Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Review: The Orc King by R.A. Salvatore


Let me admit upfront that The Orc King by R.A. Salvatore is the first Forgotten Realms book that I’ve ever read and that my opinion of it will be colored by this fact. For those not familiar with them, the Forgotten Realms are a highly-developed and comprehensive fantasy world originally created by Ed Greenwood as a campaign setting for the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Since its creation, the Forgotten Realms’ popularity has exploded among gamers and readers alike, with over 40 200 novels written.

The Orc King by R.A. Salvatore is the first book in the new Transitions trilogy and it follows Salvatore’s infamous dark elf, Drizzt Do’Urden. It’s a time of war – huge forces of orcs led by the orc King Obould have nearly ended the dwarf kingdom of Mithral Hall led by King Bruenor. However, Obould has the very un-orc-like goal of settling into a peaceful kingdom, living side-by-side with the dwarves. This new, progressive idea does not sit well with other orcs who launch a conspiracy to overthrow King Obould and escalate the war by bringing up a clan of huge and terrible half-ogres from the depths of the underworld. Drizzt is left questioning the zealousness of King Bruenor and his hatred of King Obould while he struggles with his past and future and the treachery of another dark elf.

Salvatore chooses to begin his new trilogy in a very interesting way – he gives away the ending. The prologue is set 100 years in the future, revealing that the orc King Obould succeeds in the creation of a kingdom of orcs existing in a strained peace with surrounding peoples – and Drizzt supports this kingdom. Curiously absent are many of Drizzt’s friends and companions. For me, this is a brilliant way to begin the trilogy – I know the outcome, now I can watch with interest the internal struggles of Drizzt and others as they transition from enemy to friend of the long-hated orcs. However, Salvatore overplays his cards with epilogue, lessening the impact, and showing the reader a bit too much. Some will no doubt dislike this opening, and others will be even more pleased than me – I know numerous people who read the end of a book first (this still isn’t for me, but I now can better see why this can enhance a reading experience). This framework sets the stage well and creates even more questions than a reader may have already had in spite of the fumbled epilogue.

The introspective feel of much of the prologue is continued throughout the book when Drizzt reflects in essay-like form at breakpoints within the book. This is where The Orc King is strongest as reflections of the conflicts in our world appear and Drizzt struggles with his own hopes, dreams, and hatreds in a changing world.

Unfortunately, the remaining aspects of the book do not work nearly so well for me, with the negative eventually equaling, or even exceeding, the positive. When entering the Forgotten Realms I knew that I was dealing with a world of intentionally created and developed fantasy clichés – many probably wouldn’t be cliché if they weren’t in Forgotten Realms. Much of this creation was simply unoriginal – again this was intentional as a goal was to take what was liked and loved and play with it in a new setting. Even knowing all this in advance, the annoyance level was high for me.

Other aspects where I’m likely to differ from much of the fans of the Forgotten Realms, and Drizzt in particular, are the fight scenes. To me they were overly long and tedious, uninteresting, and gratuitous. Descriptions were mechanical, confusing, and at odds with the rest of the text – especially the more interesting introspective scenes. It seems that half the book is nothing but long, drawn-out fight scenes between various beasts and long-standing enemies, where the good guys should be beaten but miraculously defeat the bad guys without any real injury – and just how many people in the world have a magical weapon of some sort.

As I mentioned at the start of the review, this is my first foray into the Forgotten Realms. There is a long history to the world and characters, and I knew none of it. References are made to much of the past, but the book is written under an assumption that the reader is familiar with the world, its history, and the various characters the book follows. While this will be viewed as a positive aspect by those knowledgeable fans of the Forgotten Realms, it leaves the rest of us at a distance that is just too great to overcome.

The framework Salvatore creates for The Orc King (Forgotten Realms: Transitions, Book 1) is promising, interesting, and relevant while the rest of the book fails to support it. I could never get past the inherent cliché and unoriginality of the Forgotten Realms themselves, the assumption of previous knowledge, and the numerous badly written fight scenes. Will I read book 2? Ultimately I’m undecided, but the outlook is not so good. 5/10

8 comments:

Robert said...

Interesting review. I've never read any Forgotten Realms books either and I still can't decide if I want to start. However, Wizards of the Coast were nice enough to send me a copy of this book, so I feel that I should at least give it a shot...

Neth said...

Yeah WotC has sent me a handful of books, so I wanted to give at least one a shot. I'll be hesitant to try others now, but I do hear wonderful things about Paul S. Kemp.

John (Grasping for the Wind) said...

This is definiteley NOT the book to start reading Salvatore's Forgotten Realms. The story has been building for a long time and would be hard to understand. Kemp is awesome (he even agreed to an interview with me!)and an excellent writer.

A good series to start Forgotten Realms with is the Sembia series. It really introduces the world well.

By the way, I'm a Forgotten Realms fan who has never played the D&D game. You don't have to have played to enjoy the books.

Robert said...

Well I have Kemp's "Shadowbred", so maybe I should try that one...

Anonymous said...

Well, I for one am a die-hard Forgotten Realms fan, and I can tell you most of the negatives mentioned in this review seem based just on the overall way the Realms are done. You can't blame the author for assuming you didn't start on the seventeenth or so book in the series. So, if you don't like things like the Realms, then it's an OK read, but if you're obsessive about it like me, it sounds amazing. If only it could be shipped faster!

Neth said...

-anonymous

Your comment makes me feel good about the review I wrote. I strive to write reviews that get across my opinion of a book while providing enough information for someone to judge their tastes versus mine. I suspect that most FR fans are like youself in liking the very things about the book that I didn't care for.

It also sounds like WotC should market it as the 17th book in a series rather than the first in a new trilogy.

Anonymous said...

It should be reemphasized that this novel is packaed as part of a series entitled "Transitions". That ought to clarify for readers that much has already come before this book, and that this book and its associated series are intended to move on to something new and different. No one should be too surprised that there is a very weighty backstory here.

And it should also be noted that Salvatore himself has said that he personally envisions his novels which feature the Drizzt hero character as part of one continuous series; it is the publishing division of WOTC that packages novels into trilogies, quadrilogies, quintets, etc. Most of the Salvatore's earlier Drizzt novels have indeed been restyled as part of an ongoing "The Legend of Drizzt". New installments, however, appear to still be released as compartmentalized mini-series, such as _The Orc King_ in "Transitions".

The problem with developing a fantasy world as fully as has been done with the Forgotten Realms is that everything that can be done eventually is done, so themes become stale and clichéd. That is an unfortunate job hazard for writers of the Realms, and probably any writers of medieval fantasy in general. Just how many wizards, orcs, or swordfights does it take before all such stories begin to sound alike? To the average pop-culture semi-snobbish viewer of D&D, the answer is probably not many.

But one person's cliché is another person's "comfort food". For fans of the genre, these seemingly over-familiar elements are welcomed like an old friend.

I, for one, revel in Salvatore's detailed descriptions of the minutiae of close-quarter battle. While the magical elements call for the suspension of disbelief, the specificity of Salvatore's slices, chops, and whomps gives his stories a much-needed, more realistic grouding. It keeps me coming back, time after time. As the author has said of one one of his most beloved characters, "Zak placed little value in wizardry, preferring the hilt of a blade to the crystal rod component of a lightning bolt" (_Homeland_).

While I certainly love some of the ancillary companions of the central hero Drizzt (with Bruenor Battlehammer being my favorite of the bunch), it is understandable that some readers (and perhaps Salvatore himself) have grown somewhat tired of them and are ready for a change. Drizzt's elven heritage allows for Salvatore to envision a time without these established associates, and Salvatore appears to be clearing the path to that new future.

This ties in with the larger effort by WOTC to revamp the entire Forgotten Realms in the latest, 4th Edition of the D&D game. Many of the characters and locales that readers and gamers have found so comfortable and familiar are in for big changes.

This latest mini-series is marketed as a sort of--literally--transition for the characters of Salvatore's Drizzt books, and existing fans will be the most fitting judges of how well the author traces the progression.

--BEAST (has not yet read the book, but has read all of Salvatore's existing Drizzt novels and short stories)

Anonymous said...

As of today I have officially read all of the Drizzt books, and being only 16, I think that I am a representitive of the younger generation reading these books. And I believe that the intricate ever repeating fight scenes are for one a necessity for this genre and two also very, ironically, repetitive. I have not read the Orc King yet but I wish two get my hands on it soon. So far all of the previous books have been wonderful! I loved them and think that everyone should read them.

If you have not read any of R.A. Salvatore's books then I suggest that you start with the Icewind Dale trilogy. Then Homeland, proceeded by Legacy of the Drow, and Paths of Darkness.

If by chance you are still hooked and you want more continue try Sea of Swords. The books in this order will make perfect sense and set up a very dramatic line of action.

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