Sunday, June 24, 2001

Review: "The Demon Spirit" by R.A. Salvatore

When R.A. Salvatore began his first "Demon Wars" series several years ago, I was disappointed. Salvatore is one of my favorite writers, but the first book in the series, "The Demon Awakens" seemed to cover the same old ground. The heroes - Elbryan and Jilseponie - struck me as far too similar to his famous characters Drizzt Do'Urden and Cattie-Brie from the Dark Elf books.

It was only recently that I pulled the second book, "The Demon Spirit," out of my to-be-read stack and gave the series another chance. I discovered that I had given up on it too quickly. In the second book, Elbryan and Pony became more distinct characters and the world fleshed itself out as Salvatore's own. It was a far more satisfying novel.

Now, comes "Ascendance," the first book in a second "Demon Wars" trilogy, and a lot has changed since the beginning of the series. Jilseponie, now revered as a hero, has won the heart of King Danube of Honce-the-Bear. When she accepts his offer of marriage and becomes queen, she has no idea of the pit of vipers she's about to step into. Though she's a hero, she was still born a peasant and the nobles don't like the idea of the "peasant queen."

At the same time, Aydrian, the son of Elbryan and Pony, is coming of age. As far as Jilseponie knows, she lost the child in a battle with the possessed Abellican leader Dalebert Markwart. In fact, the child was spirited from the field by the Touel'alfar and trained in the ways of the ranger. But now he has left the elven kingdom and taken the mantle Nighthawk, fitting of his desire to become more of a legend than his father.

With the help of a conveniently-worded decree by King Danube and the fallen monk Marcalo D'Unnero, Aydrian is about to make his presence known.

Since I haven't gotten around to reading "The Demon Apostle" or "Mortalis" - widely acclaimed as Salvatore's best work - I missed many of the changes. The rosy plague, the covenant of Avelyn and most importantly, the death of Elbryan Wyndon, the Nightbird, all passed me by. Fortunately, Salvatore does a good job of filling in the gaps in the prologue of this book, as well as through clues in the text. Prior knowledge of the characters and their world makes it a richer experience, but is not necessary.

"Ascendance" shows Salvatore's writing continuing to mature. Many of his early works were action-packed adventure tales, and when it comes to those, he's among the best. But now, he's turned his attention to other things. While there's still plenty of action in this book, there's a deeper side to "Ascendance." Courtly intrigue and elaborate conspiracies replace dazzling swordplay as the key conflicts are often fought with brains rather than brawn.

But fans of Salvatore's action sequences shouldn't be disappointed. There's still plenty of swordplay, and Salvatore is still in top form when it comes to combat scenes that put the reader in the middle of the action.

With "Ascendance," Salvatore has achieved a solid balance between action and intrigue and woven them into a very satisfying story. Though I haven't yet read "Mortalis" - and that may change my mind - at this point I have to rank this as Salvatore's best effort.

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