R.A. Salvatore’s brooding, noble hero Drizzt Do’Urden is almost inarguably the most popular character in the FORGOTTEN REALMS universe (which is to say, the Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novels). It has become a general joke through the years that half the new D&D players of the world incorporate something of the dark elf warrior into their first characters, and — tellingly — when Suvudu did their initial fantasy character popularity contest some years ago, Drizzt beat out such classic characters as Aragorn, Conan, and Ged to take the fourth spot. It’s hard to deny Drizzt’s popular success or his ponderous influence on heroic fantasy. That said, it’s an open secret that THE LEGEND OF DRIZZT has never accumulated a lot of critical success to correspond with its popularity. How to make sense of this divide? Well… frankly, both Drizzt fans and Drizzt detractors have some excellent points.
Homeland, the first novel in the series, details Drizzt’s early years in the dark elf (or “drow”) city of Menzoberranzan. Much of the character’s development over the course of the series is tied up in his heritage, so it makes sense that Homeland — as the title suggests — is perhaps not so much a character piece on Drizzt himself as it is a novel-length expose on Salvatore’s imagined drow society. It is an intricate, multi-layered culture, full of history and nuanced world-building, and… heh, just kidding. What I meant to say is “machiavellian, all morals turned off.” That’s pretty much it. The dark elves, as is customary with certain D&D races, are evil with a capital E, a society of sadistic psychopaths who live in a shadowy underground city and spend their days trying to accumulate power and influence. However (yes, of course there’s a however), one drow warrior by the name of Zaknafein Do’Urden was for some reason born with a sense of morality (one can only assume there was some kind of celestial mix-up), and his genetic line carries on a proclivity toward moral development. Drizzt Do’Urden, the second child of Zaknafein, is born into a brutal world to which it quickly becomes apparent he does not belong. Skilled in war but reluctant to kill, the young elf strives to find a place in the world as his wicked mother schemes to use her talented but troubling youngest son for power — whether through his life or his death.
First things first… this book is fun. Salvatore has a gift for thrilling battle sequences, and while the villains are laughably one-dimensional, this also means that it’s not at all hard to watch them put to the sword. The plot is on the whole fairly decent, working step by step toward a dramatic conclusion. This is very much a novel for the young teenager just getting into fantasy, or the teenager lurking within us all, provided we can get in touch with that portion of ourselves. Given that we just accept the action as it comes and have fun with it, the novel is an entertaining, easy-going experience.
There are problems, though. Hooboy, are there problems. The most obvious and egregious is Salvatore’s prose. If he’s ever heard of the old “show, don’t tell” rule, he apparently decided to ignore it. Nothing is implied that can be explained, then explained again just to be safe. There are also numerous troubling instances of narrative editorializing, often breaking connection with the characters. For example, when Drizzt first reaches the surface, Salvatore, via the omniscient narrator, steps away from Drizzt to confide in the reader that it is Spring in the world outside, and goes on to explain just how pointless this observation is, as the drow apparently have no knowledge of seasonal change. These little asides badly break the flow and dissociate the reader from the protagonist’s experience. It’s very clumsy styling without a recognizable identity on the part of the narrator to justify it, and I found myself marveling that it had been let past an editor.
Another issue is the characterization. Perhaps the implication behind Drizzt’s being automatically “good” while his peers are automatically “evil” is meant to show the fundamental difference between the D&D universe and our own — that is, apparently psychology is 90% nature, 10% nurture in this world — but I just found it difficult to buy what a complete goodie-two-shoes the guy continues to be after thirty years surrounded by amoral sadists. He’s touted as being “clever” numerous times during his development, but it’s hard to trust the narrator at these points. You’d really think that after years of backstabbing and betrayal, Drizzt would start to take the hint, but right up to the end he’s blithely suggesting to all the other dark elves that they could, you know, just resolve differences peacefully with the invading gnomes. Does he come up with some pragmatic reason why? Nope. Whenever someone asks him why the hell the Evil Legion of Evil would want to hold a peace summit, his response is basically “well, you know, morals and stuff.” Uh… wow. So, if Drizzt is a “smart” dark elf, the rest of his race must be pretty damn dense, right? Well, maybe there’s some truth to that. After all, they keep tolerating and ignoring these outbursts for years without figuring out that eventually the other shoe has to drop on the situation.
Essentially, the issue with Drizzt is that Salvatore writes him as a man (sorry, elf) who has been taught to expect a certain decency and fairness from the world, and is genuinely shocked when his compatriots fail to live up to his expectations. Yet we’ve seen this person’s life: at no point in the process does anyone ever lead him to expect any kind of justice, morality, or compassion. Where does he get these preconceptions? I could maybe buy it if he was just morally different (a kind of anti-psychopath) and disliked the act of killing or harming, but all of this business with honor and righteousness just doesn’t ring true. Where did he learn this stuff?
One of the major antagonists, Alton DeVir, is similarly difficult to understand. He’s quite evil, but his evil doesn’t make sense. In the opening chapters, House Do’Urden destroys House DeVir, whereupon Alton flies into a maddened rage and swears vengeance upon the Do’Urdens. I’d like to know why. Apparently this kind of inter-family warfare is reasonably common in drow society, and it’s made clear numerous times that only Zaknafein’s holy bloodline seems capable of giving a damn about anyone but number one. The dark elves are a society that prizes personal power and admires a subtle kill. DeVir loses his family’s status, true, but he ends up in about as good a position as he could ever have hoped for even with his House’s backing. Given what we know of drow culture, that should really be the end of his enmity toward the Do’Urdens. He should shrug, be grateful he survived, and work on solidifying his position, right? Wrong. He pants for vengeance, goes against his own interests, and completely loses his head at the sight of a hated Do’Urden for taking away… basically nothing he cared about, aside from a bit of pride in his family name. Something’s screwy here.
To sum up, this is a diverting but flawed novel. Yet I did have quite a bit of fun with it, rather to my surprise. It’s the kind of story, I think, that’s like a bad dub of a foreign film. You can’t look too closely at it without figuring out that what the characters are saying doesn’t match what you’re seeing, and if you focus only on the discrepancies, you’ll have a bad time. On the other hand, if you can manage to turn off that part of your mind, to stop noticing the problems and go with the flow, there’s often some real enjoyment to be found. As a final point, this really is a kid’s story. That’s what it boils down to for me, and that’s why I feel justified giving it a positive review even in light of some problems. As adult fiction, it would be troubling because it reinforces a lot of damaging clichés about the fantasy genre and speculative fiction in general. But it isn’t really made to be looked at under a microscope by an English scholar. It’s the kind of story, the kind of adventure and reinforcement of morality and friendship, that will appeal to a young reader where more complex works might drive the same person away. Homeland is simple escapism, and yes, there are ways it could have been better, but it’s made a lot of kids happy over the years. I was one of them, not too long ago.