The Chaos Curse

Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: June 1994

The Chaos Curse kicks off by delving into the most exciting type of conflict known to literature: academic politics! Since about fifteen minutes after the invention of the first university, academics have schemed to destroy each other in myriad subtle ways, a process more thrilling than a monster truck rally and more action-packed than your average war. But then all these bloodsucking monsters show up and drag the action to a halt…

Sorry, that broke my sarcasm generator. Let’s start over.

Plot

The plot has finally come full circle. Cadderly plans to return to the Edificant Library and stage a coup against the current administration, which he feels has lost the favour of his god. But the evil madness-inducing elixir that Aballister created way back in Canticle has been sitting in the library’s basement all this time, and things go off the rails when some dumb schmuck drinks it. Pretty soon the place is overrun with vampires — the “tear your head off” kind, not the “angsty goth” kind — and Cadderly and his friends have to clean up the mess.

The whole “Let’s topple the Dean’s corrupt administration” motivation doesn’t work at all due to a mystifying lack of setup. In the four books up to this point, we haven’t seen any indication that the Library’s faculty are bad people. Sure, they’re hidebound, squabbling, and obstreperous, but hey… welcome to academia, as any person who’s ever been near a university can tell you. The “out of favour with Deneir” bit is something we have to take Cadderly’s word for, since we haven’t yet witnessed them doing anything that violates the order’s tenets or even learned much about what the order’s tenets are. The worst we’ve seen them do to date is to tell Cadderly that he can’t come and go and use library resources as he pleases. Allow me to sum up the general tenor of this plotline with a brief dialogue:

Cadderly: The rules don’t apply to me because I’m special!
Faculty: No, teenage wunderkind genius, you don’t get to do whatever you want.
[Later]
Cadderly: Let’s go back there and destroy those assholes.

Some hero.

The fundamental reason why this doesn’t work is because the library hasn’t been relevant to the plot since the first book. If Cadderly had periodically returned and had interactions which created more conflicts and set up future plotlines, that would have made this climax make sense. We could have seen what was broken that required Cadderly’s drastic action to fix. But he’s spent almost no time there since Canticle, so we know almost nothing about the people he’s plotting to depose and care correspondingly little. Until Cadderly announced at the start of this book that he planned to reform the administration, I figured that the library was just a vestigial artifact from an earlier plot and wasn’t aware that it still motivated him.

Fortunately, that whole conflict goes out the window partway through when vampires take over the library and replace the existing regime with a rather more proactive and less bureaucratic system: everyone submits to vampirism or gets killed and raised as a zombie. Kierkan Rufo, Cadderly’s old wannabe-nemesis, gets tricked into drinking the evil madness-inducing elixir in the library’s basement and transforms into a badass vampire with a grudge against the Library. (Drinking evil juice makes you a vampire? Okay, sure, whatever. It’s goofy as hell, but I’ve run with goofier plots before.) Danica and Dorigen blunder into the library during the bloody coup, and then Cadderly and friends have to fight lots of undead to rescue everyone. The whole plot is surprisingly dark, with lots of time spent watching the vampires butcher trapped priests, but it’s the sort of darkness that ties directly into the book’s theme instead of feeling gratuitous.

The indispensable role of “disposable mook army” in this R.A. Salvatore novel is played by a giant horde of zombies whom the dwarves dismember, decapitate, fold, spindle, and mutilate in a wide variety of ways. None of it adds anything to the story; it just fills pages. Hell, he even lampshades it:

Behind Cadderly, Ivan and Pikel continued to rain carnage on the unthinking minions, but neither the young priest nor Rufo noticed.

Neither does the reader, who starts instinctively glossing over the irrelevant zombie fights after a while. And of course everything still runs on “drama first” rules, where plausibility takes a back seat if something seems cool. For instance, Cadderly and Rufo are standing right next to each other. A giant explosion cripples the vampire, but just knocks Cadderly away harmlessly without doing worse than breaking his walking stick. Shouldn’t something that cripples a master vampire be enough to reduce an ordinary human to paste? But the author wanted a Hollywood action movie moment where the hero gets flung across the room by an awesome explosion, so that’s what we got.

These are all standard objections I’ve had to the vast majority of Salvatore’s books thus far. I keep hoping he’ll pull off another Homeland, a character-focused book where the protagonists don’t have to wade hip-deep through the blood of a thousand slaughtered mooks, but I’m not holding my breath.

The conclusion, where Cadderly and Danica don’t get the happy ending they were hoping for, is better than I expected. It works because Cadderly has been set up over the past four books as the kind of person who would choose faith and helping others over his own happiness, and it feels more satisfying that a great victory should come at a great cost. But apparently one of Salvatore’s later books reverses the cost altogether and gives them a retroactive happy ending, stripping this conclusion of much of its pathos. I’m not surprised that Salvatore would do so, since, as we’ve already seen, he’s the kind of author who’s unable to let go of a character after they’ve served their purpose.

Characters

Up to this point, I’ve been struck by just how thoroughly unlikable Cadderly has become. He was at his best in the second book, In Sylvan Shadows, where he was uncertain of his role in the world, principled but having those principles challenged at every turn, and doing his best to be good in a bad situation that was bigger than he was. You could empathize with his confusion and cheer for his little successes. But the further his divinely-ordained destiny developed, the more imperious and smug and overbearing he became. Ever since his “Chosen of Deneir” plot got rolling in Night Masks, it seems like he knows everything, is confident about all his decisions, rarely lets his friends in on his thoughts or plans, and uses his divine abilities to bludgeon his way through problems most of the time instead of using his wits or persuasion. There have been little character moments here and there where you see a glimpse of him as an actual person, but they’re brief and much too rare.

Fortunately, Salvatore seems to have learned some lessons from the last couple of books and dialed back the aspects that made him so unlikable. For starters, he’s finally got some limitations on his divine “do anything” abilities. Apparently he sprained his messiah muscles with all the magic he was throwing around at the end of the last book, so he’s not able to break out 8th-level spells at the drop of a hat any more. He doesn’t spend the entire book listening to “the song of Deneir” (read: the author whispering in his ear), and actually misses picking up on important information a couple of times. And he’s finally up against an enemy which he can’t defeat just by concentrating really hard, like he did with the ancient red dragon in the last book. The result is that he feels a lot more human and vastly less irritating in The Chaos Curse than he has in a long time.

Dean Thobicus, Cadderly’s former boss at the library, is an unsatisfying villain. He can’t stand Cadderly, and kicks off the novel by trying to purge the faculty of everyone who’s allied with or sympathetic to him. This seems entirely sensible — as you’ll recall from The Fallen Fortress, Cadderly came into his office, acted like an insolent jerk, intimidated the hell out of him, then used his divine powers to crush Thobicus’ free will. Hell, I’d be pissed off too! But this is a black-and-white kind of story, so it’s quickly reduced to “Dean bad, Cadderly good.” He’s lost the favour of his god, though the rationale (his hidebound and administrative nature has made him lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas) is something we’re told but not really shown, and all of his efforts to resist Cadderly’s takeover are portrayed as crimes against the natural order by a scheming little man. He does get an arc of sorts here where he falls to the dark side, which I appreciate. But it needed to be set up better in earlier books because up until this point he was never more than a minor character, an obstructive bureaucrat who annoyed the protagonist a couple of times. It feels like the story ran out of steam without the Evil League of Evil to serve as antagonists, so the author had to manufacture another one. Worst of all, he’s set up as an antagonist in the first third of the book and then gets unceremoniously killed off-screen by a sidekick around the midpoint. What a waste of a character.

On the plus side, however, the book’s actual antagonist is much less terrible than I expected. Kierkan Rufo has spent the entire series being a useless butt monkey. Nobody likes him, he has no apparent redeeming qualities, he’s always being used as a hapless tool by more powerful forces, and he always fails at everything he does. I groaned in genuine pain when I saw that he was going to be the Big Bad of this book because nothing up to this point had made him seem remotely intimidating or capable. And then he had to spoil my preconceptions by not being completely terrible as a final boss! Don’t get me wrong; he’s still not a great character. His “the gods are jerks who don’t deserve our worship” motivation should be the beating heart of the conflict between him and Cadderly, especially given what happened to him in Night Masks, but it hardly merits any screen time and gets expressed in a couple of throwaway lines. Instead, his motivation mostly comes off as “I drank evil juice, so now I’m extra evil,” and his brand of evil is still more theatrical and hammy than I’d like. But he’s reasonably cunning: he solidifies his control of the library gradually by vampirizing selected individuals and bumping off the few who could be a threat to him before springing his takeover. He’s good about not exposing himself to risk unnecessarily: he’ll bail on a fight if it seems like he might get actually hurt, and the final fight happens in a dark, desecrated cellar where he’s at his strongest. And he actually accomplishes his goal: profaning and destroying the entire Edificant Library as a giant middle finger to the god who branded him. He’s still egotistical and shortsighted, which causes him minor setbacks, but the occasional failure makes him seem more human and less of an unstoppable author-powered juggernaut. My expectations were low, but I was pleasantly surprised.

But then there’s Dorigen, Aballister’s former right-hand woman. Let the record show that I only partially called it:

I expect there will probably be some sort of cheesy redemption arc for her in the last book, but I vastly prefer the more realistic way her story ends here.

Redemption, yes. An “arc”, however, implies that we see a character start off in one situation and then travel to another, but that’s not what we get here. At the start of the book, she’s now a full-fledged party member who’s done a complete 180-degree turn from her former pragmatic, villainous mindset and discovered that doing good feels good. Did this happen off-screen at some point? At the end of the last book she’d turned herself in and decided that world domination wasn’t a growth industry, but it seemed more like a shift from evil to neutral at most. Now she’s bunny-petting, orphan-kissing good, and we never saw any hint of the internal struggle or emotional upheaval that must have required. Even stranger, everyone else in the party doesn’t treat her with any suspicion or distrust. She’s technically their prisoner, but they let her run around free because they trust her to not betray them or try to escape. Why? Doesn’t anyone remember how evil she used to be just, like, a week ago?

Danica realized she was not surprised by Dorigen’s heroics. The wizard had been won over, heart and soul, and, though Danica agreed that Dorigen should pay a strict penance for her actions in favor of Castle Trinity, for the war she helped direct against Shayleigh’s people, the monk hoped that the penance would be positive, in which Dorigen might use her considerable magical powers for the good of the region.

Seriously? Has Danica forgotten the time a few months back when Dorigen captured her and set her up to get raped? Dorigen was a serious creepshow, but apparently all it takes is telling the heroes “I think I’m good now!” to get them to wholeheartedly trust you. Sheesh. At least Shayleigh still harbours some resentment about the whole “tried to genocide my people” incident, but the rest of the party has no excuse.

And speaking of Danica, every complaint I had about her in the first book is true here as well. She’s a total faux action girl: an ostensible badass whose heroics are all futile in the face of superior opponents and who ends up needing to be rescued by the male protagonist. Nothing she does improves the situation, and her primary purpose in this plot is to motivate Cadderly to get angry when she’s apparently killed, since he and the dwarves are the only ones with agency in this plot. I didn’t expect her to resolve the plot single-handedly, but I had hoped for something more interesting than just a damsel in distress. (Also, is it just me, or does she spend an awful lot of time in this series tied to beds?)

Ivan and Pikel are still bad comic relief, filling time between battles with tiresome Three Stooges-style physical comedy. I’ve complained in my reviews of previous books about how they take a ludicrous amount of physical punishment in battles with no apparent consequences, but now that Ivan’s sporting a ring of regeneration, it’s become an in-universe fact rather than an authorial contrivance. Pikel gets a little bit of development around his budding druidic powers, but mostly they’re just here to slap each other around and hack up lots of zombies.

Themes

The clear theme here is faith. When the vampires start taking over the library, it separates the monks with actual faith from the ones who have spent decades just going through the motions of religious observance. The vampires convert the weak-minded, but the ones with real faith in Deneir and Oghma refuse to join up and can turn the vampires, so they have to be killed by treachery or attacked en masse. It works well when the author is describing the downfall of the rank-and-file monks, but falls down when the story turns to Cadderly and Rufo. As I mentioned earlier, this should have been another theme-supporting conflict of “faith versus evil,” but ends up being more “faith versus a jerk” because Rufo’s motivations aren’t given enough time. Rufo’s position is mostly “I don’t like Cadderly and I’ve got a crush on his girlfriend,” and that’s not material you can build the necessary ideological conflict out of.

The “faith” theme is acceptable, but would have had more legs if Deneir and his priesthood had ever gotten much characterization. What are their beliefs, edicts, politics? What makes people decide to devote themselves to the monastic life? What goals are they dedicated to? In short, what makes Denier more than just a source of power for Cadderly to tap? Theoretically these people are supposed to be collectors and preservers of knowledge, but they’re never really shown doing any of that. Which brings us to the…

Writing

This book has an unprecedented amount of “telling, not showing” going on. Early on, we get some narration from Danica’s point of view about how Cadderly is conflicted about having killed his father, but he never brings it up or does anything informed by it, and it’s never mentioned again. We’re told that Dorigen became good, but we never see any of the struggle that should have led up to it. We’re told that the Edificant Library needs new leadership, but we’re not shown why the existing administration is making Deneir unhappy. We’re told that Rufo has become the embodiment of the antithesis of all life or something like that, but all we see him do is trash the library and obsess about Danica. Hell, even the dialogue gets in on the act:

In fact, as Ivan digested all that the young priest had said, he found that he respected Cadderly even more, that the man had risen above the usual limitations of his heritage and was actually planning to do something quite dwarf-like.

Ivan said just that, and Cadderly was gracious enough to accept the sideways compliment without a word of argument.

With this much narration, who needs characters? All of these tell-not-shows, plus the others that I didn’t mention, represent missed opportunities for characterization or plot-building.

This is a lesser nitpick, but I’m also aggravated by Salvatore’s constant use of parenthetical asides in the narration:

The yellow-bearded dwarf gave a whoop, charged past Cadderly, and skidded up before the vampire (who never took his flaming eyes off the young priest, his mortal enemy).

The young priest’s grin went away, though, and all four of the companions froze (except for Pikel, who was knocked from his perch and fell hard to the ground), when a tremendous explosion rocked the very ground under their feet and a ball of fire rose into the air in the east, accompanied by the cries of many wolves.

“Oo oi!” the perceptive (at least where nature was concerned) dwarf replied.

Just… stop it. Please. These jarring asides are only here to ham-handedly force details into a sentence which the author couldn’t figure out how to work in naturally. If you need to stop a sentence in its tracks to explain something, that’s a sign that you’re not doing a good job of conveying detail to the reader. There are places where parenthetical expressions can be used effectively (essays or technical writing, for example), but fictional narration isn’t among them.

Conclusion

Grade: C+

It’s not bad, but not great either. The writing, characterization, and storytelling are all much too clumsy for me to give it a good grade. But there are many improvements from the previous books in the series: Cadderly is less annoying, the villain is less useless, and there’s actually a theme that kinda works. As such, it’s about as good as this particular series gets. At the start of my review of Canticle, I wrote:

These days the Cleric Quintet is remembered, if at all, as “some other books by the author of the Drizzt stories.” But are they forgotten masterworks or a regrettable career detour for an otherwise successful author? Let’s find out.

All things considered, I’m going to have to come down on the side of “regrettable career detour.” Most of the conflicts in the series are either not very relevant (random assassins, Fyrentennimar) or not very plausible (the Evil League of Evil), and the five-book structure leads to a ton of padding that the story would be better off without. The characterization is weak enough that none of the characters from this series are likely to stick in my memory; they’re either one-note (the dwarves), inconsistently characterized (Dorigen), or just plain annoying (Aballister, Rufo, sometimes Cadderly). I’m finding Salvatore frustrating as an author because he’s definitely capable of better, but we see it so rarely.

2 Replies to “The Chaos Curse

  1. Of the modern D&D novels by Salvatore, the best one I’ve read so far is undoubtedly the first one I read – The Companions. The premise of the novel forces Salvatore out of his comfort zone and into focusing on characters. I was genuinely invested the whole way through.

    The subsequent novels have returned to the “wade hip deep through enemies” structure and it’s felt a lot like diminishing returns. There’s just *enough* interesting in each one to keep going but it’s meagre. Certainly none of them have justified why the events of The Companions was necessary.

    Drizzt is an empty shell, more or less, never driving the plot. Regis and Wulfgar are the most likeable and interesting so they’re immediately sidelined, and you’re clearly supposed to like Catti-brie and Bruenor but she’s a genocidal psychopath and he’s a stubborn, arrogant, close-minded egotist.

    All the problems Salvatore has here he still has, to greater or lesser degrees depending on the novel in question. One of the most aggravating things for me is that he basically sets his novels in seemingly his own version of the Realms, where maintaining consistency with events and characterizations from other author’s books is rare at best. It’s frustrating. And nowadays he’s the *only* Realms novelist.

    1. Genocidal psychopath? Well, that’s an unexpected character development. Doubt I’ll live long enough to get that far through the list, though.

      One interesting aspect of the Cleric Quintet novels is that they didn’t feel much like Realms novels at all. You could have told this story in any fantasy world by just changing a few names, since it’s in a corner of the world that’s never been explored by tabletop materials or other novels and it involves no characters or power groups that are relevant to the rest of the setting. Perhaps this was Salvatore trying to make his own stamp on this corner of the Realms, or trying to get away from the stricter editorial control that might have been exerted if he set this in a significant area or involved any noteworthy shared characters.

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