Siege of Darkness

Author: R. A. Salvatore
Copyright Date: 1994, 1995, 2003

Siege of Darkness is the third book in the Legacy of the Drow series which in turn is the third series to feature R. A. Salvatore's star character, Drizzt Do'Urden. What does that mean? Not much, except that it has the coolest cover yet in the Legacy of the Drow series, and we finally have one book that stays completely away from Artemis Entreri. (Not that Entreri is entirely bad as a character, but the whole Drizzt rivalry and the fact he just would not die when by rights he should have been dead twice already was getting pretty annoying.) Otherwise it's more of the same, both in a good way and a bad way.

With almost twenty books and counting based around this ensemble of characters, it probably comes as no surprise that parts of the story become rather stale after a while. I burnt myself out trying to read The Dark Elf Trilogy in a single shot, one after the other. No, for me, R. A. Salvatore's books are best read with long gaps in between, because while they can be very good at what they do, what makes them good is more of the same.

Drizzt Do'Urden is the dual scimitar-wielding dark elf hero that every would-be badass table top RPG character wants to be. Salvatore absolutely gushes with description when Drizzt goes toe-to-toe with a near equal combatant, to the point that after so many books of this my eyes tend to glaze over. Yes, we know just how well Drizzt dances circles around his enemies. By this point there isn't any need to prove the point, and by some miracle the ritual toe-to-toe duel doesn't happen in this book. The opponent most suited (story-wise) for the traditional Drizzt Do'Urden duel is instead taken out by a squad of crazy dwarfs and a wizard who seems to have accidentally magicked himself into some kind of werewolf. But getting back to Drizzt, he's the most amazing swordsman out there and since getting to where he is now (past the prequel trilogy) no one has been able to beat him in a fair one on one duel. He'd be unsufferable if he wasn't the character who he is when he's not fighting.

Drizzt's backstory is unlikely at best (which is possibly another reason I didn't find The Dark Elf Trilogy so easy to swallow), in that he is the rare dark elf, or drow, who was born with a conscience and kept it while growing up in the twisted and perverted underground city of Menzoberranzan. He's a good guy, a good guy to end all good guys, and if "pure as the driven snow" is possible to attribute to a guy, Drizzt is an excellent candidate. Well, except that he's ferocious with his twin swords, but he's exceedingly noble in other circumstances, which made him an incredible thickwit in Menzoberranzan, a city that thrives on intrigue and the power struggles between the noble houses that rule it.

Bringing this short, Drizzt left the drow world, made a bunch of goodly friends on the surface world, and because he's an badass outcast from the evil group he's popular among fans who like that sort of thing, and he's also popular among fans who like him for his integrity. I count myself among the latter (which is why my eyes glaze over on the dueling scenes), since I've played this character type before in various Dungeons & Dragons games; the outcast "monster" whose fault among its people is that it doesn't take joy in thrashing the heck out of innocents, and that's why I read these books. And, as time went on, I found I liked the side character Catti-brie quite a bit. She didn't do much in the early books, but she's a real spitfire and it's nice to see a girl who can (figuratively and to some degree literally) smack around the guys a bit.

Siege of Darkness continues the struggle between the inhabitants of Mithril Hall, where Drizzt's friend King Bruenor reigns, and the denizens of Menzoberranzan, the nearest drow city of the Underdark. The previous two books in Legacy of the Drow saw a failed attack on Mithril Hall and Drizzt's subsequent foray back into the city of his birth to... do something or other. Probably to do a preemptive strike, a scouting mission, or something of the sort. Maybe he was going to sacrifice himself? I honestly don't remember other than Catti-brie chased after him, they made a mess of House Baenre, the First House of Menzoberranzan, and then escaped back to the surface. Such is the pulpy disposible nature of these books. Even rereading the back cover for purposes of writing this essay doesn't tell me anything. But for what it's worth, very little from the previous book needs to be remembered, since R. A. Salvatore is deft enough to provide just enough recap without overwhelming the reader.

Despite the conflict between Mithril Hall and Menzoberranzan, the first half of the book doesn't have the two sides touching each other at all. Rather it focuses on the intrigue in Menzoberranzan and some relatively frivolous stuff topside that I'm surprised didn't turn out to be a bigger deal. Part of the slowdown between the two sides clashing is an event known as the Time of Troubles.

All of the Drizzt books are part of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting for the Dungeons & Dragons games, so R. A. Salvatore's books have to play to the rules of a common shared world. For some odd reason (possibly because he took a break from the current timeline to write the prequel Dark Elf Trilogy) the Drizzt books have been running a few years behind the current timeline (I've heard they have since caught up). This is both an advantage and a curse. On the one side, he's able to write and refer to the effects of the Time of Troubles completely in the past tense and knowing how the entire event plays out without leaving gaps that would compromise the story. On the other hand, because the Time of Troubles exists, he has to incorporate it into his timeline whether he likes it or not, and the Time of Troubles turns out to be almost a non-event in the greater scheme of Siege of Darkness being a book. It was certainly a terrible time for those affected (suddenly the gods walk the land, prayers go unanswered, and both priestly and wizardly magic no longer work properly), but for the reader it only serves to slow the story down, which is a pity.

Half the book is sitting around because the drow invasion can't and won't happen while the Time of Troubles is disrupting the way they operate. What could arguably be the most exciting part of the Time of Troubles, havings the gods walk the land, is barely anything at all. Lloth, the fearsome Spider Queen of the dark elves, shows up at Menzoberranzan, spits out a few choice words and a magic item to help her followers, and leaves again to parts unknown. Granted a deity, even one temporarily grounded in the world of mortals, probably has better things to do than focus all of her attention on a single city of worshippers, it still felt terribly underwhelming. Before the reader knows it she's back home in the Abyss and the Time of Troubles is over. I was not expecting a retelling of the Time of Troubles, already covered in previous Forgotten Realms books by other authors, but I was expecting it would have more of an impact on the battle between Menzoberranzan and Mithril Hall and it didn't. It was for the most part: filler.

Topside was more or less character fluff. Catti-brie had obtained a new sword at the end of the last book, but it was a sentient sword bent on being possessed by the best swordsman around, which happened to be Drizzt. Being handed off to Catti-brie was a mistake the sword was not pleased about, and early in the book it was scheming how it might remedy its unsatisfactory situation (possibly by forcing Catti-brie to kill Drizzt, who isn't interested in any swords that aren't scimitars). For some odd reason, after the sword reveals its intentions and possesses Catti-brie, Drizzt gives her a good talk (this being after breaking her out of the possession) and she packs off on a two week trip that is entirely off camera. When she comes back, the sword is tamed and unquestioningly regards her as its master, no questions asked. Given the setup, I was disappointed that it was resolved so easily. It felt like something greater was originally intended and had been cut either for lack of space or because it was no longer wanted.

There was also the romantic tension between Drizzt and Catti-brie that had been growing the past few books. Catti-brie was intended to wed Wulfgar, who died earlier in the Legacy of the Drow series, but she had her fits with him too, and Drizzt has seemingly held a candle for Catti-brie for several years, though never acted on it due to lifespan issues (she being human and him an elf) and later Wulfgar jumping in first. They finally have something of a heart to heart and agree to be "just friends" which I'm sure annoys the heck out of the female readership and relieves the teenage male one. R. A. Salvatore once described this as something of a no-win situation, where one side complains that he didn't take Drizzt and Catti-brie far enough and the other complaining whenever Drizzt gets close to Catti-brie. Personally I feel he should write whatever is natural for the character and the fans will get over it, but I have a feeling even in book seventeen I'll still find Drizzt single. Oh well. Married characters don't seem to do as well as fictional adventurers.

And after all this, the battle starts. The drow goddess Lloth sets up what she sees as a win-win situation for herself (though her mortal followers don't seem to understand that Lloth honestly doesn't care whether they win or lose) and the disparate drow houses unite under Matron Baenre of the First House of Menzoberranzan and launch an attack on Mithril Hall, an attack that turns into the siege of darkness of the title.

It took me a while to peg why this massive attack (despite the admittedly cool book title) didn't do anything for me. There were roughly eight thousand drow, thousands more drow minions, and the defenders were outnumbered by what was billed as one-for-one better skilled opponents (when it came to fighting the drow themselves), but for all that, I never felt that the good guys were in danger of losing. Even though they made what would be considered tactically stupid moves (and the enemy eventually lost because of culturally stupid moves), there was a devil-may-care attitude by the home team the entire time and nobody who would have shocked the reader died. The two good guy fatalities were both third tier characters of no consequence. Even if they'd lived we'd probably never see them again. Presumably there were more than those two that died, it's just they weren't named, but we don't hear the good guys bemoaning their losses or despairing that they'll never win. We don't see them forced to leave the bodies of dead comrades behind because they have no choice but to fall back to a different position. Only the narration tells us that the odds against them. The characters themselves don't seem to care.

Compounding the problem is that Salvatore gives a fair amount of combat time to the joke characters; eccentric wizards who don't mind their skulls being dug into by mind flayers while they try to cast spells to kill the beasties attacking them. Even if they used a polymorph spell to hide their brains in their buttocks where the mind flayers can't find them, they're entirely too cavalier about having these monsters stick tentacles up their noses in an attempt to find those brains. And then there's the Gutbuster Bridge, which is made up of stupid dwarfs who charge into battle and ram into things, sort of like beserkers only dumber. The way they navigate the battlefield is comical since they just charge straight through without any regard for their own safety. By rights they should have taken the heaviest losses out of any of the defenders' units, but instead they only lose one. The dark elves, as deadly serious as they are, haven't a chance.

Given scenes this these, it doesn't really come as a surprise that the good guys win. Even if they're outnumbered, everything is under control. The only modicum of danger comes when Drizzt and friends themselves are fighting, and only because they're up against Matron Baenre herself and her entourage. The remainder of the fight is just underwhelming, much like the rest of the book.