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