Sunday 12 April 2015

On R A Salvatore and the Echoes of an Earlier Age

Somewhere along the line, I reached this point where I was embarrassed of many of the things I enjoyed way back in high school. This certainly applies to much of the music that was in vogue in the 90’s, but it also holds true for my then favorite author, R. A. Salvatore.

The Folly of Youth

R. A. Salvatore is a bestselling fantasy author, who got his start writing DnD tie-in novels set in the Forgotten Realms. (He gives some great interviews, which are worth listening to at-length, but one of the themes I found interesting is how much of his career was determined by split-second decisions.)
Why, looking back, do I find myself embarrassed of my former Salvatore fandom? For one, his popular character Drizzt Do’Urden, is a total Mary Sue. He's an Elf who lives nearly forever who, as a child, dominated the Drow version of Ender's Game and is painfully proficient at everything under the sun, a sort of Fantasy Superhero, and yet, he’s an outcast who must fight for acceptance and bla bla bla…my brain just turned-off. That, plus the fact that his writing itself, characteristic of many popular writers of the day, is rather thematically simplistic and artistically uninspired. It is, however, utilitarian. Salvatore writes in a clear and organized fashion and I almost never have to puzzle over what I just read. In fact, his books just fly by easily--they are supremely readable.

Sort of like this guy...
I was introduced to Salvatore’s work while hanging out with one of the coolest guys I knew in HS. Tony was a smart guy, but in a cool way. He had interesting hair. He always had an intelligent opinion on anything and it sounded even more intelligent because he was originally from Leeds and had a really great accent. At one point, during lunch, he pointed out that he was currently reading through Salvatore’s Drizzt books. It wasn't long until I had gone to Barnes and Noble and procured every book of Salvatore's and over the next few years I read them avidly and repeatedly(OK, actually I remember finding the Cleric's Quintet rather dull--but I still read through all five books twice!)

Fast-forward through half a life time, 8 years of higher education, 9 years of full-time work, the last 8 of them including marriage and raising a family. I'm picky about what I read. I don't just read any old genre fiction. I read Genre Literature! Let's just hide this collection of Salvatore books behind the Gibson, the Weird Tales greats, the Tolkien, and the thick cobwebs of bibliophile snobbery...

Rereading Salvatore

You know, where the entire events of the Hobbit took place...

Lately, I've been reading the first 2/3 of Salvatore’s “Crimson Shadow” trilogy, which I think belonged to my younger brother, but somehow ended up in my book hoard. I’d never picked it up before. They definitely have their weaknesses. Luthien is a fairly run-of-the mill fantasy protagonist. A young, naive lad who goes out into the big world and rises to greatness. At least he’s not a farm-boy. Instead, he’s the son of a lord, who spends most of his time in “the arena”, a combination of Roman gladiatorial combat and the Chivalrous Tourney.

And, of course, it apes Tolkien insufferably(though one could certainly claim that all modern fantasy literature shamelessly copies Tolkien, usually quite poorly). There's Luthien's name, of course, though apparently it's an appropriate name for Human Males now, and even more confusingly is the fact that the stories are set in Eriador. Is the Crimson Shadow an unauthorized sequel to Lord of the Rings or is this a different Eriador? I was surpised to see that no map appears in the beginning of the books, but then I realized that it's because the setting is just Fantasy Britain re-skinned with new names. Eriador is Scotland, Avon is Britain(or maybe just England?), and Gascon is France. Also, the Cyclopians are clearly just reskinned Orcs.
Salvatore's Avon

The books are very readable, although the plots are a bit simplistic. Also, there are lots of little details that strike me as poorly thought-out. For instance, in the many mass combats, neither army seems to use scouts and this allows them to get away with all sorts of tricks that wouldn't work if this huge army would just deploy a few scouts to look out for ambushes/keep an eye on the other huge army. That said, I could totally see how Luthien's character would have been relatable for my teenage self. He's a young guy with a good heart and lots of potential but who is clueless with regard to girls, politics, and just generally everything. That said, everything he tries succeeds spectacularly, sometimes because he listens to his friends, sometimes because of sparks of raw talent, and sometimes due to honed martial skill, and he rises to fame and fortune(besides that, the second book is all about this love triangle where he has to choose between foxy half elf girl or fiery redheaded warrior chick. Not only that, but then their rivalry changes to ever increasing fondness for one another, to the point where you start wondering where this is going--I'm starting to understand why this guy was my favorite author in High School...)

Of Fair Folk and Bird-Men

symbolism doesn't have to be subtle...
Anyway, to sum up this rambling review, I've made my peace with Salvatore. He writes very readable fantasy, with true general appeal, especially to young men(as I once was myself). As to the lack of Artistic Merit... I think the recent movie Birdman does a better job than I could of presenting the dialectic of creating entertainment for an audience vs. creating art for art's sake. The film shows how impossible it is to completely separate between the two. Salvatore's work is immensely popular, but one also get's the impression that he truly loves coming up with this stuff, and perhaps that is Artistry at it's truest, regardless of how entertained the snobs and critics may be...

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