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Book Review: Gauntlgrym: Neverwinter, Book 1 by R. A. Salvatore

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Book Review: Gauntlgrym: Neverwinter, Book 1 by R. A. Salvatore

Gauntlgrym: Neverwinter, Book 1
Gauntlgrym: Neverwinter, Book I
by R. A. Salvatore
Wizards of the Coast, 352 pp.
CLR [rating:3.5]

200 Years Old and Still Going Strong

The most popular dark elf in literature is still a young lad. But aging has still managed to catch up with him at last. Not his own, of course (because at just over 200 years old, he’s not even middle-aged considering the long lifespan of drow), but rather those closest to him. The ravages of time have finally stolen nearly all of his loved ones away. And that kind of loss comes with a price.

From the start of Gauntlgrym, both Drizzt and the elderly dwarf King Bruenor Battlehammer are lost in the throes of memory for their now-lost friends and kin–Regis the halfing, Wulfgar the barbarian, and Cattie-brie. To lessen the anguish, they sneak away from Bruenor’s kinfolk (and the obligations of being king) and search for adventure by seeking the location of the fabled dwarven kingdom of Gauntlgrym. For years, they travel and search and avoid talking about their shared pain. Fans of Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance series might see a close resemblance with Bruenor’s constant fumbling of maps and that of the cartographic addiction of the kender Tasslehoff Burrfoot, though no sane reader would ever confuse those two characters despite their love for maps.

But Drizzt and Bruenor aren’t the only dwarf/dark elf team out searching for treasure and old secrets during these dark times. The rogue mercenary Jarlaxle and his somewhat-insane dwarf companion Arthrogate (who provides comic relief with his catchphrase “Bwahaha!” and screwball comments) have undertaken their own hunt for long-lost magic, dusty treasure, and ancient secrets. After this pair joins with a group that knows the location of this ancient city, Arthrogate is tricked by a Thayan champion, the black-widow elf Dahlia, into unleashing a catastrophic force that is dangerous enough to level cities. In fact, it does exactly that. The bustling town of Neverwinter is blasted off the map fairly early in this book.

The danger posed to all the lands has many heroes and factions working together to stop the coming disaster. One of the main foes who doesn’t want this to happen is Szass Tam, who knows the death and devastation will create another powerful Death Ring that he can turn to his own necromantic purposes. In a strange pairing, Jarlaxle, Drizzt, and both dwarves team up to stop the oncoming cataclysm that could spell disaster for the Forgotten Realms on a scale like the Spellplague had done a century earlier.

Here’s a typical Salvatore scene, showing the awe Bruenor experiences upon finally witnessing the city of Gauntlgrym after Jarlaxle and Arthrogate take him there.

The tunnel continued, sometimes a drop, sometimes a gentle slope, and the five managed it fairly well. They were near the end of their endurance, but dared not stop and set camp, and yet, there seemed no end in sight.

But then they went down a small shaft and under a low archway where the tunnel turned sharply and showed them the glow of the Underdark lichen. A few moments later, they came out onto a high ledge on a great cavern. Giant stalagmites stood quietly around a still pond, and both Drizzt and Bruenor blinked in disbelief, first at the worked tops of those mounds–guard towers–then at the great castle across the way.

Bruenor Battlehammer swallowed hard and glanced at the other dwarf.

“Aye, King Bruenor,” Athrogate said with a wide grin. “I was hoping this cavern survived the explosion, that ye might see the front gate.

“There’s yer Gauntlgrym.”

Avid readers of the Realms series will acknowledge that Salvatore is the best of the authors who explore this shared world, though this particular novel might not represent the skill of characterization and action that he usually delivers. Especially astute readers might notice strong similarities in plot with the Paths of Darkness series, which was a terrifically satisfying, exciting trio of books. By comparison, this one isn’t quite as successful.

Gauntlgrym also departs from previous Salvatore books in another key way–past books focused on a short period of intense action over a limited timeframe. This book? It has decade-long breaks between the intro and Book 1, and again between Books 1 and 2. Readers need to pay attention or they might not realize how cities have sprung up or allegiances have shifted.

One particularly interesting character that makes his debut in this book is a tiefling (a human who has demon or fiend blood within them) who wields a red sword that leaves walls of ash as it sings through the air. This is Charon’s Claw, the same fabled weapon the assassin (and nemesis of Drizzt) Artemis Entreri once wielded. This tiefling, Herzgo Alegni, commands a battle group of Netherese in search of the fallen Xinlenal Enclave. Everyone, it seems, is looking for lost treasures.

Throw in Szass Tam’s zombies, some cultists of Asmodeus, a vampire, a somewhat insane lich, and this story has conflict. A lot of conflict. Even before the big showdown with the unleashed danger of Gauntlgrym, the devil worshippers call forth a pit fiend. It’s only through channeling old dwarven magics that Drizzt’s companions even have a chance to survive.

One thing is clear: Salvatore is moving Drizzt ahead toward a new point in his life. He’s darker, more brooding, and full of a latent rage that threatens to explode at any time. This isn’t the same paladin-like Drizzt of previous books–he’s been damaged. Badly. Some readers might not find him as sympathetic as he’s been in the past. For readers who want to have the full context for this book, the anthology Realms of the Dead will help, especially with the story of Regis’ shade that’s rumored to be seen near a magical woods.

Two of the new characters who seem likely to be a large part of this trilogy are Dahlia, who regrets the tragedy she helped cause in Gauntlgrym, and Barrabus the Gray of Calimport, an assassin that was touched by a shade. Salvatore fans might recognize some of Barrabus’ mannerisms and guess at his past identity.

Ultimately, Gauntlgrym is a quick read with some very satisfying fight scenes. It’s also deeply layered with emotional atmosphere. While it’s not Salvatore’s strongest book thanks to some stock characterizations and a general lack of depth, it’s still a solid addition to Drizzt’s ongoing story. The narrative arcs and ongoing tensions being set up suggest that the next two books in this trilogy might be well worth the wait. Salvatore is one of the best fantasy writers in the business, so odds are, he’ll continue to wow us soon enough.

Ryan G. Van Cleave was the 2007-2008 Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at George Washington University. He has taught creative writing and literature at Clemson University, Eckerd College, Florida State University, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as at prisons, community centers, and urban at-risk youth facilities. He lives in Sarasota, FL where he works as a freelance writer, editor, consultant, ghostwriter, and script doctor. He serves as Director of CandR Press, a non-profit literary organization based in Chattanooga, TN.

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