October 10, 2019
(+++) VENTURES AND ADVENTURES
Timeless. By R.A. Salvatore. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
Boundless. By R.A. Salvatore. Harper Voyager. $27.99.
There is tremendous pleasure in observing virtuosity in action. It matters not what the field is: people who make complex tasks look easy are a joy to observe, and the worlds they create and share with the rest of us non-virtuosi are fascinating to contemplate and explore. So visits to the Forgotten Realms of virtuoso fantasist R.A. Salvatore are a thoroughly immersive experience, and Salvatore’s latest trilogy, set in the world he has delved into in more than 30 prior novels, is every bit as gripping as his earlier explorations of his self-created universe.
To be completely fair, it is not entirely self-created: much of it blends the sensibilities of J.R.R. Tolkien (as virtually all post-Tolkien heroic fantasies do) with elements of “Dungeons & Dragons” (whence comes, for example, the name of “a filthy little tavern with terrible food and worse liquor,” where deeds are done and plots are hatched: the Oozing Myconid) and similar role-playing games. And the characteristics of Salvatore’s novels fit the modern heroic-fantasy genre like a skintight glove: there is nothing here, not a single thing, that shakes the genre’s boundaries or tries to expand them. So lovers of the genre can slip into the Forgotten Realms with the surety of comfort. There is nothing humorous in these books: parodies of this genre offer humor, but the genre itself is intended to be taken very, very seriously. There is plenty of gore, but not an excessive amount for the genre: this is heroic fantasy, not horror. There are naming conventions intended to be taken as exotic, not silly: Horroodissomoth does not refer to ghosts making sounds directed at a butterfly-like insect, Catti-Brie is not a mixture of felinity and French cheese, the brothers Bouldershoulder are not introduced for comic relief, and there is no amusement intended in the name of Thibbledorf Pwent. The peculiar coexistence of vaguely Germanic place and character names (Thornhold, Gauntlgrym, Guenhwyvar) with prosaic English-language ones (The High Forest, Sword Mountains) and occasional ones referring to gods who do not exist in Salvatore’s reality (Baldur’s Gate) is to be taken at face value. So is the sprinkling of apostrophes (Tr’arach, K’yorl, Syn’dalay, Sos’Umptu, D'aerthe, Q’Xorlarrin). Readers who engage with Salvatore’s world and disengage from their own critical faculties regarding these genre elements will have a thoroughly satisfying time with Timeless, the first book in the new trilogy (originally published last year and now available in paperback) and Boundless, the sequence’s newly released second book.
This trilogy is built around one of Salvatore’s most-popular characters, Drizzt Do’Urden, a dark elf (drow) sired by the hyper-powerful weapon master of a minor, now-destroyed House upon the ambitious and nymphomaniacal Matron (ruler, in a matriarchal world) of the House of Do’Urden. Drizzt’s father is named Zaknafein, and he appears in two forms in the two time periods in which Timeless and Boundless take place: in the past, among the never-ending machinations of drow houses as they eternally jockey for power and for the favor of the spider goddess Lolth, who (despite Salvatore’s intentions) is not at all Lovecraftian, and whose sole reason for existence is to promote chaos (never mind whether that make sense); and in the “present” in which this series takes place, when Zaknafein has been reincarnated after heroically drowning himself in acid for the sake of his son (again, never mind). The frequent passing references to earlier Forgotten Realms books – including that acid bath – will have no resonance for readers unaccustomed to Salvatore’s machinations and world-creation, but will make perfect sense to existing fans who are familiar with earlier Forgotten Realms novels. Timeless and Boundless can actually be read – in that order – without knowing prior Salvatore books, for readers who enjoy the genre and are not too picky about exposition or too worried about plot holes. Timeless turns on the question of who revived Zaknafein and why, and whether he really is Zaknafein or is some nefarious revenant creature or other. A subsidiary theme that pops up periodically is that the drow know they are the best and greatest race in all the realms, but Drizzt consorts with beings deemed inferior by Zaknafein, including halflings, dwarves and elves, and even consorts with humans – literally consorts, since he is married to one: these magical, mystical beings from a deep and dark realm totally unlike Earth for some reason have Earth’s marriage customs. And Drizzt’s wife is pregnant with what will be Zaknafein’s grandchild, whether or not the resurrected warrior will ever be able to accept that reality.
The swift shifts between timelines and the constant changes of focus in Timeless make the book hard to follow for readers seeking narrative consistency, but fast-paced and involving for ones who enjoy movie-like (or TV-like) quick cuts from one scene and one set of characters to another, usually leaving someone in a perils-of-Pauline situation while Salvatore shifts his attention elsewhere. Some characters serve to hold the bulging narrative more or less together: Drizzt, Zaknafein, and Jarlaxle, a mercenary and rogue (and something of a dandy) whose own origin lies at the highest levels of drow society and who manages, despite being male, to create a kind of “House” of his own by building up a gang of other clever, ambitious and pretty much ruthless misfits.
Boundless is essentially a continuation of Timeless and not really readable on its own. It starts with a typically hectic, even frantic Salvatore touch in the form of an invasion of demons – and with some typical Salvatore stylistic oddities, such as a scene in which demons about to pounce on and destroy the “good guys” suddenly and inexplicably turn on and attack each other instead, because…well, just because that is what demons do, since they are creatures of chaos and servants of Lolth, except that they are suspiciously well-organized when that suits the book’s narrative purpose. Boundless further explores the ongoing sociopolitical intrigue that permeates Timeless and features in other Forgotten Realms books as well: ultimately, everything is supposed to be about power, which the drow Houses lie, cheat, steal, and murder to attain so they can eventually be among the eight ruling Houses of the vast and sprawling city of Menzoberranzan, at which point Houses below them will try even harder to destroy them. Well, fine points of narration are not germane to Timeless or Boundless or Salvatore’s many other books. What matters is the unending series of thrills, battles, swordplay (often described in great detail), betrayals, and Salvatore’s unashamed use of every possible cliché of villainy to be found in the heroic-fantasy genre. Boundless ends in a way that would give readers pause, in fact a great deal of pause, if Timeless had not shown that it is possible to be reincarnated even after being dissolved in acid. Where the third book of this trilogy will go after the highly dramatic conclusion of the second one is anybody’s guess, but have no fear: the finale will be fast-paced, exciting, intense, and largely incoherent in ways that will matter not at all to fans of Salvatore, Drizzt, Zaknafein, Jarlaxle, and the genre in which each of them excels in his own way. It would be an altogether fitting reflection on Salvatore’s virtuosity in creating more and more novels of the Forgotten Realms if he were to title that third book, perhaps, Endless. Or Limitless.