More than anyone else, more than Tolkien, even, it was R. A. Salvatore who really cemented by love for fantasy.
I discovered Salvatore and Tolkien at around the same time; before them, most of my time was spent on either the classics or on modern fiction – Jeffrey Archer, Robert Ludlum, that sort of thing. As far as I was concerned, fantasy as a genre didn’t even exist. I was wildly in love with fantasy games, but I couldn’t fathom how that sort of thing could be translated into a book.
As far as I could imagine, it would be “They walked for a bit, then they talked for a bit, then they fought for a bit … aaaaannnd repeat.” How did someone translate an experience like Baldur’s Gate into a book? And while I was thinking about exactly that thing, I saw four of Salvatore’s books on a shelf, collected in a hardback case, proudly wearing the label ‘Forgotten Realms.’
That drew my attention, more than the name of the book, more than the name of the author. I had enjoyed my time in the Realms, I was eager for me – and curious, very curious, about how a book would compare after a game. To put it mildly, my mind was quite thoroughly blown.
Although I had hopped into the sage in the middle, I had been lucky enough to get my hands on the complete Legacy of the Drow series. I devoured the four books and, from that time on, began to slowly amass a collection of all Drizzt-related writings that I could find. Salvatore’s stuff has always been hard to get here in India, so finding each of his 40+ books meant many weeks, sometimes months of hunting. Today, I own pretty much everything he’s written about Drizzt up until Transitions, I think.
But I also haven’t re-read his books in many, many years.
So when I picked up Homeland and began to thumb through its pages – figuratively; it’s on my Kindle – I was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the books as much as I remember them. Happily, I was wrong.
Perhaps the best way to describe Homeland is that it was a breath of fresh air.
Fantasy has changed significantly over the years. And while I love the changes, sometimes things get too grimdark for me. I finished the Prince of Nothing series by R. Scott Bakker a few weeks ago, for example, and by god were my insides a mess. Once I recovered, I jumped into The First Law trilogy and, once the dust settled, I took a break from fantasy in general. As much as I love the genre, I occasionally need to read something else just so my insides can take a shower.
With that in mind, it’s a pleasure to be able to revisit classic fantasy. There’s something about Homeland that’s timeless. It’s a character story – the first Drizzt book chronologically, but not in terms of publishing order. Homeland is the first book of a trilogy that tells the story of how Drizzt Do’urden became the famed dark elf that many know and love.
And Homeland is still a bloody good read.
Salvatore has a nice, light, easy style that keeps the story going at a a good clip; the Underdark is perhaps my favourite setting of all those he’s ever written in; and the politics of the Drow make for interesting backdrop against which Salvatore weaves his stories.
He also writes very well-choreographed fight scenes which, while they’ve never especially appealed to me, go a long way towards conveying the dynamics and rhythm of a fight. And he’s always done a very, very good job with demons and otherworldly creatures, seeming to effortlessly paint pictures of, say, yochlols and driders, for example.
A marked difference, however, between the way I remember Salvatore’s books and what re-reading them today is like, is how accustomed I’ve become to slightly more complex characters. Consider A Song of Ice and Fire’s Tyrion, or The First Law’s Logen – actually, any character in The First Law will do – or all of the Gentlemen Bastards. They’re all so compelling because they aren’t one-dimensional, and feel more like people as a result.
Perhaps for that reason, Drizzt’s evolution over the course of the book was much less interesting to me than Zaknafein’s story, and I found myself most intrigued by Vierna – who I barely paid attention to before. Even the Drow, for that matter, who once seemed so terrifyingly evil, now just seem incredibly petty.
But – and I cannot stress this enough – by no means is this a bad book. It is an excellent book. If you come to it expecting A Song of Ice and Fire, or the Wheel of Time, or The First Law, or even The Kingkiller Chronicle, you will be sorely disappointed.
If you come to Homeland without expectation, what you’ll find is a proper, black-and-white-morals-type hero; one of my favourite settings in all of fantasy fiction; very good writing – I’ve always enjoyed Salvatore’s style – and a couple of good twists that’ll make you stop and nod approvingly if you don’t see them coming.
Amidst today’s whirlwind of complex plots and characters who are all shades of grey, it feels wonderful to revisit a time when fantasy was simpler. When it was classic good vs. evil, When there was more black and white then grey, when heroes were just heroes, and villains were often entertainingly evil rather than soul-chillingly so.
Like I said earlier, Homeland feels like a breath of fresh air. It does now, with the way the genre is today, just as it did many years ago when I first read it. And that, above all things, is perhaps why Homeland is still worth reading.