Time for yet another reading challenge post. For this episode we take a time machine way back to 1990. A young Gracie was in middle school, a time usually best left unmentioned. In this particular year, though, a much older cousin handed Gracie two books he thought she might like. And so, without realizing it, Gracie partook of a nerddom cultural phenomenon: The Dark Elf Trilogy, part of the larger body of work that is now known as The Legend of Drizzt.
Wikipedia informs me that there are a completely ridiculous number of books in this series. There’s a new one coming out in September and it is apparently book number 34. Obviously for my reading challenge I’m not going to read 34 Drizzt novels. I’m also not going to start in order of publication, back with the Icewind Dale trilogy. No, I’m going to start with the first prequel, and the book that started it all for me: Homeland, first published in 1990.
Come along with me as I re-read the book that I thought was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, back when I was in middle school.
This story is an unapologetic prequel. It tells the story of the famous Drizzt Do’Urden, the drow (dark elf) with a heart of gold that spawned a million copycats in RPGs ever since his creation. The story of the Dark Elf Trilogy spans the time from Drizzt’s birth in the Underdark up through his eventual arrival at Icewind Dale in the surface world. It is high fantasy, but it focuses far more on character development than any sweeping wars or political intrigue.
Homeland starts on the night of Drizzt’s birth, where he was spared from being offered as a sacrifice to his people’s spider goddess when one of his brothers assassinated the other during a battle. From the start we see the cruelty and ambition that form the foundation of drow society, and how Drizzt seems always at odds with it.
Drizzt spend the majority of the book training. First within his house, and then eventually at his city’s fighters’ academy. Everything comes easily to him, and he’s a natural expert swordsman. He’s an exceptional character even in the Forgotten Realms, the D&D setting where pretty much everyone is a ridiculously overpowered super-elf. His struggles are never due to physical limitations, but rather stem from his naivete and from having a character alignment that is at odds with the default for his race.
There is a plot that isn’t just about Drizzt, but it just adds some seasoning to the character development. There is war brewing between noble houses of the drow city of Menzoberenzen*. When I was a kid reading these books I remember getting super wrapped up in the intrigue of drow house politics. How gross is it that one of the few times I remember as a kid reading and being excited about female characters being super powerful and respected in fantasy books it was the evil drow? Looking at it now I can’t help but see all the ways ambitious women get associated with evil over and over again in different media throughout the ages. But it left an impression on me.
Weirdly, this book also reads like a parable of a queer kid who decides he’s better off choosing to leave home instead of staying with his abusive family. Drizzt knows exactly who he is as a person, and he knows that he will never be able to conform to the expectations of a family that will never accept him. He sees good people forced to fit the mold of their hateful religion, and he refuses to stay and live that way. This is a perspective I was not expecting when I dove back into this book!
What also surprised me on this re-read, a good decade or more since the last time I picked up these books, was how reasonably well it stood up. Yes, somebody could write a whole dissertation on the implications of featuring an entire race of evil dark-skinned elves. Yes, Drizzt is so well-known now that he’s a trope. And yes, the writing occasionally jumps with both feet into traps of the “he gazed with his piercing lavender orbs” variety. But on the whole it holds up about as well as it could. The thing that I think some of the people who name their MMO characters XxDrizztxX forget is how compassionate Drizzt is. They remember the “edgy” dark elf and his fighting skill, and not always his innocence and honor. It was worth the re-read just to be reminded of that.
I actually read all three books in the trilogy, but I’ll leave this review at just the first one. It is my favorite of the three, but I enjoyed re-reading them all.
TL;DR: Love it or hate it, the story of Drizzt is an iconic one in the fantasy literature, and probably worth the quick read if you haven’t already.
The Legend of Drizzt by R. A. Salvatore
Rating: 4/5 stars
Next up: A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
*spelling left intentionally wrong because seriously, nobody can spell it right on the first try without looking it up.