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Shadowhawk reviews the first three novels of the bestselling War of the Spider Queen series, recently re-released in 3-book omnibus-sized editions for the 10th anniversary of the series.
“Depicting the treacherous, back-stabbing, scheming Dark Elf society at it’s best, the three novels can only be described as adventure on steroids.” ~The Founding Fields
Forgotten Realms is one of those settings that I always wanted to get into, but never quite managed to do so. There was always something else that I wanted to read or I was just generally unconcerned about reading. I used to devour Dragonlance novels back in high school and the first couple years of college but Forgotten Realms, while it was on the radar, never locked in. And then I discovered netGalley a few months ago, a fantastic source of ARCs for reviewers, and saw that Wizards of the Coast was offering digital copies of the upcoming 10th Anniversary Edition of the War of the Spider Queen series. I was sold. I was super-excited about getting to read them and I promptly transferred the ebooks over to the iPad.
Where they sat for more than 2 months while I got busy reading other stuff. Then July kicked in, and I was like, I’m definitely going to read these now. So there I was sitting around, iPad in hand, opening the Bluefire Reader app, and selecting the file for the first omnibus.
And I got an error message that my license had run out. Damnation. I learned the hard way that the DRM-locked ebooks from NetGalley have an expiry date, something I was unaware of until then. So I ended up buying the two omnibuses anyway. I was too committed and too worked up now to forget about them. I love reading Fantasy, especially of the “epic” style, and I opened up the file with a supreme interest, ready to dive in. Reading Paul S. Kemp’s fantastic Erevis Cale Trilogy back in May had already whetted my appetite for the setting.
By the time I was done with the omnibus, I was immensely satisfied. The three novels had pretty much hit the notes I wanted them to and they were great reads, barring a few odd things that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t actually mean all that much and certainly didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the series.
You see, one of the unique things about the series is that it is all told from the POVs of a few choice Dark Elves, or drow as they are known in the Forgotten Realms setting. This is unique where I’m concerned as I can’t recall reading entire novels, no less a trilogy, from the POVs of such characters. Some snippets here and there, such as in Raymond E. Feist’s various novels, were all that I had to go on at the time. As a friend of mine pointed out to me, reading about one of the most treacherous and self-serving race as the Dark Elves/drow takes some getting used to and the experience is quite rewarding. Thanks to JD, I found out that this was indeed true. This uniqueness was one of the big draws of the novels for me.
The start of the first novel, Dissolution by Richard Lee Byers, is really patchy. A lot of characters are introduced, often for only a brief while until the POV shifts, and it made following the various plots being set in motion quite tedious. Combined with a general unfamiliarity with Forgotten Realms and the drow capital of Menzoberranzan and the drow themselves, this was a big negative of the book for me. It takes a long while to get used to all these characters and grasp at the drow culture that permeates the entire narrative. Once I was about a quarter of my way in though, I was moving along at a steady clip, (metaphorically) devouring the pages one after another. Watching the primary characters all “come together” and seeing how the bubbling insurrection in the city comes about was like watching a great disaster movie. The mood, the atmosphere, the tension, the feel, it is all there in spades.
The only other thing that put me off a little about Dissolution was that Byers uses some rather convoluted sentence structure. Long paragraphs consisting of really long, multi-part sentences really puts me off. It’s akin to reading a wall of text for me. It also made following the narrative that much difficult and that is definitely not something that I enjoyed about the novel.
However, Byers makes up for it with his characterisation and some really vivid descriptions of both drow city and the city of Menzoberranzan. Whether it is master wizard Pharaun Mizzrym, master swordsman Ryld Argith, High Priestess Quenthel Baenre, or Archmage Gromph Baenre, or any of the host of minor characters that pop up in the novel, they are all portrayed excellently. Byers definitely captures the inherent treacherous nature of the drow, as well as making them all otherworldly and familiar at the same time. The convoluted politics of the drow are neither dumbed down nor bigged up to the point where following them is a chore either way. Through his characters, Byers’ exploration of the drow is near perfect. As someone who had only a passing interest in the drow before reading the novel, I was totally hooked. Reading Byers’ novel is like being caught in a feedback loop that passes along an addiction to read more of the drow, Menzoberranzan and the Spider-Queen Lolth, the goddess of the drow race.
The novel’s world-building is also excellent and it is easy to visualise the various locations that the narrative takes place at and the cavern-city itself. The “elf” feel is definitely there, as is the particular and specific touch of the drow, which makes Menzoberranzan and the Underdark two of the most fascinating locations in fantasy fiction. You definitely can’t get enough because Byers delves deep into the locations and the culture, delivering on a greater whole that is both intriguing and realistic.
While the two negatives I pointed made it not so easy to get through Dissolution, I had fun with it all the same and by the time I was done, I wanted more.
The second novel in the collection is Insurrection by Thomas A. Reid. We are back with the major characters we saw in the previous novel as they are tasked with heading to another drow city in the Underdark and carry out an investigation of sorts into the disappearance of Lolth herself. As an incident that has led since before the chronological start of the previous novel to Lolth’s priestesses being bereft of innate magic, this is a rather important task and also serves to expand the nature of drow society and the Underdark alike where the reader is concerned.
Off the bat, Reid has a similar sentence construction style as Byers and, truth be told, I did sigh at that. I wasn’t even 20 pages in and already the novel had presented me with one reason to “not like it”. That was disappointing. The thing is that this approach makes the narrative far too convoluted for my tastes and everything comes across as too formal or archaic. One word that springs to mind is “Iliad”. I felt as if I was reading that instead of a modern fantasy novel.
That was it though. Reid definitely had a good handle on the setting, as well as the characters that Byers had created (?) and explored already. And into that mix were thrown a whole bunch of new characters, characters who fit right in with the both the larger narrative being told and with the group of drow adventurers from Menzoberranzan.
Reid has also excelled at making Ched Nassad just as hauntingly beautiful as Menzoberranzan. The two cities really couldn’t be more different: one is a city made out of towering spires of rock and stalactites and other such natural formations, while the other is a maze of rocky spires connected by solidified, and massive spider-webs. Whenever Reid talks about that aspect of Ched Nassad, I can almost imagine armies of giant spiders laying out their webs, going from spire to spire, keep to keep, building the drow city while the future rulers of the city look on. It is one of the best images that the novel conjures up.
Pharaun, Ryld, Quenthel, Scout Valas, Ambassador Faeryl Zauvirr and the half-drow/half-daemon Jeggred (son of Matron Mother Triel of House Baenre and Quenthel’s nephew) all return as I’ve said. Of these, I really liked how Reid continued the plot-strands of the first three. More than anyone else, they were the primary protagonists of Dissolution, and seeing them all thrown together for a joint mission was a treat. Pharaun is just as disarmingly charming as always with his quips and smart remarks, Ryld is still as stoic and deadly as before, and Quenthel is just as infuriatingly arrogant as she was back in Menzoberranzan. They all grow as characters, especially Pharaun and Ryld where their friendship is concerned, but it was nice to see Quenthel humbled of sorts. Made for some rather delightful scenes in the novel.
Valas doesn’t get much page-time here and is largely kept on as a minor character but his scenes were still good. He reminds me quite a bit of the Dark Eldar Mandrakes from Warhammer 40,000 in the way that he is able to manipulate shadows and even teleport himself around over small distances. I suspect it is that ability which causes Reid to use him so sparingly but all the same, I wish he had gotten more exposure. Faeryl Zauvirr’s character arc surprised me, as did her change of heart. There wasn’t actually much of a setup for it that I recall, which contributed to the surprise, and it was generally remarkable how devious she actually is. True drow that one. Jeggred though, I didn’t like much. He’s the heavy muscle of the group and in somewhat of a cliche fashion, he is all forever chomping at the bits, trying to settle all disputes at the edge of his rending claws. Not a character I can really care about, but he serves his purpose well.
The real treat in terms of the characterisation was Halisstra Melarn, who was shown as being very much a proper drow and yet, not quite. This dichotomy doesn’t actually get much page-time but Reid still drops enough bits and pieces to hook the reader and keep him/her interested. It worked for me. It was also nice that Halisstra is setup as a companion for the Menzoberranyr drow, alongwith her battle-captive Danifae Yautyrr.
And then there are Aliisza and Kaanyr Vhok, two daemons who command an army of Tanaruuks and half-fiends. Their interplay with each other, and later Alissza’s with Pharaun was a welcome distraction that added some much needed humour to the narrative, as well as a certain amount of spicing up.
The thing about Insurrection is that it adds a whole another layer of perspective to the events that played out in Dissolution, and it adds an entire bunch of characters to the narrative in keeping with that very perspective. Everything is done bigger and better than before. Then there’s the fact that through all the new stuff that is added, the Underdark is setup for some major exploration, in terms of how the various races that dwell there interact with each other and what the larger society and culture of the Underdark is. Insurrection is all about cut-throat politicking and power-hungry individuals, a concept that is explored in detail by Reid.
I know I talked quite a bit about the characters in Insurrection and not enough about the other stuff, but the thing is that this is a novel driven by its characters from start to finish, and it is fantastic! On one level, the events in Ched Nassad are a mirror of those that happen in Menzoberranzan, except that we begin to understand a little more of what is truly happening with regards to the disappearance of Lolth and why her priestesses are (mostly) powerless and how the entire drow culture is beginning to tear itself apart with that power vacuum. Definitely a great experience for the reader.
And then finally we have Richard Baker’s Condemnation, in which our band of drow adventurers find themselves lost on the surface world and slowly begin to make the long trek back to Menzoberranzan with news of the disastrous events that played out in Ched Nassad. With this novel, we move into the “middle” of the larger narrative of the War of the Spider Queen, and generally, it is the “second books” that suffer from not being as awesome as the “first”. Within the context of the first volume, Insurrection was a much better novel than Dissolution because it ramped up the characters and the world-building. All that remained to see now was if Condemnation could top it.
It most certainly does. I have no complaints about the novel, nothing to the degree of the previous two at any rate. The only real one would be some scenes involving Halisstra in roughly the mid-point of the novel. They lacked a certain…. impact and made her out to be a bit more stubborn than I was expecting her to be. And the mad rush early on in the novel when the drow companions find out that the ruins they have escaped to from Ched Nassad are not as empty as they thought. It was all a frantic rush of fight, throw magic, kill, maim, tear apart, throw magic, and so on. Somewhat disconcerting.
However, Baker writes the type of fantasy novel I love to read, with shorter, snappier dialogues and exposition than the previous authors in the series. There is an efficient economy of words in his narrative and that makes the novel move along at a fast-paced clip, even when the events themselves slow down and Baker pauses to build up his characters or introduce them to new situations.
My knowledge of the Forgotten Realms setting expanded even more with this novel than it did with Insurrection. That is due to the fact that Baker forces his characters to confront their very own nature and presents them with no less than two alternatives to their way of life, whether it is cultural or religious. The comparisons that he sets up are evocative and powerful in their own way because he ratchets up the story in terms of scope and perspective. The last third of the novel is where he lavishes the most attention on the setting and his characters, making it the best part of the entire novel. No spoilers, but our band of drow adventures finally get what they want, except that things are very much not what they appear to be.
Shock. Awe. Surrealism. Hopelessness. Anger. Helplessness. Majesty. These six things define the novel, especially the latter third of it. The characters are confronted at every turn by challenges that rock them to their core and test who they are, what they are, and what they believe in. Quenthel and Halisstra suffer the most in that regard but it is also pleasing. Baker uses them to show how blind and unswerving loyalty can be as much of a hindrance as a weapon and what happens when someone’s faith is shattered. In that regard, the story works really, really well.
Plus, this is still about the drow, even though their distant surface-dwelling kin are thrown in for good measure. But this is still so much of a drow/dark elf novel. The characters still bicker amongst themselves to the detriment of their own well-fare and their society, whether it is the adventurers on the surface, or the Menzoberranyr who are about to come under attack by an army of duergar (dark dwarves) and the Scourged Legion of Kaanyr Vhok. The latter also marks the return of the friendly neighbourhood alu-fiend Aliisza.
In the Underdark, there are always skirmishes and wars and battles for supremacy, whether it is within the drow cities, or between them, or it’s the drow against the other inhabitants of the sunless world. While Pharaun and others give us a perspective of events in their travels on the surface-world, we see the culmination of decades, even centuries of planning, come to a head in the Underdark. We learn who the mysterious instigators of the rebellion in the drow cities are, and we get hints of why they are doing it. Nimor Imphraezl is the main culprit here and seeing how he furthers the plans of his secretive brotherhood was interesting to say the least. As manipulative a bastard as any other drow in the series so far. Not to mention that in this novel, traitors abound in larger numbers than ever before, in a conspiracy that shakes Menzoberranzan to its core, adding on top of everything that the city has already suffered.
Life in the Underdark is hell, make no mistake!
I liked how Baker delivers on the inherent promise of this novel. Everything flows neatly from point A to B. The characterisation is excellent, and the combat sequences are perfect in their execution and their impact, especially when we get to the latter third of the novel and the characters are thrown into a situation that challenges their deepest beliefs. And the horror of them discovering that nothing is as it seems.
And just what in the Underdark is Lolth up to!
I really can’t wait to get to the second volume next month!