Author – R.A. Salvatore
Page Count: 384 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: March 4, 2008
It’s funny how perspectives change. Back in high school, when I first discovered R.A. Salvatore’s DemonWars series, I was an instant fan. I loved his personal take on fantasy, drawing endearing characters through hard situations that really allowed the reader to get close. Layered on top of this were the interesting world of Corona and a unique gemstone-based magic system, both of which resonated with my younger self. Mortalis, the fourth novel in the cycle, still stands as one of the most emotionally powerful novels I’ve read.
Second to Mortalis is The Highwayman, a formerly standalone novel set in Corona, the world featured in the DemonWars cycle. It features Bransen Garibond, a young cripple who, through circumstances only available in a work of fantasy, gains full mastery over his formerly palsied body. Bransen’s struggles through the novel, as he faced a world full of rejection and misery, were a joy to watch.
Needless to say, when I first caught wind of The Ancient, the first in a new Corona based series called The Saga of the First King, I was excited. Any further explorations of Corona, a world where Salvatore was not confined by the rules of Dungeons and Dragons, were always welcome; doubly so when they featured one of my favourite characters written by the author. I eagerly dove into the novel when it arrived in my hands, will to be lost again in Corona, but almost immediately I knew something was different. Something was wrong. The Ancient is nowhere near the level of its predecessors; it fact it shares many of the pitfalls that plague Salvatore’s other series, The Legend of Drizzt.
One of the most frustrating/disappointing things about The Ancient is the obvious serialization of The Highwayman character and the early world of Corona. It strongly looks as though Salvatore (and probably more importantly his publisher, Tor) are hoping to turn this into another instance of the Drizzt novels – an endless stream of stories, with only a vague overall initiative, centered around the travails of a particularly charismatic protagonist. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this style of storytelling, but it’s distressing to see Salvatore take this series in such an unfulfilling direction.
Bransen himself is still and interesting character who struggles to escape from one crippled persona, The Stork, but must also be sure not to become overwhelmed by the cocky swagger of he ultra-capable Highwayman. Underneath this all, smothered by these two overbearing personas, is the true Bransen Garibond, and it’s truly a shame that he’s so deeply buried. Throughout The Highwayman we watched Bransen grow and struggle, but in The Ancient this side of his personality is basically relegated to the three interludes – first-person chapters, written as though diary entries, preluding the start of each Act of the novel – which had me wondering if perhaps the story wouldn’t have been better off narrated by Bransen in a first person point-of-view.
Many of the problems stem from the fact that this short novel (384 pages in hardcover) has a lot of point-of-view (POV) characters, literally a dozen or so characters by my count. Now, even masters of POV (George Martin, for example) would have trouble juggling this many POVs in a novel twice as long, and Salvatore is no master of multiple POVs. To compound upon this problem, Salvatore has the tendency to skip between POVs mid-chapter with absolutely no context. For instance a block of text may begin with a few paragraphs from Bransen’s POV, switch to the POV of another character for a few paragraphs, and then switch back to Bransen, all in the span on a page or two. It’s often jarring and and held me back from giving myself over to believe in the secondary characters that share so much space with Bransen.
And this leads to the greatest flaw in the novel: a complete lack of consequence. Bransen’s overall quest to find his father and find a permanent solution to his ailed body is arbitrarily shuffled to the side early in the novel and instead replaced by a typical baddie-wants-to-wipe-out-the-world story, something we’ve seen dozens of times in Salvatore’s work alone. This plot admittedly moves at a great clip, never resting on its laurels, and is filled with terrific combat; but these are things that readers come to expect from Salvatore. The real problem is that none of it really seems to matter. The Highwayman is just too perfect – the reader never really fears that he won’t succeed and save the day. On top of this, as I alluded to earlier, the other characters just aren’t interesting enough to care about.
It’s obvious that Tor is banking heavily on the success of The Ancient and further novels in The Saga of the First King (you should have seen the press kit they sent out….) The question is wether it will ever achieve a Drizzt-like level of success and serialization? I doubt it, The Legend of Drizzt is an anomaly that has the whole weight of Dungeons and Dragons behind it, and I honestly I hope it doesn’t happen. The Ancient looks distressingly like a attempt to strip the meat from the Corona novels in an attempt to position them as a novel-a-year serial, each novel akin to another season in an unending Soap Opera or another issue in a series of comic books.
As a fan of the DemonWar novels, it saddens me to see the new direction for this series and I can only hope that we see the return of the dense tales and strong world building from earlier volumes. If this isn’t the case, I regret that my interest in the series will be wane dramatically. Salvatore already has a strong, successful serialized series in The Legend of Drizzt and I’ll hate to see the Corona novels lose what made them special in the first place. Don’t let me down, SalvaTore!
I think I’ll be easier on the book when I put together my review, but I also haven’t read any of the previous DemonWars novels, so I don’t have that comparison. I also jumped into the book not too soon after a very subpar Epic Fantasy.
That press kit was something, wasn’t it, what with the DVD and all?
I definitely entered this review as a huge DemonWars fanboy, so I’ll interested to see the take from someone not familiar with the series. It’s not to say the novel’s awful, far from it, just massively disappointing compared to the earlier novels in the series.
Had you read The Highwayman previously?
Can you imagine if all publishers put out a press kit like that for their novels? It would get very overwhelming, very fast!
I haven’t read The Highwayman, but I have a copy. A few years ago when I was living in a townhouse, somebody was getting rid of a whole cache of fantasy and science fiction books, I was able to pick up the whole DemonWars saga and The Highwayman – all in hardcover. They are part of the proverbial pile of shame. I’ve wanted to read them, but with the glut of review books, it isn’t always easy to make time for those “non-review” books.
I urge you to read the other novels, Rob. If you enjoyed The Ancient, you’re sure to enjoy finding out about the roots of Bransen Garibond and then later what becomes of the Abellican Church in the earlier DemonWars novels.
There’s nothing wrong with reviewing some older novels, right?
Interesting you say that this series is degenerating to the level of the Drizzt books. Some of my friends were of the opinion that Salvatore wrote much better in someone else’s universe. I really have no opinion on it all, having only read several of his short works and no novels.
All I know is that I didn’t receive this book – should I be envious of a DVD being enclosed, or relieved because it apparently isn’t a good book? :P
Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with reviewing some older novels, right?
Not really, but often the books the publishers send me for review take precedence over books I simply find.
Larry, it isn’t a bad book, IMHO, for what it is.
Honestly, I’ve never cared much for any of Salvatore’s novels (due to which I’ve only read a couple). They seemed to be the worst form of derivative fantasy, replete with all of the D+D archetypes and predictable storylines.
These types of stories can occasionally be very entertaining reads (see Terry Brooks’ earlier Shannara books) but I’ve never really found that Salvatore could overcome the sheer “staleness” of his plots and characters. I’ve always felt the same about Weis/Hickman and their very blah ‘Dragonlance’ novels.
I agree, Aidan, with your note about changing perceptions. I felt the same way about Terry Brooks and his various Shannara novels…I enjoyed the first group of them when I was a teenager, but when the new set came out a few years back I found them scarcely readable and unable to capture me. Whether that has to do with changing taste and perception or shoddier writing I can’t say, but I suspect the former.
But that is just one man’s opinion, and I’ve met many a discerning reader who loved Salvatore and his many many (many) books.
There’s nothing really wrong with the Drizzt style of writing, I even seek it out something when I want something quick and light to read, but I always thought that Salvatore was held back by the fact that he was probably under a strict 90-100k word count and a defined world.
It all amounts to taste, though.
It took me a lot of work to get my hands on my review copy, I don’t know that Tor is very friendly with Bloggers just yet. Which might explain the exuberant Press Kit (the DVD isn’t worth losing sleep over, don’t worry….)
I imagine Larryâ„¢ review of The Ancient would be particularly interesting/hilarious. I don’t think the novel’s would really be up your alley….
It is hard to ignore those review copies, but I think it’s important every once in a while for bloggers to make sure they’re reading what they want to read, if only to make sure it never starts feeling a like a job and less like playtime.
Brooks’ Shannara novels are one of the mainstays of my youth. I still pick up the new one every year and (more or less) enjoy them. Hell, I’m heavily involved in his web site, if that says anything (though, perhaps I shouldn’t be reviewing his books).
I wouldn’t say your distaste of the later Shannara is totally unwarranted. He went through a period of time (The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara and The High Druid of Shannara series) where he went through something similar to what I feel Salvatore is facing. His novels became shorter and seemed to lose a lot of the depth and character that his earlier novels were so full of. His latest trilogy has been a big step up in quality, though
I imagine it becomes harder with time to continue to write stories in one defined world. Realistically you’d start running out of new things to discover and writer about â€“ at least in the Salvatore/Brooks style of storytelling.
What I like about Salvatore’s earlier DemonWars novels is that I felt that it managed to elude his D&D past and come up with a fresh, compelling world. The world in The Ancient is still interesting, but the type of story that Salvatore is trying to tell is just plain flat and overdone.
I do read books while just because I want to read them, without having to write a review. For example, right now I’m reading Legacies by F. Paul Wilson – an older book that I’m really enjoying, but a book for which I don’t feel obliged to write a review.
Also, I’m on the list of a handful of the publishers, so it works out that they send me books I want to read anyway. For example, I recently received Greg Keyes’s The Born Queen, a book I wanted to read after loving the first three. But I have to weigh that against the 2-8 books I receive a week – I simply can’t read everything I get.
Also, since my book reviews go up on SFFWorld, I’m in a “between” place with the bloggers.
I agree with you Adam, I have all the Drizzt books simply because I like Drizzt; I tend to forgive the stories because of them, but I totally get where you are coming from.
On that note, I haven’t read any demon wars books, but I’m starting to think I should.
I do, however, really like what Terry (Brooks) has down with the Shannara series; he hasn’t let his world *become* tied down by “World Rules” like, for example, maybe some of the Dragonlance novels have; instead, with each series, he’s expanded his world a little more. I find that interesting. We all know what to expect from Drizzt, Terry, at least, can still surprise us. ;)
Again, just my opinion. All great points expressed here though. ;)
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I really liked The Ancient. I will say that it was not as good as The Highwayman and certainly not at the level of the Demon Wars series, but still a good book. It felt rushed though. I think he could have fleshed the characters out more and created more of a connection if the book had been 600 pages instead of the 400 that was published. This book also did not feel like a set-up for a trilogy even though it is book 1 in the Saga of the First King. I don’t know if that was Salvatore not really being into the story or the publisher wanting the book to go to the press already. I am interested to see where the story goes from here.
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