The Legacy

Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: September 1992

Who would have guessed it? Another R.A. Salvatore novel, published a mere month after his last one. Writing four novels in the space of twelve months can’t have been much fun and, as we saw in Night Masks, it didn’t do any favours for the quality of his prose either. Can he kick off this new series with a bang, or will it also flounder under bad writing and lack of editorial attention? [1] Let’s find out.

This is the first in a new quartet of novels (initially standalone, then retroactively retitled the Legacy of the Drow series) centred around Drizzt Do’Urden, Salvatore’s wildly successful breakout character. I’d argue from a purely subjective standpoint that these books marked the height of Drizzt’s popularity, before series fatigue took hold and the overexposure and endless parade of imitations made a parody out of the character concept. You can already see the rot beginning to set in as this novel recapitulates themes from the Icewind Dale and Dark Elf trilogies, themes which Salvatore would diligently continue to mine for decades.

Plot

Drizzt has everything he thought he wanted — friends, a home, acceptance — but finds himself bored by a life without action and violence. Fortunately for him, after all these years, the surviving members of his family are still trying to murder him to regain the favour of Lloth. A small company of drow attack Mithril Hall, many long and bloody underground battles are lovingly described, and one of the protagonists dies at the end.

Artemis Entreri’s plotline, where he hunts down Drizzt to duel him in a battle that’s a stand-in for the conflict between their opposing worldviews, feels like a retread of the events of the Icewind Dale trilogy: same conflict, same characters, same result. Except it was already nicely wrapped up at the end of The Halfling’s Gem, with Drizzt deciding that he was better than Entreri and didn’t need to fight him to prove it, so there’s no room for character development any more. By the end of the book, Entreri’s continued obsession over Drizzt just feels tiresome. His plot ends with him falling to his certain death but miraculously surviving (twice!), marking the first time that Salvatore would pull some incredibly contrived excuse from his ass to keep Entreri alive… but far from the last. Nearly every character we’ve met in Salvatore’s books by this point, from the major ones like Drizzt to the minor ones like the Bouldershoulder brothers, will return again and again in later novels for the next twenty-five years, and that knowledge really kills the drama as I re-read these books now.

The pacing, as per usual for Salvatore, is a mess. The back half of the book is basically one extended series of fight scenes interspersed with occasional talking or moving from place to place. The characters all seem indestructible; they can take a variable amount of poisoned darts without ill effect, depending on what would be most dramatic at the time, and shrug off severe-sounding wounds with no long-term difficulty. (Drizzt has a full-sized human dangling off of a sword that’s impaling his foot, then goes rock climbing five minutes later.) Together, these two factors made my eyes start to glaze over a bit by the end — fights lack drama when they go on forever and you know they won’t have any consequences.

Themes

Feminism and bad relationships are very obvious themes in the Wulfgar/Catti-brie subplot. Wulfgar is being an abusive shit, chauvinistic, possessive, and controlling, and Catti-brie isn’t sure if she wants to marry him any more. To their credit, the other characters all think he’s being a complete tool and are entirely on her side, which is nice to see. I appreciate this theme — it’s more mature than most, can’t be solved by stabbing something, and isn’t neatly resolved — but my only complaint would be that it’s a little too out of character for Wulfgar. In previous books he was stubborn and occasionally a bit of a dick, but still respectful of his friends and more thoughtful and pragmatic than your average barbarian. Here he’s been transformed into a giant raging asshole with no impulse control, which makes him feel like a caricature of the character we were familiar with. This whole subplot would have felt more natural if he’d been terrible in smaller, more realistic ways.

One of the first major events of The Legacy is Catti-brie calling the rest of the heroes out for being a bunch of bloodthirsty racist assholes about killing goblins, and convincing them to try talking to them before resorting to a massacre. It feels like a direct apology from Salvatore for the creepy racist themes in Sojourn. How much mail did he receive from fans complaining about that, I wonder, that he felt he had to apologize for it in the next book?

Characters

Drizzt gets some interesting character development here. When he left Menzoberranzan, he vowed never to kill another drow, but the drow threat to Mithril Hall makes him violate that promise and eventually discard it altogether. It’s a good way to handle internal conflict: give a character two opposing principles, then see which one wins. (It’s a damn good thing the author spent some time on it, too, because otherwise Drizzt’s character arc in this book would just be “People keep trying to kill me and I would prefer to not be killed.”) In his reflections, Drizzt even points out the unfortunate racist overtones of his vow: that it’s okay to kill any other sentient creatures — goblins, orcs, giants, humans, et cetera — but not drow. “Kill whatever you want, as long as it’s not like you” isn’t a great message for a supposedly moral character to espouse, so it’s nice to see Drizzt demonstrating some self-awareness.

Sadly, it’s not enough self-awareness. His moralizing veers into hypocrisy pretty quickly:

I do not, therefore, lament breaking my vow — though it pains me, as it always does, that I have had to kill.

No it doesn’t. It never has. From the very beginning, not only has Drizzt has been spectacularly good at killing things, but he’s clearly taken great joy in it. In The Crystal Shard, “the thrill of battle” is explicitly described as one of his greatest pleasures, he shouts things like “The fun is just beginning!” when slaughtering a lair of giants, and he recklessly engages tough foes for the sheer challenge of it. Even now, after he’s gotten more character development, he spent the beginning of this book bemoaning the ennui of his peaceful existence, and he seemed positively gleeful when he heard the news of the goblin incursion. Let’s be honest: Drizzt wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he didn’t have things to kill on a regular basis. I don’t buy this self-pitying pacifist bollocks for one minute.

Entreri returns, still obsessed with defeating Drizzt in open combat to prove the superiority of his cynical philosophy. I wish he’d just get a hobby or something instead, because Drizzt has moved on and the conflict is entirely one-sided. That’s not to say that there aren’t still good stories to be told with Entreri’s character, but I really wish it hadn’t been the exact same story all over again; this felt fresh when we saw it in the first trilogy, but now it’s getting stale. He spends the first bit of the novel magically disguised as Regis, but the deception is so blatantly, heavy-handedly hinted at, over and over, that I don’t know why the author bothered with the pretense of the “shocking reveal” moment. His Reichenbach Falls moment at the end, where he plummets off a mountain ledge to his doom, looks like it’s going to be a good climax for the story… and then he turns up again… and then he gets defeated again… and then he turns up again… and falls to his doom again. It’s the weirdest goddamn pacing — the story was already done with him, but the author just couldn’t leave him alone.

Still, I prefer Entreri’s brand of calculated amorality to the theatrical villainy of the dark elves. Drizzt’s sister Vierna returns, once again in the Spider Queen’s good graces, but this time she’s straight-up loony — full of religious fervour and suicidally confident in the face of obvious danger. She feels like more of an idiot than she did in the Dark Elf trilogy, where she was the smartest and most thoughtful of the Do’Urden sisters. Here she cackles hysterically and chews the scenery without a trace of her former personality. Such a waste. The sly, practical Jarlaxle would have made a good antidote to her overacting, but he spends most of the book as a tagalong character who doesn’t get much screen time.

As I mentioned earlier, Wulfgar feels like a caricature of himself for the first half of the novel. It’s only in the second half that he gets the occasional moments of character development, where he realizes what an idiot he’s being and starts to reconcile with his fiancée. But, as is traditional for Salvatore’s novels, there’s far too many long running battles in the latter half of the book for anyone to get much character time, and his dramatic self-sacrificing death scene puts a temporary end to his involvement in the series. (It won’t stick, of course. It never sticks.) He was the right main character to kill off — the least original, least well-developed, and most expendable from a story perspective, but still major enough that it comes as a punch to an unsuspecting reader — and it gives the other characters a good opportunity to angst about the transience of life and the importance of friendship afterwards. I just wish that Salvatore had had the courage to leave him dead and have his sacrifice mean something.

This book marks the first point in the series where Catti-brie exists as a standalone character rather than a manic pixie dream girl for Drizzt and/or Wulfgar. She has her own opinions and needs that cause conflict with the rest of the party, and doesn’t exist solely to further someone else’s character development. It’s refreshing to see a decent female character in one of Salvatore’s novels, because they’ve been very thin on the ground so far.

Regis appears out of nowhere at one point; apparently Entreri brought him along as a hostage on an 1,800-mile journey, then happened to stash him in some random tunnels where he didn’t know that he and Drizzt would eventually end up. It’s all inexplicably convenient, especially since Regis has no role in this book except to be a helpless pawn for a couple of scenes. I suppose the author’s desire to get the entire gang back together outweighed any practical considerations or concern for the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

A new recurring character appears for the first time here: Thibbledorf Pwent, a psychopathic dwarf whose shtick is tearing his enemies apart by body-slamming them with his spiked and bladed armour. It’s a vivid gimmick, I’ll admit, but he doesn’t seem to have much else going on for him in terms of either backstory or personality. He’s just sort of a gormless fool who bumbles into the story and periodically kills things in messy ways, and it wouldn’t have been hard to write this book without him in it. I find it odd that elements like Pwent and the “juicer” scene highlight the bloodthirsty nature of dwarven culture, but the author doesn’t expect the reader to be particularly bothered by it; it’s portrayed as entertainment rather than psychopathy because they’re the ostensible good guys. (Imagine how Salvatore would have written the “juicer” scene differently if it had been used against the heroes!)

Writing

The style is fancier and more ornate than the relatively plainly written Cleric Quintet. Some of this is down to the characters’ unique diction — Drizzt’s loquacious soliloquizing, Bruenor and Catti-brie’s faux-Scottish accents, Wulfgar’s boastful “Lo, I am Fizzbonk son of Slagnuts” thing — but even the narration feels a little more overdone than I’m used to from Salvatore’s last few books. I wonder what it is about this set of characters that makes him want to slather purple all over the prose? Still, it’s noticeably toned down from the gross excesses of the Icewind Dale trilogy. There’s plenty of stilted sentences and awkward phrasing throughout, but they’re mostly constant low-level flaws rather than grievous howlers. For the sake of my continued sanity, I can only hope that his writing will continue to improve over time.

There are moments — brief, flickering moments, but real nonetheless — where I have a glimmer of hope for Salvatore as a fantasy writer. For instance:

On came the cavalry, armored war pigs grunting, magnesium-tipped quarrels flaring to intense white light.

It’s a short sentence, but evocative, and it paints a picture in your imagination that couldn’t come from anywhere but a fantasy novel or a heavy metal album cover. And then it vanishes, buried under more clumsy narration full of parenthetical asides and exclamation points.

Conclusion

Grade: B–

I should really be giving this a lower grade. There’s not a lot here that hasn’t already been said in earlier books, the non-stop battles wear out their welcome quickly, and the writing is merely acceptable. And yet… I think the reason R.A. Salvatore has been able to sell Dungeons & Dragons novels about this same set of characters for thirty years is that even when they’re bad, they’re still fun. The characters are iconic and larger than life in a way that few of the characters in the books I’ve reviewed so far have been, so even if the plots and writing are rubbish, it’s still entertaining to watch these familiar people interact. The relative weakness of the Cleric Quintet suggests that Salvatore may be a blind squirrel who happened to stumble upon an acorn here… but I have to admit that it’s a damned good acorn. I expect that eventually the series will get too repetitive and the wheels will come off for me, but it hasn’t quite happened yet.

Footnotes

[1] Whatever the effect on his prose may have been, it certainly had an effect on the cover design, which they appear to have Photoshopped together in about half an hour. I can envision the discussion now: “But what will we do with all this blank space?” “Just put a spider on it. Spiders are scary, right?”

5 Replies to “The Legacy

  1. Oh, you’re into the era with the weirdest cover art version of Drizzt.
    Initially he’s basically an African American elf, which was a really common way for artists to depict drow in the late 80s (though I think the intent when they were introduced was that their “black” skin was literally black).
    Someone at TSR must have eventually realized that having the most prominent dark skinned characters in D&D be the near wholly evil slaver drow was a bad look, so as early as Streams of Silver and Halfling’s Gem Drizzt now has the dark grey skin.
    Starting with Homeland though, Drizzt starts to look really weird on the covers, like an elderly gaunt man in a big white wig and pointed ears, and he has normal Caucasian skin. And yeah, Drizzt is like sixty years old in these books but that’s like a teenager in elf terms, frankly.
    They go back to the dark grey skin by Siege of Darkness I think, but the modern conception of Drizzt doesn’t really show up on a cover until Sea of Swords.

    Regardless, the version on this cover, with his gaunt face and peach skin is absolutely the weirdest version.

    1. Think I’m going to have to disagree on that — the all-time worst Drizzt cover for my money is the next one, Starless Night, whose cover is so bizarrely bad that I’ve already been thinking of mean things to say about it when I get around to reviewing it. But all of them are far from the worst FR cover ever. I think that honour has to go to the first edition of Daughter of the Drow, where they posed a couple of awkward-looking 80s-haired cosplayers for a photo and then traced it badly.

      I really should do an article on the covers someday. Just force-rank them and say snarky things about them. It wouldn’t be edifying or thoughtful, but it would be very therapeutic.

      1. Oh, absolutely – Starless Night is like the apotheosis of weird ugly old man Drizzt. He’s completely Caucasian in skintone, and looks a grumpy sixty-something. Elminster with pointy ears and a skullcap!

  2. Wow, I never even registered that as a depiction of Drizzt even.

    Do you feel like your approach to these books is changing the more you read and review? Interesting that you say the book deserves a lower grade, but you still give it a B-. Is it a B- on its own merits or is your aesthetic palate shifting in the context of reading FR novels?

    1. Wow, that’s a tough question. I’ve outlined the criteria I’m trying to abide by at the bottom of the reviews page. My standards are deliberately set low: I’ll give an A to something that’s a good book. It doesn’t have to be outstanding, or great, but just a good solidly-written book that I enjoyed. Haven’t given out too many of those.

      But am I getting more lenient as time goes on? Hmm… probably. Once you’ve read something like Feathered Dragon, a run-of-the-mill bad book that you might previously have considered a D starts looking more like a C, because the bottom just dropped off the scale. I don’t think I’d ever go back and try to re-grade the earlier ones to come up with a “fair” rating scale, since this is all very subjective in the first place and I trust my past self who just finished reading the book, but these days I’ve been placing a bit more emphasis on how much fun a book was to read and not just rating the quality of its component parts. It’s a tough quality to define, but I can feel the difference when I pick up a book to read more of it — do I feel mild anticipation or trepidation? That sort of thing. I need to think more on a better way to quantify that instead of just pointing out the things that don’t work.

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