Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Gaming Fiction Review: The Orc King

Today I'm reviewing R.A. Salvatore's The Orc King, published in 2007, and Book 1 of his most recent Drizzt Trilogy, Salvatore has been writing about this same group of characters, a group of adventuring types living in the Forgotten Realms, since 1988 and the stories fill about 20 books so far. This trilogy is supposed to cover the 100 year timeline jump between 3E Realms and 4E Realms and since the main character is an Elf, there should be no consistency problems in doing this. I have read all of the Drizzt novels over the years and though there are those who will disagree I consider Salvatore to be about the best writer of D&D novels working today - more on that later.

To the book: There is a framing device used here where Drizzt and another elf are discussing the events in the novel 100 years after they occur. I thought this was appropriate and will hopefully set the tone for the remaining books in the trilogy. The book opens very shortly after the end of the previous novel (2004's "The Two Swords") with dwarf king Bruenor dealing with an orc army camped at his front door for the winter. Drizzt, Wulfgar, Regis, Cattie-Brie, and other supporting characters remain close at hand though each is considering following up on their own urges during the winter lull. Bruenor ends up looking for the lost city of Gauntlgrym, Wulfgar goes off to pursue his own interests, but otherwise things stay pretty stable through the first half of the book. Partway through the story intrigue n the orc camp really takes off and provides most of the driving action and plot complications in the book.

Characters: Drizzt is the main character and is at the center of about half of the action. He is the usual combination of wise councilor and ass-kicking champion (sort of a combination of Merlin and Lancelot) with thoughtful commentary between major sections of the book. It's not new but it is consistent and does help the reader pick back up on the feel of these books after a multi-year gap.
Bruenor takes a major role through a large part of the story and does have some interesting decisions to make. He remains the stereotypical dwarf in many ways and has a lot of fighting to do at the end.
Cattie-Brie is sort of a victim through the first part of the story, mostly following around other characters, suffering from an injury sustained in the earlier books and not really making decisions on her own. Late in the plot though a new channel opens up for her which could be interesting in the next 2 books.
Wulfgar is given an interesting path to follow, one that has little to do with the rest of the story in this book. His chapters are mainly about him and are largely separate from the main story and the rest of the characters. There is some very adult material here - not in the X-Rated sense but in the grown-up sense - and it is interesting in some ways, it might have been better off as a separate novel that told a complete story rather than as a few chapters of "Wulfgar goes off by himself to tie up some loose ends and find his destiny."
Regis has next to nothing to do in this one, so if you like the halfling don;t expect to see much of him. He's not a major character this time.
The previous trilogy centered around the rise of an orc king named Obould Many-Arrows and even spent some time telling the story from his point of view. This was one of the more interesting aspects of those books as it's unusual to get to see through the eyes of the orcs in a D&D novel/ Plus, this orc was the Chosen of Gruumsh, and after so many Elminster appearances in novels as the Chosen of Mystra it was incredibly refreshing to see that there are Chosen of other gods too, and that it does mean something. We do get to see more of Obould in this novel and much of the plot centers around what will he do next, but it's not as extensive an in-character view as we had before.
There are other supporting characters including various orc chieftains, orc shamans, another Drow, the usual lineup of dwarves, and a new villain who makes his first appearance in this novel and only this last one, the opponent,  feels off in any way.

Plot: The plot centers around the uncertainty of King Obould Many-Arrows next move as winter thaws and the campaigning season begins. There are factions within the orc forces, some hidden and some more obvious. The dwarves have different options open to them. Other settlements in the north have opinions - Silverymoon, the Moonwood Elves, Nesme, all have to decide how they intend to react. In between this larger political storyline the characters do their things until it all comes to a head at the end. I thought things were headed a certain way at the climax and I was wrong, somewhat disappointingly so.

Disappointments: I have had two problems with Salvatore's work in the past and both of them crop up again here, in addition ot one new issue I see and hope does not become a trend: Spoilers Ahead!

Issue #1: The reset button - like a bad episode of Star Trek The Next generation the books often have interesting potentially world-changing events looming overhead, only to be resolved with no real change to the world by the end of the book/episode. Things at the end of the book tend to be about the same as they were at the beginning of the book with much of the actual change taking place between novels.  Many books back Drizzt fights his arch-rival Atermis Entreri after much build-up. What happens? It's a draw, both survive. Drow take over one of Amn's major cities and ehat happens? Nothing, it's largely secret. The drow attack Mithril Hall and what happens in the end? The dwarves drive them off. The orc king attacks Mithril Hall and what happens? The Dwarves drive them off. Drizzt fights the Orc King, a confrontation between two unstoppable forces and what happens? It's a draw, both survive with no real injuries and go back to their bases. In this novel, has Bruenor found Gauntlgrym? No. Bruenor and some of his closest advisers head out on a suicide mission to take down Obould and anvils are dropped repeatedly that no one is coming back from this, Bruenor in particular,  but guess what? Not only does Bruenor not die, neither does any other dwarf that sets out with him! Everyone is fine! The king suffers a broken arm but that's it! In the end a treaty is signed between the orcs and the dwarfs that leaves things pretty much the same as they were at the start. There's plenty of talk about change and accepting new things but effectively the situation at both ends of the novel is that dwarves and orcs are camped next door to each other and mostly not trying to kill each other.

Issue #2: Major characters are not allowed to die - This ties in somewhat to the gripe above but I think of it as a distinct issue. Out of 6 or so major characters in any given novel, only one has died (Wulfgar) and he came back in the next couple of books. Even major villains can't die - Entreri, Jarlaxle, Obould - all have faced Drizzt and none of them have dies, for some reason. In this novel, much foreshadowing points to Bruenor not making it out of the climactic fight - even Bruenor says it - and this would have been a great way to send off a good character but no! Once again we are denied a heroic end as he somehow survives with only minor injuries. Even secondary characters cannot die - Thibbledorf Pwent is a dwarven battlerage who regularly hurls himself into or onto major foes and even he doesn't get a heroic death! He comes through every battle in great shape. We end up with irresistible forces bouncing off of immovable objects in a literary version of bumper cars! We've had 20 years and 20 novels of these characters - PLEASE LET SOME OF THEM GO!

Issue #3: The one-shot villain - I saw some of this in the previous trilogy with the Drow advisers who met a bad end. In this book we have two - a new orc chieftain who comes up from the underdark and a gnomish wizard of all things, who ends up being a major threat. I was OK with the orc rival to Obould - some factioning among orc tribes is almost required - but the gnome just comes out of nowhere with no real motivation other than a desire to jack with people and appears to have been added to give Drizzt something to kill that appears as a credible threat! It's sloppy and doesn't really fit the rest of the novel. I think the story would have been much better without the interloping evil gnome. Do orc shamans really need help scheming and plotting? If so couldn't it have been a devil or something, maybe showing a religious schism and that not all of them are looking to Gruumsh in their search for power? Couldn't the big uber-orcs from the underdark have brought something along to deal with flying surface elves rather then benefiting from an unknown wizard hidden in their midst? It just sticks out like a sore thumb, feels very random (an evil surface gnome acting as the secret power behind an orc tribe in the underdark?) and doesn't even tie into any past opponents from earlier novels - surely there are enough of them at this point to work in revenge from a prior enemy. This is the first time it's really stuck out for me in reading these books, and I hope it''s not something that continues.

So you might think I hated the book overall after reading the issues listed above, but I didn't - I like it. It does have some problems but it's several cuts above most D&D novels and it does serve as the next chapter in a book that we've been reading for a very long time. If you like these books, this is one of the better ones. If you hate the Realms, D&D books, Drizzt, or gaming fiction in general than this book isn't likely to change your mind but it's not a terrible book by any means. One caveat - this is not a good place to start. Much of it's impact depends on knowing how much the characters have gone through to get to this point and without that background it's going to lose some power.

On a final note Salvatore has grown considerably as a writer over the years. There is one exchange in the book that really struck me as grown-up writing. Drizzt and Cattie Brie are discussing the death of an elf they knew and she asks Drizzt if he would have married her after C-B's death. He's uncomfortable with this and doesn't really want to talk about it but she continues and asks him if he thinks that the elf thought about him in her last moments. There's more to the conversation, and it doesn't really have anything to do with plot but it does come across as very real, something a woman would ask a man and it's just flat-out well-done. Women characters in most gaming fiction don't really come across as being much different from men unless it's as caricatures but this series and this book in particular is better.

So there you go - if you like these kinds of books then it's on the high-end of things. If you hate them then continue and skip past this one. I liked it enough to seek out the next two books in the trilogy and see where it goes. I'll let you know down the road.

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