War of the Spider Queen Volume 2 – Omnibus Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the second trilogy 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.
“Expected treachery and Under-dark spanning adventures give way to unexplained betrayals and angst on steroids as the series comes to a close.” ~The Founding Fields
My statement above might come across as unnecessarily harsh, but trust me, it is not intended as such. I really struggled to come up with something that would sound more positive but I just couldn’t. Thing is, harsh as it is, that summation captures my feelings about the second trilogy quite well. It’s apt. The first two books in the second trilogy: Lisa Smedman’s Extinction, Phil Athans’ Annhilation, came across as very subpar to me. They just did not hold my interest at all. Unlike Byers’ Dissolution, or Reid’s Insurrection, it wasn’t the writing style that put me off, but the entire plot in general. For me, it was a good thing that Paul Kemp, one of my favourite authors ever, was ending it all with Resurrection.
When last I was in the Forgotten Realms, the principal characters had just returned from a harrowing and shocking trip to the Spider Queen’s, Lolth’s, domain. The implications of what they had seen, combined with their trip on the surface world both before and immediately after that, were staggering because it indicated that the Goddess had well and truly abandoned the drow. Richard Baker’s Condemnation ended on a grim note and things looked to be about to get worse for the characters.
They do get worse, except that in this case it applies to two entire novels where they make uninformed and hasty decisions that the reader will often struggle to understand, and that by now the series has become more of a “this is the world of the Forgotten Realms, welcome to these fine tourist attractions”. In essence, it is a travelogue where the writers delve into a multitude of the varying races that call Faerun home. The most unbelievable characters here were High Priestess Quenthel, former Priestess/current battle-captive Danifae, and Haalistra Melarn, the latter’s master.
Unlike my previous review, I’m not going to do a novel-by-novel review. For the first two novels, I’d just be regurgitating my negative thoughts about them, and that would not be productive.
In my review of the first trilogy, I praised the characterisation of the characters highly. To see such a treacherous race in action from it’s own point of view was a fantastic experience that the authors delivered handsomely on. But with the second trilogy, it seemed that Smedman and Athans lost that touch, that feel, that immersion. Reading Extinction and Annhiliation was a real slog therefore. Where before the characters all (mostly) had levels of nuance to them, in these two books they turned into cliches, that nuance having been lost.
Quenthel’s character particularly just deteriorated, turning into someone who has no control over either herself or the group that she is nominally the leader of. Her scourge, the snake-head tipped multi-pronged lash, is far more exciting than her, and that’s saying something.
Similarly, with Danifae, there are plenty of suggestions as to where her character is going, where the series team wants to take her. The way it is executed however, just leaves me wondering what the hell Danifae is thinking when she does what she does. Playing Pharaun against Quenthel? I totally get it. Playing Haalistra and Ryld against the others though? That I didn’t get. And in both cases very little attention is paid to what her thought process is. She just…. does it, without any explanation to the reader.
Haalistra felt a really odd one out. On one hand I get why she betrays her faith in everything she’s held dear thus far, but it just does not jive with how I’ve seen her so far. And she takes Ryld with her, in a sequence that is entirely incidental to the rest of the narrative and is odder than Danifae’s actions. These were fantastic opportunities for the writers to get into the psyche of these characters and explore how they are changing after having witnessed the proof of Lolth’s absence. But that’s not what we get.
There are a host of other characters, such as Jeggred, Pharaun, Valas, Gromph, the Lichdrow, Nimor, Kaanyr Vhok, Aliisza and Triel, who just don’t grow at all. Their characterisation ultimately remains flat. For some, it’s their inventiveness that is bigged up, for some it’s their sexuality, for some it’s their skills, for some it’s their humour, but that’s all it is: being bigged up. No growth at all. Or rather, what little there is of it, it is just too little too late. Some such as Nimor and Jeggred are fantastic opportunities (there’s that phrase again) to tell some really deep stuff, given their respective unique natures where the narrative is concerned. As it is, these two get very little screen-time of worth. The former is just going around talking and planning. The latter’s time is taken up by switching loyalties and then acting in a most ridiculous way. I hesitate to use the word stupid, but that’s just how it is. Not to mention that throughout the series, all the other characters get a good amount of pages in which the narrative is told from their view point. Not so for Jeggred.
That’s all I could think of reading the first two books: disappointing.
And then there was Paul Kemp’s Resurrection, the last novel in the series. And finally things start looking up. His prose was sharper, his pacing more consistent, his characters more interesting, the narrative itself more realistic as the principal characters arrive on the final legs of their journey to restore Lolth to the drow.
Most of my complaints from the previous two books were addressed here. Now, I could finally start to properly engage in the narrative and not have to slog through it because I found it to be boring. Resurrection is a great positive point for the second trilogy, much more than was Baker’s Condemnation because Condemnation was preceded by two quite good books. Not so with Resurrection.
Still, I do think that it could have been better in a few ways. The inclusion of Inthracis, a yugoloth demon, felt forced to me, mostly because the guy and his supposedly elite army to very little in the entire book. They have a great opening chapter and a decent outing in the climax but other than that they were absent. Another missed opportunity where I’m concerned.
Then there’s the fact that the relationship between Lolth and her daughter (?) Eilistraee wasn’t explored at all. We see them both through their agents, Halistra’s old companions for the former and her new companions for the latter, but the conflict that is at the core of their relationship was never touched upon. These two are at odds… just because. This may actually be a product of the setting but I think that there was ample scope in the novel to have the reader experience why they are at odds.
Another, and this is actually a problem with the second trilogy in its entirety, is that there is too much emphasis placed throughout on Pharaun and Gromph preparing for their spells. It is all extremely forced by now. Yes I know that’s how things happen in an RPG game or a boardgame or whatever, but in this format, it jars and breaks the flow of immersion in the story, ruining the pacing. Another missed opportunity was the beginning of Extinction when Pharaun irreverently gathers some special ingredients for his spells. Said ingredient never makes another appearance in the novel, or gets even a tangential reference even. Which is odd, considering that the writers describe him often as preparing this spell and that, sending Valas off to gather ingredients, and some such.
Other than, no more complaints about Resurrection. The ending and the entire build-up to the climax was good, with some great set piece action scenes, which were rather lacking in the previous two books. Not to mention that we got a downright good magic battle between the Lichdrow and Gromph.
In the end, Volume 2 just doesn’t compare so well to Volume 1. I felt as if the series was losing steam, although Paul rallies significantly, yet it doesn’t quite work out for the best.