Re-read: Exile and Sojourn, by R. A. Salvatore

What I should have mentioned in my previous re-read – and entirely forgot about – is that I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea and process of reviewing books.

Personally, I find games much easier. I constantly have a frame of reference to work with, I have points of assessment and comparison and, on the whole, it’s an experience I find much easier to write about. Books are another matter entirely.

When I wrote the previous re-read, as with this one, I found myself completely and utterly stuck, because I was trying to coherently explain a feeling. Because, at its core, the feeling that a book leaves me with is my measure of its quality or lack thereof.

My favourite example is J. K. Rowling’s Dolores Umbridge. I hated that woman. When I read the book I hated her, when I remember her I hate her, and whenever I read Order of the Phoenix again, I hate her all over again. She was a nasty piece of work, that woman, and a marvelous creation – because of how viscerally I found myself reacting to her.

When a book makes me react, I consider it a good thing. When it does not, I do not.

So, I suppose, when I was talking about Homeland, the thing I neglected to mention was that I did not react. It is possible that I simply remembered the book too well – and if it has stayed with me so keenly for ten years or more, it is to be commended for that alone – but I can’t be certain of that.

Exile and Sojourn, though, are vastly different and, in my opinion, considerably better books. I will now attempt to explain why. If I fail to do so coherently, I apologise.

Attempting coherence

The only reason I am reviewing both books together is because I could not pause for long enough after finishing Exile write about it. Literally immediately after I finished Homeland, I started Exile, read on my way to work, read on my way home from work, and then continued reading until 2 in the morning, at which point I finished it. And then, I promptly logged on to Amazon, bought Sojourn, made sure it was on my Kindle and went to sleep – secure in the knowledge that I would have the third book in the trilogy waiting for me when I woke up. I demolished Sojourn in much the same way – and bought The Crystal Shard immediately after.

Two things of note here – first, despite having been written a little over 25 years ago, despite being vastly different from a great deal of the books on offer today, R. A. Salvatore has told a compelling story that has successfully stood the test of time.

Both Exile and Sojourn feel a little brisker than Homeland and Salvatore’s smooth, easy writing style goes a long way in making pages fly by. Everything that Drizzt goes through in both books – fear of not being accepted, being judged by the colour of his skin, having to deal with the burden of a reputation that he has not earned, and terrible, terrible loneliness are instantly relateable and as thoroughly relevant today as I imagine they were when the books were first published.

Exile in particular is a considerably darker book than Homeland was because of how far Drizzt falls, but it manages to be grim without being bleak. And that played a part in how I reacted to Exile. What I wasn’t doing in Homeland was rooting for Drizzt. In Exile – and Sojourn – I was. Suddenly, he was being put to the test in a way that felt more meaningful than the relatively simple schemes of the Drow and seeing him handle them nobly reminded me vividly of why I liked the character in the first place.

His transformation from lonely, savage Hunter to noble, optimistic, idealistic Ranger over the course of Exile and Sojourn is a wonderful, wonderful story. Exile and Sojourn in particular show Drizzt as someone worth aspiring to, someone worth learning from – in life, not just in fiction – and I find it remarkable that I can think of no other fictional character to compare him to.

At a stretch, maybe Aragorn? But Aragorn never quite went through half the hell that Drizzt did and other than the fact that they’re both rangers, there’s only the temperament and general nobility of character that makes them similar.

After many years of reading many other books, to find that Drizzt is still the peerless hero I once thought he was is a tremendous feeling and Salvatore deserves a round of applause for having created someone so remarkably unique.

The second thing to note – I rambled on about the first one for quite a bit, no? – is that Salvatore writes short books. At 300-ish pages usually, they’re really easy to get through quickly, a blessing in an age of fantasy that typically benchmarks itself at 500 pages or more.

Quibbles

There are quibbles – of course I have quibbles – but they’re minor.

Hephaestus was not necessary, I thought. Plenty had already happened in Sojourn; he was an amusing but unnecessary diversion. In part because he came off a bit of a moron. Granted, there was the whole dragon-vanity-is-a-weakness business, but he was too easily tricked for my liking.

Drizzt comes across as highly suggestible – very easily persuaded by people he trusts. I have no idea if that’s by design or not, but it’s fairly noticeable over the course of the books. After his experience with Lolth, for example, Mooshie overcame Drizzt’s unwillingness to accept Mielikki much too easily.

And one thing I don’t quite get is why Drizzt’s levitation ability fails in Sojourn but he can still drop globes of darkness and use faerie fire. It’s possible that this is a D&D thing that I’m not aware of, but I found it much too convenient. Those two abilities prove extremely valuable during Sojourn and if one of his Drow abilities failed because he left the Underdark, I think all should have.

There are a couple of other things, but they’re minor – so much so that I don’t remember them. So, I suppose they aren’t worth mentioning either.

So, to sum this up …

The stories are great, the writing is excellent, and I finished the books feeling happy – which is all I could possibly want from a book. It helped that very nearly everything about both Exile and Sojourn has leaked out of my head since I last read them. Everything felt new. And to re-read Salvatore’s older books and feel like they’re brand new is a real joy.

But if you’re someone to whom R. A. Salvatore’s books are actually new, please buy them immediately. Buy a couple, buy a stack, or stuff your Kindle near to bursting with them. I’ve spent the better part of the last three days re-reading three of his books. And every minute of that time was well-spent.

Trevor Coelho
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