Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: June 1993
R.A. Salvatore keeps cranking out pages, and the Cleric Quintet marches on. Cadderly, having thwarted a magical disaster, fought in a bloody war, and defeated a band of freaky assassins, has finally learned about the machinations of the Evil League of Evil. Will he finally do something proactive and go kick the crap out of them, or spend another book faffing about avoiding the main plot? Well… turns out it’s a bit of both.
The structure here is a bit odd. Cadderly opens the novel by announcing his intention to bring the fight to his enemies in Castle Trinity, and you think “Hooray! Finally, some forward motion on the series’ main plot.” But that storyline immediately goes on hold for the first two-fifths of the book while he decides to go destroy the evil body-swapping artifact from Night Masks instead, then picks back up again afterwards. This means that much of The Fallen Fortress is effectively filler, a side story that doesn’t tie in directly with the main plot. The Ghearufu (the evil magical artifact in question) only just showed up in the previous book, so it doesn’t even feel like this was something that was planned from the start. Rather, it feels like Salvatore got to this point, realized that he didn’t have enough plot to fill an entire book, then had to suddenly come up with a side plot to fill the gap.
That said, the remaining three-fifths are a satisfying and long-overdue climax to the series’ oft-meandering plot. The Evil League of Evil is destroyed, the villains get their comeuppance, and the heroes all survive to return home in triumph. Unfortunately, they do so by fighting a never-ending series of battles only occasionally interrupted by any conversation or characterization, in classic Salvatorean style. The bits with Cadderly are okay, since he gets to talk with Danica and Dorigen and Aballister in the occasional breaks between his magic-slinging, but the scenes of the secondary characters fighting hordes of mooks are an endless spectacle of mind-numbing, tedious, pointless violence.
The premature conclusion leaves me very confused about how Salvatore is going to manage the fifth and final book in the series. Without most of the antagonists and conflicts which drove the first four books, I worry that it’s going to feel like an anticlimactic side story tacked on to the main “Cadderly versus Castle Trinity” story. Well, no point in idle speculation — we’ll find out when we get to 1994. I know I sound like a broken record here, but I can’t help but keep pointing out how much tighter and better-paced this story would have been as a trilogy instead of a pentalogy. You just can’t spread a single story over five books without padding it with some tedious flab, and it’s obvious in every book.
Cadderly is a very frustrating character this time around. He’s gained perfect control over his god-granted magical abilities, which basically let him do whatever he wants, any time he wants, with no effort or preparation. If he wills it and the plot doesn’t get in the way, it happens. I’m once again reminded of that excellent dictum by H.G. Wells: “If anything is possible, nothing is interesting.” The author keeps putting the party in ludicrously dangerous situations, up to and including strolling into the lair of an ancient red dragon, then pulls their bacon out of the fire with “then Cadderly did a magic thing.” There’s something to be said for the Vancian system of magic from Dungeons & Dragons; it may make magic feel more pedestrian, but at least it gives everyone a clear idea of what is possible and what someone can realistically do.
It’s instructional to compare Cadderly’s confrontation with Fyrentennimar here with Alias’ battle with Mistinarperadnacles in Azure Bonds. Both of them single-handedly confront an ancient red dragon in its lair, then eventually manage to subdue the dragon and force it to cooperate. But Alias’ battle feels much more interesting; she wins through a combination of guile and smarts (using her esoteric knowledge to force the dragon into a less dangerous form of duel) and sheer physical badassitude. By the end, it feels like she’s earned the victory. Cadderly, by contrast, just walks into Fyren’s lair, concentrates really hard, and magically enthralls it. The end result is that this ostensibly terrifying creature comes off as a total chump and the scene loses most of its potential drama.
That said, Cadderly gets a couple of good moments where his magical powers alone can’t save the day and he has to think fast and use his wits. The mental battle between him and Ghost, where they play out a shape-changing combat reminiscent of The Sword in the Stone but with more spikes and gore, was particularly excellent. That sort of thing is fantasy that’s genuinely fantastic, not just the tropes of other genres dressed up with elves and swords. I’d love to see more of that, please, rather than characters just waving their problems away with magic.
And speaking of waving things around, Cadderly is a complete dick in this book. At the very beginning he threatens, belittles, and then mentally dominates the head of his monastery, changing his mind and wiping his memory. He treats his friends like tools, never letting them in on his plans and overriding their eminently sensible objections to his erratic behaviour by brushing them off with “my god told me to do this.” He suddenly abandons his pacifist ideals and starts heaping the corpses of his foes Drizzt-style without remorse, scuttling his most interesting potential character conflict. In short, he’s just an unlikable jerk here, an exemplar for how a Chosen One character arc can go terribly wrong. Salvatore begins to set up an interesting moral dilemma for him about “will I succumb to the temptation to use these powers irresponsibly?”, but it gets dropped on the floor after a brief amount of lip service. All of his actions, even the awful ones, turn out to be correct and justified in the end, and he never has to face any consequences for his behaviour. At the end he just stone-cold kills his own father, then shrugs, says “Okay, that was a thing” and walks away. No conflicting feelings or internal debate or moral qualms or anything — just the same indifference he has about all the other people he kills in the course of the book. For a guy who spent the second book full of self-doubt about his loathing for violence, he’s sure come a long way… and become considerably less sympathetic and interesting in the process.
Shayleigh the elf and Vander the firbolg get practically no characterization at all. I’m trying to think of something to say about either of them and am drawing a blank; they seem to be here just to round out the battle scenes. Even Danica, Cadderly’s girlfriend, spends almost all of her screen time punching goblins in the face and very little of it having character-developing interactions with her beau. And then there are the dwarves…
Ivan turned to regard Cadderly and the others, his pupils rolling about their sockets independently of each other. Somehow, Ivan still wore his deer-antlered helmet, and somehow, Shayleigh’s splintered arrow had not been dislodged. “Who knowed?” Ivan asked innocently, giving a lame attempt at shrugging his shoulders as he fell facedown on the path.
His voice was grim, despite the sight of Pikel hopping all about, trying to put out wisps of smoke trailing from his heels and backside.
Outside of the endless battle scenes, Ivan and Pikel are still just refugees from a Looney Tunes short. They take damage, but it has all the emotional gravitas of watching a cartoon character take a frying pan to the face — you know they’re not going to die or even be significantly inconvenienced, unless the inconvenience would provide cheap laughs. It’s the worst possible way to do comic relief because it makes the actual drama that’s going on around it seem tawdry. Imagine all the goofy “Gimli is a funny butt monkey” comic relief moments from the Lord of the Rings movies with the absurdity turned up to 11, and you have some idea of how this continually derails the mood in an irritating manner. I was actually glad to see Ivan get his ass handed to him in a fight at the end, because it was the first time in four books that he ever seemed to be in any sort of real physical danger.
The villains are a mixed bag here. Aballister, the mad wizard in charge of the Evil League of Evil, finally gets a chance to do something proactive instead of spending yet another book sitting in a corner being foolish. I was pleased to see that he actually makes multiple credible attempts to have Cadderly killed, then does a solid job of taking him on personally during the final confrontation. Unfortunately, his dialogue seems to get more clichéd with each passing novel. He does a great deal of ranting like a boring Evil Overlord here, then actually says “I am your father!” to Cadderly in classic Darth Vader style during the climactic confrontation. (Cue facepalm.) When he gets offed at the end, it feels like no great loss to the story.
His treacherous underling Dorigen, on the other hand, is a much better villain. She’s been gradually losing her loyalty to Aballister over the course of the series, but finally snaps here and decides to help Cadderly and his friends — not out of any altruistic motives, mind, but because she’s sick of working for a crazy person. It’s a good character arc… on reflection, possibly the first good one we’ve seen yet in this series. It was clearly telegraphed from the end of In Sylvan Shadows onwards, so it didn’t come as a surprise. And she didn’t have a change of heart and immediately become one of the good guys, giving up her evil ways and being forgiven for all her terrible deeds; instead, she just gives up fighting and decides to stay neutral in the conflict, which is much more believable. No redemption, just a change in priorities. 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.
Here’s a fun theme that jumps right out at the reader: If you’re fighting for a good cause, anything evil you do is justified. Cadderly kills his enemies by the dozens and hundreds, rewrites the minds of people who disagree with him, and treats his friends like shit. But it turns out that it’s okay, you see, because he’s the Chosen One, so whatever he does is ipso facto heroic. He’s never taken to task for any of this, his god doesn’t mind, and everything he does works out great. It’s not quite the heroic theme the author was going for, but it’s unavoidable.
The writing is clumsy, by and large. The narration, full of digressions and awkward parenthetical asides, is constantly telling us about the character’s internal states instead of letting them demonstrate it:
He managed to fight back the impulse, both because of his agreement with Shayleigh’s logic, and because he was terribly afraid of snakes.
And the dialogue is stilted, with everyone sounding just a bit more dramatic than humans would normally:
“The air is too cold this high up for even one of a dwarf’s toughness.”
One of a what now? Everyone sounds a little off all the time, like the author was aiming for Tolkien but landed in the uncanny valley of Google Translate instead.
The pacing, as per usual for Salvatore, is a complete mess. Once the action moves to Castle Trinity around the halfway mark, the remainder of the novel is one long series of physical and magical battles with hardly any pauses for breath or character interactions. Oh god, so many battles. The reason this review is up later than I expected is because I kept putting the book down out of sheer boredom every time I came to another six-page stretch of “And then they killed a bunch of goblins.” Eventually I had to just start skimming the “secondary characters fight lots of nameless extras” battle scenes because there were so many of them in the second half, they didn’t add anything to the story, and they just kept dragging on and on. I kept hunting for scraps of interpersonal interaction and plot-relevant moments, but they felt so few and far between.
I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either. Cadderly is a dick, most of the book is a never-ending procession of tedious fight scenes, and there’s very, very little in the way of interesting character development. On the other hand, it’s a book where both the heroes and villains are proactively pursuing their agendas, which has been a rare thing in this series. And it’s good to see Salvatore finally advancing the series’ plot, which was long overdue. I wavered between D+ and C– here, but I didn’t have quite enough animus for this book to give it a D — it often bores, but does not seriously offend.