What I'm Reading #54 - The Icewind Dale Trilogy

R.A. Salvatore has two strengths as a writer. First, he’s capable of writing fresh, detailed, and exciting battle scenes – battle scenes which not only serve as really excellent set pieces, but which also actively contribute to the plot. Salvatore’s stories don’t get put on pause while his characters throw down. Instead, each fight is an important part of the evolving drama.

Salvatore’s second strength is his ability to craft epic, rapid-fire plots, cramming them full of the action scenes he writes so well, and then moving the whole package along at a fast clip. He keeps you entertained on every page.

For example, The Crystal Shard, the first novel in the Icewind Dale Trilogy, stretches across half a decade. It starts with a barbarian invasion, moves through a well-done coming-of-age story, and then concludes with a massive military campaign against the armies of an evil sorcerer. It includes dragon-slaying, demonic machinations, and barbarian heroes becoming kings.

That’s a lot of stuff to cram into 300 pages or so.

And Salvatore doesn’t slow down. In the second novel, Streams of Silver, you’ll find a deadly assassin bent on vengeance, a beautiful elven queen, a quest to reclaim a dwarven city lost to an ancient evil, a circle of evil wizards plotting for power, bar-room brawls, back alley dealings, and (of course) more dragon-slaying.

And in the third volume, The Halfling's Gem, the trend continues: Desert intrigues, damsels in distress, wererat thieves, battles with pirates, an epic duel between the two greatest swordsmen in the world, and a portal to hell.

Salvatore’s narrative palette, as you can see, is drawn straight from stock fantasy and adventure fiction. His prose (except for his exceptional battle sequences) is purely pedestrian and frequently marred by his penchant for repeating the same piece of information (just in case you weren’t paying attention the first time he said it, I suppose). But what makes Salvatore’s stuff fun to read is his ability to reach a critical mass of sheer niftiness.

And that’s an important word: FUN.

If you’re looking for the next Great Fantasy Novel that will touch your soul and live unmarred in the book and volume of your mind, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for some serious fun -- the type of fun that used to be found in the best pulp fiction – then you can’t go too far wrong by grabbing some Salvatore.

There are a couple of other qualities which make the Icewind Dale Trilogy worth your while:

First, it feels like a really good D&D campaign. And I mean that in the best possible way. I don’t mean that you can see the dice being rolled or anything like that. Rather, I mean that the main characters have that rare sense of camaraderie, witty repartee, and ineffable chemistry that can be achieved when a gaming group really gets into the groove. They feel like the Three Musketeers. Again, it’s fun. (Just in case you weren't paying attention the first time I said that.)

And, speaking of characters, they’re another highlight of the trilogy. The supporting cast is a bit cardboardy, but the main characters are a memorable and entertaining bunch: Each has a unique voice and personality. Each is given a distinct and interesting backstory. Each is developed in detail, with meaningful growth and change.

In this last regard, Salvatore shows a remarkable degree of skill when it comes to putting his characters into crucibles which serve to not only actively reveal but also change their quality.

Perhaps the most notable of Salvatore’s characters is Drizzt Do’Urden, a dark elf. Although the dark elves are known for their cruelty and evil, Drizzt is possessed of a noble heart. An exile from the great underground cities of his people, Drizzt is also an outcast in the surface world he has chosen as his home -- perpetually judged by the color of his skin.

Drizzt is notable because he’s probably the first swords-and-sorcery hero of significance – cut from the same cloth as Conan, Elric, or the Gray Mouser – to appear since Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stories in the 1970s. (His status as an outcast seems to draw frequent comparison to Elric, although that’s pretty much where the comparison comes to an end.)

In the narrative of the Icewind Dale Trilogy, Drizzt is on an equal footing with the rest of the main cast. But something about the character simply resonated with the readers. Personally, if I had to take a guess at what caused Drizzt’s immense and inordinate popularity, I would point my finger at Salvatore’s inspired decision to not only make Drizzt the finest swordsman in all the land, but to simultaneously give him a villainous rival of equal skill and ability. Conan, Cyrano, and the Gray Mouser are all clearly swordsmen of legendary prowess and skill… but only Drizzt, after being similarly pumped up in the expectations of the readers, gets to demonstrate his skill in a life-or-death duel with a villain of equal talent in the form of Artemis Entreri.

(For the record, Cyrano de Bergerac is still the finest swordsmen in all the many worlds. Leiber is an idle boaster.)

Drizzt’s popularity lead to a prequel trilogy dedicated to the telling of his personal history. And from that point on, he became the main character of the series (which is now referred to collectively as "The Legend of Drizzt").


Author: R.A. Salvatore
Published: 1988/1989/1990
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cover Price: $19.95 (Collected Edition)


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