Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Blog Fantastic 009: The Crystal Shard review

There's just something so great about hand painted
covers. Digital painting often rubs me the wrong way.

I’ve read a handful of books by R. A. Salvatore. I read them in my teen years and I thought they were quite good. His books were never my favourite fantasy novels and he was never one of my favourite authors but I’ve always enjoyed them. A friend of mine lent me The Silent Blade and The Spine of the World when I was in high school and since then I’ve always wanted to go back and read Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms books from the start. I attempted to do this during my university years by reading Homeland which is only the first book chronologically. I didn’t like it because I don’t like Drizzt. I find him incredibly boring. He’s the Superman of Forgotten Realms and Salvatore (and thousands of fans) like him way more than they ever should have because he’s such a boring character. Drizzt can do basically anything and survive any challenge, danger and adventure. It sucks out all the romance and allure out of the series.

I thought that the Blog Fantastic project on the blog would be a great opportunity to revisit Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms series. I wanted to read about the origins of the band of heroes I first read about in The Silent Blade. That’s one of the great disappointments of Homeland. I think Drizzt isn’t interesting enough to support his own book, never mind his own trilogy or series of books that’s well into the double digits. I decided to give start with the chronological beginning by reading The Crystal Shard, volume one in the Icewind Dale Trilogy. I liked it more than Homeland but there are still quite a few problems with Salvatore’s first published work.

There are many relatively easy critiques you could make of The Crystal Shard and of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels as a whole but there is quite a bit to really enjoy in this first book. Sure, Salvatore wears his influences on his sleeves (Tolkien!) but his influences have also influenced so many others. There’s the little halfling thief Regis who’s got hairy feet, likes to laze around and eat several large meals a day. There’s also many elements of the dwarfs that very closely resembles the dwarves to be found in The Lord of the Rings and other books by Tolkien. Mithral Hall is nothing but another author’s appropriation of Moria. None of that matters though, not with this book and not with any other Forgotten Realms book.

The full cover to my edition of the book. I quite like it, even for a digitally painted cover.
The Crystal Shard and every other Forgotten Realms of Salvatore’s that I’ve read have a different purpose and it’s something pretty close to America’s version of Shonen manga. These books are about friendship, growing up, getting strong, defeating evil, fulfilling quests and surmounting impossible odds with an unbeatably positive attitude. The characters in this book, Wulfar the barbarian, Bruenor the dwarven leader of the dwarves of Icewind Dale, Drizzt the drow elf and even little Regis are entertaining (though some more than others) and it’s there interactions with each other and the rest of the characters that make these books memorable. The Crystal Shard is a book filled with fast paced action peppered with character development and that’s why I think they’re so popular. That’s why I enjoyed it.

Salvatore has a reputation for writing excellent battle scenes. It’s pretty evident even in his first published work. He’s only good at one-on-one or small battles, though. He fails miserably at writing a siege battle with any real skill. It’s kind of a mess and it took away from the climatic chapters of the book. Instead of dealing with the siege we get little segments of what the main heroes are doing and of course every one of their fights was decisive in the grand scheme of things.

I really like this bit about Salvatore's dwarves. Sorry about the crappy picture.
All in all Salvatore writes an entertaining sword and sorcery novel. That’s really what this is. It’s not an epic fantasy novel like The Lord of the Rings nor is it grand in scope as another type of “shonen fantasy” like Dragonlance (which I love) and it bears just a passing resemblance to today’s fantasy publications. It’s not unique, it’s actually pretty filled with fantasy literature clichés, and parts of it are just dreadful. A good example of that is the villain which only serves as a justifiable target for our heroes fury. For every bad element included in the book there is a good one. My personal favourite is that every dwarf smithy of great skill will produce one legendary weapon in their lifetime. I think it’s a great idea and Salvatore writes the forging of Aegis-fang rather well. I’m not overly impressed by The Crystal Shard but I’m far from disappointed. It was a quick read fill with action and interesting and likeable characters that just begs for me to read the second book and I’ll do just that. Hopefully Salvatore improved on all the weak elements of the book and continued to improve on the good stuff. I’m really hoping that Streams of Silver has a better plot, a better villain and better large scale action sequences.

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