Rise of the King

Author: R.A. Salvatore

Series: Companions Codex #2

Subgenre: Fantasy

Just when you thought that the saga of Drizzt Do’Urden couldn’t possibly get any longer, we have the next in the neverending story by American author R.A. Salvatore, Rise of the King. Astute readers will recall that we basically already read this book once before back earlier in the series, but for those with a great deal of nostalgia for Drizzt and Co it might be just what the doctor ordered. About as ‘middle book’ as a middle book has ever been, but still chock full of the action that Salvatore is continually lauded for.

In the second book of the Companions Codex, the latest series in the New York Times best-selling saga of dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden, R.A. Salvatore picks up with the fan-favorite storyline of dwarf king Bruenor Battlehammer and his bloody feud with the orc kingdom of Many Arrows.

The Speculative Post's Review

Setting

Characters

Plot

Writing Mechanics

Genre

In my review for the first book of this trilogy, Night of the Hunter, I criticised Salvatore for the degree to which his characters are generally immortal killing machines, and how it makes the action, which comprises a fair percentage of the book, pretty dull to read once you get over any acrobatics. After reading Rise of the King I honestly think that somebody sat him down a little while ago and said ‘Rob, your characters are never in danger. They always win no matter the odds. It’s making the combat less exciting. Where’s the risk?’ and he decided that the best way to fix it was to make the first fight in every book be one where the characters just get beat to a pulp, and then, mission accomplished, defaults back to his immortal face smashing. It’s an issue in Dungeons and Dragons that you reach a point where the characters are so powerful that it’s honestly the case that the best way to put them in danger is to just drop them in the middle of a huge number of otherwise weak monsters. After all, when you roll a 20 you hit automatically, so with enough monsters you’ll roll enough 20s to make it risky. Of course, real life doesn’t really work that way which means fiction at all pretending to represent reality shouldn’t work that way either. It’s actually even -more- disappointing when we can watch the characters easily kill a frost giant, then get nearly killed by a random orc dude with a spear. If you’re going to pick only one fight where the characters are in any kind of danger, how about you pick the days-long siege of a town where everybody is exhausted, worn-down, and low on healing magic instead of the random patrol in the woods?

But then, not much ought to be expected to happen since we’re in a middle book. And boy howdy is it a middle book. We’ve set up every piece, and are poised for resolution after resolution in the third book, but the lack of any real progress in anything resembling the greater plot made this installment drag more than a little. This was the strange thing though, while the content was very ‘middle-book,’ the style really was not. The battles were dripping with all of the epic and dramatic touches that Salvatore is famed for. They were written in a way that said ‘this is a really big deal, what is happening right now’ except what was happening was the cruddy town nobody liked anyway being attacked by a small branch of one wing of an army that was laying siege to a half-dozen other larger, more important places we just didn’t get to look at. I suppose for some it might have built anticipation for the third book, but at least in The Empire Strikes Back some serious important stuff happened.

A larger problem is sort of looming here, however, which I feel needs addressing. I’d mentioned above that we’ve already read this book and I was actually being pretty serious. If I had to generally describe the overall plot of this new trilogy, it would be ‘an army of orcs and frost giants lays siege to the northland, while behind the scenes, drow manipulate events to their advantage’. The Hunter’s Blades trilogy which Salvatore published in 2002-2004 had an overall plot which is described on wikipedia as ‘The orc King… allied with a clan of frost giants, sends a massive army against the towns of the North. On the sidelines, four drow from the Underdark orchestrate events behind the scenes.’ You may notice that these plot synopses are identical in content. This isn’t even where the similarities end. A great deal of this story takes place in the town of Nesme. In Nesme, the Companions are met with distrust bordering on racism for Drizzt, and a generally crappy attitude towards people who clearly are famous heroes here to save them. Way way back in the 1980s, in The Icewind Dale trilogy, the Companions pass through Nesme, and guess what? Yup. Several hundred years have passed in-world, and the people of Nesme are still the same bigoted jerks they always were. It is especially interesting that this similarity for humans is present in a series which is focusing on whether the race of orcs are intrinsically evil or whether they can change. If the changeable humans are still all jerks hundreds of years later, it’s a pretty strong condemnation of Drizzt’s belief.

It isn’t even world detail that we’re repeating here. There are frost giants in the orc army, which are incredibly tough. There are scenes where they are literally coated in arrows, dumped in a pit with fire elementals and blasted with fireballs, and they’re still alive and moving. Then there’s a scene where Wulfgar, our hammer-toting barbarian hero, kills one basically in one blow by hitting it really hard in the ribs, one of which cracks and punctures its heart. I don’t remember exactly which book it is now (Drizzt is up to 26 books so far) but Wulfgar kills another giant in another book in exactly the same way. Why isn’t this just giant-killing strategy 101 for everybody now? Clearly they have some congenital rib defect everybody should be exploiting. When even the over-the-top feats of heroic strength are repeating themselves, maybe it’s time to stop literally bringing these characters back from the dead just to keep writing about them.

As a guide to myself, since I read books at a fairly fast rate and might already have finished one or two more before I have the writing time to review one, I tend to make a short list of subject headings for which things I want to talk about to keep it fresh. The final heading which lead to the above sections was a paraphrase of the quote attributed to President Lincoln. ‘People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.’ While I meant it as much to remind me of the degree to which events are repeating, it holds true as a recommendation for this book as well. I sort of feel like any reader who started when the Icewind Dale trilogy was new and fresh, who’ve stayed in through 26 books are actually quite happy to just keep on keeping on. Salvatore’s willingness to just stay the course is part of why these books are still so successful after more than 25 years. Whether the statement acts as a strong recommendation for why you will love Rise of the King or a condemnation of why you won’t, it is very very much more of the same. Sort of the Harlequin Romance for 15- to 17-year-old boys, or people who love their action epic, their characters incredibly consistent, and their weapons to all have very silly names.

Dan received an Advanced Copy of Rise of the King from Wizards of the Coast via Netgalley

Artful

Author: Peter David

Subgenre: Fantasy

Artful: Being the Heretofore Secret History of that Unique Individual, The Artful Dodger, Hunter of Vampyres (Amongst Other Things), hereafter thankfully abbreviated as ‘Artful’ is the 49th novel from exceptionally prolific novel and comic book writer Peter David and applies a little of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies treatment to the story of the Artful Dodger from Dickens’ classic tale Oliver Twist. The last thing we needed was the insertion of more vampires into classic literature, but if it was going to happen it could have been done much more deftly than in this novel. Reading like it was trying for serious and fell on the side of goofy and like it was trying for goofy and fell on the side of blech, I suppose certain parts were entertaining enough, but it was held back by a number of flaws which failed to sell the book to me.

Oliver Twist is one of the most well-known stories ever told, about a young orphan who has to survive the mean streets of London before ultimately being rescued by a kindly benefactor.

But it is his friend, the Artful Dodger, who has the far more intriguing tale, filled with more adventure and excitement than anything boring Oliver could possibly get up to. Throw in some vampires and a plot to overthrow the British monarchy, and what you have is the thrilling account that Charles Dickens was too scared to share with the world.

From the brilliant mind of novelist and comic book veteran Peter David, Artful is the dark, funny, and action-packed story of one of the most fascinating characters in literary history.

The Speculative Post's Review

Setting

Characters

Plot

Writing Mechanics

Genre

I think we’ll start by looking at the blurb above, as it highlights a lot of the issues that one finds when reading the actual book. To start with, I’m not entirely sure that the Artful Dodger makes for a much stronger protagonist than Oliver did. Sure, he’s witty and already a skilled pickpocket and is full of sass, but the affable rogue who gives a charming smile as he robs you blind is a thoroughly overdone archetype, especially today. Maybe if Dickens had chosen him as a protagonist it would be a valid point, but at the time, Oliver was indicative of the life experience of many people in London. The promise of a potential better life if you stayed true to yourself was actually a nice thing, especially compared to the otherwise near-universal bleakness that is Dickensian fiction. Next, any piece of advertising that includes the phrase ‘throw in some vampires’ has pretty much lost me entirely these days as well. The idea that Fagin (which anagrams to I, Fang) was apparently actually a vampire even in the original Dickens was cute, if strained. The in-fiction claims that Oliver Twist was written as a biography rather than a piece of fiction set an amusing stage for this ‘revelation’ of the much more interesting story of the Artful Dodger. It was a good way to try and execute on the idea, but the rest of the plot details rather derailed the concept.

The characterisation of Oliver as ‘boring’ is also telling. I lost count of the number of lines of narration lambasting Oliver as being a whiny, boring crybaby. They were almost as common as the lines of the narrator explaining why he didn’t want to give us chapters that we then had. Here’s a hint for writers out there: If your story is being told by a third-person omniscient narrator, anything they apologise for including in the book should either not be in the book, or not be apologised for. If backstory is actually legitimately necessary for an understanding of events, it should be included gladly. If it’s not, then it shouldn’t be there at all. I know it was all done with the tongue-in-cheek tone of holding to the idea that only the Artful Dodger’s story was ‘good,’ but if the book itself is apologising for the content of the book, what message are you sending?

The narrator was also just super annoying. Constant asides to make sure we didn’t miss painfully obvious plot inclusions, breaking away from the narrative for the aforementioned apoligised-for backstory, the fact that the Artful Dodger is referred to in both the narration and dialogue with no fewer than five totally different names; all of it grated. Generally one is supposed to show, not tell. But if they can’t show, they should tell. What they shouldn’t do is tell, then show, then tell again just in case you missed it. Artful is only 288 pages long. We really didn’t have the space to hear about the fact that Oliver was boring, and that Dodger was super upset when Nancy died ten times each. We certainly didn’t have the space to hear somebody giving an account of the ‘true life’ of the Artful Dodger taking us aside to snigger at his own intelligence over some previous turn of phrase.

This isn’t intended to read as some sort of blanket condemnation of all uses of previous now public domain literature for any purpose, even silly comedic ones. Some of those books have been quite good, but this one just really felt like it missed almost every beat it was trying to hit. The Artful Dodger is really not, as the publisher’s blurb suggests, ‘one of the most fascinating characters in literary history.’ I’m not sure he’d even appear on a list of the top 100, or even 500 for most people who read a lot. He was just the head kid thief in a book about how criminals will use you and leave you to hang, but maybe you’ll get lucky and things will end well.

I suppose at the end of the day, the story was entertaining. I chuckled a few times, but it was as much at the story as with it. If your love of mixing literature with arbitrary supernatural elements is strong, or you just seriously love the Artful Dodger no matter what he’s doing, Artful is an entertaining couple of hours. If you have any pretension to appreciation for the classics, and found that the only thing Ben H. Winters’ Android Karenina had going for it was the pun in the name, you might want to give this one a dodge. Artful or otherwise.



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