Friday, November 27, 2020

"Homeland," by R.A. Salvatore--Fiction Review

For today’s review, I’m going to reach way down into my book collection to one of those fantasy books I grew up with—I never promised to be timely on this blog. We’re talking about “Homeland” by R.A. Salvatore, author of the “Legend of Drizzt” series whose titular character was a childhood hero of mine. 

Full disclosure, I first read this book—and a lot of other R.A. Salvatore books—when I was a wee lad, well, not really because I was a pretty chubby kid. My point is, though, I grew up with these books, and my love for them is nostalgia drenched, which is a sentiment that, while warm and fuzzy, should be taken with a large grain of salt.

R.A. Salvatore

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

While we’re on the topic of shocking revelations, I’m a big D&D nerd, and the forgotten realms, the shared universe that Drizzt belongs to, is a D&D setting. Part of my initial and enduring interest in these books is how they tie into that game world. You don’t need to have any understanding or experience with D&D to enjoy the stories; it’s just that knowledge of it enhances the experience.

Drizzt Do’Urden himself is probably chiefly why I love “Homeland” and all the other novels in this series. I find him to be a compelling character even all these years later. My belief is it’s because of his bedrock moral character. If any one character in fiction exemplifies the admirable quality of sticking to one’s principles, even when it’s hard or even deadly to do so, it’s Drizzt.

Another major reason why I like this novel so much is that it’s the origin story for Drizzt Do’Urden and his life amongst the sinister dark elves, the drow. An anomaly amongst the drow, Drizzt, unlike most drow, couldn’t bring himself to fit in with their evil society, which predictably did not go over well.

Finally, a thing that I like about all of these books are the bits where Salvatore writes as Drizzt, and we get to read his personal journal. There is a timeless philosophical feeling about these journal entries that I really appreciate—hell, I’d read a book that was just Drizzt’s journal entries. It was a bold choice to include these in the novel(s) because it could be taken as a bit indulgent, but I’ve always felt it made the world feel more like a real lived-in place. 

What I don’t love about this book:

My main problem with this story is the concept that there are goodly races and not so goodly races. This is more a problem with D&D in general and as such applies to this novel as well. D&D’s stories build off the literary tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien and “The Lord of the Rings,” which in of itself has this problem. The whole concept of orcs is pretty fucked up the longer you think about it. The idea that morality is somehow a racial trait and not an individual characteristic is pretty awful. 

Drizzt himself, early on, is really just an exception that proves the rule that the drow, as a race, are evil, and everyone knows this about them and reacts accordingly. To be fair, this is a concept that in later stories, Salvatore has had the moral courage to push back against, and trust me, it’s unsettling but necessary to see our heroes struggle with possibly being on the wrong side of history for a bit. But that isn’t this story. In this story, the drow are uniformly evil, except for Drizzt, and maybe his dad, and only because they’re awesome.

And finally, Matron Malice is a name so on the nose that it’s like being punched in the nose. It’s only a shade better than just calling her Lady Sinister Von McEvil.  

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The novel starts in a city in the Underdark, Menzoberranzan, the dark elves’ city, aka the drow, engaged in their favorite pastime—war. Not war against an external threat to the city, mind you, but rather one great house of the city against another. In Menzoberranzan, the city is ruled by a ruling council made up of the most powerful families. The only way for a family to advance in drow society is for another family, higher in rank, to somehow be eliminated. In drow “law,” it isn’t illegal for one family to murder another, but it is deadly to be “caught” by leaving any survivors.

On this night, which is a relative term since Menzoberranzan is a subterranean city, house Do’urden is moving against its rival. With their elimination, house Do’Urden will be one step closer to gaining a seat on the ruling council of Menzoberranzan. To give themselves an advantage, the head of the family—*sigh*—Matron Malice, plans to sacrifice her newborn son to the drow goddess, which is a capricious giant spider woman. Really sets the tone of who these people are in this book.

Sacrificing the baby, Drizzt, becomes unnecessary because his older brother, actually the family’s middle son, already “sacrificed” their eldest brother that night. Drizzt’s brother didn’t do it out of any sense of altruism, though, and purely for personal gain. House Do’Urden wins the house war, and now are down a male relative, but they’d gained a new baby boy, so balances out. However, Drizzt will now need to be raised, which Malice delegates to her daughter Vierna, Drizzt’s only full sister in the family. 

Vierna is a nice caregiver, as far as drow can be nice. She’s still a horrible violent tyrant, but less of a horrible violent tyrant than her elder sisters. Eventually, though, Drizzt is largely handed off to his “uncle” Zaknafein, the weapons master, for training, who is actually Drizzt’s and Vierna’s biological father.

From there, Drizzt excels in the use of dual scimitars in a way that astounds even Zaknafein. Zaknafein, by the way, is regarded as one of the finest fighters in all of Menzoberranzan. When he is old enough, Drizzt is sent to the academy, where he also excels but tends toward being a bit naïve, which is used against him.

After the academy, and a bit where his sister tried to “mercifully” sacrifice him, he survives. Drizzt begins a career with the patrols outside of Menzoberranzan, in the Underdark’s outer tunnels, under his brother’s command. Again, Drizzt is exceptionally talented at this and meets one of his lifelong friends Guenhwyvar, a panther that is magically summoned by a figurine. Guenhwyvar and Drizzt make excellent hunting companions, way out on point for the patrols. The wizard who owns the figurine that summons Guenhwyvar, of course, hates Drizzt.

One day, Drizzt’s patrol gets selected to go to the surface, leave the Underdark briefly and raid the “evil” surface elves. While on this raid, against unarmed elves and their children, Drizzt realizes that it’s really the cultish drow who are the evil ones in this situation. Drizzt manages to save exactly one surface elf child by hiding her under her mother’s headless corpse.

After returning to Menzoberranzan, Drizzt inevitably finds his grievances to be irreconcilable, especially after it becomes known by his mother that he actually spared the elf child’s life. His father, Zaknafein, convinces Malice to sacrifice him instead of their son, and she agrees. After his mother murders his father, Drizzt leaves Menzoberranzan and ends up reluctantly killing the wizard from his patrol who always hated him. On the upside, Drizzt now has the figurine that summons Guenhwyvar, so he won’t be totally alone in the Underdark.     


As an origin story, “Homeland” is a pretty good one. Right from his birth, where he was supposed to be sacrificed to an evil spider goddess, Drizzt’s story and his unlikely survival of drow society are compelling. I found it a joy to discover where he learned his vaunted two-weapon fighting technique and his meteoric rise within drow society as being the best of a generation of swordsmen.  

Technically, this novel is the first of a prequel trilogy of books, but any time I think of Drizzt, it’s hard for me to see any other book as the “first” of his books. The first book he appeared in would actually be “The Crystal Shard,” which was published in 1988, which coincidentally was the year of my birth—so yet another reason I love the character, we’re the same age, sorta.  

If you’re reading “Homeland” as the first book in the series—and c’mon, why wouldn’t you be at this point—Drizzt’s journal entries in this and the other two books in the trilogy are a bit incongruous. It isn't actually a problem in this novel, but in the other two books of "The Dark Elf" trilogy, in which they mention characters further along in the overall story you will not meet until the end of the third novel, and then only some. I get why this happens because, at the time these novels were written, it was assumed you would have read “The Icewind Dale Trilogy,” but a little foresight from Salvatore’s editors could have adjusted that. This critique might be a bit cheap since I benefit from nearly thirty years of hindsight, but I still think about it when I’m rereading this trilogy. 

Parting thoughts:

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that rereading this novel is very nostalgic for me. Nostalgia is a funny thing, but it’s a sentiment that I’m deeply skeptical of because while I feel it can be wonderfully comforting, I also believe it doesn’t really do anything for your mental growth.

My problems with nostalgia are I’ve noticed that as people age, they tend to engage in it more and more, and at the expense of new experiences, which—as part of my own theory on psychological health—is the beginning of mental decline. From my understanding of neuroscience, the brain is much like any other body part and requires use, exercise if you will, to remain healthy. The problem with rewatching, or rereading, anything is no new information is coming into the mind, which is why old media is so comforting. You already know the ups and downs of the story. It’s like experiencing the information on easy mode, and—sticking to the exercise metaphor—isn’t very useful.

To play devil’s advocate against my own point, comfort, especially in hard times, does have value for a person’s psyche, so nostalgia can be useful in that case. Also, rereading something at a different age, such as I did with “Homeland,” can allow you to see new things in old favorites.

My final point on the topic is that nostalgic things can be useful and good in moderation, but it shouldn’t be your primary preoccupation in life. No one should constantly be looking backward, so much so that they disregard the future.

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