The Crystal Shard, although technically preceded by THE DARK ELF TRILOGY according to the new reading order, was actually Salvatore’s first Drizzt novel and in fact his first novel, period. The Crystal Shard does have a lot of the usual first-novel bugs (mechanics sometimes don’t work out the way they should, dialogue is frequently hamfisted), but it also has something that I feel began to fade out of THE LEGEND OF DRIZZT after a while: ambition. Ambition doesn’t usually go hand-in-hand with shared-world novels for obvious reasons, but there it is. The Crystal Shard feels raw, in content but also in tone. There’s a sense, by DARK ELF at least, that Salvatore is beginning to be comfortable with his success and thus more prone to taking it easy. The Crystal Shard has more of an edge, reaches a little further, tries a bit harder. Occasionally its efforts belly-flop, but I do have to approve the effort.
The plot concerns Icewind Dale, a northern wilderness through which ten towns are scattered around a lake. The relationship between these settlements is fractious at best, and much of the novel is in fact concerned with how the various groups might be convinced to work together against a mutual foe. Early in the narrative, they unite to face an incursion by the “barbarian” peoples to their North, although a more potent threat is underway as a bumbling, ill-natured wizard’s apprentice stumbles upon the titular crystal shard, an immensely powerful magical artifact. Meanwhile, our favorite drow, Drizzt Do’Urden, is serving the often-thankless role of scout for and protector of the Dale.
As Salvatore tells it, The Crystal Shard was originally meant to be a story about Wulfgar, the barbarian who is captured in the novel’s first battle and raised by Drizzt’s dwarven ally, Bruenor. Drizzt himself was only invented because Salvatore was asked to write in a “sidekick” character. Thus, Drizzt doesn’t get as much attention in this novel as the DARK ELF books might have led readers to expect. He serves mainly in the Aragorn role, the cool and mysterious mentor guiding our young hero through tribulations. That said, he clearly starts intruding more and more on the storyline as it progresses, until Drizzt has essentially become the co-protagonist by the finale. I actually found Drizzt’s reduced role here the best thing that could have happened to the character – reading the series as I am in its intended order, at least – in that we’re allowed to have fun with the dark elf again after being forced to sit through a lot of tearful passivity in Sojourn. Wulfgar isn’t the deepest of characters, but he’s muscular and heroic enough to carry the plot along; and Drizzt’s character, when seen through the young man’s eyes, reminds us why he’s so popular. He’s gained an edge in Crystal Shard that he didn’t have in Sojourn, a touch of recklessness and also a bit of fallibility that do much to make the character more attractive and interesting.
Other figures don’t come off quite as well, generally because Salvatore is ripping them straight from Tolkien. Bruenor Battlehammer, Wulfgar’s adopted father and Drizzt’s bff, is every dwarf cliché rolled into a package. He’s got a funny accent, he’s tough and hardy, he yearns after the lost halls of his fathers, he’s a king in exile… the Hobbit flashbacks are just everywhere. There’s even a Thorin Oakenshield “he has asked for you” sequence, though it’s possibly an intentional reference on Salvatore’s part, as Bruenor subverts the trope after a few lines. Still and all, our dwarven king is not very original. Likewise, Akar Kessel, our apprentice-turned-Dark-Lord, is the slave of the crystal shard’s corrupting influence in a way that couldn’t shout ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL more clearly if some wizard named Grandlyf Greyhume turned up to start spouting spooky rhymes about it.
As I mentioned about previous books in THE LEGEND OF DRIZZT, the fight scenes are pulse-pounding and the prose is rather clumsy. After reading a few of these things, what’re really starting to stick in my throat are the endless, endless adjectives, which I referred to as narrative editorializing in my review of Homeland. It’s rather worse here, in the first novel. Everything has to be explained via an adjective awkwardly shoe-horned into the sentence, as though Salvatore’s afraid that somebody might get confused if he only says “the drow’s scimitar” rather than “the drow’s protective scimitar.” God forbid he should simply describe Drizzt protecting Wulfgar with the scimitar and let readers draw their own conclusions when he can coin a cutesy appellative to hammer his point home.
The dialogue, once again, is fairly wooden. On the other hand, the things the characters are saying actually seem to hint at more thought given to their mental states and perspectives. Even if his lines are cheesy, Drizzt’s excitement in battle and more philosophical turn when at rest are noticeable for the first time. The plot surrounding him is on the whole no better or worse than it is in THE DARK ELF TRILOGY in terms of construction, but as I hinted above, it’s a more ambitious plot. Conquering wizards, barbarian armies, and death-defying struggles between armies is epic, High Fantasy material, difficult to pull off convincingly. I won’t say Salvatore always succeeds (the final battle sequence goes on for too long and the villains are dispatched with a few too many instances of Deus Ex Machina), but The Crystal Shard does impart the sensation that there’s a great deal at stake and our heroes might not necessarily win. Drizzt collapses on the field of battle in this book. Yes! Drizzt Do’Urden! On the field of battle! He gets wounded and he keels over! Splat! Right in the mud, and his allies have to drag him away and patch him up. Witness, friends, the rare glimpse of Drizzt Do’Urden when he still seemed capable of being killed if the villain was frightening enough. Get a good look while it’s here, because it won’t be long before you’ll be pretty certain that Drizzt could survive the moon falling out of the sky and landing on him, so long as he had his scimitars in en garde position and the moon had said something uncouth about his friends.
All joking aside, there is a tangible sense of adventure and danger in The Crystal Shard that together with its easy-going spirit and kid-friendly morality sets it a bit above the somewhat safer DARK ELF TRILOGY and a few of the – forgive the expression – more prepackaged-feeling adventures that followed the prequels. It definitely echoes Lord of the Rings and it’s nothing deep or complex, but for a first novel it’s not bad, it gives us a fun hero to admire, and best of all – for me at least – it’s delivered by an author who really feels as though he’s pulled out all the stops to give us all he can rather than just enough.