** SPOILER ALERT! The newest book in this series is only a couple weeks old and I am going to go into major plot points – YOU’VE BEEN WARNED! **
Hi everyone! I know doing book reviews is a little bit of a departure since this is a podcast dedicated to snarky movie reviews, but I am a huge fan of the books by R.A. Salvatore and I just finished the final book in the latest series so I wanted to write about it. I hope to be able to delve more deeply into book reviews and to possibly make it a normal part of what I produce. I can’t say they will all be 4,000 word beasts like this one, but at the same time, I’m covering 4 books at once!
Let’s set some ground rules: explaining step by step what happens in a book is not a review – that is a summary or a synopsis. This is not going to be one of those. Instead of listing out the plot to each book and what happens along the way I’m going to dig into flaws and complaints as well as things I really liked.
I will start by asking if anyone knows what in the screaming hells is wrong with R. A. Salvatore and if he suffered a massive and debilitating stroke in the last couple years? That would explain why his writing has become so confused and rushed and why he only closes 1 plot point for every 15 he opens (for those not following along, I’m obviously suggesting that he has a helper monkey that is writing his books for him. Try and keep up, okay?) To save myself the inevitable and vitriolic mail I’m going to get from the half-dozen people that actually read this, I’ll explain: when I complain about poor writing from Mr. Salvatore I’m talking about the Neverwinter series and I’m really only talking about the 3rd and 4th books. Just relax and finish reading, okay?
For those not familiar, the Neverwinter books are:
• Neverwinter Saga Book 1 – Gauntlgrym
• Neverwinter Saga Book 2 – Neverwinter
• Neverwinter Saga Book 3 – Charon’s Claw
• Neverwinter Saga Book 4 – The Last Threshold
Before I get into each book individually, I’ll start with a small overall complaint that it feels like he wrote the series, or at least the starting framework of it, to coincide with the announcement of the MMORPG of the same name. I can totally understand the synergy of having an immensely popular Forgotten Realms author describe an amazing frontier town in a book dedicated to one of the most famous names in the realms, but it feels like a sell-out. Did it work? Probably, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Neverwinter Saga Book 1 – Gauntlgrym
I like that the first book in the new series starts years after the events in Transitions series (Orc King, Pirate King, and Ghost King). It gives some distance from the fan-favorite characters that aren’t involved and it changed the landscape away from the well-known tunnels of Mithral Hall and Menzoberanzan. I also like that two of my hands-down favorite characters make a strong appearance: Athrogate and Jarlaxle. This was a solid book and I read it a second time before book 2 came out because I wanted it to be fresh in my mind. The story was gripping, the characters were great, and the ending was moving and emotional. They got into the kind of epic-level adventures you’d expect from Drizzt and Bruenor: primordials, ancient dwarf magic, massive landscape-changing destruction, and a huge conflict between Thay and Netheril. The final battles in Gauntlgrym are incredible and keep dragging you along with amazing action, personal sacrifice, and powerful enemies. I’m wasn’t overly familiar with Thay or Netheril so I had to do some research on the side to get a better grasp of that was going on, but it made for an interesting backdrop to the rest of the story. Overall the book was great and the death of Bruenor was every bit as touching as the death of Albus Dumbledore. There were some confusing parts (how did Herzgo Alegni get Charon’s Claw, what happened to Artemis Entreri, etc) but the rest of the story was strong enough that those were just branches on the tree-trunk that was Gauntlgrym.
Neverwinter Saga Book 2 – Neverwinter
After the greatness of Gauntlgrym, the second book had a lot to live up to and it did okay I guess. Drizzt was forced onto a path that was totally different for him and that was fine. He’d been through some crazy stuff and all of his friends were dead so it made sense that he’d try and leave his past life behind and hooking up with a homicidal but stunningly sexy elf seems like a pretty epic way to go. I hadn’t considered for a moment that Barrabus was Artemis Entreri and I was pleasantly surprised that such a great character was brought back into the world. The last time we saw Entreri he was hanging out with Jarlaxle causing problems for people in the Bloodstone Lands and getting all touchy feely with his emotions because of a magical flute (see Road of the Patriarch, book 3 of the Sellswords series). This is a long time after that so I figured he’d be dead – they kind of explain it away by saying he’s part shade because his dagger absorbed the negative energy of an undead but that doesn’t really explain it. They also sort of say that the sword is keeping him alive but that doesn’t really make sense either. In fact, they start assigning some pretty impressive powers to Charon’s Claw and in previous books it was just a really wicked sentient sword that was owned by a small-time merchant lord in the desert. I went with it because…hey…it’s a book. Artemis, Dahlia, and Drizzt defeat the folks from Thay and all that, but it felt hollow after the grand adventures in the first book. Following the tree analogy from the before, this was a sapling, not a full-grown tree. It was there but it wasn’t impressive.
Neverwinter Saga Book 3 – Charon’s Claw
I was really excited for the 3rd book. There were a lot of ways the story could go after the previous book so I dove right in. It started out by getting back into what made R.A Salvatore famous: the drow. There was plenty of Underdark intrigue to be had, including Gromph Baenre – probably my favorite mage in the Forgotten Realms books – and I was kind of bummed when the story left the drow and turned back to Neverwinter. I’ll be honest; I don’t care how the town of Neverwinter organizes its militia and guards. If they can’t man up enough to drive out the Netherese then I don’t really care. The story chugged along rather predictably with Drizzt and crew going after the Herzgo Alegni to get Charon’s Claw back but I never really felt connected to the story. The real high points were checking back in on the drow caravan to Gauntlgrym. I wasn’t overly wild about the whole SpellSpinner thing but that is likely because I don’t follow Dungeons and Dragons anymore and I’m not up to speed on the latest editions. I also prefer my driders and drow outrageously evil and unpredictable and these felt watered down. Sure they were evil, but not chaotic evil the way Lady Lloth prefers.
My biggest complaint about the book is the sheer number of open plot lines that were started and completely ignored. There were so many unanswered plot lines at the end of this book that I planned to write a review about it last year, simply so I could try and wrap my mind around it. It was so out of character for R.A. Salvatore and so strange for his style that I was ready to write it off as an unfortunate deadline issue or really crappy editing. An old rule in gaming is that “you don’t describe the window if you want the group to use the door”. A couple of the unresolved plot lines were to be expected and I looked forward to their story: the potential Dahlia/Entreri hook up, the creation of Lullaby and Spiderweb (Tiago Beanre’s sword and shield), and Errtu the balor. Having a few plot lines to carry into the next book is kind of an expectation but this one had so many that I literally forgot about some of them until typing this up:
• What about the drow now inhabiting Gauntlgrym?
• What about Guenhwyvar?
• How come Artemis didn’t die when they destroyed Charon’s Claw? There was a crap ton of build-up and absolutely no payoff.
• What about Athrogate and Jarlaxle?
• What about the Aboleth? In case you haven’t read it, The Orc King starts decades in the future from the timeline in that book and one of the things mentioned is the rise of the aboleth. I thought for sure this would tie in since there was lots of build up, but again there was zero payoff.
• What about Arunika the succubus? It seemed like she was going to play a larger part but no.
• What about Vampire Pwent?
• What about Valindra Shadowmantle and her zombie/mummy champion? They were essentially ignored in this book.
If we continue with the tree analogy, this was a bush not a tree. There was no central plot – just a bunch of side stories that were generally connected through the characters involved. It ended and I felt really frustrated because there were a ton of unanswered questions – far more than normal for a Salvatore story and far more than I appreciated after spending the money to buy the book. It felt unfinished and rushed.
Neverwinter Saga Book 4 – The Last Threshold
I bought this as soon as I saw it had been released. That said instead of having Amazon alert me like I normally would I spotted it while looking for a book for my wife. I was so thoroughly disappointed by book 3 that I stopped caring about the series. Old habits die hard however and I started reading it on my iPad that night. I didn’t remember a lot of the details from the 3rd book but they came back soon enough – Salvatore does a fine job of explaining backstory as he goes. I had the chew through the first half of the book before it really hooked me, but once it did I finished the 2nd half in one day. You can pretty much skip everything before Part III: Into Shadow and thank me for the time you just saved.
Here’s a breakdown of what you missed:
• Drizzt: I miss my old friends. I’m going to convert this totally evil party into good guys by doing nice things for people but I’m still going to complain that they aren’t as cool as my old friends. I miss my cat. I’m super bad with women. Dahlia is a hot mess.
• Entreri: I’m surly. I kind of like Drizzt but I’m too grouchy to show it. Dahlia is a hot mess.
• Dahlia: I’m a hot mess.
• Effron: I hate my mom and dad! Now I hate my dad but my mom is okay. Now I love my mom. Now I’m a good guy!
• Ambergris: I’m a great character but I’m written like a horny college girl on spring break. Yay beer!
• Afafrenfere: I’m pretty much awesome but I only get in a couple fights and the guy writing this book totally forgot that classic monks are immune to poison.
You’re welcome. Use the time I just saved you to plant a tree or adopt a pet or rob a bank or something.
The 2nd half of the book cooked right along and that only made the ending more frustrating and more puzzling because by then I was really invested in how it was going to end. I hated, hated, hated how the book ended. The start of the book was okay but kind of boring because there was a lot more of “Drizzt being emotional and trying to redeem people” than there was ass-kicking but the second half started off so well! Jarlaxle raids a Netherese lord’s castle to free his buddies in truly fabulous style – it was gripping and exciting and full of the interplay that made R.A Salvatore such a beloved writer. It felt a little “dragged by the nose” when the team finally got back together and headed to Icewind Dale but I was okay with that because I knew a Balor and a drow hunting party were hot on their trail. All the same, I kept checking the progress bar on the Kindle, wondering how on earth he was going to close out such giant plot lines like Errtu the Balor, Tiago Baenre and his team of hunters, the clairvoyance the succubus put on Artemis, if Guen would recover, if Pwent actually destroyed himself, what Kimmuriel learned from the Mind Flayers, and how all that played into Drizzt returning to Icewind Dale.
Because the wounds this book inflicted on my soul are still fresh from how it ended I’m going to bullet out the worst offenses below:
• The first few chapters are spent talking up the vampire/battlerager that was so obviously pointed out at the end of book 3. When they finally find him, they talk for 5 minutes and then Pwent suicides? Wait, what? Why bring him back at all if the plan is to kill him off (again) without any resolution?
• Valindra Shadowmantle, the insane and powerful lich from the other books, is mentioned a couple times and then ignored (same as in book 3). This is a lich for god’s sake. Use her to destroy things or raise an undead army to ravage the towns or something. So much time was spent in books one and two to bring her mind back online that it seems like a total waste to just ignore her now. What about the obvious twist where she bends Pwent to her evil will and forces Drizzt to kill him? C’mon man! That’s an easy win and it would’ve been sooooo cool to read about!
• How come Guen didn’t die during the year she spent in that cage while Drizzt was held captive by Draygo? She was withering away after just a couple months so another year should’ve killed her. And astral creature or not, doesn’t she need to eat and drink while on the Prime Material Plane?
• They only fought one group while crossing the Shadowfell. Sure, it was a super tough group, but why? How come there was the hints that Effron would use this cool new staff to whoop some ass only to never have it be mentioned again?
• How was Drizzt a captive for an entire year? Are we to believe he spent an entire 12 months sitting in a small room in a tower doing nothing but talking and eating all day? How was he not overweight and out of practice with his swords when he was rescued? And what was Effron doing the whole time?
• How do Tiago and his team all speak Common? Drizzt had to learn it when he left the Underdark so unless it is now a normal class taught in Menzoberanzan they wouldn’t know it. And why again are they being friendly to the people of Ten Towns when the normal drow reaction to humans is murder and chaos? Trying to buy goodwill or not, these are nobles of arrogant and wealthy drow houses – they would just as soon destroy the rest of Bryn Shander because human life means nothing to them. Instead we see them chumming around with the locals and drinking beer. Whatever.
• They disappeared for 18 years for no good reason! I was fine with them going missing while Tiago’s hunting party was looking for them because I knew they had found the forest and I totally expected an epilogue where the entire party was accepted into the magical woods where Catti-Brie, Bruenor, Regis, and Wulfgar live. Drizzt would reunite with his old friends and fade into legend, Dahlia and Artemis would decide to leave and set out into the world together, and the monk and the cleric would hang out for a while before setting out on their own. I would’ve been completely okay with the series ending right there giving the message that all the machinations of mankind fall away in the face of true love and fate or whatever. Instead it seems like a very heavy handed way to make everyone forget the enemies they had collected before coming back into the world. What about Guen? 18 years with no summoning? And why 18 years? The magical forest was something like 60 or 70 years old at that point – why would it fade away at all and why would they be asleep the whole time? If it was supposed to be a message from Catti-brie that she was okay with Drizzt moving on, then she should’ve appeared to him and told him that.
• Did Drizzt die at the end? I’d be okay with that, hoenstly. He went out like a bitch, but he’s had an amazing run. If he didn’t die, I’d accept the story that he was snatched up by a deity and that he’s sent back as a Chosen. Otherwise that ending was just plain stupid. Sure he was taken off guard and sure he didn’t think she’d actually try and kill him but this is Dahlia we’re talking about.
The book ended abruptly and I cursed so furiously that it startled my dog. I think she may have even pee’d a little. I honestly questioned if my Kindle dropped a few pages. There wasn’t even a back cover…it just freaking ended. I was annoyed by Charon’s Claw because a ton of plots were opened and not resolved so I had to wait until the next book to finish those stories in my mind. This is the last book in the Neverwinter series so anything left open is technically done and closed or if not closed, to remain unanswered indefinitely. The few plots he did close (Errtu and Tiago for example) were closed in a rushed and sloppy fashion. The drow hunting party runs into Errtu and they kick his ass and then the drow hang out for a while and then they leave? That’s it? And no further mention of Neverwinter or any of its characters? And no further mention of Jarlaxle or anyone else – just a quick reference that they got bored of searching after 20 years and called it? And after the fight with Dahlia, Artemis takes the group and heads out – as far as they know Drizzt is dead or missing so they leave Icewind Dale and that’s it? They don’t bother with Ambergris casting a few spells to find him or heading back to Ten Towns? Where’s the loyalty? And how come they don’t turn on Dahlia for potentially murdering Drizzt? She loved him and he didn’t feel the same way, I get it, but damn woman! Get over it! She reconnected with her son and killed the dude that ruined her life so move past the “I kill all my lovers” shtick and try and be normal for a damn minute.
If I had to offer an opinion, I think R.A. Salvatore had a ton of idea for where he wanted the legend of Drizzt to go and instead of picking the best few story lines and writing a book, he crammed them all haphazardly into the last two books of the series and hoped that we’d just choke it all down. Maybe he’s too busy with other projects or maybe he’s having trouble closing the book on one of the most influential characters in the entire Forgotten Realms mythos, but Charon’s Claw and The Last Threshold were massive disappointments. If he wanted to tell all these stories and set the stage for the next series, he should’ve released a second book of short stories instead of trying to fit it all into a novel or two. I won’t even bother with the tree analogy because book 4 is a yard full of grass compared to a tree. There’s no central story, just a bunch of stuff that never gets explored beyond a glance.
In reading things online trying to figure out what the hell happened I saw that there is a book planned for August 2013 called The Companions and that it is book one of the Sundering series. Some folks say it is about the new group of heroes led by Artemis Entreri and others say it is actually lost stories about Drizzt and the Companions of the Hall. I’m kind of excited to read the Sundering series because War of the Spider Queen is one of my favorite book series of all time and these promise to be just as good but R.A. Salvatore has a lot of work to do to regain my trust. You can kill off my favorite characters and you can destroy the worlds you’ve created, but right now it feels a lot like he used our trust to put out a couple shitty books to close out his commitments, meet some deadlines, and make some money.