition. (The scene where an unwilling Dagmar is packed off to her new husband’s house as part of an arranged marriage is particularly poignant and well-done.) But most of all there’s Vestress, a mind flayer who’s developed an independent streak and a sense of gender that runs contrary to the normally communal-minded and genderless illithid society. In a sense, she’s the first trans character in the entire Forgotten Realms oeuvre. She’s even referred to with female pronouns, despite having no physical attributes for any sort of gender. From the perspective of the 2020s, it seems like a quietly revolutionary thing to have written in 1996.
This novel does a skillful job of bringing up feminist issues in a fantasy world. Many bad authors of both genders will make clumsy points about feminism with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. You know what I’m talking about, right? The badass action girl who can fight as well as any man, and the author never lets you forget it. The boorish man who says “You can’t do X because you’re a girl!”, so a girl says “Oh yes I can!” and shows him up. Gender-related conflicts reduced to virtuous women versus a blatantly evil patriarchal system. Whenever I see these tropes, I usually groan; they’re occasionally used well, but such cases are the exception rather than the rule. By contrast, Tangled Webs just shows women in difficult situations that resonate for any female reader — ignored by the men around them, powerless to change their situation, ostracized by their peers — then shows how they deal with them without putting a blinking neon sign overhead that reads “THIS IS THE MESSAGE.” Victories against these obstacles, when they occur, are hard-won. It feels refreshingly honest and true-to-life.
Very good! I had to stretch to spot the occasional diction that could have used work or narration that I would have worded differently. After slogging through so many instances of sloppy writing and editing in 1995 and 1996, this novel is a veritable balm for my nerves.
Tangled Webs has plenty of faults that I could nitpick: the sluggish first quarter of the book, the “magic solves everything” handwaving, a bunch of setup that never gets paid off, and so on. But once it got going, I kept finding myself looking forward to picking it up and seeing what would happen next. It’s very solidly written, there’s lots of deft characterization, and the focus on intrigue keeps the plot exciting. It’s particularly gratifying to see someone write female characters so well. There’s one more Elaine Cunningham Realms novel between here and the end of TSR, and I find myself quite looking forward to it.
 This is an odd case because the Gormenghast books were never intended to be a trilogy, but are usually published and examined as if they were one. Peake had planned for it to be an ongoing series, but died of Parkinson’s disease before he could complete more than fragments of a fourth novel. I highly recommend the first two Gormenghast books, which are a masterpiece of setting and character work that tell a complete and compelling story, but would suggest avoiding the third. The author was suffering from dementia induced by the Parkinson’s by that point, and it shows in the writing.