Sunday, December 17, 2000

Review: "Servant of the Shard" by R.A. Salvatore

Shortly after discovering the fantasy genre in junior high, I turned my attention to the shared worlds of what was then TSR. I was an avid Dungeons and Dragons player - and it seemed only natural to dip into the fiction set in those worlds.

Over the years I drifted away from those worlds and their stories, losing interest as the first generation of writers and characters were retired. Still, every now and then a book by one of the writers or about one of the characters I really liked during those years pops up.

When that happens, I just can't resist picking it up.

In "Servant of the Shard" (Wizards of the Coast), R.A. Salvatore again turns his attention away from his scimitar-wielding dark elven hero Drizzt Do'Urden. Instead he focuses on two of the most intriguing villains of the series, the assassin Artemis Entreri and the drow Jarlaxle, leader of the mercenary band Bregan D'aerthe.

The pair have formed an alliance to move Bregan D'aerthe's interests to the surface world, but there are obstacles. Jarlaxle now possesses the crystal shard Crenshinibon, and it has plans for greater conquests.

Its influence over Jarlaxle also leads to dissension among the ranks of Bregan D'aerthe, as two of his most powerful lieutenants plot an overthrow.

Salvatore began this series in the late 1980s with the rousing adventure of the Icewind Dale Trilogy, which introduced us to most of the major players. He continued with the more somber and introspective Dark Elf Trilogy, that provided insight into the character of Drizzt.

After that, the series began to grow stale. The same plot line was repeated several times: One of the drow royal houses, seeking favor with the Spider Queen, attempts to kill or capture Drizzt and is soundly thrashed by the heroic ranger and his companions.

But with the last couple of offerings, Salvatore has shifted directions for the better.

One of the best aspects of this book is the development we see in the characters, most notably Entreri. When we first met the assassin in the Icewind Dale Trilogy, he was a brash 20-year-old with only one goal - to prove that he was the best swordsman in the world.

That meant engaging Drizzt in combat and slaying him.

As "Servant of the Shard" opens, we see a much different character. While his mind is sharper than ever, a middle-aged Entreri is facing the fact that he's lost a step and the inevitable time when younger assassins will seek to add a notch to their belts by killing the famous Entreri.

Through the course of this novel, Entreri is brought face-to-face time and again with the conclusion that he has been working toward.

By the end of the book he's questioning the choices of his life, but in a way that's uniquely Entreri.

Jarlaxle has always been confident and calculating. He's quick witted, agile and prepared for almost anything that can be thrown at him.

The mercenary leader is one of the few males to hold any power in the matriarchal drow city of Menzoberanzan. That changes when he takes possession of Crenshinibon.

The artifact begins to control the usually wily mercenary through subtle manipulation. When Jarlaxle is forced to face the fact that he's been duped, he gets a new outlook.

This book is also unique in that both primary characters are "bad guys." Still, they are intriguing characters and Salvatore manages to create sympathy for even a couple of cold-hearted killers.

"Servant of the Shard" also pulls in a couple of characters we haven't heard from in a while: the priest Cadderly and his wife, the fighting monk Danica.

It was interesting to see the changes that have come about in the years since Salvatore's Cleric Quintet.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Salvatore book if there weren't a few intense fight scenes. Salvatore does combat better than any other writer out there, and there are plenty of intricate battles in this volume.

The descriptions put you right in the middle of the action - so close that if you're not careful you could get cut.

Salvatore has expressed an interest in checking on Drizzt and his companions in the next volume. That would please fans who have complained about the dark elf's small role in the last two books.

But for some, the change in direction has brought a new outlook to the Dark Elf series, and those will likely think this is the best offering in quite a while.

"Servant of the Shard" is a refreshing departure for the series, breathing new life back into a tale that was growing stale.

No comments: